The Corsican people have always held strong beliefs in the supernatural and magic, which predate the modern Catholic religion by a long way. The spirit world was, Corsicans believed, never very far from ours and the two coincided at certain times.
The dead had to be appeased and bad omens banished with spells to avert mishaps to the living. Corsicans wore amulets, uttered protective charms and called on people with special powers to cure illnesses supposedly caused by supernatural forces.
These ancestral beliefs were common throughout the island and have undoubtedly persisted since prehistoric times. But the rites, traditions and terminology also varied from place to place. The mountainous backbone of the island formed a natural barrier and the difficulties of getting around helped to nourish the multitude of beliefs.
I have incorporated some of them into my latest novel, The Corsican Widow, which was published in 2018. It’s set in Corsica and Marseille during the 18th century.
The Evil Eye
Mal d’ochju, the Evil Eye, is held responsible for various maladies, especially those of children. It is always looking for a way in. It’s enough to praise a child without adding the precautionary, “May God bless him/her,” for the Eye to take hold. People who are too self-satisfied or conceited are also potential victims. It’s a sinister incarnation of the adage “pride comes before a fall”.
Exorcists of the Evil Eye are known as signadore. They are female healers who practice a precise and curious ritual (although this also varies from place to place). After crossing themselves thrice, with their index finger, they drip hot oil from a lamp into cold water in a deep plate. If the globules of oil fail to coalesce, it is evidence of the Eye’s presence. They mutter incantations and stir the oil about until it forms a single blob and the Eye has left.
Signadore can only transmit their secret knowledge and formulae orally to an “apprentice” on Christmas Eve while the church bell rings. In some places, this period extends to the New Year.
Here is a short extract from The Corsican Widow, in which a signadora makes a last-ditch attempt to cure someone who is mortally sick.
Valeria hurried to find the items the signadora had asked for. The woman lit the lamp and poured water into the plate. She made the sign of the cross over it three times and cast nine drops of hot olive oil from the lamp into the water, muttering inaudible words at the same time. She frowned and stirred the water with her finger several times.
“It is the Eye,” she said. “The drops of oil will not merge together. This shows that the Eye is present and will not be cast out until they do.”
Valeria looked into the dish. The oil had spread out in small globules over the water. She glanced at Santucci, whose eyes widened as if he looked on Death itself.
“How are you going to get rid of it?” he said.
“I must repeat the procedure until it works.”
The woman made the sign of the cross and poured the oil into the water again and again. Each time, she shook her head and started afresh. Deep lines appeared on her forehead and she closed her eyes tight when she repeated the incantations and pushed the oil drops with her finger. At last, she exhaled and showed Valeria the plate. In the centre was a compact globule. Valeria closed her eyes and relaxed her clenched fists.
“It has gone, by the grace of God. Now you are free of the Eye. You will sleep and then you will feel better.”
Mazzeri – dream-hunters
The distinction between good and bad is often blurred in the spirit world. So, other people with supernatural powers are named mazzeri, or dream hunters, and can be either male or female.
Mazzeri roam at night, armed with a heavy staff known as a mazza. Curiously, they are often seen asleep in bed at the same time. During the nocturnal wanderings, they kill an animal and in its face they see that of a person known to them, who will invariably die within a short time. If the animal is only wounded, the person concerned may fall ill or suffer an accident, but will not die.
Mazzeri, it seems, choose neither their calling nor their victims. And while they might be shunned by their neighbours, they live alongside them, although somewhat remotely. A mazzeru can only be released from their vocation through exorcism by a priest in an archaic rite that must surely date back well beyond Christianity.
Prophesying with a sheep’s bone
Corsicans have a strong belief in destiny. Predicting the future is simply to foretell what will happen, which can rarely be averted. Nomadic shepherds, who spent long periods in the summer isolated from their communities, were the most inclined to soothsaying.
They stripped a sheep’s shoulder blade of skin and flesh and held it up to the light, often rubbing it at the same time. The sun shining through the bone showed a vision of the future. Apparently, Niolan herdsmen predicted various historical events, including the rise and fall of Napoleon.
In the early part of The Corsican Widow, the main character asks her elderly friend Margherita to read her future in a sheep’s bone. Margherita had learned the skill from a male forebear.
These ancestral beliefs have now passed into memory, but they played a very influential role in Corsican life as recently as the mid-20th century.
The Dream Hunters of Corsica, Dorothy Carrington
Le Folklore Magique de la Corse, Rocco Multedo
Guide de la Corse Mystérieuse, Gaston d’Angelis & Georges Grelou
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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2017, all rights reserved.