Log after log, with gestures inherited from the elders, the pyramid of Saint Anthony the Abbot takes shape in Tossicia. Men move with skill and agility, raising the structure to heaven, hour by hour, until almost reaching the height of the nearby church, dedicated to the saint of fire and domestic animals. When the big stack starts to burn, after sunset, the whole community is gathered at its feet, warmed by the glow of the flames and observing how slowly it wears down during the evening of the feast and in the following days. It is a devotional act that persists and strengthens the alliance between the people and the holy ally of peasants, their defender from the snares of poverty and the harsh winters of the past.
The introduction in Italy of the cult of Saint Anthony the Abbot – who was born in Koma in Egypt in 251 and died in 356 when he was over a hundred years old after a life of rigorous asceticism spent largely in the Egyptian desert – is linked to the spread of monasticism from the 4th century onwards, while its association with the farming world is due to the work of the Antonines, (1297), monks who treated people affected by ergotism or by shingles , both also called “Saint Anthony’s Fire “, through the use of pig fat, considered a powerful painkiller, anti-inflammatory and disinfectant.
The devotion to the saint is very strong in the context of rural Catholicism, and his Saint’s Day is celebrated on 17th January when he is said to deliver a dual ritual protection of domestic animals (especially pigs) and against diseases (plague, scurvy and, of course, St Anthony’s Fire). In the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga area different forms of worship can be found, from sung collection of alms to performances of religious plays from the lighting of fires to the blessing of animals in church squares.
In Tossicia, the ancient capital of the Sicilian Valley, the men of the village gather together to prepare an imposing pile of wood. Pyramidal in shape, hollow in the centre in order to accommodate the combustible material, it is made with a succession of logs of considerable size, fitted together by means of a notching technique that allows the elevation of the structure even beyond nine metres in height.
Carefully analysed by Annunziata Taraschi in her long-term ethnographic research, the stack of Tossicia, built in the square in front of the church of Saint Anthony the Abbot, has been found to have a complex history and it appears that the current shape is the evolution of a series of fires, which used to be lit even in competitive form, in the various districts of the town. The log collection takes place in the weeks that precede the feast, in the woods around the town, while in previous decades the logs were obtained through a collection at the homes in each neighbourhood.
Once the men have finished building the woodpile, the parish priest blesses it while the fire is lit. According to a consolidated oral tradition the Saint, the Lord of Fire , stole it from hell to give it to men; in the Gran Sasso valleys it is said that as an old man Saint Anthony the Abbot carried fire under his cloak to warm the new born baby Jesus.
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The construction of the stack
Erecting the top part of the stack before the fire is lit.
Tossicia (TE), 27 January 2018.
Filming by Stefano Saverioni,
Don Nicola Jobbi Study Centre Archive /Bambun.
Cultural transmission and preservation
The Tossicia bonfire has been organized for several years now by the Toxicum Association, managed by a group of people in the village who are also engaged in the difficult collection of wood in the surrounding forests; an activity to which the villagers dedicate a lot of their spare time over several days. As reported by Annunziata Taraschi, preparing and setting fire to the stack of wood was part of a more complex ritual which included the preparation of other fires in the various parts of the village, the procession of the Saint and the blessing of animals on the church steps .
The construction techniques of the stack, although it is no longer as big as it used to be due to the progressive decrease of inhabitants, continue to be transmitted to the younger generations, who are intensely involved in the management of the whole ritual. The collection of wood and preparation of the bonfire also provide the opportunity to strengthen social relationships and to spend days sharing experiences and collaborating together, as a sign of continuity with the past and with the history of the community.
Currently the feast is celebrated on 17th January or, increasingly, on the nearest weekends in order to allow more people to be involved, both as organizers and as spectators. Sometimes the lighting of the fire is followed by the sale and distribution of food, and by the participation of musicians who liven up the final part of the evening, while the fire burns the pyramid of wood which was so skilfully built.