Mal Occhio

Growing up in a Boston tenement in the 1930’s, my father was immersed in the immigrant experience.  The old world customs slammed headlong into the harsh realities of life in the industrialized new world.  In early 20th century Sicilian immigrant culture, the church provided communal bedrock.  One of his stories from his childhood demonstrates the process of assimilation.

He spoke of one of his earliest memories – what he called a spiritual pinning point – that involved the neighborhood witch.  He was a boy of perhaps four or five years old.  His mother became convinced that he had fallen under “Mal Occhio” – the evil eye.  She dragged him through the streets in a panic – seeking The Strega. 

He remembered the old woman.  Herbs, incantations, incense… His mother presenting him to the woman, with no explanation – she knew why the child was before her.  He remembered being a little frightened, but knowing that it was for his own good.

They left the house of The Strega, they stopped at the church on the way home.  His mother had him light a candle.  Kneeling in prayer, he told me that he felt protected and safe.  No need to understand the mysteries of the moment.  He was loved.  He was cared for.  There were things beyond him that maintained order.

Much like the Catholic imperialism in South America, the willingness of the church to allow integration of pagan cultural customs was both a kindness and a strategy for expansion.  Where has this tolerance gone?


19 thoughts on “Mal Occhio

  1. These kinds of mergings are responsible for all kind of religious myths. The Virgin Mary is an assimilation of greek goddesses. Christmas is the recreation of the Harvest King myths. Fascinating to see how cultures evolve through the mixing.

  2. Hmmm … I seem to have fallen under Mal Occhio this weekend. A day at the skatepark with three 9-year-old boys and I could use a little Strega …

  3. Those pagany things have been lumped together under the “New Age” banner. The church now sees them as a rival. The Catholic Church has always used an assimilation of the local religion to further its ends – then, when established, it has crusades or inquisitions against them to make sure everybody believes correctly. Grumble rant swear!

    Oh, is there a wise woman who has a cure for a torn muscle in a back?

    [hobbles off, stage right]

  4. I attended a parochial school but since then have completely divorced myself from the Catholic church. Every time the Pope opens his yap I get angry. The latest bit of papal advice is to discourage the use of condoms to fight AIDS in Africa. What a nut.

  5. ginny – thank you. i hoarked it up special for you!

    dolce – that’s why i get so fucking frustrated with those “literal translation” people. jeebus h. christ mcgee on a pogo-stick, they just don’t see the irony.

    jimmy – you can ward off mal occhio by making the hand-sign of the ‘devil horns’. middle and ring fingers pressed to the thumb, with the index finger and pinky raised high. not sure it works, but who the hell knows. better safe than sorry…

    kyknoord – let’s get some of the fresh-smelling variety, then? alright? here, have a cookie… need a hug?

    tNb – sk8r boyz. ace bandages, antibacterial soap and a stiff shot of tequila are “must have” items for sitting on the sidelines. but you know what? i miss it, now that my sk8r boy has his own car…

    archie – good rant. when i was in Peru, one of our guides made little secret of his disgust with the catholic (pronounced “ca-THOL-ic”) church, and the decimation of the tribal culture. i was impressed with his vocabulary, especially when he used the term ‘cultural rape’. for the back? rest, heat, anti-inflammatories… and a stiff drink before bedtime. nice rant. thanks!

    unbearable banishment – infallible nut. i’m totally using that for the name of my next band… so frustrating, isn’t it? there is a role for organized, communal, spiritual things in this world… but that’s not what we’ve got.

  6. I usually use ointment of some sort for the evil eye.

    I saw this TV show on Saint Death in mexico, and the catholic church are completely opposed to that aswell, so its interesting isn’t it.

  7. manuel – ok! i live in fear of your ‘stabbing fork’, and cannot resist your siren song… on the road this week, but snapped a pic last night… will get it posted from wherever the hell i’m going…

    alex – “Black-Soul-B-Gone” brand is my favorite… doubt i’ll live to see anything vaguely resembling logic or rational thought in regards to organized religion. sometimes, they do good stuff. but more often? the damage is worse than the benefits…

  8. We have a whole church movement in South Africa which combines Christianity with traditional religion- millions here lead lives based on the whims of witchdoctors, and contact the ancestors, yet go to church. I don’t personally consult the bones, but I guess what you were writing about is alive and well. I suspect Kyknoord has a leopard print hing tucked away under his mattress for those private rituals he enjoys two or three times a week.

  9. I thought Mal Occhio was a Domincan that used to play outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals…he had an evil eye at the plate and wasn’t bad in center field either.

  10. “….the willingness of the church to allow integration of pagan cultural customs was both a kindness and a strategy for expansion. Where has this tolerance gone?”

    I know! They don’t even approve of twitter and you still cant get a good iphone mass app…..


  11. I am also a recovering catholic, and a practising witch. I want to slap the pope every time he opens his mouth. The last good pope we had was John XXIII, and that was 40 years ago. And I deplore the cultural treasures we have lost by the hand of the church. Protestants, any proselytizing religion, is no better.

    Actually, it really was only in the very early days of the church that they tolerated and incorporated Pagan ways. After the First Council of Nicea it’s all been downhill.

  12. scott – welcome to the park! i just think that spirituality is personal, but there’s fun to be had if you can build a communal ‘religion’. mostly for the pot luck dinners, of course (those lutheran ladies can do some wicked cool shit with jello salads!). hope we can convince kyknoord to pull out his hing/thong for a photo someday. assuming it’s not stuck to the floorboards…

    uncle keith – yeah. it was a true shame that they didn’t find his body in that cabin until after the bears had spent a week ‘having their way’ with him…

    manuel – exactly! i don’t know why they haven’t added a “Pussycat Dolls” mass to increase attendance. shit, they’ve already got gambling and drinking… why not hooters?

    silverstar – what frosts my ass is when we get all bent over the destruction of historical treasures by the Muslims (the buddahs blown apart in the middle east come to mind…). makes me right cranky, it does…

  13. rob – thanks. there are more like this. just need some clear-head time to pull them out. in the meantime, i try to maintain the discipline of writing regularly, and make you all wade through my crap…

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