Little did I expect, while in Northern Tuscany last month, to run across figures similar in concept to my Kitchen Witch – that benevolent old Germanic superstitious poppet that hangs in my kitchen to protect the cook (me) and the kitchen hearth (my stainless steel, state-of-the-art Falcon Range). Yet, having seen one odd looking carved face during our travels, others began to appear all over the region. They are called scacciaguai, figures of folk magic that protect from trouble or harm. A perfect topic for this time of year as we approach All Hallow’s Eve.
We were directed to our first sighting by Erica (Heather) Jarman (see my earlier post Cheese Making at la Azienda Agricola for more about Erica’s wonderful and unique touring business). The carved face was located on the wall of a restaurant in the Garfagnana town of Barga. Apparently, it was uncovered during reconstruction of the wall; and the restaurant was subsequently named Scacciaguai after the figure. I found it interesting that located above is a madonna niche shrine. It is perhaps not a coincidence that both the profane scacciaguai and the sacred Madonna are located at the junction of two streets in this old walled town – covering all bases with their protection.
A day or so later, we went high up in the hills to San Pellegrino in Alpe to visit the excellent Garfagnana ethnographic museum. Much to my surprise, on display was a carved stone hearth surround, replete with faces. There were two faces on either side – reminding me of ancient images of gorgons with protruding tongues, although minus the wild snaky hair. In the centre of the hearth, at the apex of the mantle, is what appears to be a religious figure (a tonsured monk?) holding a sacred text. The museum caretaker told us that the hearth was about 120 years old – that is at the end of the 19th century – originally from the village of Chiozza just down the ridge from San Pellegrino, carved by a stonemason/sculpture for his home. He also said that scacciaguai figures were common in villages in the area. He also indicated that they can be found carved in wood in the centre of yokes for pairs of ploughing oxen, although there were none on display in the museum.
Later, in a village called Colognora, we sighted a water source with a scacciaguai, the water spout coming out of its mouth and its pointy demonic ears very evident. Above was a winged angel in the terracotta plaque – again, covering the profane and sacred angles. When we got back from holiday, I then noticed a similar water spout scacciaguai posted by Debra Kolkka in Crasciana Alta, Garfagnana. It looks like there is more scacciaguai spotting to be done next time we are in the area!
They appear to be common figures on walls, hearths, village water sources and oxen yokes. They were for the protection of the home, the hearth, the local fresh water source and the fields (and the animals that work those fields) – that is, the things most important in rural agricultural communities.
Scacciaguai is probably a generic name for these figures, literally meaning “chasing away (or dispelling) trouble”. In fact, the most popular and beloved of Italian witches, Beffana, is sometimes referred to as scacciaguai, with her symbolic trouble-sweeping broom. Beffana usually appears at the Christian holiday of Epiphany (January 6th), delivering gifts to children the evening before, much like a St. Nicolas figure. Also, one cannot help seeing the conceptual resemblance to gargoyles on medieval churches, who (in addition to their architectural function as water spouts) were thought to keep evil away from the congregation within.
Sabina Magliocco, a cultural anthropologist of Italian folk magic, believes that, although such practices have a deep history, they are not necessarily survivals of pagan beliefs. They are more likely an amalgamation of folk Christianity (that is, accepted practice, but outside official doctrine) and traditional agricultural-based rural life. This would certainly explain the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane images on the hearth in the San Pellegrino museum, at the junction of two streets in the old walled town of Barga, the water source in Colognora…and probably many more scacciaguai in rural Garfagnana.
Sabina Magliocco, “Spells, Saints and Streghe: Folk Magic and Healing in Italy”, Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Issue Number 13, August 2000
Sabina Magliocco, “Witchcraft, Healing and Vernacular Magic in Italy”, in Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe (2004), edited by Willem De Blécourt and Owen Davies
These photos of the Barga scaccaiguai courtesy of Debra Kolkka @ Bella Bagni di Lucca.
The Original Jack o’Lantern
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