Bodies of Vital Matter
Notions of Life Force and Transcendence
in Traditional Southern Italy

- by Per Binde -

This page presents Bodies of Vital Matter
- a book of interest to anthropologists as well as to scholars
in Italian and Mediterranean culture -


An anthropological study of Italian culture
Bodies of Vital Matter presents an innovative study that explores folk beliefs relating to the vital force of the human body and to the transcendence of the corporal. The time frame is the period from the unification of Italy to the Second World War.

There are three principal themes of investigation. A first theme is loss of vital force believed to result from the influence of other persons and beings. Topics discussed in this context are folk medicine and ideas concerning the humours of the human body, as well as beliefs relating to "thefts" of mother’s milk, the evil eye, blood-sucking witches and the harmful influences of menstruating women.

A second theme is imageries of how life energy can be replenished from external sources. Here the focus is on popular cults of grace-giving martyrs and saints, on rural sanctuaries that connect with creative natural forces, and on the celebration of Easter and the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Roman Catholic Mass.

The third principal theme is the denial of death as expressed in practices of entombment and by ideas about regeneration of new life from death; among the topics discussed are death and burial practices, the celebration of All Souls Day, and natural symbols of renewal and rebirth.


[Above: Mummified corpses at the old capuchin cemetery in Palermo. Photo by the author.]


Bodies of Vital Matter is based on data extracted from a comprehensive body of texts written by South Italian ethnographers and folklorists in the decades around the turn of the century, complemented by the author’s field observations in contemporary Italy. Interpretative social anthropology constitutes the theoretical framework.

The comparision of customs and beliefs from hundreds of South Italian villages and towns reveals patterns of cultural meaning that could hardly be discerned in a study focusing on a single local community. The systemic cultural approach used in the study has a remarkable power of explanation. A wide variety of seemingly unrelated beliefs, practices and myths are shown to be generated by a core set of cultural presuppositions.

Features of social organization are crucial to the interpretation of the ethnography. In particular, various forms of reciprocity in social interaction are seen as fundamental in shaping ideas about transference of vital force, both between individuals and from divine beings to human beings. The notion of la famiglia as a social unit of paramount importance is a key to the understanding of representations of corporal transcendence and family continuity.

[Left: Pilgrims honouring the Maddona dell'Arco, Sant'Anastasia. Photo by the author.]

Awarded an international prize
In 2001 Bodies of Vital Matter was awarded the Pitré Prize (Giuseppe Pitrč - Salvatore Salomone Marino International Prizes for Demo-ethno-anthropological Studies). It received the prize in the category of Best work on Italian folklore. The Pitrč Prize was annually given by the Centro Internazionale di Etnostoria of Palermo, in cooperation with a number of academic organisations and the City of Palermo. The award was based on the judgement of an international jury composed of scholars in anthropology, ethnology and folklore. The jury concluded that Bodies of Vital Matter is a "well-documented and detailed work" and that it offers "an innovative 'reading' of the duality of immanence-transcendence as a fundamental category in the complex system of collective representations"

Read a newspaper article about the 2001 edition of the Pitrč Prize (in Italian).
Read a newspaper notice on the Pitrč Prize (in Swedish).


Salvatore Salomone Marino and Giuseppe Pitrč - pioneers in Italian ethnography


Per Binde receives the Pitrč Prize - Best work on Italian folklore – in the Sala Giallo, Palazzo di Normanni, Palermo 2001.



About the author
Per Binde is associate professor of social anthropology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. His current research interest is social and cultural aspects of gambling (see

[Left: Interior of street shrine in Naples dedicated to the anime purganti - the suffering souls in purgatory. Photo by the author.]




How to order
To order the paperback edition of Bodies of Vital Matter, contact your bookseller or:

Box 222
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Price: SEK 190.00 excl. VAT and freight.

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Bibliographic information
Binde, Per. 1999. Bodies of Vital Matter: Notions of Life Force and Transcendence in Traditional Southern Italy. (Gothenburg Studies in Social Anthropology 14.) Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis. 300p. Paper. ISBN 91-7346-351-5. Distributed by: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Box 222, SE 405 30, Göteborg, Sweden.

[Keywords: social anthropology, Italy, symbolism, cosmology, Roman Catholicism, social organization, vitality, folk medicine, burial practices, death, cult of saints, the evil eye, witches.]
Copyright text and photographs: Per Binde 1999-2018