Naples – Bizarre traditions venerating skulls

To this day thousands of years old rites and cults characterize Naples. They are of Greek, Roman and Christian origin, mixed with traditions and legends.

One particularly bizarre ritual is that of venerating the souls in purgatory by tending to skulls – the cult of the Anime Pezentelle.
While there has always been veneration of the dead in the region, this particular cult was intensified at the beginning of the 17th century as part of the Counter-Reformation. It offered the little man his own personal relics. The rite was also influenced by the traditions from Central America that the Spanish rulers of Naples, such as the tzompantli skull altars of Mexico. At the same time, there was a mass death from cholera that killed nearly half of Naples and robbed families of identifiable graves. The bald skulls of the dead became objects of veneration as emblems of those whose bodies and souls had not benefited from the mourning rites and who had been buried in mass graves.

From then on, in the damp, dark crypts of the churches and cemeteries of Naples, skulls were more and more venerated. Since in ancient tradition Diana-Hekate is the goddess of femininity and at the same time also the leader of the dead, it was especially women who acted as intermediaries to the underworld. The ancient day of the moon goddess Diana, Monday, became the day chosen for this purpose.

Initially, this cult of the soul was supported by the Catholic Church in order to collect offerings and donations. In 1969, however, it was banned by Cardinal Ursi, who considered the rite to be excessively macabre. The faithful were referred to the recognized saints. Since then, the tradition has diminished, although it has not disappeared. Still, therefore, there is the tradition of adopting a skull as the seat of the soul.

In the cult, one skull is chosen among many others, given special care and placed in separate niches. From then on, the believer asks for relief from the suffering of the pezzentella soul (from the Latin petere: to ask to receive something), and in return the soul asks for grace and assistance for the living person.

In several churches of Naples and in the Fontanelle Cemetery, papers with scribbles, niches and small altars still tell of this ancient ritual that mixes faith, prayers and hopes. Candles, flowers, rosaries and small objects placed between the folds of the pillows on which the skulls rest attest to the reverence paid to the souls.

To the outsider, these places of veneration for the dead are strange; to the Neapolitan, they are a place of tradition. In many street altars of Naples, one sees the souls in purgatory depicted with hands raised in supplication. The famous Pulcinella clown is also a figure that connects the believer with the underworld. Pulciniello, the chick, hatches from the egg of death back to life.

UC Ringuer

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