An Introduction to Ernesto de Martino’s Relevance for the Study of Folklore
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An Introduction to Ernesto de Martino’s Relevance for the Study of Folklore
Dorothy Louise Zinn, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology (bio)

with the aim of addressing some current themes in folkloristics by way of recovering a figure lost to a certain academic ethnocentrism and historical amnesia, this Special Issue of Journal of American Folklore presents contemporary, original research that has been variously inspired by the Italian scholar Ernesto de Martino (1908–1965). Given the paucity of available English translations of his work, several previous attempts to draw attention to de Martino—in particular, the numerous essays by George Saunders (Saunders 1984, 1993, 1995, 1998)—have had scanty effect in making his thought current (or enabling him to wield an adequate “impact factor,” as we present-day academics might be inclined to conceive it); even those colleagues with a good grasp of Italian may have found themselves discouraged by de Martino’s rather opaque language and heterogeneous theoretical references. In any case, de Martino has been virtually ignored until now even by many Anglophone folklorists and anthropologists working in Italy,1 or, at most, he has only been cited by them en passant as someone who has worked on objects of interest for folkloristics such as magic, funeral lament, and tarantism, without really directly engaging his innovative analytical frameworks and sophisticated theorizing.

In the most literal sense, de Martino’s career ended with his premature death in 1965, and yet through the years, he has continued to be enormously productive, not only due to the fact that a plethora of posthumous materials have been published from the de Martino Archives—a veritable treasure trove—and his classic works have also been re-issued in new editions, but also in that de Martino’s oeuvre has been increasingly enjoying a revival in precisely the sort of research that we are presenting in this Special Issue, due to his profound and prescient theorizing of many subjects that have come to garner the interest of researchers in both anthropology and folkloristics over the past two decades.2 Although this brief introduction cannot do justice to the many nuances, complexities, and turns in the development of de Martino’s thought—which is still subject to extensive debate by his exegetes (or, as an American colleague recently quipped to me, his acolytes)—I aim here to sketch a minimal background to his remarkable work in order to contextualize the contributions that follow. The most salient points I will raise have to do with de Martino’s study of magic; his relationship to Marxism, especially (but not only) as interpreted through [End Page 3] the work of Antonio Gramsci, which also yielded his notion of “progressive folklore”; his engagement with phenomenological and existentialist thought; and his anticipation of the themes of performance and embodiment. Without attempting to venture beyond these topics into still other facets of de Martino’s corpus, I believe that the reader will at least begin to get a sense of both the profundity of this scholar and his present-day timeliness.3

De Martino never defined himself as a folklorist, but rather as an ethnologist or a historian of religion. The latter ascription harkens back to his training and studies in Naples and found a fruitful application in his studies of funeral lament, Lucanian magic, and Apulian tarantism; the appellative “ethnologist” instead reflects his attention to those “people without history” (to use the famous expression by Eric Wolf 1982), as he moved from the armchair study of, say, “primitive” religion (de Martino 1941) or the magical world of the Tungus shaman (de Martino 1948), to field research among the Southern Italian peasantry. Today, de Martino is considered one of the founding figures of contemporary Italian cultural anthropology: indeed, a number of commentators have deemed him “the Italian Lévi-Strauss.” De Martino distinguished his work from criminological anthropology (the so-called “racial science” that was an outgrowth of Cesare Lombroso’s influential school), Italian “colonial ethnology” (cf. Angelini 2008:21), and—most pointedly for our discussion here—from Italian folkloristics (demologia), as represented in a dominant approach whose seminal figure was Giuseppe Pitrè. Although de Martino, like Pitrè and other folklorists in...