December 24, 2014

A River of Fire in the Land of Bells: The ’Ndocciata, Agnone’s Ancient Fire Ritual

The ’Ndocciata (Photo courtesy of madeinsouthitaly.com) 
By Giovanni di Napoli

In the Molise region of southern Italy, in the Province of Isernia, stands the ancient hill top town of Agnone. Rich in history, art and culture, it is perhaps most famous for the manufacturing of bells. In fact, Agnone is known as the "town of the bells” and boasts the world's oldest foundry, the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, which some say dates back to the year 1000.

Agnone also has the distinction of having one of southern Italy’s oldest and largest fire rituals. Known as the ’Ndocciata, which in the local vernacular means "big torch,” the rite began as a pre-Christian “festival of light” in celebration of the winter solstice.

On the shortest night of the year, Samnite tribesmen would travel from the surrounding countryside into the town square with their 'ndocce, large torches bound together in the shape of a fan, where they would erect a huge bonfire. It is said the crackling fire would scare away witches and evil spirits, and the fortunes of the coming year could be foretold by which direction the sparks blew.

However, with the coming of Christianity, the custom was adopted by the Church and became part of the local celebration of the birth of Christ.

On Christmas Eve, hundreds of men and teenage boys dressed all in black will gather at the northern outskirts of Agnone. Carrying their torches over their shoulders, they make their way through the local districts towards the entrance of the town, past the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate (who, coincidently, is the patron saint of fire). Over the years the 'ndocce grew larger and ever more elaborate. Most torchbearers will carry 4 to 8 torches, but those with enough strength, endurance and fervor can carry as many as 20!

Accompanied by zampognari (bagpipers) and the tolling of Agnone’s famous bells, the torchbearers dance and sing Christmas songs as they proceed to the piazza. Celebrants gather around the roaring fire to enjoy the pageantry, festive songs, fireworks, local delicacies and, most importantly, each other’s company.

In recent years, in addition to Christmas Eve, the ’Ndocciata has been held on December 8th; and on that day in 1996 it was offered to Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter's Square in Rome in honor of his 50th anniversary of priesthood. Nearly a thousand Agnonesi marched down the Via della Conciliazione with their 'ndocce singing and dancing. The celebration culminated with a blazing “bonfire of brotherhood." Admirers of the massive fiaccolata (torchlight procession) have described the spectacle as a “river of fire.”

For more on Agnone and the ’Ndocciata see http://www.madeinsouthitalytoday.com/agnone.php