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The albumen of St. John: a curious Italian tradition

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Originally written on June 2020. Updated 2023

John the Baptist is the most depicted saint in art of all centuries. His night has always been considered magical and prodigious, probably because it immediately follows the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its peak on the horizon and gives strength and vigor to all creatures.
The night of St. John is also called the second New Year, very similar to the first for the magical conception and the rituals connected to it, first of all the bonfires.
The difference lies in the contents: if the New Year is pervaded by the awareness that everything in nature is in a state of torpor and the beneficial forces must be propitiated to get it moving again, during the night of St. John nature is in its maximum vigor and it is necessary to avoid that the adverse forces, which manifest themselves in diseases, drought and storms, will spoil all men’s efforts.

There are many rites related to this night, including the so-called “barca di San Giovanni”, “boat of St. John”.
The years pass and the society changes.
Once upon a time, girls of marriageable age waited impatiently for the moment of marriage, an event encouraged and strongly desired also by their families.
In the countryside all over Italy, those girls who dreamed of marriage but still didn’t have a boyfriend, played to imagine him, also giving him a face.
Then, resorting to divinatory practices of ancient popular tradition, the young women tried to guess when the happy event would occur, who their future husband would be and what kind of job he does. The desire was to know in advance how they would live, to reveal what fate had in store for them.
These divination operations, handed down from generation to generation, were known with the name of “mantica amorosa”, roughly translated as “amorous semantics”.
Amorous semantics was an art for women.
Women were the targets of the prediction, and women those who guessed. It consisted in the ability to predict the love future of the reference person, through the reading and interpretation of warning signs and clues. An ability, the interpretative one, in the hands of expert women, generally the oldest in the house.
The forms of amorous semantics were many and different from each other, and they mainly used objects of daily use in the society of the past: the broad beans, the grains of wheat or those of maize, the fig leaves, or the eggs. The latter re the protagonists of a amorous semantics born in the late nineteenth century, which involved eggs and water.

Everything took place on this night, June 23, the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist.
The girls of marriageable age placed a container full of water outside, inside which they had poured an egg white. The following day, in the morning, the container was gently withdrawn and examined, to observe the veils, those floating shapes that the albumen had formed in the water during the night.
If the profile of a “sail” was forming, a wedding was in the offing and the young bride’s detachment from her family would be close. The sail was also a sign of good luck: it predicted the journey, the departure from a birthplace, and it meant that the young woman would travel, perhaps marry a young man from another country or that she would emigrate, especially during the period of great migrations. On the coast, among the fishermen, a sail was a presage of a sailor boyfriend.
A wedding with a sailor or a fisherman on the Adriatic coast was what was predicted by a boat-shaped albumen, while If the profile of a “hoe” formed, a wedding with a farmer would be next. The “anvil” predicted a blacksmith husband, while “pen and book” a cultured husband.
If the egg white had taken on a large shape the young woman was lucky because the future husband would have been rich. On the other hand, if the egg white remained wrapped in on itself, the husband would have been poor. Unfortunately, If the form assumed was that of a “coffin”, then unhappy and painful events were heralded.

It is on this night that the unripe walnuts are collected to make the nocino, the liquor of the witches, but be careful, you have to use a sickle with a wooden blade, never an iron one, otherwise you will attract all the curses of the witches!

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