Why Italians grab their crotches to ward off bad luck.

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March 4 2008 5:36 PM

Can't Touch This

Why Italians grab their crotches to ward off bad luck.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Italy's highest appeals court ruled that a 42-year-old workman broke the law by "ostentatiously touching his genitals through his clothing" and must pay a 200 euro fine, the Telegraph reported Friday. The U.K. paper also noted that crotch-grabbing is a common habit among superstitious Italian males, who believe the gesture wards off bad luck. What does the crotch have to do with luck?

It's the seat of fertility. The crotch grab goes back at least to the pre-Christian Roman era and is closely associated with another superstition called the "evil eye"—the belief that a covetous person can harm you, your children, or your possessions by gazing at you. Cultural anthropologists conjecture that men would try to block such pernicious beams by shielding their genitals, thus protecting their most valued asset: the future fruit of their loins. Over the centuries, the practice shifted. Men covered their generative organs not only to defend against direct malevolence but also in the presence of anything ominous, like a funeral procession.

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These days, an Italian man might also grab his crotch in risky situations, like a high-stakes poker game. In such cases, the grab isn't a defense mechanism against bad luck but rather a way to generate good luck. Once again, this practice relates to the folk belief that the phallus is auspicious because it's the source of masculinity and reproduction.

As an alternative to grabbing themselves, Italians sometimes resort to phallic amulets or gestures that also have roots in the pagan world. Ancient Romans wore a phallus-shaped charm on their wrists or around their necks called the fascinus; modern Italians sometimes wear a corno, which is shaped like a horn. For centuries, Italians have been making a horizontal horn sign called the mano cornutato repel adversity, accomplished by extending the index and little fingers while holding down the other two fingers with the thumb. When the same gesture is directed upward, it's the sign for a cuckold.

The crotch grab or corno might come in handy when Italians come across traditional bad omens, like nuns or the number 17. Women of the cloth are associated with two inauspicious places—cemeteries and hospitals. There are a couple of plausible theories for the 17 superstition: If the 1 is penciled in slightly below the 7, then the number looks a bit like a man hanging, where 1 is the man and 7 is the gallows. Written out in Roman numerals as XVII, 17 becomes an anagram for the Latin word vixi, which is the past tense of to live. * As it happens, many tomb inscriptions start with vixi, so the word and, by extension, 17 became connected with death.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanksTeodolinda Barolini of Columbia University, Pellegrino D'Acierno of Hofstra University, andMartin Stiglio of the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.

Correction, March 4, 2008: This article originally stated that the Latin word vixi is the past tense of to leave. It's actually the past tense of to live. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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