History of religion

Trip to the snake festival

(Published in GralsWelt 62/2010)

Fairy tales, sagas, myths and fables often have to do with animals. These then serve as symbols, are related to human behavior, or as heraldic animals are intended to express the concerns or virtues of the heraldic bearers. Everyone sees a symbol for a ruler in the lion, knows the fox as clever and sly, the bear as a good-natured, strong booby. The eagle (griffin) is a symbol for heaven, the snake for the earth, for the underworld or for wisdom.

For no other animal are there so many and so contradicting interpretations as there are for the snake. In natural religions, she is the bearer of the souls of the dead. When shedding its skin, it sheds its old skin, symbolizing renewal, eternal life, rebirth.

With Hindus, Buddhists and Indians, the snake is the guardian of wisdom; Egyptians, Greeks and Tibetans make it up as Uroboros as the snake biting its tail, a symbol of eternity. In the Mithras cult, the snake curled around the tree symbolized the passage of time; in Christianity it is an image of Satan. This list of snake symbols can be continued almost indefinitely ...

Are snakes special?

Ancient peoples certainly did not consider real snakes to be remarkably clever animals that stood out for their wisdom. But with people on all continents, snakes acquired an extraordinary mythological significance, which is explained by a snake fear anchored in our subconscious:
"When we see snakes, we usually react very emotionally: They not only frighten us, but they arouse and captivate us so much that we make up stories about them." (6, p. 17).
Such emotions, triggered by snakes, were probably the origin of snake myths and serpent worship, as they can be found in various forms on all continents. Some snake cults have survived up to our time, and even Christianity - which sees the snake as a symbol of Satan - could not prevent the penetration of pagan snake cults into Christian rituals. Such a "Christian" snake cult still exists in Central Europe today:

The serpent cult of Cocullo

The small, well-tended mountain village is located on a slope in the Abruzzo region at the geographical latitude of Rome Cocullowhich does not have a hotel or overnight accommodation, but has its own motorway exit[i] is easily accessible.

Here takes place every year, on the first Thursday in May, the day of Dominic Abate[ii] a "snake festival" takes place, whose origins are believed to be in Etruscan times. Finds of snake sculptures give rise to the assumption that there were processions here long before Christianization, during which snakes were carried across the fields as bearers of the prayers for fearfulness. So a typical “magical” ritual in which the Etruscan goddess of fertility is believed to be Angizia was implored for good harvests. Life was difficult in the barren Abruzzo region, and snakes and wolves are still symbolic animals of this harsh, hostile landscape.

In Cocullo, the millennia-old snake cult was mixed with the worship of Dominkus Abate, who a thousand years ago helped the population fight diseases, storms, wild animals and, according to tradition, had magical power over snakes and healed those bitten by snakes.

The processionon of the Serpari

Thousands of people come every year for St. Dominic's Day, some from far away, and the small town with its winding streets is totally overcrowded.

Like every Catholic festival, the begins Rito dei Serpari, the rite of the snake catcher, with a mass in the smaller of the two local churches, the tiny Dominikus Church, in which a figure and a relic of the saint are kept.

Then the statue of Dominic is carried to the narrow church forecourt. Now the snake catchers come from all directions with their snakes caught in the mountains, dozens of which are hung around the saint's neck and shoulders.

Then follows a procession in which - behind a brass band - the statue of Dominic, hung with snakes, is carried through the fields. Among the thousands of pilgrims who follow the statue of Dominic are many who have caught snakes themselves and now carry them with them in the procession.

The drama, which is unique in Europe, concludes with an award ceremony in the evening, e.g. for the one who has caught the most snakes (sometimes over 100). The following day, the snakes are brought into the mountains and released.

(1) Egli, Hans: "The snake symbol", Walter, Olten, 1982.
(2) Obst, Fritz Jürgen: "With a forked tongue", Herder, Freiburg, 1981.
(3) Paul-Stengel, Camilla: "Snake tracks - reptiles in cultural history", Ulrike Helmer, Königstein / Taunus, 1996.
(4) Stamer, Barbara / Zingsem, Vera: "Serpent Woman and Chaos Dragon", Kreuz, Stuttgart, 2001.
(5) Uber, Heiner / Mondhe, Papu Pramod: "World snakes - snake worlds", Fredeking & Thaler, Munich, 2002.
(6) Wilson, Edward O .: "Darwin's Cube", Econ, Munich, 2000.
[i] At the Autostrada A 25 Pescara-Rome.
[ii]In Cocullo, Dominic is venerated by Sora (951-1031), who lived as a hermit in Abruzzo and founded hermit communities. He is not to be confused with the founder of the Dominican Order.