Italian Life Rules – Superstitions, Familiar and Strange

The first use of the Latin superstitio is found in the writing of the historians Livy and Ovid (1st century BC). At that time the term “superstition” was used in Italy mostly in the negative sense of an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief, as opposed to religio, the proper, reasonable awe of the gods.

photo by Ann Reavis

The term superstitio, or superstitio vana (vain superstition) was applied by Tacitus and Domitian (80 AD) to those religious cults (druids, early Christianity) in the Roman Empire that were officially outlawed.

Throughout history, Italian culture has been rich with superstitions for good or evil that continue to form the basis of many of the Italian Life Rules. Today a visitor may be surprised at which superstitions are taken seriously and which are taken with a grain of salt, so to speak.

photo by Ann Reavis

Here is a non-inclusive list of Italian superstitions so that you don’t put a foot wrong during your next visit:

The Evil Eye (Malocchio)

The Evil Eye is one of the most ancient superstitions in Italy. Every region seems to have their own version of the Evil Eye, but some take it more seriously than others. One thing they seem to have in common is that the Evil Eye is caused by jealousy and envy. One test for the Malocchio is done by dropping olive oil in a plate of water. If the oil forms one large drop in the middle of the plate it’s a sure sign of the Evil Eye, but after chanting the right prayers that usually only women are allowed to know, the oil may break up into tiny droplets and spread out, thus breaking the curse of the Evil Eye. The cornicello (see below) is also used to ward off the malocchio.

key ring amulets from Naples

The Devil’s Horn (Corno)

The use of the Corno, or Devil’s Horn, is a curse of impotency or of the cuckold. The twisted phallic red coral, gold or silver amulet (cornicello) is often worn or carried by men to ward off curses on their “manliness” or mojo. Although many claim the amulet represents one of the horns of the devil, the Corno predates Christianity by thousands of years. The horned god Faunus was known for his wild nature and interest in fertility. The ancient Romans knew well  Cernunnos, the horned Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld. The horns of an African eland most resemble the original amulets.

Related to the Corno is the hand gesture (extending only the pinkie and index finger like a pair of horns) known as the mano cornuta, which can be used (pointing upwards or directly at the victim (cornuto)) to curse another or not so subtly send the message that a man’s wife or girlfriend is straying. This gesture can also be used  to ward off the Evil Eye (pointing fingers down).

Lucky Numbers

The number 13 is lucky in Italy, especially when gambling. The number 13 is also associated with the Goddess of Fertility and the lunar cycles. It is thought  the number brings prosperity and abundant life. Although 13 is considered lucky, sitting down to a table with 12 others is an ill omen. At the Last Supper Jesus ate with his 12 disciples before one of them, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him. Italians aim to avoid a similar turning of the tables. In modern times it seems the Friday 13 is starting to lose its charm in Italy, as with the rest of the world.

Unlucky Numbers

The number 17 is considered unlucky. This has to do with how it is written. Italians dislike the number so much that some hotels don’t have a 17th level. When 17 is written using Roman numerals XVII, it can be rearranged to spell the Roman word VIXI meaning “I have lived” and is found on ancient tombstones, thus tempting death. When written using Arabic numerals, 17 is still considered unlucky since it resembles a man ( the 1) hanging from a gallows (the 7).

photo by Ann Reavis

Superstitions Pertaining to Bread

A loaf of bread must always be placed face up, or else bad luck will come.  Again, some claim this has a basis in Christianity with the symbol of Christ as the Bread of Life. It is impolite to turn the bread up-side-down or to stick a knife into a loaf of bread. Bread is considered a staple of life and so every precaution is taken in order to prevent cursing the supply.

photo by Ann Reavis

No Birds in the House

The presence of a bird in the house (either as a pet or accidentally) brings bad luck. Mere bird feathers, especially peacock feathers with their Evil Eye, can curse a household or the wearer of a feathery hat. Some say the superstition has a Christian origin from the Bible story where Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Paintings of birds are also be avoided.

Blessing/Exorcising a New House

The blessing or exorcism of a new house in Italy is still practiced, especially when it comes to newlyweds. Moving into a first home was accompanied by the necessary rituals to rid the place of any spirits that may have ben left by the previous owners and could harm the new couple or their first child. A new broom is a common first gift to sweep away evil spirits. Sprinkled salt in the corners of the house will purify it. Neighborhood priests go house to house before Easter to bless each home with holy water (in modern times a tiny note is frequently wedged in the door to notify the residents of the service).

The Witchdoctor (Mago/Maga)

Southern Italians, Sardinians and Sicilians, mostly of the older generation, still mix folk medicine and ancient superstitions. When home remedies did not work and modern medicine was not an option (from either lack of money or language), some neighborhoods have the services of a man or woman trained in ancient practices, bordering on witchcraft.

Older Sicilians can recall ancient rites, involving making dolls to curse an enemy, amulets to protect themselves from evil, or, on the more positive side, love potions to encourage a slow suitor.

Marriage Superstitions

Singles, don’t let a broom touch your feet when someone is cleaning the floors. If you do, you will never be swept off your feet and get married. Likewise, never sweep over the feet of an unmarried person, or they will never marry.

photo by Ann Reavis

Cats – Good and Bad

It’s bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. On the other hand, it’s considered a good fortune if you happen to hear a cat sneeze.

What Not to Put on a Bed

Don’t put a hat on a bed. Traditionally, when the sick were on their deathbeds a priest would come to receive their final confessions. The priest would remove his hat and set it on the bed so that he could put on the vestments. Thus, a hat’s temporary resting place is associated with eternal rest, a thought that keeps Italians from sleeping peacefully.

A bed should never face the door because it replicate the position of a coffin in a church.

Other unlucky items to keep off the bed are clothes hangers, hairbrushes, and shoes (of course the last is a hygiene issue, too).

Bad Luck Toasting

Never raise a toast with a glass full of water as it is bad luck. Don’t cross arms when you clink wine glasses together. Also, be sure look fellow toasters in the eye when clinking glasses and don’t slip up by forgetting to take a sip before setting your drink down, otherwise you will have seven years of bad sex.

Spills of All Kinds

Don’t spill salt or olive oil for fear of bad luck. This conception may have begun as a trick to motivate people to handle the previously expensive goods with care. If it happens, however, toss a bit of salt over each shoulder or rub a drop of oil behind each ear. If you spill wine at the dinner table, wet your fingers and dab some behind every person’s ear.

photo by Ann Reavis

Hearses – Coming and Going

Don’t follow a hearse that isn’t carrying a coffin. You are in death’s wake and soon people might be attending your funeral. However, if the hearse bears a body, it isn’t in pursuit of another passenger, so you are safe, just like if you pass a hearse driving in the opposite direction.

A Word to the Wise

Never trim toe and finger nails on Thursday.

Don’t start a journey, new project or get married on a Friday or a Tuesday.

Never have your hair cut during the new moon.

Never get a perm during your menstrual cycle.

Eat plenty of lentils on New Years’ Eve.

If you give a gift of a new wallet, always put at least a coin in it.

To prevent a downturn of fortune people practice tocca ferro and touch iron if they think something bad is going to occur. Italian men, knowing what must be protected at all costs, may tap their testicles, known as tocca palle. This is similar to knocking on wood.

photo by Ann Reavis

Good Omens

Seeing a spider at night: a sure sign of monetary income.

When you drop something then someone is thinking of you and their name starts with the first letter of item dropped. (Drop a pen (penn a) and Pamela is thinking of you.)

When your nose itches, it’s either “pugni o baci,” punches or kisses.

Finding a button on the ground: a new friendship is on the horizon.

Dreaming of someone dying and you will have added ten years to their life.

When a new moon appears, the minute you see it say the New Moon Incantation: “Benvenuta Luna che mi porti fortuna!” – “Welcome, moon and may you bring me good fortune!” This is to be repeated, bowing respectfully at the lunar sliver 13 times with a coin in each hand.

Eat lentils on New Years Day and money will follow during the year.

Broken Hand Mirror

Bad Omens

Killing a spider will take money away.

Breaking a mirror will result in seven years of bad luck.

Giving a handkerchief as a gift will bring tears.

Crossing silverware on the table foretells strife.

Passing each other the salt hand to hand (without putting it down on the table) will lead to imminent fight between the two.

Nuns crossing your path (or is this only for school children?).

Walking under a ladder.

Crossing arms when shaking hands in a group.

An owl sighting is a vision of the spirits of the dead.

Sources and Websites of Interest about Italian Superstitions:

About the etimology and general information about superstitions look here, here, here, here and here.

Rick Zulo at rickzulo.com

Eleanora Baldwin at aglioolioepeperoncino.com

VeniVidiVinoItaly.com

LifeInItaly.com

Carol King at ItalyMagazine.com

More recent:

TheLocal.it

Gina Fava at Bostoniano.info

Tuscan Traveler is collecting more Italian superstitions. Please leave a comment if you know of one that needs to be added to the list.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

38 thoughts on “Italian Life Rules – Superstitions, Familiar and Strange

  1. Hello, I recently came across this site and I must say the thoughts and the stories told here are quite interesting and fascinating. I might be interested in purchasing “Italian Life Rules” once it comes out, so I was wondering if you could confirm it will be released in Summer 2014. And if yes, is it already possible to know by which month it will be available? The questions extend to the paperback version, since that is the one I would be willing to buy the most. Thank you in advance.

  2. I grew up with some of these.. two that were not mentioned that come to mind are as follows. This came from my grandmother who is Napolidan.

    1. An unmarried women or young girl should never sit at the corner of a table or she will never be wed.

    2. Never put your bed against a wall on either side. The bed must be open on both sides or the person will never be wed.

    3. A baby or child incapable of warding off the evil eye themselves should always have something red on.

    4. It is very bad luck to ever put shoes on anything other than the ground.

    5. Always put your right shoe on first or you will have a bad day… Always start your day on the right foot.

  3. My grandma always said that if you wanted to remove a wart, you should steal a dish towel from someone, rub it on your wart, and bury it under a full moon. As the dish towel rots away in the dirt your wart fades away.

  4. My family is Neapolitan and Sicilian with a bit of Northern regions like Milan. My family taught me these things over the years of growing up:

    1. When receiving communion your hair must be worn in a bun.

    2. The sex of your child can be determined by the way a necklace and pendant swings.

    3. The sounds of bells in the middle of the night signal good luck. Kind of like an angel earning their wings.

    4. If you receive a dream from a past ancestor it may be good luck and an omen of the future. Listen carefully.

    5. Silverware dropping on the floor means someone is coming to your house.

    6. Hearing a buzzing in your ear means someone is talking about you.

    7. If you are present with the “evil eye” use the “fig” hand gesture. (My poppy always used it on us.)

    8. Never walk outside at night for an extended period or you will become sick from the night air. It doesn’t matter if it is summer either.

    9. A Virgin Mary statue should be at your bedside and a Crucifix should be in every room.

    10. Your Patron saint is who will be with you for eternity. You should receive a Saint medal on your Confirmation day and where it in times of sorrow.

    11. Saint Anthony is one of the greatest saints when someone is needy and Saint Jude can help heal the sick.

    12. Don’t spill your wine.

    13. Women of the family should always bring food to occassions if they want good luck.

    14. Always carry Rosary beads with you. In your purse, schoolbag, etc.

    15. Every girl/boy on their Confirmation day should receive a piece of jewelry from their family. On First Communion, they receive their first pair of rosary beads.

    16. Your husband should not see your breasts when breast feeding as he will curse the milk.

    17. If a pregnant woman is not fed what she wants the baby will be born with that birthmark shape.

    18. A birthmark signifies an angel’s kiss.

  5. my father was from the Calabria region, and he told me to never accept a knife as a gift,
    Always pay for it. If you drop a knife always step(stomp) on it. It was to protect you from
    The knife.

  6. I have been DESPERATELY seeking a Strega for almost a year now. For more than 2 years I have been victim to the malocchio.

    I believe. Seeing is believing. My Aunt was the one I was a witness to helping others. She helped me, too. Like most others as her, she is dead.

    I am at the lowest point in my life; healthwise, financially… a week doesn’t go by where I get smacked in the face by the curse. I was very well of; making good money, big house, 7 cars. Now no job. 59 year old engineers cannot compete with college graduates. Lost my business, too. I have no car. House is in foreclosure. The list is long, but so is this message. I’ll stop now. I live in NJ. I can travel. Does anyone know where I can find help?

    The church is not the answer. I need a Strega. Mille grazie.

  7. i grew up in italy with a very superstitious mother, aunt and grandmother . I remember hearing of most of the superstitions mentioned and have a few to add. Seeing a priest walking towards you brings good news. Seeing two nuns together brings unpleasant or disappointing news. Seeing a hay wagon represents money coming your way. Seeing piles of straw or a straw wagon means disappointment. can’t wait for the book to come out – it would be a great gift.

  8. You missed the one about if a lady bug flies into a bedroom in Italy it bring very much good luck.

  9. From my mom & aunts (my grandparents were from Bari) who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens…

    When driving past a cemetery, lift your feet off the floor of the car and hold your breath until you pass it.

    Dropped silverware means “company’s coming!” If it’s a fork or knife, a man–a spoon, a woman.

    Eat pickled herring on New Year’s Eve for prosperity. My godmother would go around shoving the fish into our mouths at family parties each year.

    Don’t use a knife or scissor to cut the ribbon or string off a wrapped gift–or else risk cutting the relationship.

    Store clean cups and drinking glasses upright in the cabinet–never open side down (which causes bad luck).

  10. Some of the above I have also heard, growing up with Italian American parents. My mom was from Tuscany and my dad’s family was from an area not far from Naples. My paternal grandmother yelled at me (when I was a teen) in Italian one day as I watered the houseplants. She said I would kill the plants. My mom told her it was that time of month for me…and she believed that it would kill plants if you touched them at that time of month. Oh, and my grandmother knew a chant to remove the evil eye. I wish I knew it. It started with 8, 9 in Italian….something about lupo too I think…My sister married Sicilian and she had a multitude of superstitions. One was that you should never hand someone a knife directly, but rather put it on a table or object, or you will stop talking with that person. She also said that shoes can never be put on the table in a box or otherwise…bad luck. She has more, but I don’t know them all.

  11. Thanks you all for sharing today’s word of superstitious appreciate ya, & as well which I didn’t cross so I am not a fosure ifor it may or may not be superstitious. Never walk under any ladders it cause bad luck; Never call out any of God’s name while using the restroom’s home or public it cause illnesses; Havah Happy New Year’s Peace Upon You & Your’s*

  12. Did anyone ever hear of leaving 3 dollars in the pocket of the deceased? Does anyone know what it means? I never heard this one before.

  13. Dear Eleonora, I will be happy to add a link to your website. I talked to Florentine friends and reviewed dozens of web sites, magazines and books to create my post. I confirmed each item I listed with more than one source. Your website has an excellent list of superstitions found in the theater and general superstitions found worldwide, as well as those found in southern Italy. Buona fortuna, Ann

  14. What does it mean, if a man has an affair with a woman in her bed, and places the husband’s shoes on his rearview mirror?

  15. My great grandmother (Italian and Catholic) was said to have made little satchels that she prayed over to bring good fortune. The only ingredient of the satchel that anyone can remember is salt. I’d love to know more about it. Has anyone heard of this?

  16. Wow, my mom is 92 year old Sicilian and does not remember this, but, one of my cousins wants to know if anyone remembers this one: my grandma putting a coin in a cheesecloth and rubbing it on someone’s sore muscles then lighting it on fire and covering with a glass. Maybe an early form of “cupping” that they are using on Olympic swimmers? Hoping someone else remembers this.
    My mom did say she remembers when someone had sore knees, the little kids were given sticks to clap and say prayers, then hold sticks on the sore knees.
    Any details are appreciated. Thank you.

  17. Here’s a little story for you:

    About 12 years ago, while I was away at college, I was planning my trip back home for the Christmas break. I told my parents I’d be taking the Greyhound bus home on the 17th. My strict Italian dad said NO WAY! It’s bad luck! So I caught the bus the day earlier to avoid the bad omen. The thing is, I hopped on the bus at 9pm, and it travels through the night. Would you believe that my bus caught on fire at 2am on the 17th? When I called my parents to tell them what happened, the first thing my dad said was, I TOLD YOU!!
    Needless to say, I now look out for that number.

  18. We are Calabrese so I know many of these…especially about malocchio. My mother taught me the prayer when I was about 19. It could only be passed on to me on Christmas day at midnight! She wrote it on a piece of paper while we were at midnight mass. I read it and memorized. She said once you know the prayer you will never forget it. It’s true! I’ve lost the paper but still remember it word for word.

    A funny story about the 17th as well. My mom was born on Nov.17th but her father wrote her date of birth as Nov. 16th on her birth certificate. Apparently, back in the day the parents filled out the birth certificate. About 10 years later her brother was also born Nov. 17th…what are the odds? And they wrote the 18th as the date of birth. You have no idea how much trouble this has caused my mom when she puts her birthrate down as Nov 17th but records state the 16th. All because 17 is bad luck!

    However, both siblings have lived happy & prosperous lives, much more so than the other 4 siblings… so I would say it worked out well for them.

    Years later, her baby brother (#6) was threatening to arrive, on you guessed it, Nov. 17th! My Nonna said no! This is not happening again! So she held on for as long as she could and he was born on the 19th.

  19. I only knew one ritual my mother followed. it was to cut the hair in march but I forget when. does anyone know. its not a full cut but a piece. thanks

  20. My dad is Black and my mother was mixed race. She believed every one of these superstitions. Crossing her on one of them or disobeying one in front of her meant certain death for you. We knew she was part Asian but didn’t know anything else was in there. A few years ago we did DNA on the family and there it was: she was about 40% Italian and it was from Tuscany. Now we know why she knew and believed all these.

    I believe them all too, especially the hat on the bed one. Here’s some more she used to warn us about:

    1. If you drop a spoon unexpectedly, a woman will unexpectedly visit. If a fork a man.

    2. If a cat washes over its left ear, it will soon rain.

    3. If rain starts in the morning before seven, it will stop by eleven.

  21. I remember some of these. My grandfather used to tell me some of the stories about being careful walking past street vendors in Sicily. He said if you were disrespectful, they would curse you, or give you the evil eye. He got everyone in the family horn necklaces. Corno’s for the men, and cornicello’s for the women.

  22. The question about the man having an affair. Answer is If he hangs the husbands shoes on his rear view mirror the husband cannot follow him.

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