Saints that come out in the dark

Few places on earth escaped the singular eye of NORMAN LEWIS, but time after time he was drawn back to Sicily. ‘It is not a place I actually enjoy,’ he wrote after his last trip there, in 1998, ‘but the drama is constant — so much so that the book practically writes itself.’ The book he was referring to was ‘In Sicily’, which has just been republished by Eland. In this extract, he reports on an annual procession in honour of two ‘Sainted Physicians’

SFERRACAVALLO is five miles out of Palermo on the coast road to the west. It is the site of an ancient fishing settlement, and its present population, whatever their wealth or standing, is descended from the fisherfolk of the past, and, like them, psychologically influenced by the presence of the sea. On the whole they are tall people of notably bolder personality than the cultivators who live a few miles inland. Most of their fishing is done with lights at night, so they have developed the custom of having intercourse with their wives only during the afternoons. Unlike the neighbouring peasants they rarely save money but spend the cash as fast as they earn it, and customarily celebrate a good catch by lashing out on trinkets for the female members of their family. The fishermen are notorious gamblers and cases have been known of a man staking his house or even his wife on a bet. The basis of their relatively good fortune lies in the fact that, while the rich have come into possession of almost every acre of land worth having, they have so far been unable to buy any part of the sea, which continues to be available to all and sundry. Apart from a house, and their boats and tackle, most fisherfolk are devoid of the burden of prosperity and thus wonderfully free.

Sicilian cultivators of the soil, on the other hand, have almost by tradition led hard lives in servitude to feudal estates. They have been exploited by the landowners, controlled by the Mafia, preyed upon until recently by bandits, and compelled to vote for the party of the Church. The best fortune that could befall any family was to have produced a son bright enough to have been trained as a priest. It is a solution avoided by the fisherfolk, who here, as in other coastal areas of Europe, are inclined to the practice of a discreet agnosticism. Having said that, I should at once point out that Sferracavallo is the site of a prodigious procession every autumn, and whether it is based upon religious fervour or on a desire to celebrate the fruits of the harvest, there is nothing of the like to be experienced elsewhere in Sicily.

Saints Cosima and Damiano belonged while on earth to the medical profession and in the afterlife are seen locally as patron saints of the faith-healing practised here in its most successful form. From the moment that these two medieval effigies jog into view seated side by side on their float over the heads of the ecstatic crowd, spontaneous cures take place, and many cases have been recorded of the chronically sick, in biblical style, picking up their beds to walk. The saints’ origins are obscure. There is said to have been a Saracenic school of medicine in the area a thousand or so years ago, but it would be questionable to suggest that the two pink-cheeked Nordics carried in the procession could have had any connection with Islam. Apart from their fame as physicians, the saints protected their followers from a whole list of the normal hazards of their day. When sea-rovers raided Sferracavallo the images were carried out and a mere glimpse of the wrath on the saints’ faces was enough to put them to flight. Damiano, a strong swimmer, set out on several occasions – in one instance assisted by a dolphin – to bring back survivors of boats wrecked in storms. Above all, the two saints combined forces to defeat the great plague of 1624; while others were dying like flies, not a single inhabitant of Sferracavallo was lost.

Traditionally, the great procession at Sferracavallo took place in the afternoon of the festival’s first day, but now, despite the protests of the old faithful of the town, the saints are brought out only for show and the procession is staged after dark. To be in the select company of those who carry the vara – the platform upon which the saints are enthroned – it is required that the applicant shall be of unquestioned morality and ‘take the oath’. In the old days, the procession set out to visit and convey hope to every person sick in bed throughout the town. Those who could be moved would be carried to a doorway or even placed at a window where they could see the saints’ faces and listen to the prayers said for their cure. Whatever the state of these side-streets the carriers of the heavy float went barefoot, often leaving traces of blood. It was said that one in ten of the bedridden visited in this way found the strength to hoist themselves to their feet in order to bow their heads to the saints, and once in a while someone was cured on the spot and walked again from then on.

Modern times put an end to these extraordinary scenes. Many people were ashamed at the idea of displaying the sick in this way as they did a hundred years ago. The general opinion was that the celebrations were out of touch with the times, so the traditional afternoon procession was cancelled and one took place only at night, and stuck to the shopping streets, thus depriving the sick of their comfort and hope. Pietro Assurrino, who had helped carry a float ‘out of devotion for our protectors for over twenty-one years’, was sad to confirm that nowadays the majority of the carriers were very young people. ‘They decided to brighten things up,’ he said, ‘and they march as fast as they can. We still go barefoot, and a few of us still pray. The trouble is you can’t hear the prayers for the noise of the band.’

I was told that a number of natives of Sferracavallo who had left for the United States during the last forty years did all they could to return to their home town for the procession, where they were welcomed by their friends from the old days. Their hosts listened entranced to the fluency of their English and were relieved to find that the visitors had no trouble expressing themselves in equally fluent Italian, sometimes even throwing in a few words of Sicilian dialect. The visitors described, to general astonishment, the marvels of such cities as Buffalo and Detroit, and were relieved to be assured that things back in Sicily were at least no worse than they had been. Among the novelties in Sferracavallo brought to the notice of the friends and relatives back from the States was the new craze for painting gigantic pictures of the ‘Sainted Physicians’ on the facades of some of the town’s largest houses. The saints were shown wearing larger than usual crowns, their purple robes as before, but by way of a novelty, high laced-up boots like those worn by competitors in sporting events. When the saints actually joined the procession they held between them a tray covered with gold-leaf supporting examples of the beakers, flasks, long-handled mirrors and intestinal pumps once commonly in use in the medical profession.

Many of the new arrivals had planned short tours to use up the now largely vacant first day of the festival, choosing the picturesque road by the sea leading to Castellammare, and intending to call in on any relative with whom they had remained in touch. All had hired the largest possible cars to be found in Palermo for the outing.

Several big houses along this road had put up notices offering hospitality to visitors from overseas, and by the time of our arrival a number of lunch parties were on the way. Being urged by Sicilian friends travelling with us to join one of them, we did so, finding ourselves at a table with a middle-aged man who had arrived on the previous day from Denver. I asked him about the great emigration after the war, and he said, ‘Nothing pushed me into emigrating. I worked on the boats, but everyone was pulling out and I guess I just caught the mood.’

‘Did you go back to the sea in the States?’

‘There was no sea around to go back to. Folks of ours were living in Spokane and they fixed it for us to come on over. I went to work for an outfit in the building materials trade nearby, and round about twenty years later I took it over. It’s really great to be back here. I come every year. Trouble is I have four grandchildren to think about these days, otherwise I’d like to stick around for a bit. You have to remember there’s not the education here we’re looking for. We’re hoping to send all the kids to Galileo High.’

This was a very Sicilian scene. The people whose hospitality we were enjoying had handed round plates piled with spaghetti and they kept filling our glasses with wine that was quite black until you held it up to the light. A child had been given a hen to play with, and was dragging it about by a string tied round its leg. Sea-birds were mewing like kittens in the garden, which was half beach, and two tables away a priest with pink cheeks had nodded off to sleep and let out a single snore. About half the occupants of the room were Sicilians who had never left the island, and the rest had spent thirty or more years in the States and were an inch or two taller than those who had stayed at home. Those who had returned to pay their respects to the Sainted Physicians were also distinguishable by their flamboyant gestures, and listening to their constant outbursts of laughter one realised once again how very rare laughter was in the country of their birth.

Back in Sferracavallo, numerous preparations for the night procession were under way. The faces, hands and feet of the saints were wiped with napkins of silk before being lifted tenderly into position on their pedestals to await the gilded tray with its medical paraphernalia. Among the fifty-five carriers chosen to make up the vara was Filippo Parco from Boston, aged twenty-four, a sufferer from depression who was here for the fifth year in succession, and who had been kept in the closest possible proximity with the images since their emergence from the chapel earlier in the day. When the procession was ready to move off, Filippo Parco would take his place in the centre of the front row of carriers directly under the beneficial gaze of both saints. It was a treatment found to be so successful that it only called for occasional topping-up by private visits to the chapel where the effigies spent the rest of the year.

Whether for religious or other reasons the procession was a most exciting affair for the majority of the town’s population who took part. A twenty-eight-instrument brass band belted out an almost overpowering sound as it squeezed its way through crowds surging in the main street, and although many lips moved in prayer few of the words were audible. To me what was extraordinary was the number of visitors from overseas who left restaurant tables and burrowed into the crowd, holding up mobile phones to capture this moment for listeners in the States. ‘For our friends and families back home,’ said one of them, ‘this is very important. We want them to share our joy. This is the great moment of our year.’

insicily© Norman Lewis 2000.
Extracted from In Sicily by Norman Lewis, which has just been reissued by Eland Publishing at £12.99


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