We all know about "The Mafia" as a crime organization, but unless you've studied the origins of the original Sicilian Mafia, you may have a distorted understanding of where and how it came into being.
TWO POINTS OF IMPORTANCE
First, the Mafia in the US and the Mafia in Sicily are related and have common elements, but they are different. That is, in part, because the American Mafia doesn’t have the direct ties to the history that caused the organization to develop in the first place and change over centuries. It came to the US as a crime organization.
Second, the Old Sicilian Mafia was quite a different organization than the one in Italy we hear about today. Until the early 1800s, the old Sicilian Mafia was a cultural attitude and form of power unique to Sicily. It was a reality which summarized Sicilian values outsiders had difficulty understanding, rather than an organization. That Mafia operated based on a code of rules related to honor and respect, with just enough killing to cast fear in the hearts of the people and keep them in line.
HOW IT CAME INTO BEING
The island of Sicily, off the tip of the Italian Peninsula boot, gave birth to what we know as The Mafia or Cosa Nostra (Our thing). Like everything else, no one quite knows for sure when or how it came into being, but theories abound.
Some historians believe it was a secret society created in medieval times to protect the Sicilians from the Catalan marauders of the fifteenth century. Others assert it was formed at the end of Feudalism when the feudal lords left their lands under the charge of local managers or intermediaries (Gabelloti) who mistreated and intimidated the workers on the estates and are likened to the later Mafia bosses.
According to https://wearepalermo.com/the-history-of-sicilian-mafia/, the Gabellotti “used fear tactics and violence to get protection money from farmers working on properties they managed for the nobility of the time. They are deemed the oldest form of a mafia in Sicily.”
Location Map of Italy - Sicily in Red ▼
Not all historians and Mafia experts accept that theory. Contrary to that opinion, Filippo Spadafora, in an article on http://www.bestofsicily.com contends that “The (retrospective) tales of its establishment during the War of the Sicilian Vespers, or as a revolutionary reaction against foreign domination, are fanciful at best, lacking in any historical foundation.”
When I researched my first novel, set in the post WWII Sicily, I had the opportunity to interview a number of people who grew up and lived in the Sicily that existed before WWII ... people who could still remember the old Sicilian Mafia. Their memories coincided with the most accepted theory about the origins and behavior of the old Mafia. Personally, I believe the theories are not mutually exclusive.
There is nothing mysterious about the spirit of the old Sicilian Mafia. “A man who wanted to preserve his self-respect had to personally defend his dignity and honor without turning to the authorities and the law, especially when the affront to be punished is an open challenge or an unacceptable insult to his family.” (Luigi Barzini) To turn to the law -- which was the conquers’ form of justice, and nearly always against the people who had been conquered -- was considered dishonorable. Whether “The Law” was administered by conquers or native land barons, the common people felt they didn’t get fair treatment and justice.
It was even worse to inform the authorities, hence the imperative of omertà (silence) as a sacred duty. This sense of duty was fueled by the knowledge that anyone who tattled would inevitably end up full of bullet holes behind a prickly pear hedge.
I can personally attest to the backwardness. My husband, whom I met and married in Rome, is Sicilian. We’ve visited his family in Sicily many times over the years. When I first went to his home town of Messina (a traditionally non-Mafia area) in 1963, the attitudes and life style were a good fifty years behind life in Rome. Look at the pictures below. After 9 years, the fish market in Torre Faro has the same umbrella and the same woman working there. Not much change, although she did change her dress. Please excuse the poor quality of the photos. They are rather old.
- Photo taken by me in 1972 ▼ Photo taken by me in 1981▼
WHERE DID THE NAME "MAFIA" COME FROM?
The cultural phenomenon existed on the island long before the word Mafia was attached to it. According to Luigi Barzini, the Mafia is notoriously two things:
● First, common to all Sicily, is the subtle art of promoting one’s interests without killing anybody. That kind should be written with a lower case "m."
● Second, the other -- the Mafia with a capital "M" -- is the fluid organization, the secret, far-reaching elite which governs everything legal and illegal, visible and invisible. This organization is found almost exclusively in the Western and central provinces of the island, not on the eastern side. That has puzzled experts for a long time.
For centuries, the conditions described as the reason the Mafia took root were the same on the western side of the island as the eastern. Yet, the Mafia never took hold eastern coast of Sicily until recent post-WWII history.
The greatest authority on Sicilian folklore, Giuseppe Pitrê believed the word mafioso came from the dialect spoken in the Palermo district of Il Borgo and means beauty or excellence, but also fiery and impatient. It’s a word used to admire the sort of beauty flaunted by a challenge. You could call a high-spirited stallion mafioso.
Others claim the word is of Arabic origin. Both could be true since the Arabs conquered and inhabited Sicily from 826 AD until the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. No doubt Arabic had much influence on the dialects spoken by the Sicilians. Leonardo Sciascia believes the word mafia evolved from the Arab word from Ma afir (place of refuge).
The two mafie are related in an indirect way. Someone can be mafioso, but not Mafioso, meaning the person is not part of the crime organization. However a real Mafioso can’t acquire prestige and rise in the organization without being mafioso.
The word Mafioso, with a capital "M", was first used in relation to crime, in a play entitled The Mafiusi of the Vicaria (which is Palermo’s jail) by Giuseppe Rizzotto circa 1863. While other people may have called men in the organization Mafiosi, it was not generally used by the organization. They called themselves friends or friends of friends. The organization itself is The Honored Society. That terminology persisted in Sicily up to WWII.
The organization is familial, consisting of a loose coalition of families called a cosca, which means the heart of an artichoke. The activities of these families must never clash with the interests of other cosche, or armed conflict will take place. A Consorteria is the alliance of various cosche (coalitions of families). Ultimately, Consorteria form a fine network that encompasses every activity is Sicily. It has survived, in part, because each member knows only the authority immediately above and the ten people within their group.
AFTER WWII, WHO PUT THE MAFIA BACK IN POWER?
The Mafia has always aided every successful revolution (including the Bourbons, Garibaldi in 1860, and Mussolini) because the organization can't afford to be on the losing side.
Even though the Mafia helped the Fascists gain power, under Mussolini the organization was repressed and nearly wiped out. The society lost prestige and power, their fundamental assets. But the big bosses didn't panic. They waited as they had waited at other points in history. Their day came again in 1943 when "the newly landed Americans named most of the Mafia leaders mayor of their towns and villages: they were all officially classified as political victims of the Fascist tyranny." (Luigi Barzini)
After that, the old Mafia began to disappear, replaced by urban, well-dressed, well-traveled, educated and slick operators who are ruthless and money hungry…the crime organization Mafia we know today.
From Caesar to the Mafia by Luigi Barzini NY Press, 1971
Il Giorno Della Civetta , A Ciascuno il Suo, by Leonardo Sciascia,
The Mafia and Politics by Michele Pantaleone
Report from Palermo, Outlaws, Waste by Danilo Dolci
Origins of the Mafia - http://the-mafia.weebly.com/mafia-origins.html
History of Sicily and the Origins of the Mafia-http://www.umich.edu/%7Ethemafia/RevisedHistory.htm
Mafia Word Origins http://www.sicilianculture.com/mafia/mafiawords.htm
Best of Sicily Magazine (2010) - Origins of the Sicilian Mafia by Filippo Spadafora