One of the most popular traditional feasts of Abruzzo, well-known also abroad, is undoubtedly the Feast of San Domenico in Cocullo, a small mountain village in the province of L’Aquila. The peculiar part of this feast is that the statue of San Domenico is covered with real snakes caught by locals called “serpari” (snake charmers).
San Domenico lived during the 10th and 11th centuries. During his time he became a Benedictine monk and founded a number of hermitages and cloisters throughout Lazio and Abruzzo. San Domenico was renowned for his ability to cure those bitten by poisonous snakes. Snakes were common in the area and it was the cause of many deaths at the time.
For a long time, on May 1st at midday, an event has been repeating itself unchanged, whose meaning transcends simple appearance: the gesture of putting snakes around the statue of a saint expresses the resolution of the eternal opposition between the natural world with all its perils and the human world, forced to defend itself in order to survive.
Following an early morning Mass in the town’s small church, local inhabitants ring a small bell using their own teeth to protect them against toothache for the following year. Local soil is blessed which afterwards is spread over the local fields to act as a form of natural pesticide. The wooden statue of Saint Domenico is then taken out of the small church and the serpari drape their found snakes over the statue and his jewel encrusted gold frame ready to be paraded around the narrow lanes of ancient Cocullo. Leading from the front are the brass band, mostly composed of oboe & clarinets. Another Mass is broadcast over loudspeakers, which women traditionally dressed recite & sing, followed by sombre priests. They are followed by girls in traditional laced costumes carrying ciambelle which are local cakes that have a texture like doughnuts and are decorated with pastel coloured hundreds & thousands. The procession winds back down at the church where it all started, and on their arrival home, a huge banging fireworks display begins its 10 minute overture.
In pagan times the Marsican people, who inhabited the same area of Abruzzo, worshipped the goddess Angizia (from latin angius = snake). Angizia taught them the art of poisons and remedies for poisons especially when it came to snakebites. Legend has it that the goddess lived in a cave by Lago Fulcino (Lake Fulcine). The lake was drained in the 19th century and no longer exists. Angizia had the powers of witchcraft, magic and medicine and was known as a protecting goddess. As with many pagan traditions they were replaced with catholic traditions and thus San Domenico is whom they celebrate the feast of serpari. San Domenico is perceived as a character who determines salvation not only from snakes, from the bites of poisonous or rabid animals, but also a universal salvation against the ills of the world. Winning the fear of snakes symbolizes the overcoming and the facing with courage the adversities of life.
My beloved mum attended this year’s feast with much joy and excitment as it was her first time, and, as usual she takes me with her at least in her heart and thoughts. This is her comment on the bizzarre event she witnessed: “All the snakes have microchips, they are all listed and at the end of the day are brought back to the very same spot they had been cought. The strongest emotion is the bond with these animals. The snake that for a long time has been considered as the most earthly among all animals, represented at the Virgin Mary’s feet, associated with sin, here at this feast its real nature is revealed: docile and powerful, a bridge between us humans and the Saint.”
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