Umbria’s Sacred Acqua di San Giovanni
In one way or another, Umbria’s June rural rites rotate around the summer solstice. The ancients believed that on the vigil of June 24th (later designated as the feast of St. John the Baptist by the Church), he elements of Nature – water, fire, earth, and air – were charged with particular powers. And what fire and water elements in Umbria’s late June festivities!
Fire? Head to Grello on June 24th for la Festa del Fuoco e Guazza di San Giovanni
Water? St. John the Baptist has a strong association with water, logicamente and on the vigil of his feast, farm friends Peppa, Rita, and Olga will be preparing the sacred acqua di San Giovanni. At sunset on June 23rd, they’ll tromp the fields and comb the hills gathering the cento erbe (literally, “one hundred grasses/plants”, though flowers too are picked..and who knows if they’ll find one hundred?). They’ll gather every type of wildflower, plant, blossoms, seed pod, weed and green – particularly those with enticing fragrances. Thyme, rosemary, sage, lavender, marjoram, laurel, wild fennel, roses, wild mint, walnut leaves and the yellow wild broom cloaking hillsides dominate in fragrance and are essential elements of the “one hundred grasses/plants.”
The farm women will soak the flowers and plants all night in a basin – outdoors. The flower-filled water basins must never enter the home. Keeping the basin out all night assures that the first guazza or dew will enter the water. My farm neighbors are puzzled when I ask them why the basin must be left out to receive the guazza. They can only tell me that their ancestors “have always done so – and so must we”. I think I understand why: the guazza descends from the Heavens.
And no morning wash is more glorious than that of Umbria’s rural people on June 24th. Upon rising, everyone in the family will wash face and hands with the gloriously perfumed acqua di San Giovanni to keep the skin healthy and youthful and to ward off illness. Washing the eyes with this water will assure protection against eye diseases. In many families, a ladleful of the acqua di San Giovanni is added to the bath water of each that day. Infants will be washed directly in the basin of the acqua di San Giovanni before the water is used by others. This water will protect the child.
After all, l’acqua di San Giovanni does not just ward off illness: it protects one from il malocchio.
I stopped at Peppa’s on June 24th with Cara from Georgia who has been staying in our Assisi apartment to wash with the perfumed water. We both washed face and hands in the perfumed water. After all, always better to be on the safe side.