When anyone thinks of honor, the mafia is sure to be a major dwelling point. Due to Hollywood movies and over-romanticized tales, people think that the mafia is a group of men obsessed with money, how to obtain it, and how to obtain it honorably. This is not an entirely inaccurate assessment of the mafia. However, it begs the question: how did the mafia view and define honor, and how does that compare with other honor societies in the same area? First I will examine exactly what the mafia was, what it did, how it operated and how one became a member. Primary evidence exists thanks to recent betrayals of the unwritten honor code that has recently been broken more and more as trials of mafiosi: members of the mafia, have become more common and public. Second I will use primary and secondary sources to simply and effectively break down this unwritten code and explain it. The fact is, although unwritten, the honor code of the Sicilian mafia was extensive and held the utmost importance in the eyes of the members of the group. It was a mafiosi’s primary concern to uphold this code of honor. It is through this extreme and self imposed code of honor, that is, an amplified version of normal conduct in the region with increased penalties, that the mafia was able distinguish themselves from common criminals and thus justify their delinquency and rationalize their wrong-doings as acts of honor, and this is how they were different than common criminals in their area, and other groups in the same part of the world.
The Mafiosi saw their honor as the most important thing in their lives. They were more concerned with being honorable men, and distancing themselves from common street thugs who may be misconstrued as being part of their group. The difference was not so much in the crimes that were committed, but how and against whom they were. The mafia is a secret society made up of so-called “men of honor.” To be in this group, also known as the Cosa Nostra, one had to uphold the group’s ideas about what it meant to be honorable, and what it meant to lose that honor, to be shamed. It was because the Cosa Nostra saw itself as a group of honorable men that they took such care in cultivating within their ranks a sense of this honor and its importance, distancing themselves, in their eyes, from common street thugs. Antonino Calderone, a former mafiosi whose story of his Cosa Nostra experience was published by Pino Arlacchi, apologizes for, “the distinction [he] draws between the mafia and common criminals, but it matters…. We are men of honor, and not so much because we have taken an oath, but because we are the elite of the criminal world. We’re vastly superior to common criminals. We’re worse than everybody!”[i] The case in point of his distinction is illustrated perfectly in Calderone’s explanation of prostitution. “It’s an unclean activity,”[ii] moreover, he relates a story in which a man who was the brother of two mafiosi, as well as a son and a nephew of mafiosi and was never admitted, “precisely because it was said that he was a pimp.”[iii] This story shows how fervently the honor of the group was guarded. This man was not officially a pimp, but people had heard something to that effect, and that was enough to keep him out of the Cosa Nostra. Arlacchi gives another example, which also illustrates the prevalence of violence, where the son of a prostitute was, “killed by a group of young men…. The youths had made the child their target in a shooting competition.”[iv] Even the offspring of unclean individuals were not respected.
A code of honor is a complicated and almost unexplainable entity for most groups who are concerned with it. There are a lot of little things that one could only understand by being raised in or around that group, or by intense anthropological study. However, on the surface, the honor codes of the Cosa Nostra of the twentieth century strongly resemble those of other groups from the Mediterranean. The Greek Cypriots, studied by J.G. Peristiany in essay, “Honour and Shame in a Cypriot Highland Village,” which appeared in the book that he edited entitled Honour and Shame [v]were somewhat different than the Cosa Nostra: the men of the village are born there, and so have no choice but to participate in the honor struggle. This is also true for the Greek men described by Gallant[vi] and the Turks described by Eck[vii], they do not enter into their honor societies by choice, they are born into them.
Since there was a specific set of understood behaviors that every mafiosi had to agree to, this is as close to a definition of the honor code as possible. Every mafiosi, according to Calderone, was sworn to an oath, but there was a prelude to the swearing in; an extensive back history needed to occur before one was even considered for membership. During this time, the virtues needed to be a man of honor were studied, and older men of honor would watch the potential members to make sure that they did indeed possess these qualities in high amounts, and only then were the oaths taken.[viii]
The first and most important things according to Calderone were cleverness, ruthlessness and determination,[ix] through exhibiting these in every day events, a young man could definitely defend his position of power and honor in the Cosa Nostra as well as protecting the group from outsiders. If a young man showed enough of these qualities, he would be considered for membership. The older mafiosi would “let [them] do a few things.”[x] Which is to say, they would let him participate at levels closer and closer to those only occupied by men of honor to test them. Arlacchi echoes this sentiment by saying how much power was dependant on one’s, “ability to emerge victorious- through physical strength and through cunning- in any competition for supremacy.”[xi] That is any competition; be it fighting, games, races, anything that awarded the winner respect was essential to win at any or all cost, or the person who did not try hard enough or was not naturally strong or fast enough would simply not be considered as worthy to join the Cosa Nostra. The real life and pretend situations were necessary to prepare the potential member for the life of serious and potentially fatal contests, that was the lifestyle of the mafiosi which weak people simply could not handle. A propensity for violence is often associated with this particular virtue. In the other Mediterranean groups, this pre-screening was not a possibility because, again, the men joining the groups were entering through birth and not through an oath.
Violence was one way to get power, and to be a successful member of the Cosa Nostra, one needed power to back up his honor and defend his wealth. Without this power, both his money and his honor could be taken from him with violence either by common criminals, or by other mafiosi trying to build their own. There were no rules for these violent meetings. According to Arlacchi, honor bound battles were never popular or widespread. He says, “intermediate kinds of institutional regulation such as the duel never became established.”[xii] Therefore, the violence could occur in any way, shape or form. Even though violent meetings lacked any set or understood rules, there was a general tone of honor to all of them. For instance, Arlacchi tells of a fight that ended in a low level mafiosi wounding a mafia chief. The mafia chief recovers and murders the underling, who was a goat herder. While this may seem reprehensible, for the chief lost the initial battle, it was worth noting for Arlacchi that, “The whole town followed the brave goat-herd’s coffin, and his murderer was in the first row.”[xiii] Even though the man murdered the other out of revenge, he was still a man of honor, and therefore joined the funeral procession of the man who was also of honor, because as everyone knows, with honor comes respect, even for your victims. Conversely, Gallant’s explanation of the Greek knife fight, a local example of honor fights followed the same pattern every time. One man would call another man’s honor into question through a number of channels: either by accusing him of being a cuckold, insulting his daughter, or any other number of things that honor depended on, and they would fight. The fights would be witnessed and refereed by the other people surrounding, usually in a wine shop, and once someone was marked with the other man’s blade the fight was stopped by the onlookers. Gallant hardly mentions any fight ending any other way besides the occasional accidental killing.[xiv] The fact that the Greek group had a pattern for their violence and the mafia did not is another difference between the two, another unique facet of the mafia’s code of honor.
Once the potential mafia members demonstrated their cunning ruthlessness, determination, the penchant for violence, or ability to be violent and their ability to keep it a secret, they would be sent for, and meet at an often times secluded location for the swearing in ceremony which made them men of honor, and introduced them officially to what was expected of them as such. Diego Gambetta cites numerous variations on the central theme of this ceremony, but the general idea is this: a man who is deemed worthy by the older members of the Cosa Nostra using the above as guidelines is brought to a secluded location and officially gets initiated. Blood is drawn from a finger with a sharp object such as a knife or a thorn, and this blood is smeared onto the picture of a saint. The soon to be new member holds this picture in his hands and it is set ablaze while he recites the oath. [xv] The oath is as close as I have come to finding a clear-cut definition of what is expected of a man of honor. This oath and the subsequent definition of honor drawn from it is generally unique to Sicily, although certain points are as general as the word honor, their specific ramifications are indeed idiosyncratic to the Cosa Nostra.
Rule number one as described by Calderone in his first hand account of the initiation ritual was with regards to women.[xvi] This rule has many facets. First of all, it was expected of mafiosi that, “As soon as [they] discovered that a man of honor has touched another’s wife, that man must die.”[xvii] This seems cut and dry. It differs from other honor codes from the Mediterranean in that it involves instant death for the perpetrator. In the Turkish honor codes, it is the wife who dies first to protect the honor of the husband who was cuckolded.[xviii] In Greece, men who suggest the infidelity of another’s wife fight the man whose wife she is regardless of whether or not the man suggesting it says he was the one who she cheated with. To be sure, the violence in Greece comes when one man is the messenger, not necessarily the perpetrator.[xix] However, even with the subtle differences, death is still a common punishment for adultery. Arlacchi makes another observation with regards to infidelity: “feminine honor typically symbolized unbroken family honor,”[xx] indeed along the same lines of most honor societies. However, the reasoning for the reaction is different. “If an outside enemy destroyed it, he gained superiority over his victims, proving himself the more powerful… he showed that he could oblige a member of another group to violate the sacred bonds of loyalty in order to satisfy his own desire.” [xxi] These sexual conquests were not normal in that they challenged the woman’s chastity or faithfulness, but in that they challenged her loyalty to the family, not just her husband. Not surprisingly, the “Blood-vendetta was the obligatory recourse.”[xxii] The woman was killed first by her male relative, and then the man who slept with her was killed. This was the only way to save face in this situation, to show that not only would one not tolerate disloyalty, but to demonstrate that your power was indeed supreme.[xxiii] Elsewhere in the region, no authors mention the concept of sex, either pre-marital, rape, or extramarital with regards to power, only with regards to shame.
Another aspect of honor and its relation to women is the forbidding of homosexuality. Partially because Sicily is a predominantly catholic, however it is definitely worth noting that without a woman and a family one was hard pressed to prove his honor. Those that are homosexual may be forbidden from joining because of the social stereotypes concerning gay men and violence, that is, that they do not have the capacity for it. Norman Lewis describes an event in his book In Sicily: essentially, he is speaking with a professor at the University of Palermo who had a student that was a child of a powerful Sicilian Mafia family. This student was not keen on the life of crime that lay ahead, so he pretended to be a homosexual. Since it was frowned upon in the Cosa Nostra, he was free to pursue whichever career he wished. He was not able to be a man of honor because he lacked the age-old quality of traditional masculinity, and so had no females whose chastity he could protect and therefore had no females from which to draw the feature of honor which would have been afforded to him;[xxiv] for as someone who is shamed becomes less of a man in the eyes of the Cosa Nostra, someone who is not manly to begin with can never be honorable, and can never have the power that is derived from honor.
If a wife or daughter is sleeping around, they bring shame to their family, and violence ensues, but when a wife or daughter does everything right according to the code of honor, there actually can be a positive impact on the group. Calderone tells a story that occurred during a family dispute that resulted in a split and a long-standing rivalry between the estranged sides. Calderone’s brother Giuseppe (Pippo) saw a girl that he was attracted to, found out where she lived and knew the owner of the building, as the owner was a man of honor on the other side of the family split. He told this man’s nephew what his intentions were. The two were married and through this marriage, the rift between the families was closed. Calderone muses on the fortitude of this pairing, “[Mafiosi] from all over Sicily had tried to resolve the conflict, and they had come up with nothing. A marriage, however, settled everything.”[xxv] This is a time-honored tradition in the area, dating as far back as the Roman Republic- where marriages were often used to cement alliances. It was undoubtedly auspicious that this marriage solved major problems, but one can see how honor is not merely a thing that you own and are able to lose, but it can be gained; as long as you follow the rules. Certainly if the two people had sex before the marriage, with the feud that was occurring, more blood would have been shed.
After the first rule of the oath, which is very intricate, there is the second, which is quite simple: essentially, it was do not, under any circumstances go to the press or police. If you do, you will be killed.[xxvi] A secret society’s primary concern is upholding its secrecy, and the mafia is no different. The honor code will mean nothing if everyone can follow it, all the common criminals would, and then the mafia would have no way to set themselves apart from the lowly crooks. This is fairly self-explanatory, but it should also be noted that this appears in a book, which is incredibly ironic as the person who took the oath is most certainly going to the press; it is obvious that Mr. Calderone’s life is in danger. The opposite was true in other locations. In Greece, the men who went through knife fights would often, if not always, stay and wait to be arrested and testify at their own trial. Their way of maintaining honor was to tell the whole story. “This man insulted my wife, we fought with knives, I cut him on the face.” The winner of the fight would once again have the chance to publicly shame the loser, and in so doing gain the group at large’s acknowledgement of his possession of honor.[xxvii]
The third rule is along the same lines as the second: brief and paradoxical; “stealing is forbidden.”[xxviii] It is astounding to learn that this is one of the official decrees of an organized crime society, but Calderone explains a situation where this too was cleared up. A man who was taking the oath with Calderone spoke up when this rule was announced. This man’s profession was a thief. He was told to sit down and wait until it would be explained. The explanation was circular: if you have to steal, steal. If that is how you earn a living, earn your living. Know your victim; do not steal from another member of the Cosa Nostra or his family. “From anyone else, yes.”[xxix]
This is where Calderone and Arlacchi’s accounts seem to differ. The next rule, according to Calderone says fights were to be avoided,[xxx] however I have already discussed the goat-herder’s fight and subsequent murder. Arlacchi describes the goat-herder as a mafiosi, and the mafia chief is most certainly a man of honor. I am inclined to believe Arlacchi more, as his evidence already appears in this essay, or perhaps they both are correct; as the word “avoid” may be taken very literally, and as previously stated, their were no official rules for combat as there were in Greece.
The next two rules are brief and seem like they were tacked on as an afterthought, but are still meant to maintain the secrecy of the Cosa Nostra. “Sober behavior was to be encouraged; boasting and showing off were not condoned.”[xxxi] These rules seem to go hand in hand. As drunkenness usually leads to boasting and showing off, drunkenness was frowned upon. It would definitely be a tragedy if a mafioso had too much wine at a bar and began boasting about how many men he has killed, or who else was in the Cosa Nostra, or even that such a thing existed. These rules are to keep the secrecy of the Cosa Nostra of paramount importance as to acknowledge its existence would make it less appealing to its members. Beyond that, or perhaps before, the first rule alone is a good general guideline as it is certain that a reputation for being a drunkard is never positive, and even among members of the same family, too much drunkenness is embarrassing, and surely men of honor are very far above drinking too much wine.
The last rule is a bit strange: “under no circumstances was one to introduce oneself to other men of honor.”[xxxii] This is because if one believes another man is a part of the Cosa Nostra and introduces oneself as such, and the other man is not, then the first man, the mafiosi has just compromised the secret nature of the organization. Interestingly enough, if there is a third mafiosi in the room who knows that both are men of honor, he may introduce them, and with a special secret code let them both know that the other is a man of honor, without actually saying it.[xxxiii] The secret phrase provides more secrecy, as it is almost a special language; further compounding the elitist clandestine nature of the Cosa Nostra.
The secret and the honor are the two most attractive intangible qualities of the Cosa Nostra and the honor seems to be intensified by the fact that no one outside of the group knows about it. No one outside of the mafia may judge you, because they do not know what qualities are being judged. The honor seems to intensify when you realize that even though there are other men out there with similar qualities, they are not in the exclusive club as you are. This makes the secret part of the exclusivity. A lifestyle is developed around this club, a sense of pride is derived from membership; as Calderone mentioned, “We are the elite of the criminal world.”[xxxiv] They are the most polished and practiced members of a world that is illegal. These men are not common criminals. They are very uncommon. They justify their crimes by using their honor code as a shield, a rationalization, a special case that allows them to look down on people doing the same crimes in the same areas on smaller scales, for the simple fact that they are not as organized.
You may steal, but not from mafiosi. You can only kill another man of honor if he does certain things. Violence is good. Win at all costs. Do not make money off of unclean things. With the conditional rules of honor, it would seem that the rules are only in place to protect the honor of the men within the group. Therefore, if viewed from by an outsider, these men and their actions may appear no different from common criminals. It is only through an understanding of the Cosa Nostra that one may then distinguish the two types of criminals in Sicily: the low class, low moral street thugs with no discernable code of honor, and the criminal elite mafia which are: low class high moral street thugs with an official honor code and organizational structure. They both perform the same crimes, but since the Cosa Nostra has a system in place to commit these crimes, they are better. The fact that rules for war exist does not mean that people still do not die. Similarly the fact that rules for honorable crime exist and are followed closely by the Cosa Nostra does not preclude the fact that they are committing crimes. Honorable or not, crime is crime and to distinguish between two types not only encourages the behavior, but legitimizes the illusion of the Cosa Nostra’s attitude, which seems to allow any behavior as long as it does not hurt the family.
[i] Arlacchi, Pino. Men of Dishonor, p. 20.
[ii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, p. 21.
[iii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, p. 21.
[iv] Arlacchi, Pino. Mafia Business, p. 13.
[v] Peristiany, John George. Honour and Shame, p. 171-191
[vi] Gallant "Honor, Masculinity, and Ritual Knife Fighting in 19th-Century Greece," American Historical Review 105/2 (Ap 2000): 358-82*
[vii] Gallant "Honor, Masculinity, and Ritual Knife Fighting in 19th-Century Greece," American Historical Review 105/2 (Ap 2000): 358-82
[viii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, p. 21.
[ix] Arlacchi, Dishonor, p. 21.
[x] Arlacchi, Dishonor, p. 21.
[xi] Arlacchi, Business, p. 10.
[xii] Arlacchi, Business, p. 12.
[xiii] Arlacchi, Business, p. 12.
[xiv] Gallant "Honor," 358-82
[xv] Gambetta, Mafia, pp. 262-270
[xvi] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 67-71.
[xvii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, p. 67.
[xviii] Eck, Purified By Blood. pp. 9-34.
[xix] Gallant "Honor," 358-82
[xx] Arlacchi, Business, p. 7.
[xxi] Arlacchi, Business, p. 7.
[xxii] Arlacchi, Business, p. 7.
[xxiii] Arlacchi, Business, p. 7.
[xxiv] Norman Lewis, In Sicily, pp. 59-60.
[xxv] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 47-48.
[xxvi] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 67.
[xxvii] Gallant "Honor," 358-82
[xxviii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 67.
[xxix] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 70.
[xxx] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 67.
[xxxi] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 67.
[xxxii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 67.
[xxxiii] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 19-20.
[xxxiv] Arlacchi, Dishonor, pp. 19.