The Strega tradition, Stregoneria. Please allow me to introduce to you the Italian contemporary folk traditions – the practice of Segnatore.
Hello everyone I’m Angela and welcome back to my channel. For those of you new here, I’m a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds Trinity University and my research focuses on contemporary folk magic traditions and shamanism in Italy. If you couldn’t tell by my accent I am Italian myself, which made it easier to conduct fieldwork in Italy, as I have been doing for the past four years.
I have waited for my article to be published before revealing to the world my findings on my YouTube channel and this publication is finally out so I can talk about it now. If you’re interested the referenced article has been published in the peer-reviewed “Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions” and you can access it for free from a link I will leave in the info-box. I’m also leaving you a link to another one of my publications which touches on the topic and mentions the Italio-American Stregheria as well.
So let’s move on to it, shall we? Is there a full magic tradition in Italy? Yes. Is it one consistent tradition which has been passed down for centuries? No.
Let’s go into the details now. In contemporary Italy, there is a set of traditional folk magic practices which I systematized with the term, “tradition of Segnature”. Segnature – singular and Segnatore – plural, literally means signs, and gestures and refers to symbols drawn by hands along with pronouncing words of power. The performers of this Segnature will be called Segnaturi using the male plural in literature the label Segnature has been used mainly in reference to the one region of Italy, which is Emilia-Romagna because it was mostly in that region that this term was used in reference to these kinds of practices.
There are a few reasons why I decided to employ the term Segnature in reference to this core practice that is found across all the different regions in Italy. And these reasons are one – that it is the term which is most representative because in other regions they didn’t quite have any name to reference, to label, this kind of core practice. Actually, in every region, they tend to have their own term to refer to the local witch or the local vernacular healer. And only in a few places, especially in Emilia Romagna, they were using the term signature to label the core of this practice that you still find in other regions even in a label-less fashion. The second reason is that it’s not just me who is employing this label and this term across the different regions now. Thanks to the internet and social media, now the term is being acknowledged and used by people from all different regions.
It is important to highlight that the role of a Segnature (male, singular) or Segnatice (female, singular) is traditionally that of a healer and a protector of the community. Sometimes a witch, not necessarily a healer. So it can be a person who, just, for example, casts and removes the evil eye. But it is more common for them to be the vernacular healers which you find in the countryside in all places and across all regions of Italy. Especially, the old generation of Segnature is very difficult to engage with and this was the most difficult part of my research, to be honest. To become, somehow, part of the community and gain the trust of the healer so that they would want to communicate with me and allow me to use that information in my research. Because, in case you don’t know, when you do anthropological and ethnographic research you always have to tell your informants what you’re doing and how you’re going to use that information and get their approval and even the ethical approval from the universities of course.
Everybody knew what I was doing and there are some cases where I had to anonymise the informant and in other cases, I didn’t have to. Interestingly, in the tradition of segnature, there is quite a generational gap. There is almost a dichotomy in the practices and how the tradition is passed down from one generation to another. And since there was a strong consistency in my data I was able to distinguish between two main generations, which I labelled as “the old generation” and “the new generation”. By older generation, I mean practitioners roughly over the age of 60 and/or dwellers of the countryside. It encompasses people who had never shared their practice through social media or put them in the public domain. this generation is characterized more by the secrecy associated with their practice rather than their biological age. So it so happens that such a reserved approach is mostly endorsed by those in the older generation range.
“New generation” will refer to people below the age of 60 and/or dwellers of medium-sized to big cities. Compared to the “old generation”, they are defined by the openness whereby they share their practice and the use of social media or social gatherings to share experiences and information. A representative of the old generation is typically the town healer that everyone in the community acknowledges as the person you would go to when they believe that conventional medicine had failed and in some cases even as their first choice. These kinds of healers often live in secluded areas and lead simple and private lives. Their ability to heal has been passed on from a close relative, often from the grandmother, in a specific ritual which is performed in the period between the sunset of the 24th of December and the sunrise of the 25th of December – which is Christmas, most commonly around midnight. From that moment onwards the initiate will know the gestures and words of power and how to perform the Segnature.
Traditionally, especially in the south of Italy, only a blood relative can receive the Segnature and only one member of the family can be initiated. The different rituals are performed using the local dialect and syncretism with Catholic-worshipped figures. Especially through the use of incantations, which include references to the Holy Trinity and the Saints. Conversely, the new generation shows typically an open and quite syncretic approach. They tend to mix aspects of the tradition with newer interpretations also, whilst in some cases, there is still a syncretism with Catholicism, and there is an increasing incorporation of pagan elements. For instance, some of them will still perform their initiation rituals on Christmas eve, but not exclusively with family members but rather with friends or members of a group they’ll meet. In some other cases, they will move the initiation ritual to the winter solstice to better suit their pagan belief system. Another interesting discrepancy pertains to the extension of the Segnature’s field of action. Whilst the old generation only used them for traditional purposes which are healing herpes, falls, sprains loss of objects, the alteration of the weather, casting and removing the evil eye, and removing the fear, the new generation is incorporating in some cases even creating Segnature to address newer issues, such as the anxiety induced by having to take an exam, for example.
Another important difference between the old and the new generation is that according to the tradition, every healer only has one power or two. For example, they might have the power to heal two diseases or the power to heal one disease and then remove the evil eye, for example, it all depended on your family lineage. So if your grandmother had one or two specific powers or abilities those will be the ones you will be inheriting. For the new generation, however, this is not the case at all. Sometimes they will even exchange their abilities. So, for example, if I had inherited the ability to remove the evil eye and a friend of mine has got the ability to heal sprains, for example, I might pass on to them my ability and they might do so with me. As a result, we would both have multiple abilities, and multiple Segnature to heal a variety of issues. Another interesting fact is that with the new generation, you don’t need to be physically present with the person you need to heal – you can also heal from a distance. This was not the case with the older generation of Segnature.
Extremely key for how this tradition is developing for the new generation is the use of social media. Thanks to social media, in fact, they have found a common term which is “Segnature”, as I said, which, at first, was only used in one specific area of Italy. And if you’re interested in how social media has been reshaping folk magic in Italy, there is one video on my YouTube channel, which I’ll be linking here or here, which is the paper I gave at the conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions. But yeah basically, social media has changed and reshaped this tradition massively. For once they were able to find one label which is now acknowledged by people from all sorts of regions in Italy and so the fact that people from different regions are using the same label and are communicating and exchanging this Segnature underlies the belief that they are conveying, which is that this is somehow one tradition, one Italian tradition and when I say that – I don’t want to undermine or downplay at all the regional variations which are still there but the practice of the Segnature are the practice of the gesture accompanied by pronouncing a specific word is found in every region basically across the different practices whether it be healing or casting or removing the evil eye.
You may have certain regions which tend to be more specialized in one specific Segnature. For example, in Campania, which is my home region, the most common one is casting and removing the evil eye which is called Malocchio. But even these practice, which doesn’t quite fall under the umbrella of vernacular healing, still adopts that same kind of layout, we may say, in practice. So the Segnature, as in the practice of a gesture accompanied by pronouncing certain words of power, passed on from generation to generation, is still there and is still occurring across all regions in Italy, thanks to social media. Even practitioners are slowly but increasingly acknowledging an underlying consistency across all regions on the Italian peninsula.
So in my research, I do argue that this is one tradition but I do also acknowledge the regional variations. And yet I do define it as the tradition of Segnature, with the singular, because I feel that unless there is an acknowledgement of the presence of this tradition there won’t be further studies to dive deeper into the regional variation, which are very much needed in the future to be conducted by either myself or other scholars. You may call it a process of reification. So, making these set of practices into a thing in order for it to enter the discourse and dialogue surrounding folk magic in Italy. Because there is indeed and there has been for quite a long time and has remained underground for two main reasons, I believe, which is that this practice is kind of opposed to both the dominant religious system and the dominant worldview which is a secular one.
Normally Italians do know someone who will heal a sprain or cast or remove the evil eye from their town or the next – but the attitude is still to keep them underground as they tend to be dismissed as superstitious practices. And what I hope to get from this process of reification, from making the set of practices into a thing, from showing that there is a consistency there, that there is a uniformity and that from all different regions people are practising the same things, is to give a voice back to those who haven’t had one because they had been, for too long been, dismissed as superstitious people engaging in superstitious rituals.
There are many more things that I could tell you about the tradition of Segnature because well I’ve been studying it for quite a while. So there are a lot of things that I could tell you but I don’t want this video to be too long. So if you’re interested in knowing more, do let me know in the comment section and I will make more videos addressing this tradition in more detail. Also, if you have any questions I’m very, very happy to answer all of your questions.
But for now, this is it for today’s video. Hope you liked it and if you did, smash the like button, subscribe to the channel, activate the notification bell so that you won’t miss any new videos, and stay tuned, as always, for all the academic fun.
De Bernardi, M. (2015) ‘Segnare la guarigione: etnosemiotica di un atto magico : lettura semiotica della pratica delle “segnature” nella prospettiva tranculturale relativa alla zona degli Appennini della regione italiana dell’Emilia Romagna’, Phd thesis, Université Toulouse le Mirail – Toulouse II [Online]. Available at https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01326386/document (Accessed 2 March 2018).
Puca, A. (2018) ‘“Witch” and “Shaman”: Discourse Analysis of the Use of Indigenizing Terms in Italy’, International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Indigenizing Movements in Europe, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 271–284.
Puca, A. (2019) ‘The Tradition of Segnature: Underground Indigenous Practices in Italy’, The Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, no. 7, pp. 104–123.