Malocchio: Conquering the Italian Evil Eye One Plastic Red Horn at a Time

Ah, southern Italy—gorgeous pristine beaches, lush rolling hills, an omnipresent citrus smell, and a centuries-old evil curse. Come again?

I’m talking about southern Italy’s not-so-well-kept-secret, malocchio, derived from the Italian words for bad (male) and eye (occhio), known colloquially as “The Evil Eye.” Anyone who is of Italian heritage, or who has ever known someone who is, probably knows about it, although the general beliefs behind this tradition run through various cultures and religions.

Its roots are in envy, and its symptoms can include headache, excessive yawning, and a general malaise; yes, this sounds like just another day for some of us, but a trained eye, excuse the pun, can tell the difference. In its more severe forms, the afflicted can end up poor, injured, ill, or dead.

Now do I have your attention?

My first introduction to the “Evil Eye” came with the story of how my older brother was “overlooked” as a baby, which to southern Italians, is a very bad thing. It happens when someone looks at another with envy or, as in my brother’s case, someone had complimented his sparkling blue eyes without adding “God bless him” or the like.

Envy alert!

So my great-grandmother called for olive oil, water, and scissors, shooed everyone out of the room, and went to work. Some sort of prayers were overheard, but since no one else was with her, and my bisnonna isn’t around anymore, what exactly happened in there has remained a family mystery.

But another question always nagged at me: What if I had been overlooked too? My great-grandmother was already gone by the time I was born, and my grandmother didn’t do the prayers. And although I certainly can’t claim stunning blue eyes, I’ve seen baby pictures; I wasn’t a toad.

What if I had been living my whole life under an evil spell?

Fast forward twenty years to Calabria, and I would finally have the answer, because there, little to my surprise, malocchio is alive and well, despite all the plastic red chili pepper horns liberally dispersed to counteract its effects; both the color red and the figure of a horn fight off the Evil Eye.

Incidentally, if you don’t have a horn pendant or keychain, you can always make them with your hand—index and pinkie extended with thumb over the middle fingers, folded into the fist.

Do this out of view of the malocchio-er in order to avoid even more nasty looks. A sprinkling of salt around the outside of your house works too.

So, back in Calabria, one morning, P and I were enjoying the morning sun and cappuccini before a trip to the weekly farmer’s market when I suddenly felt sluggish, my head heavy and headachy—classic malocchio symptoms, P informed me through violent head nods. Lucky for me, nearby was Nato, an elderly man who knew just what to do.

Normally prone to mumbling anyway, Nato mumbled in my general direction while making the sign of the cross and kissing his fingertips repeatedly. He then informed me that it was a man far away who had given me the Evil Eye. Perhaps a whole ocean away? Interesting, and food for later thought, but my head still throbbed.

Then he said a bunch of prayers, mostly inaudible although I made out the name of Sant’Antonino, a “Hail Mary,” an “Our Father,” and a “Glory Be,” which took about three minutes in total, and poof!

Malocchio gone, I was assured.

Maybe it was the fact that I had come inside out of the sun or that I finally had my caffeine fix, but, you know what? My headache was gone, and I was inspired to head off to market after all. What weapons these prayers were!

So, of course, I wanted to know them—what if someone was envying P too? Turns out you can only learn the process on Christmas Eve from someone who has also been taught on Christmas Eve. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to look any further than P’s Mamma, who, a few months later, just before Midnight Mass, walked me through the prayers as I mangled the local dialect.

Sorry, no photographic evidence was allowed.

The fun part was when the water, olive oil, and scissors came into play. Solving a 35-year-old family mystery, this must’ve been what my great-grandmother had done, having carried the tradition from Calabria to America.

The process is actually quite simple. Place water in a small dish and then drop olive oil slowly into it. If the olive oil disperses, the Evil Eye is, indeed, present, and you pierce the oil with the scissors while reciting the prayers. (Most people around here don’t seem to use this olive oil, water, and scissors thing anymore though.)

“Die Malocchio Die!”

No, that is not an official part of any prayer, but I certainly can’t give away any centuries-old secrets here.

So now I’m armed against malocchio, especially important since it seems that I had been cursed for who knows how long (by a man, Nato said…hmm….). I don’t think I can remove the Evil Eye from myself (of those I’ve asked, no one is really sure of the protocol there), but luckily there’s no shortage of paesani willing to do the trick.

Who knows whether there’s any truth to the superstition, but really, at this point, who really cares?

All I know is that once a month, I smile at my neighbor Anna Maria as I sprinkle salt around my porch and steps, and I never, ever leave home without my plastic red horn keychain.

36 Beans of Wisdom to “Malocchio: Conquering the Italian Evil Eye One Plastic Red Horn at a Time”
  1. Anonymous
    01.19.2007

    I have a plastic red horn keyring dangling from my rear view mirror! Not to ward away evil spirits (which is what the locals think) but to make me look more like one.a local, that is. ALso bouhgt at the same time a red plastic hand symbol key ring for G. He used it all the time until it broke (what do you expect from a cheap plastic keyring!). He now keeps the plastic red hand part (minus broken keychain) in his pocket!!!! BTW the anti malocchio thing here is a bit diff. WIll email you details as don’t want to hog all your comment space……vanessa

  2. sognatrice
    01.19.2007

    I have one of those plastic hands too, also broken and awfully beat up in fact. I can’t find it at the moment, though, which is only slightly disturbing.

  3. Anonymous
    01.19.2007

    i tried to buy some new hands, but can’t find them anywhere. Must be pretty popular….if i find some again i’ll be sure to get you a new one. Got the last ones at Tindari (sanctuary for balck madonna). vanessa

  4. Cynthia Rae
    01.19.2007

    Is this what causes red eye in our photos?

    I am always amazed at how superstitious the Italians are. My well educated husband is always convinced that something bad has happened simply because the day is Friday. I’m not talking Friday the 13th, I’m talking ANY Friday!

    Facciamo le corna! hehehehehe!
    Cyn

  5. Christine
    01.19.2007

    My good god, when I was 8 my family and I went to Italy where my little brother (almost 2 at the time) came down with the curse of the evil eye. The ceremony was the same, only the woman also draped my brother’s head in red cloth (which happened to be a pair of my mother’s clean underwear for lack of appropriate red clothing) then performed with the bowl of water perched on his head, and prayer recitation. I don’t think scissors were involved.

    I am jealous that you have the necessary prayers. If you happen to be in the Philadelphia area next Christmas Eve perhaps you can train me in the art.

  6. The Other Girl
    01.20.2007

    I’m only a little superstitious, but I have been known to do a similar thing that involves throwing soybeans around the edges of my property and repeating in Japanese a command for the devils to go away and the good luck to come in. I don’t know about good luck, but after performing the ritual we do end up with a frighteningly Hitchcockian number of birds in the yard.

  7. Shan
    01.20.2007

    I am relieved to know you are so well protected. Thanks for sharing this I would have never known.

    Although Maya’s Italian Godmother always says God Bless him/her in conjunction with compliments.

  8. Sharon
    01.20.2007

    There was a lady on my street who was thought to be giving the *evil eye* when she passed by. She always sat alone outside her home while all the other ladies sat in groups. I would see those hands curling into position when she passed. How could one old lady posses such power? When she died I decided to take her position. I shall make those ladies wonder what I was thinking and have to take extra care when around me. I don’t yet have this power but what do they know? (My husband thinks I am serious!) I did really like this old lady who really did not care what anyone thought of her including me.
    I live 5 minutes car drive from Tindari…where you can buy lots of red symbols!

  9. Karla
    01.21.2007

    The devil’s horn hand sign is also the University of Texas Hook ‘Em Horns sign…this causes endless confusion when, say, the US president flashes the Hook ‘Em sign to someone, then a phtographer catches itand then Europeans go all aflutter and say that he is flashing the devil’s horns….

    this makes me laugh. On many levels. Especially as I do believe we should all be flashing the devil’s horns at HIM, but this is immaterial to my point at the moment.

    ahem…but i am superstitious in my own way too. I have a Turkish evil eye repeller, and will NOT EVER open an umbrella inside…

  10. Gina
    04.03.2007

    Oh my God, yes! The “Overlooks!” That’s exactly what my grandmother used to say!

    And the thing about the pregnant woman’s cravings needing to be honored. I totally grew up with that too!

    Oh man, I can SO relate to your blog posts! You rock!

  11. Anonymous
    05.26.2007

    Can you tell me what the prayers are?
    My mother absolutely believes in it and wants to teach us but doesn’t have english translation prayers.
    By the way the scissor bit is interesting in my parent’s Calabrian village they didn’t have them in the “mix”.

  12. sognatrice
    05.26.2007

    Anonymous, send me an email at bleedingespresso (dot) sognatrice (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll talk ;)

  13. Roseanna
    02.03.2008

    I am so glad I came upon this website. I was happy with my man Johnny i knew him since 15 years ago then time passed and we had not kept touch. My Mama passed away and i was very down on February 17th of last year i prayed to mama please help me to be calm on my birthday without you. I decided to go to the laundry to bring my clothes and take my mind off..Thats when I saw Johnny who i had not seen in years. I thought it a gift from God and my mama. Since then we were together and each day grew stronger and stronger. His mama lived near me and he wanted to move close to both me and her. So i found him an apartment across the street from me. Everything was wonderful. Even for this New Year 2008 we celebrated together and i even got him to go to church on New Years Day which he had not done in a long time. On January 14th i had a bad tooth which had to be pulled he stayed with me and helped comfort me and we laughed and joked and he said oh our 1 year anniversery is coming up..things were good. 2 days later i get a phone call from him he said he missed me but that was it. Then thenext day i see him bring a girl with long black hair to his house. I was confused he would not answer his phone. The next morning I went to get caffe and walked out of my house and he was getting in the car with this girl, she turned to me and looked into my eyes and i felt a chill from head to toe. all day i felt it she was not right something was not right. After Johnny called me fromwork and said why did you do that? now she knows where u live you should not have done that. Ever since that day she moved in with him and i have been feeling ill this girl is a strega i need help against this evil eye. He is not himself he does not look happy but he caters to her like a zombie. I pray and pray and put my faith in Gesu…

    Hi Roseanna and welcome! I’m so sorry to hear of your troubles, but I’ve sent you an email that hopefully will help :)

  14. annon
    04.08.2008

    So happy to hear others that know of this.
    My grandmother used to call the combative prayer “The Faschida”
    (not sure of the spelling on that of course).

    The part about Christmas Eve at midnight always cracked me up!

    but dammit if it didn’t work!

    So true! I’ve never heard it called that, but things tend to change so much from village to village. Thanks for sharing your experience :)

  15. I remember getting a gold horn on a gold chain when I young. At the time I had no idea why I had to wear it but I remember my uncle telling me in whispers that it would keep me safe and was good luck. Eventually I figured out what it was supposed to ward off. Getting the horn was like a rite of passage!

    That’s so funny…and great of your uncle to fill you in a bit on why it was so important :)

  16. Speaking of ornamental representations of superstition, I have a friend who says she saw something about a hand holding a fig during a trip to Italy last year, but was unable to find out what it meant or find one to purchase. She said it was a pendant on a chain around someone’s neck. Do you know anything about that?

    Jessica, Italy Logue’s last blog post..How to Look Like a Local in Italy This Summer

    I’ve never seen one in person, Jessica, but apparently they are more popular around Naples than here: The Mano Fico.

  17. jeff
    06.06.2008

    Good site I “Stumbledupon” it today and gave it a stumble for you.. looking forward to seeing what else you have..later

    Thanks Jeff!

  18. 06.06.2008

    Lovely! The plastic chilli horns are not so common up here in the north of Italy, although I do have southern Italian friends who have them on their key rings, and you do see a few cars with the things dangling from the rear view mirror up here.

    On the subject of quaint customs, ss you may know, northern Italian men will touch their genitals in order to ward off bad luck, especially after having made a comment which they think may provoke the spirits, but I’m not sure whether this genial touching is a southern Italian thing too. Perhaps you can enlighten me?!

    Odd how Italy is a quaint mix of Christian and pagan practices, is it not? The prayers are obviously the Christian influence kicking in, but I’m not sure I ever remember reading about red hot chilli peppers in the Bible though…

    All the best,

    Alex

    Alex’s last blog post..Keeping Abreast of Equal Opportunities

    Yes Alex, the mix of paganism and Christianity is *so* interesting to me…so many superstitions here, and yet to counteract them, lots of prayers. Hmmm….

    Oh and the touching of the genitals thing? Apparently a proud country-wide tradition ;) Here at the mention of death, illness, etc., and also when they see nuns curiously enough….

    Judy Reply:

    Definitely a country-wide practice (touching the you know whats, that is!). My husband who is from Calabria, makes SURE to do this every time we pass a cemetery. Thank God – I don’t want to be a widow!! I find myself using the malocchio hand gesture. Well, I am Italian, too (3rd generation), although I was born in the U.S., so I guess this custom has transcended geographic boundaries. Cher didn’t believe in it in Moonstruck though. I love that movie so much I have seen it at least 8 times and I bought it.

  19. Christy
    11.28.2008

    OH MY GOD!!! I always felt like the weird little Italian girl (with pretty blue eyes that got complimented all the time, LOL) whose Grandmother obsessively said “The Overlooks” on her, thank GOD I’m not alone! My Gram is 88, we are originally from Philadelphia, and although Gram tried to teach me the prayer a few times on Christmas Eve at my behest, I could never remember it. I think I’ll give it another shot this Christmas Eve. And the olive oil in the water (what my Gram calls “The Eyes”) sent a chill right up my spine, every significant other I’ve ever had thought I was batshit crazy!

    Hah! Nope…just Italian ;)

  20. Maggie
    01.28.2009

    My husband and I are both Italian and believe in the malocchio. When my son was 5 years old, we bought him a little Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. One night our cousin was over and as my son was coming into the kitchen, the cousin jumped out at him with the doll wagging it back and forth and scared my son so bad. After that, he had night terrors every night for a straight 2 weeks. I talked with one of my cousins and she suggested the old Italian lady who lived a few blocks away could take the malocchio off of him. I was reluctant but at this point in time, I was ready to try any and everything. It broke my heart when he would wake up screaming everynight. I took him to the old lady and she had him lay down and put some oil on his stomach and over the oil, she took a little glass goblet and put it upside down over the oil and said some words, could not hear her though. From that night on, my son did not have anymore nightmares. It had actually worked. I was astounded and swore never to NOT BELIEVE again. The old lady has since passed and most all the old Italian ladies that knew the words and ritual has passed as well, and the Italian community I live in is at a loss.
    My son called me last night, he is now 45, and he has a very dear friend that has a 7 year old child that is going through the same night terrors that he did as a child. He remembers those horrible night mares even though he was 5 years old. I told him I would try and find someone who could take this away from his friends child. I can only go by the ritual that the old Italian lady did for my son, but do not know what the words she was saying was. Can you possibly help me. If you give me the words, can I say it over this poor child?

    Maggie, I can point you to the book Italian-American folklore (it’s in my a-store above); open that up in Amazon and use the book search feature if it’s available. You should be able to find some special prayers there (they differ greatly by area). Best of luck!

  21. Michelle
    02.21.2010

    I think i have the curse as well as my daughter what should I do !!!! What can I do I need life to go better forme it has not in over 40 years I need some serious help. Can you offer any help or advise PLEASE

    Michelle, if you want to learn more about malocchio and the prayers, check out Italian-American Folklore. Best of luck!

  22. 05.21.2010

    I have many fond memories of my Italian grandmother — still going strong at 97 — trying to explain malocchio to my Irish mother. She would even tie a red ribbon to the steering wheel of a new car to ward it off. Not lots of prayers said over olive oil at her house, but heavy usage of the evil eye hand gesture. One of my favorite stories is how she put an open scissors under the mattress of my dad’s carriage when he was a baby to help protect him. Sounds very safe. Who am I to question? She’s 97 and still living on her own, so she must know something we don’t.

    Love it, Mary; thanks so much for sharing :)

  23. 05.21.2010

    My grandmother tells stories of being cured of the evil eye when she was a girl. She was particularly vexed and had to call in someone to say the prayers. She’s always been vague about the experience, either because she was so young, or because it’s not Christmas Eve.

    In my family we were taught at a young age how to fix our hands in a way that would ward off the evil eye. For us it is the thumb placed between the index and middle finger of a fist – the classic, “I’ve got your nose” position.

    And, because my family is also Greek, we wear eyeball necklaces designed for the same purpose. At any time, you can find at least one member of my family wearing their pendant and aiming their warding-off hands around covertly.

    Good times. Good post. Thanks for reminding me that my family isn’t completely insane.

    Hahaha…so happy to oblige, Kristin! Love your family’s story :D

  24. 09.08.2010

    My sister and I are both married to native Italians and both our mother-in-laws made us keep a plastic horn man that had a pepper bottom in our babies carriages when they were born :)

    PS: Ronnie Dio, who was the band Black Sabbath, remembered his Italian grandmother used to do the horns all the time. He began to do the horns on stage and the audience thought it was a sign for heavt metal music and began to immitate it. So that hand sign also means that to some people

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Pat; it’s definitely one that many Italians and Italian-Americans (and other hyphenated Italians) have in common!

  25. Kay
    06.18.2011

    I think I have mal’occhio on me and I need help! I need to get rid of it, and I dont know anyone who has the gift to remove these sort of things.

    Can someone please help me? I do not have the ability to remove it myself. I would prefer to go to someone who does, and I can even pay them if they’d like.

    I live in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, but I can travel to Montreal or Toronto or upstate New York, Boston, New Jersey or any distance around that, to get cured in person.

    I do not want to suffer anymore. I have had unexplained health problems (headaches, dizziness, fatigue, lethargy) and I have seen many doctors and specialists, but none of them can find anything. Also, my luck is not that good, and I have had many problems with school, and work, and I think it could also be fatture/jettature.

    I am reaching out to you to ask you to help me. If you have the gift to cure mal’occhio, please please please contact me and help me. Or if you can refer me to someone who has the gift please.

    I hope you can help me. God Bless you for helping a person in need.

    Kay, I’m sorry I can’t help you, but have you thought about placing an advertisement in an Italian-American/Italian-Canadian newspaper or posting a flyer in an Italian-American neighborhood? Good luck!

  26. Thanks for the free education. :)) Just doing some research because I’m thinking of having some Italian horn pendants and charms in my store. Very informative. :))

    michelle Reply:

    Prego!

  27. Trish
    11.17.2011

    I have been searching for someone who knows the prayers for EVER! My godmother told me them on Christmas eve many, MANY, years ago as a young girl. So of course I totally forget them. Any chance I can bribe you to send them to me? They’ve already been passed down to me, it’s just that I’ve gone and grown up and forgotten all of them.

    michelle Reply:

    Trish, they actually vary from place to place — and to be honest, I never committed them to memory (wrote them down, somewhere). The best resource I’ve found is Italian-American Folklore, which has a few different versions to choose from. P.S. This doesn’t happen to be genealogist Trish by chance? If so, we corresponded years ago about Isca, etc. Shoot me an email :)

  28. Tamasin
    01.06.2012

    im so glad i came upon this site, my Nonna has performed this on me and my family since we were kids, but not with sissors, with a knife, butter knife usualy, and then rubs the water and oil on our forheads, wrists in the sign of the cross, and then splashes it a liitle over
    im going to ask her to teach me the prayers :)

  29. Maria Webster
    09.08.2012

    I am so excited that I stumbled upon this website. My aunt used to say the prayers, but never told us about what she said. I was looking for the prayers, and found you. I would love to know the prayers.

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Michelle FabioMichelle Fabio is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer living in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy and savoring simplicity one sip at a time.

 
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