Thursday, May 02, 2024

A Very Unusual Popular Festival in Italy

The little town of Cocullo in the Abruzzi region of Italy, with a population of less than 250, has a very particular way of celebrating the feast of its Patron Saint, Dominic of Sora. Dominic was one of the great monastic reformers of the later 10th and early 11th century, as active in central and southern Italy (Lazio, Abruzzi and Campagna) as his contemporaries Ss Romuald and Peter Damian were in the north. He lived in Cocullo for seven years, and the main church there has two relics of him, one of his teeth, and a shoe of his mule. As part of the celebration of his feast on May 1st, people use their teeth to pull the bell-rope of a chapel dedicated to him, a gesture which is believed to protect them from disease.

He is also honored as a Patron Saint against snake-bites and rabid animals, the aspect of his cultus which makes it especially noteworthy. Towards the end of March, the inhabitants of the region begin collecting snakes from the countryside (non-poisonous, of course), and keeping them in boxes at home. On the feast day, they bring them to the church, and drape them over a statue of the Saint, which is then carried through the town in procession. The snakes are then returned to their natural habitat.

(A friend of mine who has attended the festival at Cocullo informs me that poisonous snakes were used until the 1950s, when this practice was forbidden by the civil authorities.)

It would be easy to dismiss this custom and others like it as nothing more than holdovers from paganism, and it is true that this one in particular seems to have some antecedents in the ancient pagan cults of the region (of which, however, very little is known for certain.) I dare say that this is a feature, not a bug. In the modern world, it is very difficult for us to appreciate what a very serious problem a rotten tooth or a rabid animal could be for peasants living a hard-scrabble life in these mountainous regions, even as little as a century ago. A religion which does not afford some sense that the spiritual powers, whatever they may be, are genuinely concerned with the human race’s welfare, spiritual and physical, and can help us through such problems, is simply not worth its salt. It was precisely the death of this idea, the transition from the ancient gods of hearth and field to the distant One of Plato or the even-more-distant Prime Mover of Aristotle, that drove people towards the many mystery cults that flourished in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. In Christianity, they found the mystery of a God who is not merely concerned with the human race’s welfare, but so concerned that He joined it, and then entrusted the care and cure of its many problems to His beloved friends, the Saints.

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