The words Necromancy and Italian Culture in the same sentence might not make sense to some, but for those who have been immersed in the traditional practices of Italy all their lives Necromantic practices are deeply rooted in everyday life. For us Italian Americans across the ocean we have grown into a society that has changed spiritual practices to fit a more “modern world”. The practices that have been so desperately held onto for generations have been changed so much over time, from prayers, chants, healing, folk magic, festivals, dance, and music but when we look closely, we can still see the ancient practices poking through.
When we look deeply into the traditions that we have honored for generations it becomes clear just how much our ancestors try to keep us engaged and how truly dedicated we are to keeping them around. The practices of Italy are old, some of them seem to be recreations of older rituals. Take The Cult of The Dead in Naples for example, The Cult of The Pezzentelle Souls which seems to have started around the late 16th century. The women of the area would go to Fontanelle Cemetery to worship and honor “The Lost Souls”. They would spend time there connecting and honoring the dead, bringing them offerings that have been traditional in Necromancy within Italy and Greek legends like milk, honey, wine, grains, but especially water. It was important to bring the Souls water, more so than anything else because they said the “refreshment”, (Refrigerium, Refrische), was the water given to The Pezzentelle Souls to help cool them while they burned in purgatory. This was not as simple as going to a grave and giving the dead a glass of water in a pretty glass, no, this was a complex ritual that started before any offerings were given.
There are multiple ways to go about these rituals. The most familiar is the Women, since this is mainly “Women’s Work”, would go to the ossuary and say a devoted Neapolitan prayer to the Souls and before leaving take the Capuzzella (Skull), home with them. When they returned home, they would pray to and for the Pezzentelle Soul then go to bed where they would be placed in a trance to communicate with the Souls of Purgatory. Another tradition is that the Pezzentelle visits the devotee in their dreams first and tells them what they need and where their Capuzzella is found so they may go to it, clean and polish it, and give the Pezzentelle blessings and offerings.
As one built a close intimate relationship with the Soul they would give offerings like saint cards, rosary beads, oil lamps, candles, and water. The devotees would also, of course, ask for blessings and material objects to help better their lives. If the devotees' needs were not met, then the Capuzzella would be taken back to the ossuary and left there with no offerings since they did not meet the wishes of the devotee.
When the bond between the “adopter” and the Pezzentelle grows, the devotee would take the Capuzzella and build a Scarabatola around it at the ossuary. Placing a white handkerchief under it and adding a rosary around it as a symbolic “refreshment” an offering, also telling of the Souls status and importance. The Scarabatola is a wooden box, usually with beautiful woodwork and engravings. The offerings and refrische were placed on top of it.
I find everything about this tradition to be fascinating and beautiful. One of the most interesting things to me is the fact that all the main contact the devotee would have with the Pezzentelle is through dreams. It is like other Necromantic practices around the world and fairy traditions. Such as the practices of communicating with the Lare and the Lasa, they are spirits of Italian descent. One is said to be spirits of the land and the other are ancestral sprits of the hearth and home. The way to commune with them is first to build a shrine and give plenty of offerings of honey, milk, and wine. Another similar offering that is said to be a tradition in some of the most ancient of sources in the Greco-Italian world. After your shrine is built, go to bed and you will dream of one or both spirits. They will show themselves to you, teaching you secrets of the craft of the wise and telling you how to honor them. Usually after this step is when you can begin working with them regularly.
There is evidence of many Cults of The Dead, such as The Anima Sola in South America, which has similar practices and customs of devotion as the Pezzentelle Cult. There is a legend that says the worship of Dea Jana (Diana), travelled to Portugal, and in Evora there was a large temple dedicated to her worship. The worship of Diana became connected and intertwined with the legend of a Deified Witch named Bruxa Evora (Witch Evora). The legend of this witch travelled all the way to Brazil and other parts of South America. Diana was the Goddess of Witches, witchcraft, the wild, the night, and so much more. She was even seen as a psychopomp in a few legends, which made sense due to her hunting nature. One of the many ways women would say Diana contacted them was in their dreams. In the middle of night, she would take them to the woods and teach them the secret arts of the craft, healing, casting with Plants, and speaking with the dead.
A Goddess who I feel strongly needs to be mentioned in this article is the sadly almost forgotten Libitina. The Etruscan Goddess of the Dead and Funerals, her temple was used as a funeral home and was where all the sacred tools for burial and grave work were held. She is one of the first visions of the Grim Reaper and Angel of Death. Libitina was envisioned with black rope covering her face, she had huge black wings that would help her hover and circle over her prey before she would strike. I have been unable to find any evidence of her being connected to either of these cults directly or sites of worship. But that means nothing to me since all her myths and stories have been lost. Unless we can uncover something that says she is not, I feel strongly that she is connected to the cults of the dead. Another Goddess of the dead that is worth mentioning, is the Italian/Etruscan Goddess, Mania. Goddess of the Dead and mischievous spirits, mother of the Manes and spirits known as lemures. The Manes are spirits of the dead that usually were worshiped as a group, rather than individually. They were seen as Ghost, sometimes beneficent, other times they were feared and worshiped just so they wouldn’t hurt or mess with the living. Still to this day these spirits are revered and honored to keep them happy, if the Spirits are happy and content then they are more likely to help the living with their requests.
As we look deeper into the many Cults of The Dead, we will find many similarities. The practice of Necromancy is not as far from our daily lives as we think. Think of Saint worship, you are ultimately calling on the dead and praying to them so they may help you in return. Death is a huge part of life for a lot of Italians, mostly Neapolitans. Fontanelle Cemetery is not the only place in Naples where the Cult of The Dead is active. The church Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco is still a highly active spot for people to come pray and leave offerings to these souls. This is a tradition that will live on forever, especially if the ancestors have anything to say about it.
If you decide you would like to work with the Spirits of the dead like the Pezzentelle or any other, there are a lot of different prayers you can find to call on them. The website Italian Folk Magick by Mallorie Vaudoise, (https://www.italianfolkmagic.com/) has a beautiful traditional Neapolitan prayer that can be used at the cemetery. I am a huge believer in our guides leading us to what will suit our needs. Speak to your guides and ancestors and they will show you a prayer you can use to call on them. Or they will visit you in your dreams and teach you how to begin this type of worship and ritual.
I hope this opened a whole new but old-world view for you. Things that might seem to be dark and unusual are all remarkably close to our ancestors and lineage traditions. That is what makes the world and all the cultural aspects of it so beautiful. Opening ourselves up to our ancestors and the Spirits of the dead is a sacred practice that we should never let die.
Vivian is offering a live online class October 21st called Working with the Ancestors 101. There will be a recording available if you can't make the live class.