Naples – Bizarre traditions venerating skulls

To this day, Naples is characterized by thousands of years old rites and cults of Greek, Roman, and Christian origin mixed with traditions and legends.

One particularly bizarre ritual is the cult of the Anime Pezzentelle, which involves venerating the souls in purgatory by tending to skulls. While the region has always had a tradition of venerating the dead, this cult was intensified at the beginning of the 17th century as part of the Counter-Reformation, offering individuals their own personal relics. The rite was also influenced by the skull altars of Central America, such as the tzompantli of Mexico, which were adopted by the Spanish rulers of Naples. At the same time, there was a mass death from cholera that killed nearly half of Naples, leaving families without identifiable graves. The bald skulls of the dead became objects of veneration as emblems of those whose bodies and souls had not benefited from mourning rites and who had been buried in mass graves.

Since then, skulls have been increasingly venerated in the damp, dark crypts of the churches and cemeteries of Naples. In ancient tradition, Diana-Hekate is the goddess of femininity and the leader of the dead, making it especially women who act as intermediaries to the underworld. The ancient day of the moon goddess Diana, Monday, became the day chosen for this purpose.

Initially, the Catholic Church supported this cult of the soul to collect offerings and donations. However, in 1969, Cardinal Ursi banned the rite as excessively macabre, and the faithful were directed to the recognized saints. Since then, the tradition has diminished, but it has not disappeared. Therefore, the tradition of adopting a skull as the seat of the soul still exists.

In this cult, one skull is selected from 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.

Several churches in Naples and the Fontanelle Cemetery still bear witness to this ancient ritual that mixes faith, prayers, and hopes through papers with scribbles, niches, and small altars. 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 outsiders, these places of veneration for the dead seem strange, but to Neapolitans, they represent tradition. In many street altars of Naples, one can see 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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