The term "Mafia" originated in Sicily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it was used to describe the Sicilian Mafia, known within the organization as "Cosa Nostra" (in English "our thing"), an organized crime family which is widely credited with introducing the modern face of organized crime to the world.
The Sicilian Mafia's origins are largely shrouded in mystery, due to the group's propensity for secrecy arising from the illegality of most of its operations. They are believed to have arisen in the mid-nineteenth century, created by the undermanned police forces out of groups of bandits and thieves in order to enforce property laws and put down the bandits that roamed the countryside. These groups had begun to coalesce a mere ten years after their initial founding, and by the turn of the century had become an efficient and lucrative criminal empire operating in southern Italy.
The idea of the Mafia was quick to expand throughout Italy and, fairly rapidly, the world. The organization made its way to America in the late nineteenth century, following a wave of Italian immigration into that country. Though the Sicilian Mafia in Italy remains distinct from other Italian criminal organizations such as the 'Ndrangheta and the Sacra Corona Unita, they were quick to blend together in America, and the term American Mafia refers to the pan-Italian crime groups that currently operate in America.
The term "Mafia" has come to be something of a generic term to describe any organized criminal group, regardless of provenance, connection to other existing families, and current operating area. Though most often the term refers to an Italian group, it is used to describe criminal groups such as the Russian Mafia, the Mexican Mafia, and the Indian Mafia, in which the country or region of operation is appended to the word "Mafia".
Major Story Arcs
Because of their transformative influence on crime fiction, the mafia have made frequent appearances in any number of comic books. Typically their portrayal is villainous, though there have been occasions where members of the mafia have appeared in an anti-heroic, anti-villainous, and even heroic light. Examples of Mafias in comics include the Falcone and Maroni Families in Gotham, the Bertinelli Mob, the Maggia (which is a stand-in for the Mafia in the Marvel Universe), and the Magliozzi Crime Family in Sin City.
In Other Media
They are currently one of, if not the most common portrayals of organized crime in media, mostly due to their dominance of the criminal landscape in America. Typically the group portrayed will be Italian or Italian American, though there are occasional mentions of other mafia groups. Examples include the Corleones and the four other New York families from the Godfather series of movies and books, the Sopranos from the television series of the same name, and Fat Tony's Family in The Simpsons.