Malocchio: Ever-Present, All-Seeing Evil Eye
Even if you aren't given to musings about witches, black cats and various other superstitious beliefs, you may nevertheless have wondered about the evil eye, especially insofar as the term might apply to the way your boss sometimes looks at you.
The malocchio (mal = bad, occhio = eye) is a long-standing and still healthy tradition in Italy. Basically, it's believed to be caused by the bad thoughts of other people - especially envy. These bad thoughts are said to influence the lives of the person thought about, especially if that person is in a weak condition. Hence, children and seniors are especially susceptible. It has more to do with the thoughts of the "looker" than with the actual look of their eyes - though supposedly people with blue eyes are more likely to give you the malocchio. Maybe that's just an ethnic prejudice, since most Italians are brown-eyed, and the introduction of genes for blue eyes always came from those nasty invaders from the north. It's said that you never know who it is giving you the malocchio, though it's usually someone who is fairly close to you. Beware however: it's usually the last person you would suspect; in fact, it's more likely to be that one person who always seems so nice to you (ruling out one's boss, perhaps).
Nevertheless, you can't really blame the evil eye giver, because it's usually not their actual conscious decision to give you the evil eye. It's not like they repeatedly whisper to themselves while gripping your crumpled photo, "I CAST UPON THEE AND THY PROGENY AN EVERLASTING MALOCCHIO!!!" While there does exist something like this in Italian folk traditions, it is called a fatura (which means bewitchment), and it's a fairly complicated procedure. To cast a fatura on someone, you go to a professional. They assemble the spell and then cast it. You pay them, and everybody's happy - except your enemy. Your enemy goes to a professional who specializes in taking away fature, and who may also tell him who cast the fatura. Your enemy pays double, takes away your fatura while casting one back on you. And so another nether world feud begins. Let's just hope these specialists are right and don't finger the wrong person!
Having been basically adopted into my Italian wife's family and circle of friends, I've had the opportunity to see a bit of all this first hand. There's a woman in our town named Gina who is recognized even outside our region as having healing powers. She does it on a donation-only basis, and a on donation-only basis she's built a nice double-decker family home with all the perks. People come to her from all over Italy, with all sorts of complaints, and she consults with them, often giving them dietary and life-style advice, as well as using the power of her ring to help heal people (presumably acquired before the recent Tolkien craze). Usually the consultation concludes with her taking away your malocchio, since that's assumed to be the ultimate cause of your misery. She uses a dish of water into which she drops olive oil from her finger. When you have many spots of oil, then you have a bad problem with malocchio. She passes her ring over your chest a few times, and then tries the oil again, until only one spot occurs. At that point, the malocchio has been taken away.
I don't say anything, but watching the whole process carefully, I've noticed that on the final test, she picks up less oil than at first, and uses less force dropping it. I'm not fooled! But then, I've also got a problem with malocchio that just can't be beat...
Wise women like Gina exist in most towns in Italy - a side of Italy which tourists doing the Florence, Rome, Venice circuit never get exposed to.
There are other ways to ward off the malocchio. For instance, you may notice in Italian street markets a stand which, among various and sundry articles, sells small plastic red pepper-looking like things called cornetti (lit. "horns"). You'll see them as key chains especially, but you can also find big ones to hang in your house. (We used to have one hanging over our front door for a couple of years. Then I put it away just to see if our bad luck index went over the top. The jury is still out, as I guess it forever is with things of this sort.) Usually these cornetti are made of plastic, though you can get them carved of wood or coral. Inside the large ones is a little man in a tuxedo and top hat. If you look closely, you'll see that he's got a humpback. Why? Because it's well known that rubbing a humpback's hump brings good luck - so buy one of these and you've just doubled your good luck.
It's likely this tradition of cornetti in part hearkens back to actual red peppers - the long, thin spicy kind - which people make into large garlands and hang to dry. You see these in open markets as well and in farmyards. It's a similar belief as with garlic - the pungency of certain herbs that wards off evil influences.
Another way to ward off the malocchio is to carry around a piece of amethyst. There are also religious phrases one can use. Or else three pieces of rock salt wrapped in aluminum foil. Speaking of which, salt has all sorts of uses here in Italy, aside from salinizing your pasta water. Apparently witches can't stand it when you sprinkle it around your bed because they go crazy counting it, meanwhile losing their chance to really fix you good. They also don't like it when you burn incense in front of an open window because they get caught on the draught and sucked outside. And did you know the phrase "the witching hour" applies to those wee hours of the morning between 3:30 and 5:30? Likely the same time your boss is reviewing your latest project.
You learn a lot of things living in a small town in Italy, real useful things they just don't teach you in your standard university. Now if I can just get Gina to take away this darned malocchio of mine once and for all...