The Italian Almanac

la smorfia


Two Neapolitan anthropology professors have confirmed their city's reputation as Italy's most superstitious, with a new book charting rituals and myths that have developed through the ages. The 'Libro delle Superstizioni' (Book of Superstitions) groups years of research into a detailed guide on the country's traditions. The dictionary format aims to provide readers with an A-Z reference volume on the origin and evolution of superstitions, ranging from 'Abracadabra' to 'Zoppo' (limping).

The entry on Epiphany, for example, cites a belief specific to the Marche and Abruzzo regions, according to which animals gain the power to speak on January 6. However, the flip side of the superstition is that anyone seeking to understand them will die on that same day. Another animal myth common to parts of Italy views hares as bad luck. The sudden appearance of a hare, crossing a path or otherwise, threatens a violent storm for sailors or a ruined wedding day for engaged couples. The savvy superstitious can avert this threat, however, by immediately spinning around three times on the spot, explain authors Marino Niola and Elisabetta Moro of Suor Orsola Benincasa University.

Unsurprisingly, given its reputation, Naples is the single largest source of superstitions found in the book. Typical local gestures used to fend off the prospect of bad luck include bringing the thumb and middle fingers together to form lucky 'horns' or putting hands to nether regions in a ruder version of 'touching wood'.

The city is also famed for its 'monacielli' ghosts, cloaked spirits that can be either benign or malign depending on their appearance. Historians believe this superstition dates back to the first half of the 17th century when the local authorities were building an underground aqueduct to the city. It seems that the men who were working on the aqueduct - dressed in heavy cloaks to protect them from the cold, damp conditions underground - would make mysterious appearances at night, raising alarm among the Neapolitans, who thought they were ghosts.

The locals make good use of their superstitious natures. When gambling, for example, Neapolitans choose their numbers based on a centuries-old manual called 'La Smorfia', literally 'The Wince'. La Smorfia enables readers to assign numbers from 1 to 90 to events, dreams and coincidences from their lives. For example, the passing of Pope John Paul II in 2005 had people rushing to betting stations to play the numbers related to his death. Popular numbers included 32 (the pope), 47 (death), 48 (dead pope), 90 (the people), 65 (weeping) and 84 (cathedral).