March 29, 2015

Feast of the Pupazze

Photos courtesy of Made in South Italy Today
Every year on Palm Sunday (Domenica delle Palme) in Bova Superiore, a scenic commune in the Province of Reggio Calabria, the locals celebrate the Messiah’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem with a unique ritual known as the Feast of the Pupazze.

On Palm Sunday, as the name suggests, it is traditional for devotees to weave palm leaves into religious symbols. However, in southern Italy palm was hard to come by, so during the feast celebrants used olive branches instead. In Bova, this art form was taken to new heights. Townspeople skillfully weave ornate female figures out of the branches and adorn them with flowers and local produce. The verdure effigies are carried through the town in a colorful procession to the shrine of St. Leo, Bova’s beloved patron, where they are blessed.

After Mass, the figures are stripped of their bounty and distributed among the revelers. The blessed branches are brought home and fastened to doorways or mantels for good luck and to ward off evil. The dried fronds of the previous year are burned and the ashes buried to help reinvigorate the crops and fields.

While the origins of the rite are lost in antiquity, some believe the Pupazze are allegorical figures symbolizing Lent, which is sometimes depicted as a woman. In Greece, for example, cookies are made in the image of Kyra Sarakosti, or Lady Lent, to help children learn about their religion. There is also a similarity to Lady Maslenitsa of Slavic tradition, who’s straw effigy is immolated before the Russian Orthodox Great Lent. The ashes are used in a similar fashion.

Others say the custom dates back to pre-Christian times and the images actually represent the Greek goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone (Kore), thus celebrating the transition from winter to spring. According to legend, the god Hades spied the maiden Persephone picking flowers on the slopes of Mt. Etna in Sicily. The earth shook and a great chasm opened beneath her. Up sprang Hades in a chariot, whisking the surprised goddess away to his underworld realm to be his wife and queen.

In her grief, Demeter (the goddess of fertility and agriculture) threatened to make the earth barren unless her daughter was returned to her. After a period of famine and woe, Zeus intervened and mediated a compromise begrudgingly accepted by Hades and Demeter. Persephone would spend part of the year with her husband in the underworld, and during those months Demeter would withdraw her gifts from the earth, causing the seasons of autumn and then winter. When she was returned to her mother, the goddess would once again restore her gifts and spring would begin and pass into summer. Oddly enough, Persephone and Hades were supposed to have been very happy together while she was with him in the underworld, but as every married couple should know, a mother-in-law is not something to be taken lightly.

Terracotta hydria (water jar) depicting
the abduction of Persephone by Hades.
Greek, Apulian, red figure, ca. 340-330 B.C.
Found at Canosa, Puglia before 1878
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Whatever the origin of the Pupazze, the feast is very special. It is practiced only in Bova, which incidentally is one of the few remaining pockets of Griko speakers in Calabria. It is quaint and fun, but more importantly it symbolizes ideas that are ancient and widespread. Any agrarian population understands the importance of spring and the seasonal agricultural cycles. The harvest is your life, surviving winter depends upon it and the seeds planted in the spring is where that harvest begins. In the seasons of the Church, it is also when the Son of God died, descended to Hades and was resurrected.

Even in this modern world we are not so different from our ancestors; the bread we eat and wine we drink remain products of the seasons and the harvest. Symbolism and ritual have been helping people express concepts since before written history. If we see ourselves as seekers of knowledge, then instead of turning away from these practices we should be trying to understand them, and understand ourselves through them.