Sunday, August 29, 2010

Inquiry, Search, Results, Applications


The Problem:

While cleaning out some of my fathers, miscellaneous possessions, I found the item pictured above. Since I inherited dad's curious mind, along with material odds and ends, I set myself the task of learning more about these bits of metal.


  • appears old
  • made of metal, possibly silver
  • number 13
  • 6 charms (hand with pinkie & forefinger extended; heart; bottle?; basket with flowers?; shell; purse with flower design) and space or empty chains for 7 more charms
  • Italian heritage

Educated guesses:
  • superstition involved because of the number 13
  • dated from at least the 1940s, judging from the other things in the same bag
  • possibly had some sentimental value


The people most likely to have personal knowledge of this curious trinket, my grandparents, father, and godmother, are no longer with us. I'll eventually check with my younger uncles, but, for now, I decided to press ahead on my own.

Since "13" is a number with a lot of superstitious connotations, I started with keywords like "Italian superstitions" "Italian charms" "Italian amulets." Within a relatively short time, I came across the term cimaruta (Chee-Mah-Roo-Tah). After that, my search was easy and profitable.


What I Learned:

  • The Italian concept of lucky and unlucky numbers is different from other parts of the world. Some older Italian Americans still hold the belief of lucky 13, especially when gambling
  • The Cimaruta is an very old charm rooted in Italian folklore. It is used for protection from the bad luck or the evil eye. Cimaruta or cima di ruta means ‘spring of rue’ and the branches of the charm are the branches of that most sacred plant.
  • The Cimaruta of today is evolved from ancient Etruscan amulets; historical uses are as protective charms against malevolent magic, witchcraft, and the evil eye, especially for infants.
  • The Neopolitan (both of my father's parents were from the Naples area) custom was to make charms of silver and blood coral since these two materials were sacred to the Moon Goddess (Luna/Diana) and to the Goddess of the Sea, Venus
  • The hand gesture known as the mano cornuta wards off the Evil Eye by extending only the pinkie and index finger like a pair of horns and pointing it down.
  • One example of a Christian addition to the design is the appearance of "the sacred heart" of Jesus. However, ancient Roman charms did include a heart symbol, which may indicate that the heart on the cimaruta is a later Christianization as opposed to an entirely new creation.
  • Vervain flower blossom represents protection; a vervain blossom, in Italian lore is connected to fairy lore (and folklorist Charles Leland refers to Diana as the queen of the fairies)
What I Surmise:
  • Since my father was never (overtly) superstitious, I would venture a guess that he was given this charm by a friend or relative
  • Alternately, it could have belonged to a family member and was cherished by dad as a memento
  • At first, I thought this protective amulet might have been intended to protect a soldier in battle; however, after learning more about the traditions associated with cimaruta, I wonder if it were meant to safeguard a baby
  • This Cimaruta varies from the traditional design; it may have been an inexpensive lucky piece for a gambler


I love to learn about the extras in life: family history, homey artifacts, local lore. In a school setting, inquiry-based and authentic learning makes classes more meaningful to students, empowering them to extend their experiences while acquiring "real" information.

Buffy Hamilton had her ninth graders research their surnames on Students might also be challenged to learn more about a family heirloom, local landmark, historic photo, etc.

The possibilities are endless.

"Cimaruta" by dmcordell
"Cimaruta amulet" from SymbolDictionary


teacherninja said...


diane said...

Thanks, Jim! I love to find things out - it makes the world a much more textured, nuanced place in which to live. Surely our students would feel the same way, give the chance to move beyond busy work.

Stephen Roques said...

I actually gave Vincenza (My sisters Daughter) a sterling silver coral pendant when see was born for its symbolism and its connection with our heritage. So I for one am in line with your guesswork.