I’ll start this out with how I felt on the last page of the book: this is going to go down as one of the best, most authentic looks at Italian Folk Magic from the inside.
As with any cultural experience, scholars, ethnographers, and folklorists have done their best to analyze, dissect, and explain the doings of people everywhere. In Appalachia, we should know a thing or two about that, both the good and the bad. It isn’t often that cultural traditions take a strong footing into the modern twenty-first century world. Man today prides himself on leaving the plays and tales of yesterday behind for “purpose” and “progress.”
The problem with outsiders of any culture or tradition trying to teach about that same tradition is that things get lost in translation, whether through language or social structures. The outsider will often take things into context based on the understanding they walk away with: not an understanding given to them, but a self-fabricated idea based only on the words they have heard and what they have seen. Often times, they have no thorough understanding of the upbringing of the people, the inner complexities of their faith and familial ties in the culture, and surely no full understanding of the reason certain things are done.
Mary-Grace fixes that, filling in the gaps left between the field research from a hundred years ago and the actual practice that continues today. She welcomes you into her home and memories, showing her childhood experiences with the evil eye, folk healing, and prayer. She explains the religious views upheld by Italian families and the magic of the front lawn Madonnas.
She starts in the kitchen, the hearth of the home. She also includes some Italian dish recipes as well. From there we glimpse the realities of the Italian folk person, from altars and saint punishment to superstitions, rituals, and church curses all while giving the prayers in both Italian and English.
I had looked into the practice before this book and that awful sin took me as well. I conjured up an understanding of it, set even further off by using the words of scholars and folklorists who themselves had done the same thing in the field. This book filled in gaps that I didn’t even know were there in my understanding of Italian folk magic, and even of its connection to the magic of southern Appalachia. The history, stories, and prayers are so potent I could almost taste the religion and hope in these pages.
With this book (hopefully it won’t be the last) Mary-Grace Fahrun has done well in preserving the traditions handed to her by older generations.
This book isn’t to make you a master in Italian Folk Magic: it’s an introduction. We are invited to search further into our own Blood ties to the beautiful country, learn some of the language and accents, and how to cook traditional Italian.
I’ve said this before, and I’m so glad Mary-Grace understands the same: there’s so much more to a folk practice than just what is observed on the outside. It is affected by culture, economy, local agriculture, catastrophe, religion, and politics. All of these things constantly create and change the needs of the folk. It’s these very needs that are nursed and care for by folk magic so of course it’s place in our lives changes based on all of these variants.
Whether you have Italian ties that you want to learn more about or even if you don’t, this book is a treasure for all and everyone can learn from it about family, authentic relationships with the saints, and of the prayers that have helped many throughout time. The author says the prayers are best spoken in Italian and I agree. It’s the respect that is owed the tradition, especially when we don’t heir from it.
Mary-Grace leads us further, even into the way Italians interpret their dreams when planning on playing the lottery! From there she shows us the way they view the world through Italian proverbs such as Quando la pera é matura casca do sé (When the pear is ripe, it falls on its own) and La gatta frettalosa fece i gattini ciechi (The hurried cat makes blind kittens). Very good things to live by, especially in the life of witchcraft and magic.
She then shows us the everyday charms and amulets used by these folk for protection and health, such as braided garlic to ward off evil spirits, gold earrings to avert the evil eye and blindness*, keys, lead, saint icons, sand-dollars for the evil eye or malocchio, and peperoncini (long, red peppers).
In simple terms, this is a wonderful little book on Italian Folk Magic. The best I’ve read yet, even compared to the old papers by scholars simply because it is a view from the inside. Whether you are simply researching or looking for the magic in your own blood if you’re Italian, this is the book for you.
So go meet this wise woman on the mountains of Abruzzo and let her paint you a portrait of her country’s magic.
Visit Mary-Grace at her website: Rue’s Kitchen
*earrings were worn in Tennessee and Kentucky to avert blindness as well. A descendant of Appalachia’s Italian settlers perhaps?