Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Il falò di Sant'Antuono


Sant’Antuono (Abate) is revered the land over by peasants and contadini of the South. From Campania’s capital Naples south to Basilicata to the far eastern confines of Irpinia Oriente and Puglia. Legends are told of this Christian creator of fire, tiller of fields, and protector of herdsman and their flock working his magic powers and miracles.
‘Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes homines’ 
The legend of Sant’Antuono of course is tied to that of the Greek god Prometheus who challenged Zeus by stealing fire from him to deliver it to primitive mortals on earth. So on Sant’Antuono’s feast day - January 17 - bonfires are lit in the Irpinian countryside on hilltop peaks and in village squares in honor of this ancient divinity.
On my first visit inside his chapel in the Centro Storico, wrought iron sconces lit the interior, their oily smoke residue smudged the white washed old stone. A tumbled group of wood benches filled the room and in the apse a gilt baroque altar stood laden with wilted lilies. There were 18th century devotional paintings of Sant’Antuono along with Saint Agnes, Virgin Martyr. Was Saint Agnes in attendance for her purity in contrast to San Antuono’s fiery powers? Or just convenience? Her name day is near his on January 21.
In Southern Italian folklore the masculine ritual of the fires have dual power and force. At once purifying and destructive, young men and boys spend weeks ahead going door to door in a sort of Irpinian trick or treat, gathering wood in contest to build the greatest pyres. By evening of the 17th, in the cold black night of January, glowing fires can be seen dotted across the expanse as farmers and ranchers, countrymen and townsmen, compete for the brightest flames. Il falò di Sant’Antuono. There are gatherings around the fires - imbibing - with plenty of wine and hearty country food; carne alla braccia, caccio cavallo impicciata, and local folk music.