It was the morning of Might 1, and the Italian village of Cocullo was virtually unrecognizable. The standard placidity of its quiet alleys and muted central sq. had given approach to a number of thousand individuals: non secular vacationers, musicians, younger ladies in ornate costumes, vacationers from the far corners of the nation and past.
A gaggle of pilgrims from Atina, a city some 30 miles south, walked slowly towards the Church of Santa Maria, singing historical non secular songs and carrying a centuries-old cross. They had been accompanied by bagpipe gamers and the city band.
It wasn’t the crowds, although, that made this gathering particular. It was the snakes.
At each nook, somebody was dealing with one of many animals, which slithered throughout their palms and arms. The girls and boys of the village took turns showcasing the creatures to small teams of people that crowded round to take photos and ask questions.
At midday, silence fell over the scene, and a big determine, carved from wooden, emerged: the statue of San Domenico. In entrance of the church, individuals started draping the determine with snakes.
Eventually we reached the second that had drawn me right here: The statue, wrapped in serpents, was lifted into the air above the captivated crowd — and the centuries-old ritual was underway.
I had arrived in Cocullo — a medieval village within the Abruzzo area — 4 days earlier with the photographer Elisabetta Zavoli to doc the Rito dei Serpari, or the Ceremony of the Snake Charmers. The Catholic celebration, which takes place every year on Might 1, is held in honor of San Domenico, who’s credited with eradicating snakes from native farmers’ fields. Many historians, nevertheless, consider that its roots lie within the historical worship of a goddess named Angitia, identified for her affiliation with the animals.
Regardless of the obscurity of its origins, the Cocullo pageant is plainly a holdover from snake-based mystical practices that, 1000’s of years in the past, had been widespread in central and southern Italy. And for the reason that starting of the twentieth century, the ritual has develop into a vacationer attraction, drawing guests who’re concerned with its folklore as a lot as its faith ties.
Within the days main as much as the pageant, Elisabetta and I joined a handful of native “serpari” — the time period used to explain the native snake catchers and charmers — on their hunts to catch the animals used within the procession.
Marco Ognibene Mascioli, a 38-year-old soldier stationed in Bologna, was one in all them. On his annual journey to Cocullo to satisfy his duties as a serparo, Mr. Mascioli led us to his favourite place within the surrounding mountains: the limestone cliffs the place he usually finds four-lined snakes (Elaphe quatuorlineata), a nonvenomous species that may develop to greater than six ft lengthy.
The search was sluggish and deliberate; we remained as quiet as doable whereas overturning rocks and peering into thick brush. In the long run, Mr. Mascioli discovered just one snake — although it was giant sufficient to be a candidate for the few that might be positioned on the statue of San Domenico.
Youngsters additionally tackle the duties of the serpari. With Francesco Zinatelli and Valeria Del Rosso, two younger mates, we went to search for snakes at an deserted shed on the outskirts of the village. Within the stone basement, they searched overhead and used sticks to coax a snake out from among the many picket floorboards. The pair later headed dwelling with three inexperienced whip snakes (Hierophis viridiflavus).
One night, Elisabetta and I dined on the dwelling of Antonietta d’Orazio, who, together with Clelia and Iosella, her sisters, was inspired to develop into a serpara by their mom, Maria, who launched them to the charms of snakes as youngsters.
We stayed at Ms. d’Orazio’s dwelling late into the night, chatting along with her and Dalila, her daughter, in a digressive dialog that carried us into the depths of the custom.
Her father, Ms. d’Orazio mentioned, disliked snakes and carried out periodic searches of the home to make certain his daughters weren’t harboring the animals. To hide their obsessions, the sisters started to cover the snakes of their beds, sheltering them there for weeks on finish.
Some 15 years in the past, two researchers — Gianpaolo Montinaro and Ernesto Filippi — realized the scientific potential of Cocullo’s ardour for snakes, starting a research to observe the animals’ populations.
Within the days previous the pageant, we watched because the serpari introduced their snakes to a analysis area that was arrange in a neighborhood constructing. There, herpetologists took physique measurements and swabbed the animals to test for infections. In some instances, they inserted subcutaneous microchips.
Over time, knowledge collected from a whole bunch of specimens has contributed to a number of printed research on the distribution and conservation methods of native species — four-lined snakes specifically. This citizen science venture has raised consciousness of the customarily demonized — and broadly feared — animals.
And so what was as soon as a strictly non secular ceremony has now develop into a lot extra: a neighborhood occasion, a vacationer draw, an open-air laboratory.
For Ms. d’Orazio, the pageant affords one thing else, too: an opportunity for individuals to confront their phobias. Information is an ally, she instructed me; many individuals right here have overcome their fears.
And although she not hunts for the snakes herself, she takes satisfaction as one other technology embraces the pageant.
“We go away it to the youngsters now,” she mentioned with a smile, her daughter seated beside her within the dim gentle of her kitchen.
Francesco Martinelli is a science author from a village within the Marche area of Italy. You may comply with his work on Instagram.