Barabbata, An Ancient Festival

May 12, 2008 / Events
Marta, Lago Bolsena
Each May 14th outside Marta, a lovely fishing village on Lake Bolsena, a fertility celebration called Barabbata, or the Madonna of the Mountain, takes place. While its origins are unknown, the tradition is certainly tied to the ancient festival of the Roman fertility goddess Cerere. We do know that when the Catholic Church tried to suppress in 1704, it gave the festival the pejorative name of Barabbata; hence the two names. Sacred? Profane? Our local friend Giovanna just shakes her head, Non importa! (No matter!)

With Giovanna’s expert counsel we position ourselves right by the church, where we can watch the entire procession climbing toward us up the steep hill, a grand view of Lake Bolsena below, the oldest volcanic lake in Italy. The procession is carried out by men on horseback, then artisans, followed by farmers divided into groups: sowers, diggers, and fishermen and shepherds, all carrying the tools of their trade. They walk from the lake to the small sanctuary of the Madonna of the Mountain. Women do not take part in the procession; instead they line the route, throwing flowers from their balconies as the procession passes by. The horseback riders reach us first and looking straight at the entrance of the church, they take off their hats, raise them high, and yell “Viva Maria!” as their horses charge forward.

Everyone around us claps, but there is more . . A team of huge oxen follow (unwillingly if it’s a hot day) up the steep hill. This is the first “float”. About thirty floats are towed by tractors, animals and men following the oxen. They are decorated with fresh flowers and feature produce from the earth and water, symbols of ancient Cerere: grapes, olives, grain, and all types of fresh fish. Local cheeses and wine are also featured on some of the floats.

On arrival at the Sanctuary, mass is held followed by three laps around the Church, where the participants enter the main door and leave through another, paying homage to the Madonna . . or is it Cerere?

Non importa!

Evanne Brandon-Diner

by Evanne Brandon-Diner

Chronicler of local village life in Northern Lazio, and property restoration and purchasing consultant.

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