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 the snakes.
Each year, towns across Italy host sagre and feste to honor saint’s days, the harvest and longstanding traditions. For the curious traveler, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of Italian culture and gives a wonderful lens into local life. While many festivals are dedicated to innocuous subjects like flowers and local foods, others are more farfetched, like the “Festa dei Serpari”, the Festival of the Snake-Catchers. Each year, thousands of visitors descend upon the tiny town of Cocullo in Abruzzo to see hundreds of live snakes draped around a statue of St. Dominic, boldly paraded through a town. Born from a pagan ritual, the festival has been going on for over 400 years though the event remains shrouded in mystery.
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 by 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 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, then to quell my nerves.
The Festa dei Serpari takes place on May 1st each year to honor the town’s patron, Saint Domenico, who was born here in 951. He was a dedicated Benedictine monk who spent his life creating hermitages and protecting the locals against the aggressive animals in the region. Pilgrims still faithfully arrive to honor him in hopes for his miraculous powers of protection against the dangerous animals of their territory.
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 times when poisonous vipers used to be 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 and 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 the Mass and the solemn procession. The residents perform the ritual of pulling the chain of the church’s bell tower with their teeth – a reference to the Saint’s protection over the bites of wolves, snakes, and dogs. The largest snakes reach up to 2.5 meters and are wrapped around the Saint. Despite their impressive size, the Cervone are the calmest of the species. Four residents are chosen to carry the heavy sculpture during the procession around the town center, while two girls in traditional costumes accompany the statue while carrying sacred breadbaskets upon their heads.
When my parents arrived in Abruzzo, I was surprised to find that they had already made new Italian friends and were happily sipping cappuccinos together when I called to say hello. With very limited Italian, they had already been whisked away by the locals who had given them a tour of the town, shared family war stories and invited my parents for lunch after the snake festival. They ended up watching the snake festival from a balcony above the town and I knew this would be one of my dad’s favorite photographic days of his life. Though he had 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. The crowd was both awed by the powerful symbolism of the figure, while mixed with a bit of fear. After all, snakes symbolically revoke strong feelings in the soul, those of temptation and evil, and the struggle between the forces of evil and goodness. Those who perform this sacred ceremony believe that the festival shows the Saint’s domestication of the serpent in a very physical way, representing 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, and they are comforted by this annual tradition.
After witnessing the event, all the visitors and religious pilgrims follow the procession through the town, helping to throw soil onto the streets and gardens. The soil is dug from Saint Domenico’s shrine and symbolizes the supernatural powers manifested through a saint who protected the town through the Middle Ages. He had protected the local farmers and residents from evil snakes and wolves, so the event reminds all of God’s protection over his land.
My dad called me after the festival to tell me all about the snakes he saw, the new friends he and my mother had made, and the lasagna they enjoyed together…and 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 been there to join 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 surely be a day which would go down in history and would become a memory my parents would cherish for a lifetime.