The Festival of the Snake-Catchers is an annual festival in Cocullo in honor of St. Dominic, patron saint protecting against snakebite and toothache
The festival of the snake-catchers involves a procession carrying the statue of St. Dominic, draped with living snakes, through the streets of Cocullo, Italy.
The Festival of the snake-catchers is a festival that has been held in Cocullo on 1 May since 2012 (previously it took place on the first Thursday in May) in honor of Saint Dominic the Abbot but has ancient origins that can be traced back to paganism and have roots in an ancient celebration in honor of the goddess Angitia.
Angitia was a goddess among the Marsi, a Oscan-Umbrian people of central Italy, associated with snake-charmers who claimed her as their ancestor. The Romans derived her name from anguis, “serpent,” hence the form Anguitia.
St Dominic is the patron saint of Cocullo and Villalago. Two relics of the saint are kept in Cocullo: a molar and a horseshoe. Another molar of the saint is kept in the main church of Villalago.
Every year on 1 May, the snake catchers go into the mountains at the end of March in search of snakes. Once captured, they are carefully kept in wooden boxes (in ancient times in terracotta containers) for 15-20 days, feeding them live mice and hard-boiled eggs.
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St Dominic was a Benedictine monk from Foligno who traveled through Lazio and Abruzzo founding monasteries and hermitages. He stayed in Cocullo for seven years, leaving one of his teeth and a horseshoe from his mule, which have become relics.
This festival is related to the cults of the goddess Angizia, who was mainly worshipped by the ancient Marsi. For other scholars, however, it should be attributed to the mythology of Heracles. Votive bronzes have been found in Casale, depicting Heracles himself who strangled the two snakes sent by Hera to kill him in his cradle.
According to local tradition and the hagiographies of St. Dominic’s disciples, the saint extracted his tooth and gave it to the people of Cocullo, giving rise to a faith that supplanted the pagan cult of the goddess Angizia. The tooth of St Dominic, probably an allusion to the poisoning tooth of the snake, perhaps gave rise to the faith that led to the festival in honor of the saint.
Each snake has a sign of recognition on its head so that it can be identified, at the end of the procession and released to the fields. The sign can be a colored stroke on the head or a number or symbol on the belly of the animal.
Until forty years ago, snakes were also introduced into the church, right up to the altar, but a provision of the church and the bishop of the time prohibited this tradition.