The Sicilian Mafia
For some people, the mere mention of the name “Mafia” paints a portrait in the subconscious of burly or corpulent, thuggish-looking men, with peppered or jet black hair, a scar somewhere on their face, dressed in black or gray pinstriped suits garnished with a flower in their lapel, a fedora cocked angularly over their brow, their necks and fingers decorated in gold jewelry, and carrying a briefcase or any means of transportation for weapons or money. This image is typically cliché of the average early 20th century gangster found in big cities such as New York City and Chicago, and of those individuals found in classic films such as “The Godfather” and “Scarface”. So then, what is, or who are, the “Mafia?” From where did they come? What did they do? Where are they now? To truly understand what the Mafia is and represents, one must travel back in time, centuries ago, where the word, and the people associated, are rooted from an area known widely for its bountiful history of arts, war, and honor – Sicily, Italy.
A thorough understanding of what the Mafia consists of would not be complete without an understanding of the Sicilian concepts of “vendetta” and “omerta.” The Italian word vendetta is rooted in the Latin vindicta meaning “revenge.” A more modern equivalent would be violent and vengeful “pay back”. The vendetta was often a prolonged series of retaliatory, hostile acts in exchange for previous violent acts, such as an “eye for an eye” concept or otherwise known as lex taliones. In ancient times, when enforcement of law by reliable authorities was virtually unknown, families would often take matters in their own hands, and exact “payment” or revenge for a wrong-doing by another by means of vendetta, often by employing violence, to include murder, to redress their grievance and restore honor to the injured group or family. Equally important in understanding what Mafia is about, is the Italian concept of “omerta.” In its present day usage, omerta is simply a “code of silence,” much like the Blue Curtain of Secrecy employed by law enforcement or omissions of knowledge that friends will utilize if a comrade is accused of a crime. Historically, however, the root meaning of this Italian word is “manliness,” not unlike the Spanish concept of “machismo,” which is considered an integral part, if not the very core value, behind the “code of honor.” It was in 13th century Sicily that such “men of honor” organized themselves to drive out foreign invaders, and were willing to kill, if necessary. Protecting the identities of their brothers in the event of capture, these “men of honor” invoked omerta, a code of silence, by refusing to provide governing authorities any information. The concept of omerta, then, served to provide a modicum of protection for the remaining body of those “men of honor.” No one is certain of the enigmatic origins of the name given to groups of organized criminals from Italy, and the word itself had been long debated. One theory takes place during the time in the middle ages when the island of Sicily was plagued by foreign invaders, particularly by the French Angevins, who imposed unfair taxes upon the Sicilians. Rising up against their oppressors, several numbers of male citizens, who later came to be called “men of honor,” banded together to overthrow the French, while shouting, “Morte alla Francia Italia anelia!” Translated, the phrase means: “Death to the French is Italy’s cry!” Taking the first letter from each word in this Italian phrase, the word “M-a-F-I-a!” was created. Another theory thought to be true is that the word “Mafia” was created in 1282 when an enraged group of Sicilian “men of honor” struck back against a French soldier, killing him in retaliation for raping a Palermo girl on her wedding day. Taking away a young woman’s virginity before it is given to her spouse is a heinous crime, and during this era, was punishable by death. As...
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