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The Feast of San Domenico and the Ritual of Serpari of Cocullo
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. You may ask yourself how a feast in a small village can be so well known outside of Italy. The reason for this is that the statue of San Domenico is covered with real snakes caught by locals called "serpari" (snake charmers).
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.
The feast starts in the morning with the arrival of pilgrims from those places where the cult of the saint is especially felt, such as Lazio, Molise and Campania, who walk into the church of Cocullo, singing devotional hymns. While on the altar the mass is celebrated, the people in the church repeat some old symbolical devotional rites: with their teeth they pull the string of a bell in order to defend themselves from toothache, and they take some earth from a small cave behind the niche of the Saint, for superstitious use.
The most representative character of this thousand-year-old feast having pagan origins is the Serparo. The main square of Cocullo is the place where, waiting for the procession, different kinds of snakes captured by the people are proudly exhibited. About 100 snakes are used to adorn the statue and you will be happy to know they are all nonvenomous. The most common snake is the cervone (Elaphe quatuorlineata), which measures at 2.5 m (8.2 feet) and is the longest snake in Italy. Other species include the saettone or colubro di Esculapio (Zamenis longissimus), which is the snake that is wrapped around the classical rod of Aesculapius as a symbol of human medicine, biacco (Hierophis viridiflavus) and biscia d'acqua (Natrix natrix). In the past these snakes would be sacrificed after the procession, but today they are returned to their natural habitat.
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.
At midday the procession starts: the Saint, carried by four people on their shoulders, exits the church and on the yard he is anxiously awaited by the serpari, who completely cover his figure in snakes. The procession continues led by the priests and then selected women dressed in folk costumes carrying the ciambelli, which is bread that is designed to represent a snake biting its own tail.
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.
If you are in Italy for the first of May make sure to visit the small town of Cocullo to see this feast in person. In the event you are not near Cocullo you can watch the video below to see for yourself this tradition that has carried on for centuries.
Information and images provided by the Press Office of the Tourist Board of the Abruzzo region, Italy. For more information on the region of Abruzzo you can visit their official website dedicated to English speaking tourists: www.visitabruzzo.co.uk
Text revised and edited by Italiansrus.com.
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