Dorothy Carrington: The Dream-hunters of Corsica

Mazzeri, Finzioni, Signadori

Part 4: Signadori

Various aspects of the mazzeri's activities are enigmatic, obscure, belonging, as they do, to the world of dream.
The signadori, on the other hand, much more numerous at the present time, perform their function openly, in "real life", in their homes, and are still be met in almost every village. They are generally regarded as antithetic to the mazzeri. They are held to represent the element of light in the Corsican occult world, while the mazzeri are shrouded in shadow.

Many, though not all, signadori cure natural illnesses. Knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants is part of the Corsican tradition. But the signadori, and they alone, can allay a malady against which plants are of no avail: their most valued function is to dispel the Evil Eye.

Belief in the Evil Eye is worldwide; the Corsican signadori have parallels the world over.
It is here to describe the particular Corsican reactions to a universal fear.
In Corsica the Eye, "l'occhiu", manifests itself in persistent headaches, nausea, lack of appetite, unaccountable tears, while at the same time cruelly depriving its victim of the vital energy needed for resisting it.
A person afflicted with the Eye slides into a state of physical and mental depression. It attacks preferably those who are in themselves weak, especially children. It may also assault domestic animals.
It is thought an influence transmitted by the Eye of a person motivated by jealousy: envious old women are stereotyped authors of the Eye.But it may be also harmless individuals who are unaware of doing so.
Precautions must constantly be taken. It is unwise, for instance, to compliment anyone for fear that the words will attract the attention of the Eye.A remark as "What a beautiful baby you have" must immediately be followed by a protective formula: "May God bless it" or "God bless you".
Another gesture, still seen, is to "make the horns" (of the Devil), by pointing a clench fist downwards with the first and little finger extended.

Envy, invidia: the besetting Corsican sin. Envy it was that in times past instigated damage to property, and, just as seriously, to reputations, provoked unforgivable acts and words that set family against family in interminable bloody vendettas. Its impact is no less violent today. Rival firms blow up each other's premises, political extremists blow up visitors' holiday homes. Local political conflicts, inherent in democracy, traditional or modern, sometimes lead to murder. José Gil: Envy as a natural lust for power, innate in individual Corsicans, which paradoxically establishes an equilibrium between them in communities that are essential egalitarian and cooperative. Until, that is, Envy, or rather envies, erupt into action, destroy the social harmony, and with in the warring individuals and whatever they have gained. The prevailing Corsican attitude to success is indeed dangerously ambiguous.
Conspicuous wealth is resented as an aggression. The Corsicans were thus predisposed to welcome the Franciscan cult of poverty that penetrated the island from the lifetime of the saint. Yet Envy, un-Christian Envy, remained unsubdued. Curiously it is less reproved by the Corsicans than pride, the opposing attitude in the same complexe of behaviour, as though pride were the excuse for Envy, its justification.

The signadori exert themselves against Envy and the Eye by evoking the mystic forces of Christianity.Their intervention, though differing in detail from one person and one locality to another, conforms to an esta-blished rite practised all over the island. The signadore, who is likely to be a woman, pours cold water into a white soup plate and makes the sign of the cross above it three times with her right hand. She then lets fall into the water, again making the sign of the cross, three drops of hot olive oil from the little finger of her left hand. The oil was traditionally taken from the glass or metal lamp that stood on the mantlepiece; today it is scooped from any receptacle of heated oil.
The signadori are so-called because their function is to sign, in Corsican signa, the particular signing that consists of pointing to the four extremities of the holy cross.
The plate containing the water and oil is sometimes held over the patient's head, sometimes laid on top of a lock of his hair on a table, or placed on a table where he clasps it between his hands. The rite is performed in a ceremonial silence during which the signadora, her eyes half-closed, seems to be entering a state of trance. In fact she is inaudibly reciting one of her appropriate prayers. This must be learnt at or near midnight on Christmas Eve , that sacred night when God comes to visit men and evil influences are inoperative. They may also, Dorothy Carrington has heard, be transmitted on the eve of New Year's Day. Taught by grandparents to grandchildren, they are thought to be inspired by the spirits of ancestors. If divulged by the signadori they lose their power.
The pattern made by the oil in the water reveals the patient's condition, his physical and mental health and whether or not he is suffering from the Eye. The Eye is shown when the oil disperses in little blobs and refuses to coalesce in spite of the prodding of the signadora's finger. If it is the consequence of an imbuscada the oil flows all over the plate. The rite sometimes operates in such a way as to transfer the illness from patient to healer. The signadora is suddenly stricken with headache, nausea, tears: she is infected by the Eye until it is captured in the oil and water and expelled after she has broken the pattern with her finger and thrown the contents of the plate out of doors, or into the heart./

Women are numerous among the signadori. This must surely be attributed to the same factors that have drawn women to mazzerisme: being a signadora or a mazzera has offered them escape from the restricted, subordinate role allotted to them by society. An example, in the words of Georges Ravis-Giordani( ethnologist): "They were expected to carry stones and mortar to a site where a house was being built, so that the men had only to arrange the materials brought to them".It gave them as well an opportunity to exercise innate psychic gifts.
According to Roccu Multedo the postulant must be a practising Catholic, the mother of a family and over forty. The great majority of feminine signadori are indeed middle-aged or elderly, as though they had adopted their profession after their children had grown up and left home.

The gift to dispel the Eye, like the proclivity to suffer from it, is said to run in certain families, the members of which affect each other by daily contact, by contagion, as also happens among the mazzeri.

The signadori, devout Catholics, were not prosecuted by the Inquisition that operated in Corsica between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, even though it had no hesitation in condemning women for trying to heal. They survived and continued to perform their mission; perhaps precisely because, like the mazzeri, they were too well respected to be denounced.
Signadori are not fortune-tellers. They can read thoughts and see into the present, but only a very few of the most gifted can see the future, and then only the general drift of the patient's life, without circumstantial detail.
Corsicans other than signadori tend to see only death in the future, albeit without seeking that knowledge.
A cultured town-dwelling friend of Dorothy Carrington detected in an egg-shell the outline of a crucifix of a funeral wreath; news of the death of a relative came the next day. Many people claim that the future can be seen in the shell of an egg laid on the day of the Ascension, which is supposed to keep fresh for a year and to possess a protective magic against illness and accident. Magic is likewise attributed to a certain herb - Sedum stellatum L. - which must be picked on that morning before dawn and nailed to an inner wall of the house, where it will remain forty days in flower. It is often seen in shepherds' cabins.
The shepherds are the people in Corsica most given to predicting the future, and who deliberately practise this art. The occult faculties of the Corsicans, paradoxically, tend to wipe out their awareness of the future; what will happen has for them already occurred./

The signadori do much to appease conflicts on the island, unobtrusively, using their own chosen methods. They take no part in local quarrels, even when they well know what is going on in their communities. Their action is not directed against individuals, but against the Eye, the Envy that is working throught them. Their aim is to restore a harmony, psychic or physical, broken by the forces of destruction, by invoking those of Christianity.

Their prayers appeal to the great figures of the Christian religion: "Le père Sauveur", God the Father; "Le Saint Sauveur", Jesus Christ; John the Baptist; the Virgin Mary ( see also article about The Cult of the Virgin Mary); Saint Joseph and Saint Anne. The meaning of their prayers is often evasive.

A prayer to stanch blood is cast in sequence of declarations which pay tribute to the Virgin Mary and to the magical quality of the number three:

Madre Maria per mare venia
Tre lancia d'oro in manu tenia
Una lanciaia, l'altra feria
è l'altra u sangue stancia facia

Mother Mary came by sea
She held three lances in her hand
One cut, the other wounded
And the other stopped the flow of blood

Rather than prayers, the words recited by the signadori should be termed incantations, as is indicated by a Corsican expression describing their rite, incantesimo, while the signadori may be called "incantatora". It cannot really be said that the incantations form a body of oral literature comparable to that of the voceri *) and lamenti *), for they lack literary quality.
Roccu Multedo has found incantations in Italy. Incantations are used as well in the Scottish Highlands both in their lack of adornment and their form. So the Holy Trinity is pitted against the Evil Eye.

If the incantations of the signadori seem, as a whole, to emanate from medieval Christianity, it is hardly possible to determine their date.
The slow, painful penetration of Christianity was later threatened by Vandal and Saracen invasions, which must have left deep scars on the Corsican psyche. The urgency and violence of the signadori's incantations might suggest that they derive from such heroic times.
It was the Franciscans, seeking to mitigate the harshness of island life, who propagated the cult of the Virgin Mary, so often appealed to by the signadori.

It would be imprudent to assume a Christian origin for the practices of the signadori. The Evil Eye is much older than Christianity. Their rites and prayers may well mask others, invoking forgotten pagan nature-spirits or divinities. The signadori may have been active for as long a time as the mazzeri before they Christianized their rites. The technique of divination with oil and water, widespread in the Mediterranean, is supposed to date from the Chaldeans (7th-6th c. B.C.). It may not, however, have been originally used by the signadori. One may bear in mind that the olive tree was introduced to Corsica by the Greeks of antiquity. signadori of an earlier period may have employed other substances.
Today, some throw into the water grains of wheat, or scraps of heather, or salt, reputedly magical, or melted wax or lead. Berries of the lentisk, common in the Corsican maquis, can be crushed to produce oil, the so-called "oil of the poor". Certain signadori can operate " a secca": "dry", by making the sign of the cross on the patient's forehead, or in the air, standing in front of him so as to indicate his entire physical configuration.

Observers of the Corsican scene regard the signadori as antithetical to the mazzeri. The mazzeri bring death, the signadori health; the mazzeri act surreptitiously, by night, in the maquis, the signadori openly, by day, in their homes. One can add that whereas the mazzeri act in a state of a dream, and under compulsion, the signadori act deliberately, of their own free will.
However there is overlapping of roles. Dorothy Carrington heard of a woman of the southern Sartenais who some twenty years ago practised as a mazzera by night and as a signadora by day, to rid herself, she admitted, of a sense of guilt. Guilt such as not infrequently torments the mazzeri, as has been told.

Mazzeri and signadori, it seems, once collaborated as weather-controllers. The technique of the signadori in this matter is perpetuated by the shepherds-practitioners of the Niolu. The incantations she presents are not, strangely enough, designed to bring rain, but to avert it, rain storms being more dreaded in that mountain area than drought.
Their main occupation is naturally the welfare of their livestock.
At the moment of the blessing of the flocks, water is sprinkled over the animals.But then the water is not regarded as the abode of evil spirits, because it has been blessed, so that it has a holy virtue akin to that of baptism.

Animals gone astray can be traced and recuperated by the appropriate formula, just as Saint Anthony is appealed to all over Corsica for finding lost objects, with or without the aid of the signadori. Cures can be evoked for the bites of poisonous insects: scorpions, and the zinefra, a venomous spider. Sunstroke, a prevalent mountain malady, conjunctivitis and bronchitis are all subject to the treatment of the signadori. In fact the Corsicans have inherited an arsenal of magical cures, designed to combat every ill that can befall them, natural or supernatural. But for the signadori all are supernatural, and therefore vulnerable to their rites and spells.
Only one misfortune is not susceptible to magic: against death there is no appeal.


*) voceri: songs in honour of the deceased
*) lamenti: laments for an unhappy situation, misfortune

Yvonne Peters

There is so much more to know about these subjects, such as interesting stories told by mazzeri, finzioni, signadori, and Corsicans who met them, and comparisons with other cultures. If you are really interested, you shouldn't deprive yourself of the chance to read Dorothy Carrington's fascinating book to know more about the magico-religious aspects of Corsican culture!

Legends & studies by Dorothy Carrington

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