And the Lord God said unto the serpent,
Because thou hast done this,
Thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field;
Upon thy belly shalt thou go,
And dust thou shalt eat all the days of thy life.
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman
And between thy seed and her seed
Genesis 3:14-15, Holy Bible (King James version).
There are two truths in this bible passage: snakes do go on their bellies, it is difficult to imagine them getting around by any other means, and there is definitely enmity between mankind and snakes. They do not, however, eat dust. Snakes are carnivores; they eat other animals. Our fear of snakes is instinctive and arises from the fact that many species are poisonous a few dangerously so. Australians can be forgiven for having this fear since eight out of the ten most dangerously poisonous snakes in the world live in Australia. Africa, Asia and the Americas have their various cobras, mambas, rattlesnakes and others to fear. We are luckier in Europe where we have only our seven species of viper, which, although poisonous, are rarely life-threatening. The majority of European snakes are innocuous, non-poisonous species.
Nevertheless, vipers can and do give strong bites, which cause sickness and pain and can even, especially in the very young and the very old or infirm, cause death. From the very earliest times, thousands of years ago, this has led people to ask for protection from gods, sorcerers, witches and medical practitioners. In Abruzzo, offerings of non-poisonous snakes were made to the goddess Angiza every spring in the hope that she would protect the population from snake-bites. This ceremony dates back to festivals in pre-historic times but is still preserved today in the Rito dei Serpari which takes place at Cocullo in Abruzzo on the first Thursday of May.
The festival is now dedicated to S. Domenico, who was active in the area about 1,000 years ago. This saint was the author of various miracles, but one stands out. According to the story, he was returning on a mule from a long journey when he realised that the animal had lost a shoe. He stopped at a blacksmiths to ask for help. The smith put a new shoe on the mule and then asked for payment. S. Domenico had not expected to pay. I asked you to do this for the love of God, I have no money with me. The most I can do is pray for you to have health and prosperity, he said. The smith insisted that the love of God wouldnt help him to eat and that he wanted to be paid. At this S. Domenico ordered the mule to give the shoe back and the mule obliged by kicking it off or was the shoe so badly fixed that it fell off anyway?
As May approaches the young people of Cocullo set out in search of snakes for the festival. The most sought-after are the cervoni, (elaphe quatuorlineata or four-lined snake). These are very large (they can be well over two metres long), and in addition to being non-poisonous they can be very docile. They are kept in containers in the village where, at the relatively low temperatures of early spring, they do not need feeding. Snakes can go for months without feeding when they are inactive. On the day of the ceremony, which this year will be Thursday 5 May, they are draped around the effigy of S. Domenico and paraded through the streets of the village accompanied by the local band and a huge following of the faithful and the curious. The effigy of S. Domenico carries the discarded mules shoe in its left hand. Many villagers not in the procession carry their own snakes, mostly the same cervoni but also various species of biscia, grass-snakes, to show their participation in the rite. The whole village and environs are in festa, or celebration, and there are stalls of all kinds selling local, and not so local, products such as cheeses, preserved meats and craftwork.
A visit to Cocullo on this day makes for a wonderfully different day out. Apart from the festival there is the town itself to explore. It is founded upon the remains of the ancient town of Coculum and there are ruins of a tower from the castle belonging to the Duke Sarchia. There are two churches of interest, the Chiesa della Madonna delle Grazie, built in the 1400s over the ruins of an ancient temple, and the Santuario di S. Domenico, which houses the saints relics. There are many places to dine on local fare, and the fields on the surrounding hillsides are covered in wild flowers in May, including several species of wild orchid. The only problem is parking your car. The procession starts at 11.00 and if you arrive late, you might find that you have to park a good distance from the village and walk in to see it.
The route from Rome is easy. Take the motorway towards LAquila, turn off for Avezzano, carry on towards Pescara around the Fucino basin and, immediately after the long tunnel, you will find the exit for Cocullo.