Snake charm

For mil­len­nia, the in­hab­i­tants of a tiny vil­lage in Abruzzo, Italy, have been cel­e­brat­ing the Fes­ti­val of the Snake-Catchers each May. Richard Grant joins the writhing throng. Pho­to­graphs by Mi­caela Cianci

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

The snake-catchers of Cocullo were drink­ing espresso in the vil­lage’s only cafe. Pho­to­graphs on the walls showed fa­mous snakes and snake-catchers from the past, and a few live ser­pents lay coiled in pil­low­cases on the foor. It had been a difcult year, the men said. Spring came late to the moun­tains, and the snakes were slow to emerge from hi­ber­na­tion. Only in the last few days had the catch­ing gone well.

To­mor­row they will drape all the snakes they can muster on a statue of San Domenico di Sora – St Do­minic – the pa­tron saint of this hill­top vil­lage in the Abruzzo re­gion of south­ern Italy. Then they will march the statue through the streets, as brass bands play and young women pa­rade with snake-shaped pas­tries on their heads. It is pos­si­bly the old­est fes­ti­val in Europe, and cer­tainly one of the strangest.

‘If we have too few snakes, it will be taken as a bad omen,’ said Mario Mas­ci­oli, a short, sturdy, dig­nifed man with a large grey mous­tache. ‘But I’m not too con­cerned. My son is out catch­ing snakes right now. Yes­ter­day he caught a beau­ti­ful cer­vone. Oth­ers will bring in more this af­ter­noon.’

The men were speak­ing the lo­cal di­alect of th­ese iso­lated moun­tains, which st ill har­bour a few wolves and brown bears. I was with a pho­tog­ra­pher, Mi­caela Cianci, who spent part of her child­hood in Abruzzo and could con­verse in the di­alect. This may have smoothed our pas­sage slightly, but the snake-catchers and the other vil­lagers we met in Cocullo were friendly, wel­com­ing and help­ful.

Hand­some, ba ld ing An­to­nio Zi­natelli, who de­scribed him­self as the fu­ture mayor of Cocullo, in­vited us to feel the steely mus­cles un­der t he sleeves of his bur­gundy turtle­neck sweater. Then he promised to tell us ev­ery­thing about the an­cient art of snake-catch­ing. ‘It is passed down from father

Ev­ery year a wooden statue of St Do­minic cov­ered in live snakes is pa­raded through Cocullo – usual pop­u­la­tion 250 – at­tended by a crowd of about 30,000

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