May 29, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Axis of scaramanzia

By |2018-03-21T18:37:44+01:00July 15th, 2009|First Person|
What's a family shield without an angel's guardianship, hand to metal?

t was in the early years, pre-marriage when we barely spoke each others’ languages, that my Italian husband banned putting hats on the bed. “It’s bad luck,” he’d say.

My prodding response, “So what about when we have a party and there’s no where to put them but on the bed?” His answer was a dead-serious glare.

Well, I did it anyway. I put lots of hats on the bed. Every chance I could get: straw hats, cowboy hats, sock hats, any hat. A couple of times (well, every time) I did it on purpose. You know, to test his reflexes as he swooped in to remove the hats and ultimately to test his level of scaramanzia.

It’s a word without an exact English translation, veiled in mystery and creepiness. It sums up a set of rituals or precautions designed to ward off bad luck, or even worse — the evil eye. It’s at the heart of the superstitious culture of fear alla italiana.

I started off sane in this country, I swear. I snubbed scaramanzia and often laughed in its face. The hat ritual was outright ridiculous, but explainable: priests, before giving last rites, would lay their hat on the bedside of the dying as they donned their vestments. Hat-plus-bed-equaled-death. Ooooooh. Scary.

I just thought it was silly, and a good excuse to roll my eyes into back of my head like a kindergartner. I managed that way of thinking for a while. But then, as it always does, fear (and Italy) started seeping in.

It was the repetitive acts right under my own eyes and in my own household that sent me over the edge: the passing of the salt shaker with a certain hand, the touching of iron, bull-horn hand signs warding off negative thoughts, the ban on 13 guests at dinner. It was everywhere, all around me, in everyone and everything. Scaramanzia, Scaramanzia, Scaramanzia! The men in this country even publicly touch their private parts to ward off bad luck.

Just when I was about to develop a nervous tick, a woman with long skirts and bandana-covered hair asked me for money in the street. When I replied “sorry,” she grabbed my hair, ripped out a chunk and held it up in a fist of victory. She then smiled at me wildly like the Wicked Witch of the West telling me with her eyes, “I’ll get you my pretty!”

Oh Rome, city of the crazies, land of the lunatics and now home to me!

I called my husband frantically. “She has my hair!” I screamed into the phone. “What kind of voodoo-witchcraft hexing is she going to do to me?”

Head-dunked, face-down in a bathtub of salty water. That’s where I found myself that night. My mother-in-law (via Skype) was at the helm of the soaking. She had consulted with three good witches before delivering the counter-spell:

  • Part I: One bathtub filled with warm water, 10 handfuls of sea salt, 10 minutes soaking entire body head under.

  • Part II: One lock of hair completely burned and destroyed.

I admit to you, I actually went through with the counter-spell.

Diagnosis: I suffer from scaramanzia.

Feeling ridiculous afterwards and needing to confess I called my Dad in the heartland of America where the only way to salvation is through Our Lord Jesus Christ. “What in the hell are those people teaching you over there?”

He was right, Salem witches Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba were long gone. And I’m American, meaning I should fear things like F5 tornados, rare and unknown diseases, anthrax attacks and the Axis of Evil. Bullhorn hand signs are for 1980s rock stars and I was once bold enough to get married on the 13th day of the month. Oh, Jessica, where art thou? In Italy. Feeling bad about all of those hats I put on the bed.

About the Author:

Jessica Carter, a native of the Missouri Ozarks, worked her way out of the countryside, up the television news ladder, and onto the anchor desk. Just months after making it to the top, she packed her blue suits, sold her big car and kissed America goodbye. Today she lives a leisurely life in Rome where she works as an editor and online producer. She is married to artist Alessandro Scarabello.