Our beloved San Francesco di Assisi might be revered as the patron saint of animals in other countries but certainly not here in Italy: Sant’Antonio Abate, 4th-century hermit saint who lived in the Egyptian desert with just a piglet for a companion, is the protector of Italy’s animals. On his feast day, January 17th, animal-lovers gather at a designated church – cats in arms, dogs on leashes, turtles in boxes, canaries in cages, sheep harnessed, horses bridled – to have their animals blessed. I remember the year we took our big black Newfoundler, Sheba, to the little church in Assisi to join the other animals in blessings. All the animals were adorned with the traditional red bow afterwards – as we pet owners gathered to receive a pane bendetto di Sant’Antonio (blessed roll).
Years ago when we farmed here in Umbria, an image of Sant’Antonio hung in every oxen stall – and his name had to be invoked when admiring anyone’s animals. If not, il malocchio could set in.
Farm friend Peppa remembers many years ago, when a farmer, Giovanni di Castellano (in rural culture, the place where the person was born often becomes un sopranome, a sort of nickname,) admired the goslings of Peppa’s Nonna but only exclaimed “Che belle ochettelle!” (“what lovely goslings”!) and did not add the obligatory, “Che Sant’Antonio ve le aiuti” (“..and may St. Anthony help them”) . I asked “why not”? “Era invidioso” (“he was envious”), Peppa replied ” He was envious of any other farmer with healthy animals – he liked to cause trouble.”
Hearing in horror a compliment on her geese without an invocation to St. Anthony, Peppa’s Nonna grabbed a pasta dish, put a goose feather under the dish (“you need something of the evil-eyed animal to take off the evil eye”) and set to take off il malocchio. She put water in the dish, enough to just cover the bottom, and then poured olive oil into a tablespoon, dipping her middle (third!) finger into the oil and letting a drop drip onto the plate. She did this nine times. Nine drops. Multiples of three: the number three is sacred in Mediterranean culture.
But there is a specific order as Peppa showed me one night (when visiting another farm friend, Gigino): the first drop is aimed at the top of the plate (“il Padre”), the next drop at the lower part (“il Figlio”), then one on the left side (” e Spirito….”) and then one on the right side of the dish (“..Santo”). This order is repeated until nine drops of olive oil have hit the water. Nonna’s olive oil drops moved and united, touched each other, perhaps “made roads” round the plate (Peppa remembers they moved, though not the pattern: a clear sign of il malocchio (if the nine olive oil drops do not move, there is no evil eye). Peppa’s nonna knew exactly what to do: she aimed the cornuto sign at the merged olive oil drops, passing it over the plate three (logicamente!) times in the form of a cross, saying “Padre, Figlio, Spirito Santo”.
What happened to those ochetelle?
They grew up into nice fat geese, ending up, one after another, on the farm table.
But Giovanni di Castellano was never invited to join in the feasts.
Note: In rural culture, you never admire the beauty of a child without following the compliment with “e Dio ti benedica” (“and may God bless you”). Peppa says that someone must have forgotten to do that when admiring our baby Giulia years ago and that’s why Giulia never slept. “All you had to do was go to Cantagallina to get the evil eye taken off,” Peppa affirmed. Peppa went to Cantagallina, the local witch, for “malocchio removal” when her newborn son cried constantly. Did it work? “Certo!”
Read the full story on Sant’Antonio and celebrations in his honor in Umbria
See the cornuto gesture here (look for Berlusconi!)
Read more on rural rites and rural friends
Read about Peppa’s wine-making
Read about Peppa’s wine lore
Click for more on Peppa’s wine and a sacred rural tradition
Read about Peppa’s bread salad
Read about Peppa’s celebration of her new olive oil
Read about Peppa celebrating chestnuts, new wine and new olive oil
Read about learning to make a traditional bread with Peppa
Read about hunting chicory with Peppa
Click here to read about Peppa and her legumes
Click here to read about Peppa’s Easter cheese breads
Read about Peppa and the rural rite of veglia
Read about the joy of feasting with Peppa