Every year during the Holy Week of Easter, a tiny village in the southern tip of Italy becomes the scene of an ancient tradition that dates back to the thirteenth century. Over the course of a few days, a Middle Ages atmosphere takes over here, with a dark, imposing mixture of religion and pagan traditions permeating the town. Vattenti (beaters) — young and old devotees expressing their faith through self-flagellation — are the cornerstone of this ancient rite, which has been handed down for centuries, drawing flocks of onlookers to this day.
The town of Nocera Terinese, a cluster of houses and churches perched on a hill in the mountains of Calabria, is immersed in a sacred silence on Good Friday eve. By noon of the next day, the narrow streets of Nocera are packed with villagers and outsiders.
Many historians believe the ceremony was influenced by the Christian concept of participating in Jesus’ sufferings before the cross, popularized when the flagellant movement spread through Europe between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (although some others place its origins much earlier). And while this is a Christian rite, some detect older, pagan influences. Its roots may stem from the pagan propitiatory rite of Earth’s fertility through the supply of blood by devotees. Despite questions about its true origin and numerous attempts at banning it over the last century, this tradition has known no interruption for centuries.
In 1921, the renowned historian and academic Ernesto Pontieri, who was himself born in Nocera Terinese and extensively studied the tradition of flagellants, described the days preceding Easter in his town:
“On the streets there’s a movement of happy and idle people coming and going, in and out from churches, stopping at the squares, going up and down [the village] cheerful to enjoy the annual event. Meanwhile, crowds of boys emerge from every alley; small groups of women are formed here and there; balconies and windows are packed. And suddenly, ‘Eccoli! Here they are! The Vattenti!’ shouts a voice. In a trice all the boys rush to the unconscious spectacle of people, perhaps anything but devout. They are very less today and pushed by a spare glass [of wine], while yesterday they were numerous and supported by a sincere religious spirit.”
Almost a hundred years later, not much has changed. The streets are packed. All eyes are staring curiously at a man dressed in white robes, holding a massive crucifix, followed by a group of people carrying a majestic wooden statue of Pietà from the church of the SS. Annunziata. The procession will roll downhill, from church to church, stopping at each and every doorway. The devotees’ slow walk through the village is accompanied by a funeral march played by a band following the procession. A group of elderly women, all dressed in black, echoes them, singing mournful dirges in Calabrese dialect. Despite the general atmosphere of sacredness, there is no sadness in the streets of Nocera. The flagellation rite, seen as a ritual of purification and a vote, is experienced as a joyful event, a tradition that must be carried on.
Meanwhile, men dressed in black shirts and bare legs, followed by younger boys with only a red robe covering their legs, start appearing in pairs from the tiny alleyways paved in stone. The boys each carry a red cross and are tied to a flagellant by a thin rope; each boy represents the Ecce Homo, a representation of Christ before the trial.
Many Vattenti get ready in secrecy, in the intimacy of cellars called catuoio, where they start their self-flagellation with plain cork first, and then with small glass splinters embedded in it. Like their fathers before them, they choose to follow the centuries-old purification ritual through the mortification of flesh. Absorbed in their respective roles, during the procession the men roam around the village, some solitary, some followed by knots of onlookers peeking curiously at the rhythmic hitting of their legs, now bleeding copiously.
A mixture of red wine and vinegar is used to moisturize, disinfect and prevent cicatrization of the wounds, and an acrid smell emanates from it. The winding alleys carry the marks of the ritual with bloodstains and footprints. After five hours of tormented beating, the flagellants and their Ecce Homo suddenly sneak off from the streets and the procession to reunite with their families, gather to eat and celebrate.
There is a widespread belief in Nocera Terinese, a mysterious fear shared by flagellants and villagers alike, that things might go wrong if the rite is not accomplished, not carried on. In the past, when the Church and local authorities have tried to ban the rite for its violence, Nocerini people beat their legs secretly, inside their homes. A strong sense of belonging binds the flagellants to this ancient event, one which now represents the soul of their culture and tradition.
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Andrea de Franciscis, doctor by education and photographer by choice, currently lives and works in New Delhi.
Maria Tavernini is an Italian freelance journalist and sailor, currently based in New Delhi.