Cocullo Snake charmers

The Serpari (snake-charmers) Feast in Cocullo is one of the most ancient feasts in Abruzzo. For centuries, from everywhere in Abruzzo and nearby areas, the faithfuls went on pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of San Domenico to be healed from any sort of disease, especially from the bites of vipers, rabid dogs and toothaches.


Giuseppe Profeta, a professor and anthropologist scholar, in his "Un culto pastorale sull'Appennino contro i morsi di Lupi, Serpenti e Cani Rabbiosi - Inchiesta sul culto popolare di San Domenico di Cocullo" mentions that the earliest historical evidence of San Domenico's feast in Cocullo date back to 1392, and that in the 1500's the festive day was already on the first Thursday in May.

The rite fascinated also English travellers and is mentioned in R. K. Craven's "Excursions in the Abruzzi and the Provinces of Naples" (London, 1837), in Edward Lear's "Illustrated Excursions in Italy", London 1846, Anne MacDonnel's "In the Abruzzi", London 1908, and Estella Canziani's "Through the Apennines and the Lands of the Abruzzi", London 1928. Nowadays the event is visited by thousands of tourists from all over the world.

San Domenico and snakes

The Snakes

In the weeks before the feast the serpari (who in the past were mainly peasants and shepherds, whereas today the village youths do the job) captured the snakes. The species used in the Cocullo rite are harmless, and their bite causes just a slight skin irritation. After the capture the snakes are looked after with great care until the festive day comes. In times past the snakes were placed in terracotta boxes, nowadays in wooden cases. Also, in the past the snakes were killed before the church after the ceremony and buried near the village, today instead they are reintroduced in their environment.

The Celebrations

On the first Thursday of May the pilgrims arrive by car or bus (in the past on foot) outside the village, and reach the church singing religious hymns in the Saint's honor to the music of bagpipes. Inside the church special rituals take place:
  • ringing a small bell pulling the rope with the mouth, as a protection against toothache throughout the coming year;
  • picking the blessed soil inside the church, to spread it later over the fields as a protection against crop pests.

At midday, after Mass, from the church at one end of the village St Dominique's statue, covered in gold, silver and precious jewels left by those who saw their prayers fulfilled, is carried in procession through the alleys of the ancient borough. As soon as the statue goes out of the church, the snake-charmers cover it with snakes, and the statue proceeds in this way. In front there come the priests, then girls in costume carrying the "ciambelli", typical cakes specially prepared for the day. Live snakes are also around the neck and arms of the snake charmers and the faithful, who slowly proceed after the statue, singing in the middle of the crowd.

From the behavior of the snakes the inhabitants of Cocullo derive omens: if the snakes surround the head of the statue, that is good omen and the crowd cheers. After the procession the many tourists gather around the serpari to have their picture taken with them.

A pagan and Christian tradition

The cult of San Domenico in Cocullo, one of the most pagan of Christian traditions, is of great ethnographic and historical interest. San Domenico stayed in Cocullo only a short time, leaving to the village church one molar tooth and the iron shoe of his female mule, which are still jealously kept as precious relics: the horse shoe has healing power on the bites of animals, while the teeth heals the bite of poisonous snakes. Scholars have shown how the figure of the Saint was superimposed to ancient rites and customs of pagan origin.

In Abruzzo snakes are common, and in old times their bites were frequent cause of death. The Marsi, shepherds and fishermen wholived on the mountains and the coast of Lake Fucino, worshipped goddess Angitia, protector of snakes. Near Luco dei Marsi there was a forest called "lucus Angitiae", sacred to the goddess, and to her in early spring snakes used to be sacrificed. A legend says that Ovid, a celebrated Latin poet born in Sulmona, was desperately in love with a cold-hearted girl, so she took refuge into the goddess's forest to learn the magic art.

In the ancient world the Marsi were renowned for their power on poisonous snakes and in the 1st and 2nd century are recorded as healers and street fortune tellers in Rome. In the course of the Middle Ages the Marsian religion disappeared, but the belief of magical powers on poisonous snakes and for analogy on rabid dogs were transferred in the popular culture to healing figures, who were called "ciarauli", who knew the secrets to capture snakes and heal from their bite.

The "ciaraulo"

The snake has always represented in the popular tradition a fearful danger, an archetypal image of evil. The pagan shaman, the healer ("ciaraulo"), the patron saint, guarantee victory on the snake.

In Christian times the protection against snakes was originally associated with St. Paul. According to an ancient legend, the apostle had come to Malta, and here he was bitten by a poisonous snake, but he miraculously survived. Since then snakes that on 25th January (the day of the Saint's conversion) come out of their holes are killed by the saint's curse. It is believed that snake bites can be healed by the saliva of those born on this day (or of the seventh son); these individuals, called serpari or ciarauli, are believed to be protected against the most dangerous snakes. A ciaraulo has also physical recognition marks, having under his tongue and on the right arm the typical snake-charmer's marks: a spider and a snake.

For thousands of years the tradition was alive in Solarina, Sicily, and those born on that day become ciaraulo (or ciaraula) and have the duty to heal those that should recur to them. When a ciaraulo is about seven year old he learns the magic formulas ("ciarmi") from another ciaraulo, in church during consecration on Christmas night. Also here it seems that San Paul's patronage was superimposed to the ancient priest sacred to the pagan healing gods, such as the Greek Esculapius (whose symbol contains the figure of a snake) or the Marsian goddess Angitia.