“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa”.-Italo Calvino
You are walking in a small city in the South of Italy, the sunshine is gentle, a delicate breeze hugs you and the road is filled with the aroma of the lemons, that surround the area like the most beautiful shiny crown. Nothing can spoil this moment, life is sweet.
The houses and buildings are pretty much old, but their age is not a sign weakness, quite the opposite: you wonder what these walls had the chance to see in these years, how many generations have lived there, and why there is a menacing face on the wall staring at you. Yes, you read that correctly, at the entrance of most of the buildings,there is a scary mask representing demons, monsters, spirits or gorgons like Medusa. In such a religious country like Italy, it is quite surprising that this tradition has its pagan roots in the Greek and Roman times, when people used to “scare away” evil entities by putting these guardians, called apotropaic masks, at the entrance of every building. The word apotropaic derives from Greek αποτρέπειν “to ward off” from από- “away” and τρέπειν “to turn”, and it is a type of magic that uses frightening symbols or entities to get protection against the evil eye or malignant energies. Obviously, the scariest masks are the most powerful, so these monsters are depicted with their tongues out, or growling, in order to appear even more threatening.
One of the most used masks is Medusa, one of the three gorgons according to Greek Mythology. Medusa is usually described as a woman with venomous snakes in place of her hair. Those who looked into Medusa’s eyes would turn into a stone, so Perseus beheaded her and used her head (that would still maintain its power) as a weapon to petrify his enemies.
Even in modern times, there are still some people that have apotropaic masks, usually made of terracotta, hanging at their door. It is believed that if a guest is annoyed by the mask, or feels uncomfortable, they shouldn’t be allowed inside the house.
These scary guardians are so fascinating, that in the last decades it has become quite common to wear them as jewellery: rings, necklaces, earrings – they are so beautifully made, that even those people that don’t believe in evil eye would wear these little pieces of art!