Have you ever seen a snake crowd-surf? On the first Thursday of May, in the mid-eastern Italian town of Cocullo, you just might.
A marriage of paganism and Catholicism, Cocullo’s Festival of Serpents is a day dedicated to warding off venom and bad omens. Thousands of photographers, ophidiophiliacs (snake lovers), and Catholics crowd together in the small town square, which is home to the local church that contains the statue of Saint Domenico. On this day, believers offer modest offerings to Saint Domenico and, having completed several rituals, cover him from head to toe with snakes.
Interested in learning more? Read on!
These rituals are rooted in pagan traditions that date back to tribal practices within the region. Originating over 3,000 years ago, this festival was designed by the Marsi, who dedicated it to the snake goddess Angizia. The ritual was designed to ward off boars, wolves, and venom.
Today, many of the customs have evolved. Instead of using large, venomous snakes, the residents of Cocullo use small, fangless grass snakes. Saint Domenico has also become a more central figure in the festival because when Cocullo was overrun with snakes in the 10th century, Saint Domenico drove them away.
Typically, the procession begins with a massive wooden crucifix that disappears inside the church. Two women adorned in traditional lace clothing then carry an offering: baskets of sprinkled ciambelli (similar to donuts) balanced on their heads. As the offering is made, the “faithful” ring small bells with their teeth. A massive, dark-green flag is then hoisted outside to symbolize that the ritual inside the church has been completed. People who traveled hundreds and thousands of miles to witness the details of this day ready themselves for the fantastic spectacle they are there for.
THE ADORNING OF THE SNAKES
The hoisted flag signals that the procession is about to begin.
All is quiet as everyone waits for the statue of Saint Domenico to emerge, and the band readies themselves to lead the parade. The initial burst of excitement is nearly enough to stun and confuse. As the black-clothed Saint Domenico floats from the church like a shadow, participants burst into celebration, piling forward to get a better view in an already shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. The faithful lay the statue on the ground and quickly adorn Saint Domenico’s head with snakes, continuing down his robe and base, from which a small angel looks up adoringly at him
The importance of the placement of the snakes cannot be understated — should one fall onto his face, it is considered a bad omen for the remaining year. If a snake falls off, any accumulated luck is terminated. It is the responsibility of the Catholics in the crowd and the people carrying him to ensure each snake’s proper placement.
After dozens of slithering snakes decorate the Saint, six appointed attendees hoist him above their shoulders and the parade begins to move. As the statue passes, it is tradition to lay a hand upon the base and pray for good luck in the coming year.
Fireworks blast above the city quite suddenly, stunning all with their sound.
Once the ritual is complete, an endless sea of food trucks greets the visitors returning from the festival in the city below.
The Festival of Serpents is a strange, safe, dreamlike ritual of sights and sounds that can only be fully experienced in person. Should you want to see this fascinating marriage of paganism and Catholic rites, arrive early at 8:00 a.m. or you’ll face a steep incline to get into the city. Note that you don’t have to touch the snakes if you’re squeamish, but should you be afraid, remember that the snake wranglers have removed the fangs of these otherwise harmless grass snakes.
Whether you’re trying to overcome your ophidiophobia, take part in the festivities, or simply observe this fascinating religious ceremony be sure not to miss out on the Feast of San Domenico!