When medigani talk about “Italian Folk Magic,” they’re talking about something that goes by more names than there are regions in Italy and exists as an amorphous mass of folk religion, superstition, and empirical observation, and defies the attempt at being neatly defined or categorized. In her debut title Italian Folk Magic, Mary-Grace Fahrun doesn’t make the mistake of trying.
Instead, Fahrun takes the autobiographical approach, beginning on a Saturday in 1974 when a visit from a “Signora Cristina” left one of her cousins with “The Eye” and what the women in her family did next to remove it. Ironically I was born in 1974, but I digress.
The book alternates between episodes from the author’s life and giving specific instruction and advice, the first being: “Clean Your Kitchen!” She explains the importance of cleanliness, good housekeeping, the magic of food, and gives several recipes including Sunday Gravy and how to work divination by making pizza dough.
Of course though domesticity makes for an important part of Italian Folk Magic, the entire practice is much more than that. Mary-Grace takes the reader on a tour of curses, love spells, using the Tarot to divine lottery numbers, dream interpretations, dealing with spirits and a great deal more. Yet pervading the entire book are the themes of the importance of language and the centrality of being one with Nature.
Reading the book was an interesting experience for me, though, as Grace is a long-time friend (I call her “Grace,” and she calls me “The +Dude”). Not only was I reading in her voice, but I found myself flashing back to every phone conversation we’ve ever had, and more than once cross-referencing with my own Ways of the Holy Benedetta (of which she was a major source). There’s stuff in this book that wasn’t in those conversations (the story of “Zi’ Nicola,” for example), and that just brings me to more understanding and appreciation.
The Good and the Bad
So let’s talk about details, shall we? First and foremost, Italian Folk Magic tacitly (and I think unintentionally) shows us what’s wrong with those “grandmother stories” that tend to be common amongst Neopagans. You know, those stories where a “solitary eclectic witch” will claim a grandmother “initiated” her into a “family tradition” that just happened to have a lot in common with Wicca. Grace tacitly refutes this entire genre of narratives by giving an example of a family story that’s actually true: she gives names/times/places, the contents of the tradition is verifiable by other sources, the tradition takes place within a community that’s real and verifiable, and she gives so many details that just aren’t found in the typically vague “granny story.” She also doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but simply tells what she experienced and moves on.
Readers with a theology background, however, are sure to be dismayed by some of the book’s statements, for example the sentence where the Trinity is described as “God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit;” I had a “WTF” moment on that one myself, since “God” is all three Persons and not separate from any of them. Others would perceive a Christo-Pagan tone by pointing out the reference to “Nature” as a deity and the denial of divine immanence by the description of God as an “absentee Father.”
The thing is, this is not a textbook about Catholic theology and should not be critiqued as one. Rather it should be looked at as a work of anthropology: folk religion is typically not the same as “educated” or “official” religion (even then most individuals have their own take on it). Grace is simply describing the beliefs that she’s encountered, as she’s encountered them.
The recipes are quite good, and I made her pollo con patate al rosmarino recipe for dinner yesterday. The recipe itself looks very simple on paper, but the “secret science” is that potatoes are absorptive by nature, meaning they absorb the flavors from the chicken and the herbs, creating a wonderful dish. This absorption may also play a part in Grace’s grandmother’s choice to use a potato for curing fevers instead of the traditional live frog.
I enjoyed the version she gave of the “lemon curse,” and I’d note that it wouldn’t be so easy to do in a modern setting; if you’re going to use this particular method, then you’d better really want something bad to happen to that person! While some people might shy away from the subject of cursing and such like, the fact is that it’s part of the tradition and the book would be incomplete without discussing it.
Another thing I’m grateful she mentioned is the fact that once each generation of practitioners has learned the tradition, they often then add their own personal touches to it and describes how this can happen; I’d point out, though, that there are still “tells” by which you’ll know if somebody actually knows the tradition they claim, or if they’re just making it up and taking the reader for a ride. I’ve commented on it before, and I’m glad to see this fleshed out in some more detail.
Saving two important things for last, because they’re interconnected: the importance of the Italian language (whether “standard” or “dialect”), and what to say about inquirers from outside the culture.
Language is important, because language is not just how a people communicates, but also a reflection of the way they think and process information. A commonly-used example is that Inuit has several words for “snow” but not many words for different colors; I have no idea how accurate this is, but if true it shows how different peoples in different environments came to prioritize different things. The learning of language is not only a connection to our ancestors but also a lesson in prioritizing and thinking along the same lines as they.
But what about people from outside the culture who want to approach Italian traditions? This can be a touchy subject (depending on who you talk to), and Grace gives commonsense advice that I think can be summarized by a story from our days moderating at The Stregoneria Italiana Project. For context, most of the people on that forum were ethnically either Italian or Sicilian, or at least had enough Italianitá to pass for it, and the priority was the culture; that’s why the forum had Catholics and Pagans working together across religious lines and even forming friendships outside the forum (another mod, Lou, simply calls us la nostra famiglia for that very reason, and to this day we’re still in touch with each other).
Into this mix came “Xirian” (her screen name), a black woman with no blood connection to Italia or Sicilia but who sincerely wanted to learn. She worked her ass off to learn the language, the culture, the style of communication, the little particulars, and she put preconceived notions aside and paid attention. In essence she did it the right way, and in a phone conversation Grace once told me “Xirian’s someone who actually gets it.” This “right way” is the way Grace describes in her book.
On the other hand, it’s possible for somebody with Italian or Sicilian blood (who wasn’t raised in the culture or around the community) to go about it the wrong way, either by trying to imitate stereotypes or read a few books and then act like a know-it-all schifoso. Plenty examples of that exist as well, and I think Grace did the right thing by being inclusive and laying out a path for learning the right way.
How Do We Finish This?
I flash back to ten years ago, when I wrote Ways of the Holy Benedetta back in November of ’07. Grace wrote one of the first reviews (reposted here three years later), where she pointed out what the book didn’t cover and said “who knows, I might just one day write that book. wink.”
More prophetic words were never spoken.
While Ways of the Holy Benedetta may be sourced and researched, it’s dated because it’s very much a product of the time I was writing it and I’ve backed away from some of the views contained therein. By contrast, Italian Folk Magic is a different beast entirely. Ways attempted to be more academic, while Italian Folk Magic is both timeless and deeply personal, taking the reader on a journey of what Grace experienced in her life and how she came to practice “the things she does.”
This is an authentic book by an authentic practitioner, and I’m happy she finally made good on that promise from over a decade ago.
Italian Folk Magic is published by Red Wheel/Weiser Books.
Mary-Grace Fahrun’s website can be found here: http://rueskitchen.com