Christiane Reimann, the villa and the cityOctober 31, 2021
The landscape of VendicariNovember 8, 2021
Laboratorio Artigianale Le Voglie All Ph. credits © Antonio Gerbino
The "Festa dei Morti"
Sugar, skeletons and symbolic patrophagy
For centuries, lit candles and laden tables have filled the houses, streets and cemeteries of Sicily during the long “night of the dead”. The traditional holiday dedicated to the deceased, the 2nd of November, All Souls Day, has its roots in a millennia-long history; it remembers and maintains pagan rituals from the Roman world, and ties them to Christian culture, as often happens with complex demo-ethno-anthropological phenomena. Writing about the origins of this deeply-felt tradition on the island is like opening a window onto the Sicilian ethos and discovering the fascinating and terrifying tales which characterise it.
At the center of it all is Death and the relation the Sicilian people have with it. It’s not an eternal rest, but perhaps a “state” of life, towards which one never stops looking, one with which it is possible to make contact.
The 2nd of November is therefore the Sicilian retelling of the delicate equilibrium between the world of the living and the world of the dead and which for one night are allowed to mix. And perhaps even to “eat each other”. Behind the most famous culinary traditions, such as the “pupi di zuccaro” and the “ossa dei morti”, recently replaced by toys given to children, is a profound sense of fusion, which is transmitted through food and tells a tale of symbolic patrophagy.
The origins of the holiday, as is well-known, are found in the Early Middle Ages, when the Church began to include those rituals that were difficult to extinguish, in the Christian holidays. Between the 9th and the 10th century, and in particular under the Benedictine bishop, Odilone of Cluny, the Latin Church tried to control and reframe traditions linked to the cult of the dead, the cult of meat and of bodies, in actual fact extraneous to its principles. There are many documents from the Carolingian age onwards, which note a perpetuation of the Roman beliefs; the returning of the dead to the plane of the living in specific moments of the year connected to “astronomical darkness”; the danger of them feeding on the loved ones they would visit. Among the most unusual were Frankish traditions of burials of children who in specific conditions were buried directly in the earth and “anchored” through hooks to stop them from returning.
In this mixing of beliefs, ritual food that was offered to the deceased, had an essential role in perpetuating gestures known to the ancient world; Homeric libations, the oscilla hung up by Romans in front of their houses to be offered to the Lari, or the myth of Persephone, bound to the Underworld and Hades by a grain of pomegranate.
Returning to more recent times, although the holiday of the 2nd of November is of universal character, it is clear how in Italy, Sicily is the Land of the Day of the Dead, revealing once more the variegated character of its traditions, in which archeology, art and popular traditions combine in a single song.
In particular the area of Siracusa has been characterized by a strong and specific tradition, the testimony of which is the material and immaterial heritage found in the Casa Museo di Antonino Uccello in Palazzolo Acreide, or the network of the fourteen “Ecomusei degli Iblei”.
The protagonists were the agro-pastoral communities and the “pani e dolci” - bread and sweets - (remembering Antonino Uccello) to feed the souls of the living and the dead, made of substance but mostly of form. So it is possible to reconstruct the magical value of food through its shape, whether “iconic or aniconic”. While the dead were guided by lit candles to tables filled with food in the houses where they could eat without harming any of the living, the living needed to enter in communion with them too. The importance of direct physical contact can be seen in different occasions of popular belief such as the “abitini” - little clothes; in a similar way, food and its consumption were able to satisfy the desire of “touching” the dead. This could happen by eating food with a human shape. Quince jam, the sweets called bones of the dead shaped like tibia, or totò*, covered in white and black icing, were the means through which the gesture of “eating one's ancestors” could be made, to complete the symbolic ritual of patrophagy.
It is fascinating to remember the shapes of the most ancient forms of quince jam where alongside Saints and Madonnas, limbs such as feet or hands could be represented. Even a simple hand can tell us the deeper sacred meaning of the shapes: part of a body to eat which reminds us of the blessing gesture of a Saint, to which in the familiar Christian and magical cult of the communities, perhaps the “sanctified dead” were compared. After all even reliquaries, especially the medieval ones, have given us potent iconographies representing “parts” of the Saints, venerated and held in places of worship and reproduced again on the tables of the people, such as the famous “Minnuzze di Sant’Agata” - Saint Agatha's breasts - or the biscuits with the “Eyes of Santa Lucia”.
We thought it would be approppriate to accompany the article with photos of totò, the aweet which symbolises the Day of the Dead at Siracusa, and to pay homage to the art of the bakers, authentic artists of flavour who guard their rich heritage of tastes and skills jealously. The bakery Laboratorio artigianale Le voglie in Siracusa, who gave our director permission to take photos during the preparation, also listed the ingredients. White Totò: flour, sugar, lard, milk and lemon; Black totò: flour, sugar, cocoa, milk, cinamon, rum. But what is it that makes them so irresistable, soft and delicate with a delicious, heady smell? That remains a secret!
These popular beliefs ran parallel to the wider cultural phenomena of the Island; while in the 15th century in Palermo the “mysterious” fresco "The Triumph of Death" was being painted, now preserved in the Museo di Palazzo Abatellis, in Noto and other cities of the island the dead were being carried out in procession. A pastoral visit to the Chiesa del Crocifisso in the now lost Noto Antica in 1553 states how the Bishop of Siracusa struggled to stop some macabre practices from taking place:
“It is forbidden to take the dead from their tombs and take them out in procession”
Perhaps during the 16th century in Noto as in Messina, the bones of the dead were boiled in the churchyard, to remind us how important the direct contact made by the gesture of eating was.
Traditions from the past remain in gestures that are made today almost unknowingly; an invitation could then be to sit down and savour a typical honey biscuit, made for the occasion in the area of Siracusa, and think of the extraordinary resemblance to the funeral treasures of the Castelluccio site at Noto. A bite of a honey biscuit is the equivalent to a dip into Sicily’s cultural heritage which can make us travel from prehistory to the recently ended era of the Hyblean farmers.
She teaches History of Art and is president of the SiciliAntica Association for the province of Siracusa. She has studied education and teaching applied to cultural heritage; she has worked in an Ethnographic museum in Noto, taught materials in the Faculty of Architecture and has published various writings on technological innovation applied to cultural heritage. She couldn’t not write for SiracusaCulture.