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Friday, August 10, 2012

The Old Mafia

On August 28, Breathless Press will release the second books in my Tour Director Extraordinaire romantic suspense series titled ALL FOR A FIST FULL OF ASHES. This spy intrigue takes place in Italy where the hero, Will Talbot (Europol spy and special cover operative for the US government) and heroine, Harriet Ruby (tour director extraordinaire) have a brush with a Mafia family in Sicily. So I thought I’d talk a little about the Sicilian Mafia.


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 pretty much a crime organization.

Second, the Old Sicilian Mafia until WWII was quite a different organization than the one we hear about today. That organization rules related to honor and respect…just enough killing to cast fear in the hearts of the people.

Sicily gave birth to what we know as The Mafia, the Black Hand. When and how, exactly, no one quite knows for sure, but there are lots of theories.

Some believe it was a secret society created in medieval times to protect the Sicilians from the Catalan marauders of the fifteenth century. Others assert that it was formed at the end of Feudalism when the feudal lords left their lands under the charge of local managers (Gabelloti) who mistreated and intimidated the workers on the estates. They employed local intermediaries who are likened to the later the Mafia bosses.

    Location Map of Sicily

The most accepted theory is that because, over the centuries, Sicily was conquered by everyone (the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, bandits), this system came into being as a way of life, a way to protect one's family and loved ones from the injustice of the foreign governments who provided little projection or justice to the native Sicilians. Personally, I believe the theories aren’t mutually exclusive.

There is nothing mysterious about the spirit of the old 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) was considered dishonorable. 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.

It is also generally accepted by historians who specialize in the culture of Sicily, that the Mafia, the crime organization, was the result of the backwardness and isolation of Sicilians and the bad governments which ruled the island for many centuries.

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 12 years, the fish market in Torre Faro has the same umbrella and the same woman working there. Not much change.
Fish market in Torre Faro 1972               The same fish market in 1984

In my opinion, the real progress toward a modern western-world life style wasn’t evident until the mid-eighties. Now, it pretty well caught up in the cities. The countryside may be less so, but there are satellite dishes and cell phone everywhere, even in the remote areas.


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. And that organization is found 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 that are described as the reasons 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 that is used to admire the sort of beauty that is 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 has 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 part of the crime organization. However a real Mafioso can’t acquire prestige and rise in the organization without being mafioso.

The word Mafioso was first used in relation to crime, with a capital M, in the play The Mafiusi of the Vicaria (which is Palermo’s jail) by Giuseppe Rizzotto circa 1863.

While other people may call men in the organization Mafiosi, it’s not generally used by the organization. They call themselves friends or friends of friends. The organization itself is The Honored Society.


A loose coalition of families is 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 ten people within their group.


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 Mafia we know today.
From Caesar to the Mafia by Luigi Barzini NY Press, 1971
Leonardo Sciascia Il Giorno Della Civetta , A Ciascuno il Suo,
Michele Pantaleone The Mafia and Politics
Danilo Dolci Report from Palermo, Outlaws, Waste
Best of Sicily Magazine (2010) - Origins of the Sicilian Mafia by Filippo Spadafora


Paris said...

Thank you for a very fascinating and informative post. I didn't have any idea that the organization had been evolving for quite so long.

Sandy said...

Thank you for an interesting post.

Anonymous said...

What a bundle of information! I enjoy learning about a country's history and the etymology of their languages.I'd never considered the history of the Mafia so thank you for the insights, Ann.

Mary Corrales said...

Wow, that is quite interesting. Talk about a rich history. Loved the pictures as well.

Great post. :)

jean hart stewart said...

Interesting and informative. Had no idea of some of it....

Janice Seagraves said...

I had no idea of the history of the Mafia. Thank you for the lesson.


Tina Donahue said...

Fascinating blog, Ann. I watched The Godfather triology last weekend. Wow. What a way to live.

Sandy said...

I would like to add, Ann, that Kansas City had quite a Mafia presence in the old days. They may still be here, but they're more low key. Smile!

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