02 – Origin Of The Snake Catchers’ Procession

(From a short biography of the saint by Don Adolfo Angelucci, former parish priest of Cocullo)

San Domenico and the snake (Umberto d’Eramo)

The ancient historian Strabo writes that Cocullo was Rome’s last military stronghold in Lazio. The town and its environs therefore served as a logistical base for the Roman army engaged in the conquest of Corfinium. Because of their prolonged presence, the Romans naturally introduced some of their pagan customs and traditions among the locals. One of these was to bring a propitiatory offering of live snakes to the goddess Angizia in early spring. This custom was still being practised by the people of Cocullo when San Domenico came to the town.

procession in the early 19th century – painting

procession in 1923

After the numerous miracles and extraordinary feats performed by San Domenico in protecting and healing the people of Cocullo from the bites of vipers and poisonous snakes and from similar calamities, they transformed the pagan custom into a Catholic ritual of religious tribute to San Domenico, as an act of filial gratitude to him: unlike the silent and ineffective Angizia, he had given them tangible and practical proof that he could save them from the grim effects of snake venom. The Catholic Church, which venerates Saint Anthony (who preached to the fish in Rimini when human beings turned a deaf ear to him) and Saint Francis (who conversed sweetly and affably with the birds), also honours San Domenico, who, by protecting people from the bites of snakes, helps protect souls from the assaults of that other serpent, the eternal enemy of God and man.

draping the statue of San Domenico (Roberto Monasterio)

the statue is lifted and the procession begins (Paolo di Menna)

procession in piazza Madonna delle Grazie (Karl Mancini)

San Domenico draped with snakes during the procession (Giovanni Sarrocco)

In Cocullo, this religious tribute has been paid to San Domenico for hundreds of years on his feast day in early May: when the statue of the saint is brought out from the church just before the procession, the serpari, or snake catchers, gather around the saint and offer up to him the numerous snakes captured in the surrounding countryside.

a snake for San Domenico, Giampiero Duranti

Today, the Feast of San Domenico has become famous even outside Italy, because modern means of communication have brought it to the attention of people everywhere. Every year, on May 1, this ancient, remarkable tradition that marries religious and folk elements, and that honours both the Church and Abruzzo, attracts to Cocullo thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world; many others, of course, come throughout the year to pray to San Domenico for his intercession or to thank him for having answered their prayers.

ciambellati, traditional sweet round breads carried in the procession (Maricarmen Bonaventura)

a girl prepares for the procession (Karl Mancini)

girls in traditional local costume (Karl Mancini)

girls in traditional local costume (Rocchina Del Priore)