Mallorie Vaudoise / Italian folk-magic, from the South to the States

The “folk” in “folk Catholicism” does not mean “simple” or “quaint”. It means “reflecting a group consensus which is not legitimated by the ecclesiastical authority”. This group consensus is rooted in seeing things as they are: haunted, ecstatic, erotic, and much older than 2,000 years.

Mallorie Vaudoise is an Italian-American spiritualist. Her practice is based on the spiritual and magical traditions that traveled to the United States with the mass migration of Italians during the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Mallorie’s work is an example of how the spiritual practices originating from Italy (much like other magical traditions) have been able to travel long distances, and find a home in which to survive thanks to the stewardship of the descendants of those migrants who brought them along to the New World. Her blog, Italian Folk Magic, is an immersion in Italian and Italian-American magical practices. In this interview we discussed with Mallorie of Italian folk magic, of Madonnas,  of spirits and much more.

Follow Mallorie on her blog and facebook page. If you wish to read this interview in Italian, please click here

Hamelin: Can you tell our readers a bit about you and your origins? How was your passion for Italian folk magick born?

Mallorie Vaudoise: I grew up in an Italian-American family near Boston, Massachusetts. My mother’s side is from Avellino in Campania. My father’s side is from L’Aquila in Abruzzo. (Mallorie Vaudoise is a pen name and does not reflect my ethnic origin.) Like many immigrants, my grandparents and great-grandparents suffered intense discrimination. For this reason, my parents were only taught to speak English, and there was a gap in my family’s cultural transmission. Nevertheless, I grew up with a lot of Italian values: food, family, loyalty, and so on.

From a young age, I was prone to what I now recognize as mediumistic experiences. The presence of my ancestors and spirit guides has always been strong. My skill as a medium has been developed through a combination of body-based practices, prayer, mind-altering substances, and spontaneous initiatic events.

I began researching Italian folk magic as a way to give form and voice to to these interior experiences. Initially, I was struck by the visual presence of Italian culture in New York City, where I now live: the feast days, the processions, the yard shrines, and the Italian national parishes filled with statues and ex votos. My explorations led me to the rich and fascinating oral cultures of Italy, particularly folk prayers in regional languages and the musical traditions of the tammurriata and the pizzica tarantata. This is the main focus of my personal practice as an Italian-American folk spiritualist.

In addition to my passion for Italian folk magic, I’m also deeply involved in several New World traditions. I have been initiated in both Quimbanda and Ocha (also known as Santería), and I have received some training in espiritismo.

H: What are the traditions that travelled with Italian migrants, especially from the South?  What are the main holy figures, beliefs and practices?

St Joseph altar, Salemi, Sicily

M: Italian migrants came primarily from the South. It is estimated that 84% of Italian-Americans trace their heritage to the South. So Italian-American culture reflects a particularly Southern worldview and praxis.

The holy figures at the center of these beliefs and practices vary wildly. Most Italian migrants settled together with other people from their commune, and their public devotion remained directed at their patrons from the old country. In New York, we have well-attended processions dedicated to San Rocco (Potenza), la Madonna del Carmine (Nola), Santa Rosalia (Palermo), Maria SS Addolorata (Mola di Bari), San Gennaro (Naples), among many others. In New Orleans, the festa di San Giuseppe is particularly popular, and the devout prepare extravagant altars in his honor. In Boston, there is a fisherman’s feast in honor of the Madonna del Soccorso (Sciacca), where the fishing waters are blessed. This is just a small sampling of the Italian holy figures who have received devotion in the United States.

H: Have these traditions died out, or are they still alive in italo-American communities?

M: These traditions are still alive in Italian-American communities. However, Italian-American communities themselves are shrinking in population. During the periods of intense immigration, Italian-American communities flourished in dangerously overcrowded tenement buildings. Once they made enough money, many migrants returned to Italy, or settled into nicer homes in suburban neighborhoods where they were distanced from their communities.

We see the most impressive displays of these traditions in places where there is still a strong Italian-American culture: New York, New Orleans, New Jersey, Boston, San Francisco. These communities celebrate feste which reflect the origins of the Italian migrants who initially settled there. A detailed directory of Italian-American feast days across the country is available here courtesy of Il Regno, a cultural journal for children of the Southern Italian diaspora.

H: Many contemporary pagans, in Italy, find Catholicism, and folk catholicism, to be incompatible with a pagan or animist view of the world. Do you think that’s the case?

M: Certainly not! The root meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal”, in the very sense of recognizing the animistic nature of our world and incorporating certain spirits into an official pantheon. In Italian folk Catholicism, we find churches built on ancient temple grounds and pagan gods masked as saints and madonnas. The “folk” in “folk Catholicism” does not mean “simple” or “quaint”. It means “reflecting a group consensus which is not legitimated by the ecclesiastical authority”. This group consensus is rooted in seeing things as they are: haunted, ecstatic, erotic, and much older than 2,000 years.

The root meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal”, in the very sense of recognizing the animistic nature of our world and incorporating certain spirits into an official pantheon.

H: There is a feeling that these traditions come with a baggage of bigotry, moral policing and a history of violence and oppression. How do you make sense of these contradictions?

M: This is certainly the case in the United States as well, where the Church has actively galvanized Catholics to support policies that oppress women and homosexuals, while simultaneously committing the atrocious crime of childhood sexual abuse. I see some English-speaking magicians who are so eager to embrace a folk Catholic worldview that they are willing to ignore the tragedies that the Church is responsible for. This type of cognitive dissonance is not healthy, not for living victims who see their suffering trivialized by others, nor for those who introduce it into their consciousness.

And yet, our political and spiritual landscapes are changing as fast as the environment. As we enter the final, terrifying stage of global climate change, we will be forced to confront bigotry, violence, and oppression both without and within. Unfortunately, I will always have more in common with Donald Trump than with a robot, in that we are both human. We both need clean water, food, and shelter from the elements to survive. It is in these “theaters of war” that we will make sense of the contradictions inherent in our collective legacy, not by inviting personal cognitive dissonance.

And I would like to note that the ultimate victor will be whichever side has the strongest medicine.

H: In your article on Stregheria you make the point that much of the ancestor worship in folk practices, especially related to human remains, owes its existence to catholic innovation that undid pagan taboos about the dead. How does this come about, and how is it reflected in actual practices?

The Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples

This is an important development in our tradition, which Peter Brown explains in The Cult of the Saints, pp. 5-7:

The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world: and, as for the handling of dead bodies, the Christian cult of saints rapidly came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment–quite apart from much avid touching and kissing–of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these in areas from which the dead had once been excluded. …Even when confined to their proper place, the areas of the dead, normative public worship and the tombs of the dead were made to coincide in a manner and with a frequency for which the pagan and Jewish imagination had made little provision.

To idealize the dead seemed natural enough to men in Hellenistic and Roman times. Even to offer some form of worship to the deceased, whether as a family or as part of a public cult in the case of exceptional dead persons, such as heroes or emperors, was common, if kept within strictly defined limits. Thus, the practice of ‘heroization,’ especially of private cult offered by the family to the deceased as a ‘hero’ in a specially constructed grave house, has been invoked to explain some of the architectural and artistic problems of the early Christian memoria. But after that, even the analogy of the cult of the hero breaks down. For the position of the hero had been delimited by a very ancient map of the boundaries between those beings who had been touched by the taint of human death and those who had not: the forms of cult for heroes and for the immortal gods tended to be kept apart. Above all. what appears to be almost totally absent from pagan belief about the role of the heroes is the insistence of all Christian writers that the martyrs, precisely because they had died as human beings, enjoyed close intimacy with God. Their intimacy with god was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals. The martyr was the ‘friend of God.’ He was an intercessor in a way which the hero could never have been. …

We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers… In attacking the cult of saints, Justinian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice: ‘You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres.’ He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination.

This is reflected in official Catholic practices such as the veneration of relics, where Catholics seek contact with the physical remains of the saints. It is also evident in folk practices such as we find at Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples, where devotees (primarily women) engage in mediumistic contact with victims of plague and war by through physical contact with the skulls buried in mass graves.

H: What about the argument that many folk catholic practices were pagan in origin? I personally tend to believe that there is a spiritual continuity underlying some powerful ‘goddess’ figures of Southern Italy and Campania (I think of the multiple representations of the Madonna) and a history of veneration of pre-christian female deities – Campania was both the center of the Isis cult in Italy and an important center for the worship of Diana, and in Capua there are of course the matres matutae. Do you think that the veneration of the Madonna fits into the a longer historical continuity, or is it purely a christian innovation?

M: The veneration of the Madonna absolutely fits into a longer historical continuity, one which is certainly pre-Christian and very possible pre-pagan. In Campania, the music and dance of the tammurriata reflects this continuity, which Roberto De Simone has documented in his books Canti e tradizioni popolari in campania and Il segno di Virgilio, and synthesized into the modern Mystery play La gatta Cenerentola. The tammurriata is a tradition of courtship, sensuality, and fertility playing out under the aegis of the Great Goddess.

In Calabria, we find the Madonna di Polsi located near the ancient Greek settlement of Locri, where two great sanctuaries once stood: one devoted to Persephone, the other to Aphrodite. The Madonna di Polsi may represent a syncretization of these goddesses with each other, and then with the Madonna of later Catholic tradition.

And I’m sure there are others throughout Southern Italy. For example, I’ve heard that in Sicily the pagan origins of certain Madonnas are enshrined in folk traditions to the point where a Madonna might be indistinguishable from her pagan predecessor. However, I am not familiar with the details.

H: One of the big differences between the world that those migrants came from and our own way of life is the centrality of the oniric in everyday life, and it’s difficult to reconnect with these practices – especially if you’re also looking for operative magic – without a rich, constant oniric world. How do you think we can bring back the oniric in our practice?

M: The oniric is already present in each of our lives, so the first step is to recognize it and begin to respect it properly. To remember your dreams, it is often enough simply to set the intention before going to sleep, maybe offer a prayer beforehand, and then lie still in bed upon waking while recalling them. A dream journal is helpful, both as a record and as a totemic object which gradually builds in power as more entries are added.

As the connection with the oniric deepens, the quality of waking consciousness changes. Trance, divination, and spellwork become more natural. This is reflected in popular belief: ‘a smorfia, the Neapolitan game of translating dream images into winning lottery numbers, is also played with images received either physically or psychically during heightened states of waking consciousness. For many people, these states happen spontaneously or during encounters with mind-altering substances. The goal, then, is to learn how to return to them at will without the aid of a substance. This skill is difficult to explain in words as it occurs within the body, a product of the so-called “dark senses” (proprioception, exteroception, interoception, etc.) which, in my practice, come under the aegis of the Black Madonna.

For those who are interested, I’ve written this blog post on the topic, where I share several ideas for how to connect with the oniric.

Trance, divination, and spellwork become more natural. This is reflected in popular belief: ‘a smorfia, the Neapolitan game of translating dream images into winning lottery numbers, is also played with images received either physically or psychically during heightened states of waking consciousness.

H: It’s striking to me that it seems that many of the folk-practices that do not fit into the folk-catholicism paradigm seem to be absent from discussions of Italian folk magic in the US. I’m thinking of the munaciello, the janare, the donne di fora and all the house and land spirits that populate Southern Italian folklore. Were these too weird for America’s Little Italies? Do you have experience of those beliefs being passed down through families in the US?

M: This is a fascinating question. I too have noticed that these beliefs were not successfully transplanted in the US. The tammurriata, the pizzica tarantata, and related musico-spiritual traditions suffered the same fate. For Italian-Americans, there is only one tarantella, and it is a silly wedding dance robbed of the beauty and sensuality of its ancestors.

I have two hypotheses for these omissions:

The first is that those beliefs and practices are inextricable from the land. Land spirits vary from place to place, and some believe that house spirits are adapted land spirits–for example, spirits of the land the house was built on, or the natural materials used to build the house, or of the dead buried beneath the house. This logic would also apply to the musico-spiritual traditions, many of which were devoted to particular pilgrimage sites in Italy.

The second, and perhaps more likely, is that these practices were not welcomed by the Church in the United States. While the Irish-led Church was initially hostile towards Italian immigrants, it eventually evolved into their social hub and archive, taking on much of the responsibility for preserving our stories as a people.

H: Where can our readers find your work and be informed about the amazing things you’re working on? 

I keep a blog at ItalianFolkMagic.com which focuses on Italian and Italian-American spiritual traditions, particularly those involving the Madonnas and saints. You can subscribe to the newsletter or like the page on Facebook to receive updates.

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