Most people travel to Italy to see its famous art, enjoy a taste of regional cuisine and enjoy a well-deserved week at the beach. But my dad? He came to Italy for its snake festival.
Each year, towns across Italy host sagre and feste to honor saint feast days, the harvest, and other longstanding traditions. For the curious traveler, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of Italian culture and acts as a wonderful lens into local life.
While many festivals are dedicated to innocuous subjects like flowers and local foods, others are more farfetched. For example, the Festa dei Serpari, or the “Festival of the Snake-Catchers.” Each year, thousands of visitors descend upon the tiny town of Cocullo in Abruzzo. Here, they see hundreds of live snakes draped around a statue of St. Dominic, boldly paraded through town. Born from a pagan ritual, the festival has been practiced for over 400 years, though the event remains shrouded in mystery.
A Real-Life Indiana Jones
When I first heard about the festival, though, I knew one thing was certain. My dad couldn’t miss it. After all, he is the biggest reptile lover I have ever met.
My dad was one of those guys who never hiked a trail in the California desert without his beloved snake stick. Famously known to all as a real-life “Indiana Jones,” he never hesitated to pick up rattlesnakes out in the wild, to the shock of his three daughters. Every trail with him was a sheer adventure, and there was never a dull moment in our family. As soon as I told him about the upcoming snake festival, he and my mom booked a trip to Italy. That’s when I began to investigate this longstanding tradition. First out of interest, and then to quell my nerves.
Festa dei Serpari
The Festa dei Serpari or “snake festival” takes place every year on May 1st to honor the town’s patron, Saint Domenico. St Domenico was born in Cocullo in 951 AD. He was a Benedictine monk who dedicated his life to creating hermitages and protecting the locals against aggressive regional animals. Pilgrims still faithfully flock to honor him in hopes of receiving his miraculous powers of protection against the dangerous animals of their territory.
The Snake Catchers
The preparation for the big day is complex. The snake catchers, all local male residents, begin their search for serpents 6 weeks before the event. It takes quite a bit of time and patience, and the hunt is done both individually and in groups. Each reptile is meticulously marked in order to ensure a proper return to its territory. Tonino Chiocchio, the patriarch of the group at 87 years old, reminisced about past snake-catching years. Before, poisonous vipers were caught and displayed in plastic containers in the piazza on the morning of the event. This is no longer allowed due to animal rights laws. As a result, all snakes used by the serpari during the festival are non-poisonous. According to new regulations, the snakes are also caught and released immediately after the festival. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Hundreds of snakes are faithfully offered to Saint Domenico in the church before Mass and the solemn procession. The residents perform the ritual by pulling the chain of the church’s bell tower with their teeth. This is a reference to the saint’s protection over the bites of wolves, snakes, and dogs (and toothaches). The largest snakes reach up to 2.5 meters and are wrapped around the Saint. Despite their impressive size, the Cervone is the calmest of the species. Four residents are chosen to carry the heavy sculpture during the procession around the town center. Meanwhile, two girls dressed in traditional costumes accompany the statue and carry sacred breadbaskets upon their heads.
When my parents arrived in Abruzzo, I was surprised to find that they had already made new Italian friends. They were happily sipping cappuccinos together when I called to say hello. With very limited Italian, they had been whisked away by the locals who gave them a tour of the town, shared family war stories, and invited my parents for lunch after the festival. They ended up watching the snake festival from a balcony above the town. I knew this would be one of my dad’s favorite photographic days of his life. Although he spent 30 years photographing the wonders of the American desert, it’s hard to compete with hundreds of snakes on display in a charming Italian village.
According to my dad, when the Saint was revealed, covered in restless and slippery snakes, there was a mixture of shock and mystery. While the crowd was awed by the powerful symbolism of the figure, a bit of fear was also mixed in. After all, snakes symbolically evoke strong feelings in the soul. Those of temptation and evil, as well as the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Those who perform this sacred ceremony believe that it displays the saint’s domestication of the serpent in a very physical way. It represents the supernatural triumph over the dark forces of evil. They believe that God shows his power through this tradition and is glorified by his conquering of life over death. Thus, they are comforted by this annual tradition.
A Deeper Connection
After witnessing the event, visitors and religious pilgrims follow the procession through the town and throw soil onto the streets and gardens. The soil is dug from Saint Domenico’s shrine. It symbolizes the supernatural powers manifested through the saint who protected the town throughout the Middle Ages from evil snakes and wolves. Hence, the event reminds all of God’s protection over his land.
My dad called me after the snake festival to tell me all about the snakes he saw, the new friends he and my mother made, and the lasagna they enjoyed together. I felt like I had lived the experience myself. A sense of peace and pride washed over me as I felt a deeper connection to Italy’s traditions and was full of admiration for the kindness the Abruzzesi had shown my parents. I wished that I could have joined them in the conversations but also genuinely happy for my parents to experience a taste of what living in Italy is like after hearing about my own stories for so many years. I knew this would be a day that would go down in history and would become a memory my parents would cherish for a lifetime.