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This digital collection was produced with financial assistance from Canada's Digital Collections Initiative, Industry Canada.


Home > Heritage > Malocchio
Malocchio: Oil, Red Ribbon and a Golden Horn
By Oliviana Mingarelli
Some people avoid stepping on cracks or walking under ladders. Sound crazy? Maybe. Yet these are only some examples of the many superstitions that still exist today.

All you have to do is think back to your childhood and remember some of those odd things your grandmother may have done. Perhaps she pinned a little red ribbon on your baby sister’s blouse before company came to visit. Maybe you saw her hold up her forefinger and pinkie, making a funny looking symbol with her hand. These are just a few traditions stemming from the ancient idea of the “evil eye.”

Belief in the evil eye is one of the most widespread in the world, practised by cultures in the Western Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Belief and control of the evil eye is also central to most Italian folk beliefs and practices.

The evil eye, or malocchio, is when someone looks at you or something close to your heart with envy. They may, intentionally or not, put a hex on you or your family. This is thought to result in illness, poverty, injury or even death. It is said that to avoid accidentally giving someone the evil eye you must spit after admiring someone or something.

There are many things that can be done to ward off the evil eye. You can do the mano cornuto behind your back. This involves making your hand into a fist and extending your index and pinkie finger. (But be careful to ensure it’s not visible because instead of warding off a hex, it means the person it’s directed at has a cheating spouse.) The popular hand symbol of the mano cornuto has its origins as an ancient Italian amulet. Mano means “hand” and corno means “horn.” The charm is a golden version of the hand symbol and makes reference to the horned head of an animal.

The symbol of the horn is also popularly used as an amulet to protect from a hex. Known as the cornuto, corno or cornicello – cornicello means “little horn” – these names refer to a long, gently twisted horn-shaped amulet. Cornicelli, usually made from red coral, gold or silver, have become more stylized over the years and barely resemble their animal origin. They are a culturally popular amulet and are primarily found in Italy and in North America among descendants of Italian immigrants. In some instances, the corno has become a symbol of Italian pride.

Some devout Catholics disparage the continued use of cornicelli among religious Italians and refer to them as “Satan’s” or “Lucifer’s horns.” However, according to, these little horns (like the horns of many animals) are presumed to have once been sacred to the old European moon goddess before the rise of Christianity. As belief systems evolved, Catholic symbolism related the horns to the Virgin Mary, who is often shown standing on a lunar crescent.

There are other protections against the evil eye. If someone in your house is born in January, your house will be safe. Also, wearing a hidden red ribbon should suffice. But, if you can’t avoid it, there is a cure used widely in small towns across Italy and Greece. It includes saying incantations and placing a few drops of olive oil in a bowl of water, which is sometimes salted. The oil may scatter, form into blobs or sink to the bottom, and if read correctly will reveal the source of the attack. Once this is done, more oil and incantations can cure the hex.

However amusing this all may seem, the enduring quality of these superstitions suggest that perhaps there is something to them.


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