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Christianizing Festivals: The Barabbata of Marta

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

The ancient town, on Lake Bolsena, north of Rome, has Etruscan origins. The festival has roots as a fertility rite, where the town gave thanks to their goddess for surviving the winter and giving them new sons and animals, as well as the bounty of the lake. The festival is now dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the town’s Christianized name comes from Saint Martha, who tamed a dragon whom the townspeople she converted then killed—a symbol of vanquishing paganism. In Marta, the ritual remains.

The Barabbata festival serves so many cultural purposes—Old ones: affirming fertility, honoring workers, giving thanks for surviving the winter, giving thanks for new generations of sons and livestock for the continued survival of the community, affirming patriarchy as powerful and sustaining. But also the newer ones: redirecting the thanks towards the Christian god, affirming the ”new” faith, reminding the community that their shared experience is not only in their work, but in their worship.

In Christianizing pagan Italians centuries ago, it was important not to force the people to choose between the values they had and the new ones (which might lead to rebellion or underground persistence of the old religion), but rather to assert and affirm that the new religion would organize those older values to a higher order, with lasting rewards in the afterlife.

The Fishermen

After an all-night vigil, the parade begins at 9am. The non-participants line the streets and balconies—especially the women of the town. Only men and boys walk in the parade, representing their food-giving profession with their traditional dress and their offering to the (now) Virgin Mary. They make floats of their food—fish and seafood, fruit, cheese, grapes (wine), domestic animals, wheat. In recent years, girls have been allowed to start the parade as drum majorettes, or if they are in the school marching band.

The fish and eels are artfully arranged. Some of the fish and eels are still alive and writhe in their nets.

This is a multi-generational, millennia-old ritual. The oldest men in this photo no doubt first walked in the parade when they were toddlers.

A Float Made of Straw

Here, the fishermen have used straw to weave a tower in the image of the sanctuary, with an arch of the local ceremonial bread across the front. You can’t quite see it, but in the main door of their church they have constructed a boat, with a large image of the Virgin Mary placed within it.

The Wheat Farmers

Here, the farmers (as with all groups of men in the parade) stop periodically on the route up to the sanctuary to lead the crowd in religious songs that the community learns from childhood, and to declare their devotion to the Virgin. They shout, (my translation): “Hail, Mary! Blessed be the Holy Sacrament! Hail to the Madonna [great lady, or great mother]!” At one stop on the route, the priests, in special raiments for the day which have symbols of all the foods of the participants, bless the men and in particular their young sons. Beside the priest is the banner of the town of Marta—with an image of Saint Martha standing on a dragon. This symbolizes that the town has been Christianized.

Generations of men walk in this parade, from the very old to infants carried in their fathers’ arms. The power of the ritual lies in part for the constant affirmation of their importance to the community at all stages of their lives, and in connection to their ancestors.

The Vintners and Vegetable Farmers

They carry these floats, laden with their first harvest up the hill to the sanctuary of the Madonna.

Children may carry artfully-arranged basket offerings from their farms.

The Cattle and Dairy Men

The stunning, decorated white bulls which tend to be at the start of the parade (after the majorettes!) are probably only bred for this occasion. A century ago, they might have been used for plowing, and in the millennia before the 20th century, these special white bulls probably would have been sacrificed to the goddess (or Mary) as an offering of thanks and a prayer for the continued fertility of the town. Bulls have long been masculine fertility symbols, so it is telling that this parade dedicated to the working men starts off with these symbolic animals.

The Herdsmen

The “butteri” are Italian cowboys. They round up the cattle or sheep or goats from their grazing in the surrounding hills.

The importance of this parade to the community is in part to acknowledge the life-giving importance of the working men. In a rare occurrence in Italian life, the wealthier men of the town—the politicians, police officials, and military presence—walk behind these men at the end of the parade.

Shouting Prayers

The men and boys stop before the Priest and the crowd, and say their set prayers and a song. The crowd (mostly women) sings with them.

The presence of young boys and animals in the spring parade affirms a cycle of renewal and the continuation of the community's way of life.

Offering baby rabbits, chickens, lambs, and a baby boar

In the parade, the men and boys carry their floats or displays, demonstrating the generosity of the Virgin. These are marched up the hill to the Virgin’s sanctuary, probably built over the site of the goddess’ temple, as was frequently the practice in the Christianizing of Europe. People wouldn’t abandon their holy sites when Christianized, so the Church developed the practice of leveling the site and then building over it. The parade here ends with a ritual procession of a statue of the Virgin around all the offerings, and then a great feast begins. Originally, the animals were probably offered as sacrifices to the goddess, with the food coming from them being served to all the people. When you read about pagan animal sacrifice, it is to be understood as an offering for a ritual meal, distributed to the priests, the people, and the offerers, while praising the deity.

Offerings to the Church

Men representing the separate groups of farmers, fishermen, and herdsmen walk to the priest with decorated candles, to offer to the priest for the church. This was a common offering of guilds, the wealthy, and sometimes wealthy citizens, to assert their loyalty to the church, display it to their community (present at every service), and to ask the church to pray for their health and success in the new year.

Behind the men, you can the flag of the town, showing Santa Marta stepping on the neck of a vanquished dragon. The legend of Martha's taming of the dragon is a version of a few types of stories (like Saint George and Saint Michael), where the snake or dragon represents paganism, defeated by Christianity. Thus, even as the town performs a ritual that goes back to pre-Christian times, that continuity must reflect that Mary (and Christ) have supplanted the old fertility gods and goddesses.

The Priest Blesses the Boys and the Offerings

The priest and his attendants are shown in procession here, but at the stopping point of the parade, they bless the men and boys after they recite their prayers and sing their songs. The priest (center) has a special cassock which has the symbols of the offerings: grapes, wheat, fish, etc., as well as the AM (Ave Maria) monogram which is on many of the floats.

A Place for Girls (and politicians)

Girls have only been allowed to participate in the parade in recent decades. This is a festival that honors working men and their contributions. The girls are in a majorette team, as well as in the children's marching band. Adult women only watch. Politicians and upper-class officials walk at the very beginning of the parade (with the majorettes), and are seated in a small, raised grandstand. They get to review the working men, but they are present to recognize the providers, and are not otherwise recognized--a pointed reversal of the other 364 days of the year.

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