June 5, 2012

La Mattanza and the Price of Progress

La Mattanza 
(Photo courtesy of Theresa Maggio)
By Lucian

I’ve always been fascinated by European traditions and am amazed at how much there is to discover. That so much is unknown to so many is disturbing, because many traditions have existed for over a thousand years. In a world where “progress” has become a buzzword used by the powerful to justify globalization and cultural leveling, the preservation of our history, culture and identity must be proactive to succeed. 

I had long known intellectually of the spiritual connection between Southern Italian culture and the sea, but in America it is no longer felt as strongly as it once was. During the Second World War the fishing boats of many Italian-Americans were confiscated, both for the war effort and as a general precaution against their being used to aid the Axis powers. Many Italians were legally restricted from working in the fishing industry. Unfortunately even those who were not restricted were often denied work because of their ancestry. The businesses and livelihoods of many of these families were ruined, and culturally the Italian presence in the fishing industry was diminished, although there were, and still are, many Italians serving with distinction in the U.S. Navy.

After discussing the sea’s past significance in our culture and mythology, my good friend asked me to read a book called Mattanza, the Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing. It was something wonderful that I’m always looking for; a surviving tradition that has been practiced by our ancestors for centuries. 

Written by Theresa Maggio, the book reintroduced me to the important historical role that bluefin fishing, and the sea, has for all Mediterranean peoples. It is the source of much of my knowledge on the topic, and acted as a good starting point for further research. Ms. Maggio’s work is informative about a variety of interesting areas such as archaeology, history and social customs, and is a good read that I would recommend to anyone. Perhaps the only part that I disagreed with was a quote from one of the people she knew claiming that Sicily had Arab origins (ignoring several thousand years of prior history). The ethnic stock of the Sicilian people is, for the most part, a fusion between the indigenous tribes (such as the Sicels, Sicans and Elymians) and the numerous Greek colonists of Magna Graecia. However, I must readily concede that there is an Arab influence that can be seen in the language, architecture and customs of Sicily. Like other parts of Europe, the island has been a notorious battleground and been influenced by many of the cultures occupying it over the centuries. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians (Germans), French, Spaniards, etc. have all left their mark.

Mattanza means slaughter, from Spanish matare, “to kill.” It is the specific act of harvesting the bluefin tuna, but the maze of physical nets is referred to as a tonnara. The first tonnara on the island of Favignana is associated with the Arab occupation, although other sources claim it is older. There may have been earlier bluefin harvesting in that area, because those locations were prosperous and known to be targets for Muslim pirates. The island was also a military strategic point, so in all probability would have been targeted for that reason alone. 

In Favingnana the leader of the fishermen and coordinator of the tonnara is called the Rais (pronounced RAH-ees), a word of Arabic origins. However, bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean was ancient before the Saracen conquests. A cave painting in Levanzo, an island three miles north of Favignana, shows hunters and their prey. The four thousand year old sepia-ink paintings clearly depict a tuna among the animals. The ancient Greeks even had a verb that meant “to watch for tuna.”
La Grotta del Genovese, Levanzo 
(Photos courtesy of grottadelgenovese.it)
Setting up the nets of the tonnara is as much an art as a science, and for over a thousand years changed very little. In 1829 Vincenzo Florio brought some new ideas to the process at Favignana that resulted in record catches. Even with the changes, the bulk of the tradition remained the same. In the spring the framework, floats and anchors for a maze of nets is set up with chambers to guide the tuna into the harvesting place, which, in the various languages of the Mediterranean, is always referred to as The Chamber of Death. The tonnara cannot be set too close to the shore, or it will catch too few tuna. If it is set too far out to sea where there are more tuna the currents will tear it apart. The Rais must be experienced and talented to set it properly. The Mattanza season usually ends on June 13th, the feast day of Saint Anthony.

Ritualistic prayers to the saints are common. There are songs and chants asking for safety and a bountiful catch. In Favignana one song (Gnazu) asks God to bless the Rais and his musciara (lead boat) and curses the “Turkish dogs” who raided the tuna and kidnapped fishermen in those waters. Another song “Lina, Lina” was bawdy and sounded like something my father’s Navy mates might have sung. Even so, most of the singing has religious overtones. They even bring statues of the saints out to sea with them. Theresa Maggio did a wonderful job of bringing these images to life in her narrative.

There can be several Mattanzas in a season, the number depending on the volume of fish. The tonnatori (tuna fishermen) count the fish swimming in the nets and when ready the Rais declares a Mattanza to harvest them from the Chamber of Death. The tuna average around 150 kilos and some are over 8 feet long. There can be hundreds of them in a single harvest. Teams haul the giant tuna out of the water and wrestle with them while they are slaughtered.

Tourists sometimes describe it as beautiful and sometimes they call it horrible or cruel. They’re right; it is both beautiful and horrible, as is nature and life itself. All hunting or fishing can be considered cruel from certain perspectives, but meat and fish have always been food to humans and still are to most people on the planet. The differences between the Mattanza and the large commercial operations are often about volume, economics, and ecological impact, but another important aspect is spiritual. 

When Theresa Maggio asked one of the fishermen how it felt to kill a giant tuna with his bare hands while it struggled to escape or if he had any sympathy for the fish, tonnaroto Clemente Ventrone had an interesting response:
“You do it because it is survival. You do it to live. Or you don’t choose this life. You become a banker. It’s not for the violence. It’s not something I do for pleasure, or to please others. It’s survival.” (Mattanza, by Theresa Maggio, p127)
The tonnatori look their prey in the eyes before killing them, they match their strength against the animal in a struggle that is intimate and ends in death. There is no hiding from the brutal reality of the kill or the blood that covers them afterward. They hunt the tuna, but they respect the tuna. For the tonnatori the tuna are not just a commodity, they represent sustenance, and for well over a thousand years their deaths meant life for our people.

Unfortunately, as the rest of the world’s population increases and technology advances, the large commercial fishing operations race to keep up with the demand. They have become so effective in their harvesting that it has noticeably impacted the ocean’s ecology in several ways. The average size and numbers of bluefin tuna shrink every year. A few people protest the tonnaras in light of the declining fish populations, but the few remaining tonnaras are not the problem, they catch so few tuna compared to the modern ships that their impact on the environment is negligible. Many tuna also escape the nets of the traditional fishermen, in stark contrast to the vast nets of commercial ships that harvest almost everything in their path then waste what they weren’t fishing for.
Bluefin Tuna (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Japan is one of the world’s largest consumer of tuna. Until relatively recently, the tonnara in Favignana sold all its tuna to the Japanese and could not have operated without the Japanese freezer ships waiting in the distance. Demand for tuna is so high that in America some sushi bars substitute a cheaper fish called escloar instead of tuna, which can be unhealthy and has made people ill.

Global markets and new technologies have rapidly altered the world. The fading practice of fishing with tonnaras has been compared to the sacred hunting rituals of the American Plains Indians being eliminated by the European’s technology. Hundreds of buffalo could be killed quickly by only a few men with their new weapons, forever altering the lives and culture of the Native Americans. Some claim that the disappearance of our own traditions is the inevitable price of progress.

People today speak of progress as if it were an end unto itself, but the meaning of the word simply means movement toward a goal or final condition, and that goal is subjective, depending on who you are speaking to. Some proponents of cultural leveling feel that progress means the elimination of ethnic and cultural differences, and they cheerfully speak of the inevitable disappearance of our people and culture as if it would make all the world’s problems go away. An honest look at the rest of the world clearly shows that this would not be the case, but that doesn’t seem to deter them. On the other hand you have people that believe that profit is more important than anything else. They claim that the depletion of the world’s resources is inevitable and part of the cycle of civilization, and they continue to profit and accelerate the process while gambling that the resources will not run out within their lifetimes; and they call that progress. I am not alone in thinking that progress toward these ends is progress we can do without.

Change may be inevitable, but the way things change doesn’t have to be. Question motivations and look deeper into the possibilities. You may find alternatives. You may even find hope.

In 1997 the lease for the tonnara at Favignana expired and was not renewed. Gioacchino Cataldo developed a cooperative with the other fisherman and continued the tonnara with a deal that split the profits with the owners. After this he was elected Rais. An agreement was made with Eurofish to buy the tuna. The tradition was intentionally promoted for its tourist value to help keep it alive. The new cooperative was fittingly called La Mattanza. Through the actions of the fishermen themselves, the tradition continues. Some of the sources that I referenced stated that since then there were some years the Mattanza was not performed due to the lack of tuna; although large commercial harvesting has not stopped. 

There are those who wonder why this is important, they ask: “Why bother to preserve our traditions?” One of the answers is: because they are ours. To let them die is to allow part of ourselves to die. So many of our people today feel hollow, and seek to fill that emptiness by exploring the esoteric traditions and philosophies of other peoples. Seeking to understand the traditions of others can be a positive thing, but keep in mind how precious they are to the people who keep them. Parallels to those traditions can be found in our own culture, so perhaps what our people are so desperately seeking can be found in our own past. If we admire others for passionately preserving their cultures, then we should follow their example and preserve our own.


Mattanza, The Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing by Theresa Maggio, ISBN 0 73 82.0269 X (hc.)

Una Storia Segreta, The Secret History of Italian-American Evacuation and Internment During World War II by Lawrence DiStasi, ISBN 1-890771-40-6 (pbk.)

A History of Sicily by M.I. Finley, Denis Mack Smith and Christopher Duggan, ISBN 0-670-81725-2

Mattanza, Best of Sicily Magazine