The Mafia in Sicily

Sicily Week

Book Cover The Honoured Society by Norman Lewis

Destination: Sicily

Book: The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed, by Norman Lewis (Original-1964 with postscript added in 1984; reviewed edition 2003.)

If you were playing word-association, Sicily-Mafia might be your first reaction. The Honoured Society seems to me to be a perfect addition to a library of travel literature– if you read it along with Seeking Sicily to understand that region of Italy. You will find many of the same themes in the two books.

Norman Lewis is best known as an outstanding travel writer. (See my review of Naples ’44). But his first wife was Swiss-Sicilian, and her father, an exile from Sicily, belonged to the Mafia. Thus began Lewis’ interest in the honoured society. His book benefits from personal experience and meticulous research in addition to Lewis’ skills as a wordsmith. Think how much he enhances the following paragraph, which could have been a dry list of facts.

“In this world one occasionally stumbles upon a place which, in the physical presence, and the atmosphere it distills, manages somehow to match its reputation for sinister happenings.  Such a town is Corleone.  A Total of 153 murders took place between 1944 and 1948 alone.” (This in a town of 18,000.)

Like John Keahey, in Seeking Sicily, Lewis traces the characteristics of Sicilian history back through its many conquerors.
Etna & Farmhouse

Like Keahey, Lewis says, “Sicily is not Italy.”  He goes on, “nor–with the exception of the spas, the palms, and the mimosas of its eastern seaboard–is it even recognizably a Mediterranean country.”

Although the Mafia’s first appearance may not be clearly marked in a timeline of history, there is no question that the Spanish Inquisition, while Sicily sat under the thumb of Spain, played a large part. Since the Inquisition not only punished, but confiscated property, the aristocrats enthusiastically joined the Inquisition, both to enrich themselves and to protect their property. For 300 years, in the 15th-18th centuries, property was taken in this way.  The Mafia became the protector of the poor by the only avenue open to them–vendetta.

Part of the delight of reading Lewis lies in his ability to make amazing and detailed connections. He traces the fatalism and vendettas of the Sicilian culture back to African tribal rituals and to the desert tribes of Arab lands. Remember the horse’s head at the beginning of  The Godfather? African tribal rituals included depositing of a beheaded dog or sheep on an enemies doorstep.

“Without realizing it, they have killed each other as far back as anybody can remember, and still kill each other, not so much out of bloodthirsty sentiment, but from economic necessity.  There has never been enough to go around, so the vendetta becomes a device for keeping down the population.”

Devotional Candles

The Mafia’s survival has depended upon an agility in adapting to economic circumstances.  In the early days, serious money could be made in manufacturing phony religious relics and selling the seats in church and devotional candles. But land was the real base of operations.Feudal systems survived in Sicily long after the Middle Ages died in the rest of Europe. The land-holding aristocracy utilized the Mafia as protectors of the land and enforcers and later to ensure votes for conservative politicians. A rupture developed when the land-holders decide it is in their best interest to support Mussolini who set out to destroy the Mafia.

New allies popped up with World War II. Because the Mafia were anti-Mussolini, the United States army enlisted them to help defeat the Italians. Imported American gangster Lucky Luciano was given authority, and the brotherhood’s business practices turned to controlling the black market  (with American support) and, after the war, to Luciano’s favorite business–heroin. The traditional Mafia leaders in Italy would not support his other business–prostitution. That was not honourable in their eyes.

I was amazed to learn that after the war when Sicily struggled with the question of their relationship to a newly independent Italy, the Mafia leaders favored becoming the 49th state of the United States. (Hawaii and Alaska had not yet joined the U. S.)

The Mafia power through alliances that had lasted for centuries began to crack in the 1960’s and the postscripts to the book describe the rather pessimistic scene in the early 1980’s.  Today, according to John Keahey, in Seeking Sicily,  the Mafia has been reduced from a powerful organization that dominates Sicily to more or less independent outlaws, no longer supported by church, state and journalists. However, a website calledMafia Today recently ran an article stating that the Sicilian Mafia is the most successful business in Italy today in the face of economic disaster for  legitimate business. It seems it will never end. At least the Mafia wars no longer threaten travelers and it is once more safe to book your travel to Sicily.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our week in Sicily.  If you’d like to read some contemporary travel experiences on the island, check Hecktic Travels blog for their series on Sicily; Travel Solo for top things to do in Sicily and Joe’s Trippin’ about Southern Sicily.

More reading on Sicily: [Note 12/14.2012:My apologies, Adrian V. Cole and these two books have disappeared from the Internet. Anyone have a clue to the mystery?]

 I Siciliana by Adrian Cole–travels with the Mafia in Sicily.

The same author writes about Norman Lewis in Italy and Spain in Tender Beginner: A Twentieth Century Witness. He says of Lewis’ relationship to Sicily:

“…a life-long attachment to the island, its people and its problems, and in the tradition of the greatest of writers, what is left after the descriptions and the anecdotes and the details is a sense not just of place, but more importantly of the human relationships which underwrite the whole endeavor of being a traveler, and dependent on the generosity of strangers. “

Is Mafia the first thing YOU think of when you hear Sicily? Would it concern you enough that you might not travel to Sicily?

Disclaimers: The links to Amazon make it easier for you to purchase books, however because A Traveler’s Library is an affiliate of Amazon, we earn a few cents for every purchase–even though it does not cost you any more.  All Pictures here come from Flickr with Creative Commons license. Click on picture to learn more.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “The Mafia in Sicily

  1. Vera – thanks so much for the shout-out, but more importantly, the details of this book. New kindle is being delivered this weekend and you can bet this will be the first book on it!

  2. This has been very fascinating- as it is a topic and a place I know very little about. I’ve learned so many facts and details I had no idea of before. The interesting bit of information of how there was even a thought of becoming the 49th state- was intriguing. I wonder how that would have worked with geographic distance etc. Just the thought of it being considered makes it fascinating indeed.

    1. Connie: I was really struck by the 49th state thing. Who knew? Yes, that is quite a distance, but then I guess at one times the U.S. got all Imperial and thought of making the Philipines a state.

  3. I don’t think mafia would keep me from going there. It’s funny how when a lot of us envision the mafia, we forget that it continues today to be a strong presence in some places. I would hope that tourists are usually left alone.

  4. This book sounds great. My great grandparents immigrated to the US from Sicily. Would love to go find my roots there some day!

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