When winter is finally over and the spring sun begins to warm the earth, the hunt for snakes begins.
“Stop, snake! I need you for the Feast of San Domenico!” exclaims a certain Simone, upon seeing one of these creatures slithering across the road one day in April 1768. The quotation, from a story published in a leaflet from that period, may give the impression that capturing snakes is an easy matter, but that is not at all the case. It often happens that, after spending the day combing the countryside, a serparo, or snake catcher, goes home empty-handed.
The figure of the snake catcher was immortalized by the Italian poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio in his tragic play La Fiaccola sotto il moggio (The Torch Under the Bushel). In that work, the snake catcher is a mythical figure—silent, alert, eagle-eyed, swift—who has inherited his skills from an ancient race descended from the son of the sorceress Circe. The people of the Marsica region—the Marsi, whose name means “snake handler” according to Pliny the Elder—were reputed to possess magical powers that enabled them to cure the victims of snake bites simply by touching the affected area.
A less reliable but frequently cited theory links the snake catcher with a local divinity, Angizia; a centre of worship dedicated to her was located at the site of the present-day town of Luco dei Marsi, which is not far from Cocullo. However, the argument that the name “Angizia” is related to the word “anguis”, which is Latin for “serpent”, is etymologically false, because the root of the goddess’s name is more correctly linked to that brief period in spring when the previous year’s supplies have been exhausted and a new harvest is not yet assured.
To better understand the history of the snake catcher, it is necessary to consider his ancestor the ciarallo, a figure from the Late Middle Ages. The ciarallo was a kind of holy man known throughout Europe, but more closely associated with southern Italy. He was believed to have inherited his powers or to have been initiated into them. The methods he used to capture and handle snakes, and to heal and protect people from their bites, were a closely guarded secret.
Today’s snake catchers employ the same techniques as their ancient precursors, but the sacred and professional functions proper to the ciarallo have metamorphosed into a form of secular devotion expressed through participation in the snake ritual (a re-appropriation of ancient roots) and through a renewed respect for nature.