Witchcraft, healing and vernacular magic in Italy
Field notes, 29 October 2001: Bessude, Sardinia. I am walking in the countryside outside this highland pastoral town of 500 inhabitants with Mario, a shepherd in his mid-forties, and his cousin Pina, whom I have known for approximately fifteen years. Mario is telling us how his grandfather taught him and his cousins, Tonino and Basiliu, to charm warts when they were working for him as terrakos (tenant-shepherds) in the 1970s. ‘I didn’t know you could cure warts too; I thought it was just giaio (grandpa) and Uncle Basiliu,’ exclaims Pina. ‘He taught all of us this meikina (medicine) before he died. He couldn’t die until he had passed it on,’ Mario explains. ‘Does the cure consist of berbos (‘words’, a spell) or are there also actions and herbs that you use?’ I want to know. ‘Only words,’ says Mario. ‘But does it work?’ asks Pina. ‘It depends; sometimes,’ he replies. He tells us how he recently cured a friend who called him on the phone from Rome to ask for a healing; but he also showed us warts on his own hands that he has not been able to charm away. When I ask him what the words are, he says he believes the cure must remain secret, because passing it on means passing on the power to heal. ‘There were lots of people in the village who knew berbos for things: to make birds leave a newly-sown field, or to make dogs go away,’ he explains. ‘How about keeping eagles away from the lambs?’ I ask, thinking of spells I have read in folklorists’ collections. ‘For that you need a gun,’ he says, deadpan.
While the last formal accusations of witchcraft in Italy took place around 1750, and by the early nineteenth century Enlightenment discourses had relegated supernatural beliefs to ‘superstition’ among the educated elite and the clergy, vernacular religion and folk belief were far from dead in Italy. Legend complexes about witches and related beings flourished well into the twentieth century, and folk healers continue to practise their craft in both urban and rural areas. In this chapter, I will give a general overview of vernacular magical beliefs and practices in Italy from the time of unification to the present, with particular attention to how these traditions have been