Magic, Ritual, Lament: Ernesto de Martino

This text was posted in 2012 and it was later reworked into my book En Abime, Listening, Reading, Writing: An Archival Fiction.   


intro… [Ernesto De Martino (1908-1965) is one of the most engaging researchers and thinkers in twentieth-century Italian culture, in particular with regards to the study of vernacular rituals and religions, ethnomusicology, folklore. His research in philosophical anthropology, stemming from Gramsci, allowed him to elaborate innovative analyses of concepts in the study of religion such as folklore, magic and ritual that supported his groundbreaking field work in Southern Italy in the fifties, his studies of Tarantism and ritual lament. His dialogue with Pier Paolo Pasolini in the fifties was instrumental in the development of the latter’s interest in popular culture and oral tradition. In the second half of the forties de Martino co-edited with Cesare Pavese the groundbreaking Purple Series for the Einaudi publishing house that featured, for the first time in Italy, books on religion, ethnology and psychology.
De Martino is rarely mentioned in academic studies in the UK and only few of his books have been translated in English. A new book by Fabrizio Ferrari, Ernesto de Martino on Religion (Equinox, 2012)  is a long-overdue study of the ethnographer’s work in the English language. And yet most of the primary sources are not translated : Death and Ritual Lament in the Ancient World (1958) and The End of the World, the unfinished labyrinthine collection of fragments on apocalypse.]


In 1958 Italy’s prestigious literary prize, Premio Viareggio, was awarded to ‘a man dressed in grey [1]’ who, in the words of a journalist of the time, had written ‘a book that really speaks to the living, and for the living [2]’. Death was in fact a prominent theme in the book. Its author, the man in grey, was Ernesto de Martino; its title, Death and Ritual Lament in the Ancient World.

It was the fourth time the prize was awarded to a work of non-fiction (Antonio Gramsci’s posthumous Prison Notebooks breaking new ground in 1947), and the first in which the results of ethnographical research were the subject matter of the winning book – a study of ancient ritualistic forms of lament and mourning as they perpetuated in the Lucania area of Southern Italy in the fifties.

A historian of religions who had graduated in 1932 from the University of Naples, de Martino instilled his research early on with unorthodox enquiries into ethnology, philosophy and psychology – an eclecticism that first emerged in his book The Magic World (1948) where magic and ritual were analysed as techniques developed by people to affirm their presence in the world, and situated within the actuality of a historically loaded ‘now’. It was with Death and Ritual Lament though, and the following South and Magic (1959) and The Land of Remorse (1961), that de Martino’s research gained prominence, as the theories he had explored in The Magic World took on a more rounded character across a series of groundbreaking field trips. And the subject of those books was not a remote, idealised ancient world, but the actual Southern Italy of his time: ancient in the fifties.

Although little known and translated outside of Italy [3], de Martino’s research in ethnography, philosophy, religions and cultural history is rich and profound – both in each specific discipline, and in his penchant for thinking across them as a unified method. Nobody before him had studied the peasant culture of Southern Italy and its broader implications with such insight and subtlety, devoid of patronising inflections and presenting it as a specific way of being in the world rather than a meaningless relic from the past. Nobody before him had realised that to reach the South culturally meant to embark on a descent to a remote deep. De Martino’s enquiries were neither confined in the self-complacency of erudition nor in the distance of taxonomical order: they were burning questions that spoke of real people, and that aimed at the minds and hearts of real people. When he set out on his first field trip to Lucania, he knew he was to encounter a world of shadows and charged atmospheres, and in order to catch its spirit it would be necessary to capture the sounds, the gestures, the feel of those places. So he headed off with a working group including a psychologist, a cultural anthropologist, an ethnomusicologist. Nobody before him had approached ethnographic enquiry in Italy from a cross-disciplinary angle.

The first field trip [4] took place in 1952 [5]. Controversy arose at the time over the use of the expression ‘field trip’ to denote a journey just a few hundreds kilometres South of Rome, as the term is normally referred to a journey to distant regions. In fact, de Martino’s field trips disclosed a cultural abyss between the South and the rest of Italy, and a psychological abyss between cultures, which up to that point had been absorbed in the paternalistic stances and deep fractures of the so-called ‘Southern Question [6]’.

Fragmentary yet profound traces of Southern Italy’s peasant culture, and the implicit nexus between its manifestations and its socio-cultural context, had seeped through the fabric of literary forms in Italy in the forties: the South as a ‘world of shadows’, yet alive to that date, modulated the prose of Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945) [7], the poetry of Rocco Scotellaro [8] and, to a certain extent, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. De Martino was aware of and profoundly influenced by all of them.

What de Martino looked for and collected in Lucania was the character of ancient forms of ritual not as permanent structures out of time, but as active devices used by people in a poor, rural area of Italy to cope with their loss of presence in the contemporary world. What he reported in Death and Ritual Lament was not only a series of records, but the reflections of the specific forms of a crisis into the concerns of the society of his time.

Through his fieldwork in Lucania de Martino traced a line of tradition in the Lament whose form had persisted as a protraction of the ancient rituals of mourning, and had resisted the liturgical dictates of Catholicism via a series of hybridisations of a defined canon. He describes the Lament as the technique of crying after somebody’s death: a ritual developed by early Mediterranean civilisations to circumscribe loss within a safe, mythical horizon. It is the third stage of what de Martino identifies as a sequence of mourning. The first stage expresses a moment of wordlessness and being dumbstruck by loss; it is followed by uncontrolled crying and frenzy, and it is finally restrained in the Lament, which controls loss within a protected psychic space. Such protection is possible because of a defined structure, and because of the insistence of its refrains and formulaic expressions.

The Lament exudes a staged quality with no claims for authenticity or for the outpouring of uncontrolled emotion: often in a funeral, groups of women ‘who know how to weep’ enact the Lament on behalf of the family of the dead. Witnesses report how each Lament sounds as if it was not an individual woman really crying but another one, or any other one, ‘anonymous and dreamy’, who gives voice to the refrains expressing that someone died. For de Martino the woman who vocalises the Lament embodies ‘the ritual presence of a very particular regime of psychic duality’, where she does not pour out an autobiographical image: she is that image distorted, reiterated, projected, reinvented and echoed into clusters of words and recurring patterns. The shaping of the weeping woman’s voice has to do with remembering and returning; with the fixed rhythmic gestures that move her voice, where the regularity of rhymes and the formulaic quality of certain images protect her from paroxysm and outline the limits within which human presence can be reaffirmed, in spite of incommensurable death. It is an example of the formal power of being against what moves on in nature, unmeasured.

The stronger the fixed, repeated form, the stronger the individual stories woven into this form appear, as they exceed it and perpetuate it [9].

Premio Viareggio was a literary prize, and the language and style of de Martino’s book drew attention as much as its contents. Here are the words of the renowned literary critic Pietro Citati: ‘Surely De Martino possesses a very happy quality of metaphorical invention. Less approval might be caused by the congested, multicoloured and barbarian congeries of linguistic materials of which Death and Ritual Lament is made. Psychoanalysis, Marxism, Existentialism, Benedetto Croce [10], literary criticism, nothing is missing: each of these languages left its technical terms to de Martino. The traces and detritus of this monstrous plundering, made with a very southern vitality, are everywhere, like the Chinese ideograms that Ezra Pound includes in his English. […]There is no doubt that he is neither just a researcher or an experimenter, nor a pure theoretical mind. His intelligence is genially eclectic and combinatory [11]’.

Somehow the arcane cultural world of the South and its syncretisms, off-centred cries and dark shadows seeped into the fabric of de Martino’s writing. The ‘eclectic and combinatory intelligence’ underlined by Citati supports one of the most significant aspects in de Martino’s work, not just in language but also in method: Lament is not to be intended as a fixed, textual-only form whose meaning is embedded exclusively in its lyrics, but as a whole made of words as they are spoken, of gestures, of music and in the tradition of such words and gestures, in the places and occasions when they are performed. As such, it can only be studied across many different languages and formats: audio recordings, film and photography as much as written notes. This is why de Martino’s language could not conform to the diktats of ethnographic discourse. This is why he sought to incorporate in his prose technical and literary terms as well as jargon, dialect, poetic descriptions, music notations, long historical quotes. De Martino’s outlook on the world was reflected in his writing of it. And you can’t write a history of Italy’s South without accounting for the religious elements, musical elements, its mystery and magic.

De Martino did not limit his research within comparative study; his choice to approach the muddled crucible of peasant culture in Southern Italy and its crisis was a deliberate political gesture at a time when that culture was not even considered as part of Italy, and it aimed to keep that culture’s questions and riddles alive. His stance was ultimately against a reduction to discourse, official culture and theory: he sought instead to present the world of enchantments, evil eye, lamentations, rituals, superstitions, fascinations, shadows, belief, cries, lullabies and work chants, songs of departure and abandon, syncretisms and polyphonic riddles, none of which could be reduced to one-sided, straightforward analysis – they were to be collected on the field, and recollected in a rhapsodic texture of words.

One of de Martino’s points in Death and Ritual Lament is to show how the personal dimension of mourning is regained within the ‘protected’ and codified environment of the lamentation ritual. It is a constantly de-historicised and re-historicised gesture, in transit between truth and fiction, between being there and being possessed. As he would further explore in South and Magic, the effect of Lament and of other forms of ritual is psychological and deeply rooted in the behaviour of people in the South, even when its function is not part of their immediate awareness. Magic and ritual are not manifestations out of time but historical products, culturally loaded and constantly redefined: they embody a way for people to deal with fundamental questions that may threaten their relationship with the world. They are symbolic practices for the living and as such they are not dead relics, but elements that are alive and that help measure the limits of the culture in which they exists. To interrogate them touches the roots of the human dimension.

The struggle between the perception of what moves outside and in spite of ourselves, and yet can only be grasped within the limits of human nature, is reflected in the multifaceted nature of de Martino’s writing, between wide-spanning arguments and meticulous detail, between philosophically charged words and the inflections of vernacular, between the rigour of chronicle and the empathic flights of lyricism. The entirety of Death and Ritual Lament could be read as a work in which the edge between man and chaos is explored, between the awareness of a present singular and the manifestations of an indistinct force, neither singular nor collective, simply ‘other’ – and the other can be nature, but it can also be the sense of a crisis, the feeling of not belonging to the contemporary world.

In a discussion broadcast by Italian radio RAI in 1965 soon after de Martino’s early death, the ethnomusicologist and long-term collaborator Diego Carpitella remarked upon the subject of their work in Southern Italy and upon the ambivalence and difficulty in operating in such context: ‘It was neither the archaeologists’ stones, nor the naturalists’ insects, it was people… and to grasp the situation, not to give in to emotion, to rationalise and know what we were looking for, was a real exertion […] To participate and be distant at once […] This effort to grasp reality is what we learned from de Martino as fieldwork: a certain type of human participation, neither a cold ethnographical inventory nor a cold sociological questionnaire, and not characterised by the paternalism so common in folklore studies. [12]’ The awareness of a tension and distance between interviewer and interviewed – a pivotal riddle in anthropological and ethnographical research – was approached by de Martino through a closer look into that tension: he knew that if a meeting with the cultures of Southern Italy could ever be envisaged, it could only take place in the darkest folds of those cultures and in their untold psychological enigmas. He searched for a common depth that he believed would lead to a heightened awareness of his place in the world. He would often remark that to approach the ‘other’ is a complex cultural test for the researcher, who acquires a different sense of history. The journey toward the other is not about abandoning one’s world, but about being aware of its limits and of how one is grounded within them nonetheless. De Martino called this approach ‘critical ethnocentrism’: a broadening of one’s cultural conscience against any other culture, that makes one more aware of the limits of one’s culture, historicise and question one’s categories of observation. This is why, he remarked [13], Tristes tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss is significant: in the breakthrough moment when the anthropologist wonders, ‘what have we come to do here?’

De Martino knew what he had come to do in Lucania. He was committed to link his journeys South to a key political problem in cultural awareness, to point out the dangers in losing it, to study how people protect themselves from the risk of such loss and attempt to reintegrate their presence in society through ritual. In the paradox of trying and failing to objectualise the meeting of humans with rituals, he affirms the historicity of culture. ‘We cannot question’, he wrote, ‘the human destination of all cultures, also those – in fact most of all those – which include, in one way or another, the thought of a meta-historic, extra-mundane divine origin or destination. We cannot lower the tools of criticism in front of the numinous and give in, only to encounter again people and human motivations, which have from time to time constructed the numinous in the actuality of various cultural situations. The awareness of the human origin and destination of all culture is not one of many, possible awarenesses we might have, but our own awareness as ethnographers, which follows us like a shadow. It is the most invaluable instrument of analysis that we take with us [14]’.

‘Loss of presence’ is a recurring expression in the writings of de Martino. The concern with impermanence, with being on the edge and struggling to structure one’s presence in a world where the ‘other’ becomes more and more prominent, constitutes the critical fulcrum and the fascination of de Martino’s books. Magic for him is not aimed at suppressing the negative, but at articulating the many ways people deal with it, often by incorporating part of it. Chiselled out of myriad degrees of proximity between popular culture and hegemonic culture, the surveys and reports of the various forms of ‘being acted by’ that haunt his books are overwhelming and powerful. The stories of women who dance possessed to the rhythms of tarantella, mocking the movements of spiders, in the Salento region of Puglia; the description of their shrieks and cries; the accounts of evil eye rituals and superstitions in Naples; the reports of Laments and people’s stories and songs of grief in Lucania – the dynamics of the world of magic and ritual ‘never have to lose a dynamics related to the modern world, even if this implies moments of stop, contradiction, deviations and falls [15]’. In this context South and Magic is fundamental. In this book de Martino boldly takes distance from any meta-historical positions and asks the core question: where are we at this point in time, as we study these rituals? What distances the shared forms of ritual and magic across cultures and centuries in the world, from the actuality of the specific rituals in Lucania? True: magic, fascination, possession, exorcism can appear as timeless categories shared by cultures across the world. The point is to understand what surrounds them, what they act upon, how they take on different aspects according to their context at a specific time, and against the hegemonic culture they stand against. ‘The historical sense of protective techniques of magic lies in the values that such techniques disclose again by implanting themselves in the critical moments of a given regime of existence, and it is therefore manifested only if we consider those techniques as a moment in a cultural dynamics that is conceivable within a single culture, a particular society, a defined epoch [16]’.

From the studies of cultures and regions on the borders, to the edge of time: The End of the World, published in 1977 after de Martino’s early death in 1965, is a collection of fragments on various forms of cultural apocalypse [17]. This unfinished study is an impressive gathering of thoughts around the idea of the end, not only as it appears in a number of religions, but also in the trauma of colonial invasion, in literature, philosophy, art. Apocalypse appears over six hundred pages as the collapse of a subject against the cultural texture in which it exists. The loss of the feeling of domesticity in the world is the beacon of de Martino’s lifelong research project in which, by writing of the end, he actually considers many forms of beginning: in particular the geneses and genealogies of cultures, the degrees of awareness of one’s references and their history, enhanced by memory or bordering on oblivion. His lasting attention to the edges of a land and of a people is framed by a look that could be directed as much to cultural analysis as to the creative process: as his long-established collaborator Clara Gallini remarked, it shows how men and women build their imaginary worlds, and make them real [18]. De Martino’s liminal enquiries suggests that to be at the edge in the world does not have to do with finding a prescriptive why, but a way and a where.

[1] Franco Tintori, Paese Sera, 1 September 1958. Quoted in Clara Gallini, Introduzione, p.VIII. In Ernesto de Martino, Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico. Torino: Universale Bollati Boringhieri, 2008.

[2] Aldo Santini. Il Tirreno, 31 August 1958. Quoted in C. Gallini, ibid., p. VIII.

[3] Fabrizio M. Ferrari, Ernesto de Martino on Religion: The Crisis and the Presence, Sheffield: Equinox, 2012. Although the thorough evaluation of De Martino’s theory in Ferrari’s book is an important contribution, the lack of English translations of primary sources such as Death and Ritual Lament and South and Magic is still a missing link. Translations in English so far include The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism, London: Free Association, 2005 and Primitive Magic: The Psychic Powers of Shamans and Sorcerers, Bidport: Prism Press, 1972/1988.

[4] Supported by the Centre for popular music of the Santa Cecilia Academy and of RAI television.

[5] This trip preceded by two years Alan Lomax’s journey to Calabria and his recordings in August 1954.

[6] The ‘Questione Meridionale’ (‘Southern Question’) emerged after the forced annexation of the Kingdom of the Due Sicilie (Southern Italy) to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Its history is the account of the countless failed attempts made by the Italian state to make up for the social, economical and cultural gap between two uneven realities.

[7] Carlo Levi was a doctor, writer and painter from Turin. He was banished by Fascism because of his political views and was exiled in Lucania between 1935 and 1936. He wrote of his exile in Christ Stopped at Eboli and he was one of the first writers to address the complex and specific cultural dimension of Southern Italy, their spells and superstitions, depicting a world which was unkown to the majority of Italians at the time.

[8] Rocco Scotellaro was a poet from Lucania whose entire work was published after his early death aged 30, mostly due to the discovery and editorial commitment of Carlo Levi. His poems are collected in The Dawn Is Always New, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

[9] Pier Paolo Pasolini was highly receptive of de Martino’s research. The emphasis de Martino put on the weight of utterance, of speech, of oral culture in the shaping of the Lament, and his insistence on the fact that such form is not to be seen as a crucible of silent literary texts but as an act ingrained in a rituality of gestures, of facial expressions, of sounds and rhythms, prompted a number of reflections in Pasolini’s work for films such as La ricotta (1963). While he was editing the collection of poems Italian Songbook, he chose to include four chants from Lucania – the same region where he would shoot The Gospel According to St. Matthew –belonging to de Martino’s studies published prior to Death and Ritual Lament.

[10] Benedetto Croce was one of the most prominent Italian philosophers and leading Italian intellectuals between the late 19th and the 20th century. His theories of historicism, idealism, literary criticism and aesthetics influenced a generation of Italian thinkers, including de Martino.

[11] Pietro Citati, La morte nel mondo antico, Il Punto. 4 October 1958, p.15.

[12] Luigi M Lombardi Satriani, Letizia Bindi (eds.), Ernesto de Martino. Panorami e spedizioni, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002, p.122.

[13] Ernesto de Martino, ‘Introduzione’, La terra del rimorso, Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2009, p. 40.

[14] Ibid., p. 42.

[15] Ernesto De Martino, Sud e magia, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2010, p. 127.

[16] Ibid., pp. 111-112.

[17] Ernesto de Martino, La fine del mondo, edited by Clara Gallini, Torino: Einaudi, 1977/2002.

[18] Clara Gallini. ‘Presentazione’. In E. de Martino, La terra del rimorso, op. cit., p. 33.

8 Comments to “Magic, Ritual, Lament: Ernesto de Martino”

  1. Another layer for you. Nestled close to my copy of your En Abime in my bag all week has been ‘Dangerous Voices-Women’s Laments and Greek Literature’ by Gail Holst-Warhaft. I know her from her book ‘Road To Rembetika’ but I had never heard of Ernesto de Martino before – probably because as you point out he has never been translated and he is not mentioned at all in her book maybe for the same reason?

    • Thank you Mike! I’m sure you can read his books in Italian. Try ‘Death and Ritual Lament’ and ‘South and Magic’. I’m currently delving into his huge collection of fragments, posthumous, entitled ‘The End of the World’. I’ll let you know…

  2. Hello, please know that the following translations of de Martino are available in English: La terra del rimorso (The Land of Remorse), and – coming very soon – Sud e magia (Magic: A Theory from the South). Unfortunately the existing translation of Il Mondo magico (Primitive Magic) is not very helpful.

    • Hello Dorothy, many thanks for these. When is Sud e Magia going to be translated – and which publisher? I’d love to find out more. Are you planning to translate Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico? That book for me is seminal. Thank you so much for getting in touch.

      • Ciao Daniela! I came to this page for a review of A Theory From the South, after finding it at a bookstore this weekend. What a pleasure to find a link between you and de Martino (and even between de Martino and Pier Paolo Pasolini!). The publisher is HAU, through University of Chicago press: . They published an excellent translation of Favret-Saada’s also.

      • Hello Amelia, how nice to hear from you! Yes, De Martino’s writings and investigations are very dear to me – his latest work, unfinished and posthumous, about the End of The World, is always a great prompt. And the whole research on Magic in the South is extremely significant. Let’s be in touch via email soon. Daniela

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