Classic Neapolitan Good Luck Charm
Italians, particularly those from south of Naples, are a superstitious lot. They’ll go to any length to stop the dreaded malocchio (evil eye), from getting in the way of la dolce vita.
There are all manner of things that you must not do: throw bread in the bin, place your hat on a bed, nor organise an important meeting for the 17th of the month (an unlucky number). (Remo: “My Neapolitan nonna would never look at herself in the mirror. It was bad luck.”)
No need to tempt the devil. But there are defences available, and there’s no more iconic Italian amulet for warding off bad luck and evil spirits than the Neapolitan horn, cornicello or curniciello as it’s known in the local Neapolitan dialect.
The tradition of this pepperish talisman is thought to date back to 3,500 BC when proud huntsmen would hang the freshly blood-stained horns of their prey at the doors of their homes as a warning to potential intruders. By the Middle Ages, when the obsession for all things occult was at its peak, the animal horn was reduced to being a portable red amulet that could be slipped into the pocket of its owner to bring good luck and scare away the underworld.
For the cornicello (aka corno) to work its magic, there are several steadfast rules that must be obeyed. The first, and most important, is that you must never, ever buy a corno for yourself. The amulet should be handmade by an artisan and then gifted from the buyer to someone else. If you do happen to find yourself in the perilous position of buying one for yourself, you can apparently get away with it by not paying full price; and it’s enough for the shopkeeper to refund you anything at all.
Upon receipt, the lucky beneficiary pricks the centre of their palm with the point of the horn and recites aloud the words of Italian actor Totò “what you want for me, I wish twice as much for you!” in order to unleash the cornicello’s charm.
Secondly, the horn must be tuosto, vacante, stuorto e cu ’a ponta: rigid, hollow, crooked, and pointed. If you think that the peculiar form looks somewhat like a chilli, somewhat phallic then you’re not amiss. As the evil eye is believed to harm a man’s sperm, the horn references the aphrodisiac chilli as well as Priapus, the Greek and Roman God of fertility and male genitalia, to ensure success in the bedroom for its wearer.
Finally, the horn should always be hollow to allow space for positive energy or salt, another popular Italian repellent for misfortune.
If you wander the streets of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, the home of the Neapolitan horn, you may notice that today curnicielli are available in an assortment of colours. But the most potent colour is still red. The sanguine hue embodies life force as well as the blood of your enemies. It should ideally be made from the customary coral, a material associated with the goddess Venus. In coral, the curniciello will protect pregnant and nursing women, and bring the wearer luck in the love department. Horns, in any material, will also protect any trees that bear fruit!
So, what happens if your curniciello breaks? Well, your fate depends on just how. If the pointed tip snaps off, it signifies that a wealth of good luck is headed your way. If it splits down the middle, then the amulet has done its job and protected you from an evil. Anything else, is simply malissimo … a bad, bad omen.
Luckily there’s no limit to how many Neapolitan horns you can have. Adorn your neck with a pendant, dangle one from your key chain, or even hang a big red plastic horn from the rear-view mirror of your car. As the Italian actor and director Eduardo De Filippo used to say, “Being superstitious is a sign of ignorance, but not being it brings bad luck.”
2. More Cornicelli
3. Cornicello Anklet (Remo’s Mum used to wear one)
4. Even More Cornicelli
5. Concordia Divinity holding the “Cornucopia”. Statua femminile di Concordia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Napoli.
Love your post. Embed the true quintessential Neapolitan philosophy with a lot of magic! Grazie
My Nonna’s family (Letieri) came from Naples and my Mum (de Lorenzo) wore a small gold corno on fine chain around her ankle. It’s a very familiar and comforting form for me.