Umbria’s Sacred June Rites
It will soon be time to gather the wildflowers, weeds, grasses and leaves for the wondrous rural concoction, l’acqua di San Giovanni.
After all, no morning wash is more glorious than that of Umbria’s rural people in the early morning of June 24th. On June 23rd at sunset, vigil of the Festa di San Giovanni Battista, the farmwomen head out into the fields with baskets or bags to gather the cento erbe (literally,”one hundred greens or plants”, though flowers as well as plants are picked). The flowers and plants will then be soaked all night in a basin – outdoors. The flower-filled basins of water 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.
Upon rising the next morning, everyone in the family will wash face and hands with the acqua di San Giovanni gloriously perfumed with the wildflowers, leaves, blossoms, seed pods, weeds, and greens which have been soaking all night. Roses, the yellow wild broom, and walnut leaves dominate in fragrance and are essential elements of the “one hundred plants” (well, at least the objective is one hundred! but far fewer will do). The washing in the water of the cento erbe is purification. Washing the eyes with this water will protect against diseases of the eye. 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.
John, who baptized his cousin in the River Jordan, has always had strong symbolic ties to water. Many a bridge – a connecting point over water – bears his name, including the suburban area of Perugia, called “Ponte San Giovanni”, about 16 miles from Assisi. Here in the Middle Ages, a bridge had been built over the Tiber to facilitate the passage of the thousands of pilgrims from northern Europe heading to the Tomb of St. Francis in Assisi. Prior to the bridge, barges had transported the travelers across the Tiber.
In Abruzzo and Molise regions, rural people believe that young women looking towards the rising sun can see the face of San Giovanni Battista in the orb. Whoever sees it first will be married within the year. In Sardinia, it is said that on June 24th, the sun almost imperceptibly “hops” when it sets, just as did the decapitated head of the Baptist!
In many rural Sicilian hamlets, the villagers used to come out at dawn of June 24th to see the sun “turn”, putting pans of water on the ground to catch its reflection. On the vigil of S. Giovanni, young women put egg white on a plate, believing that the form of the egg white would predict the profession of the husband.
Here in Umbria, garlic is pulled up from the earth for the Feast of San Giovanni – not all of the garlic (if not mature), but at least a bunch to hang on the front door: to keep away the malocchio, “evil eye”.
All of these legends are rooted in the solar moment of June 24th: after the summer solstice, the sun will begin to drop on the horizon, though barely evident. (At the winter solstice, the sun will seem to die, then will be “reborn” as the “New Light”). The Feast of St. John the Baptist, cousin of Christ and born exactly six months before the traditional date set by the Church as the birth of Christ, falls on June 24th or the summer solstice. In ancient Rome, the fecundity and fertility festivities in honor of the goddess Fortuna ended on June 24th. Both summer and winter solstices are symbols of passage or of the border between the world of space/defined time and the world which is timeless and spaceless.
St. John the Baptist’s feast is therefore a “Christianizing” of ancient solstice celebrations. The bonfire was an inherent element as the fire sustains the sun now in an imperceptible decline and the bonfire is an earthly representation of the sun, life-giver and purifier of the earth which in turn gives life to vegetation and the waters.
In fact, fire and water, principal elements of purification, combine and merge in Umbria’s late June festivities. At Grello, a tiny fortified mountain village near Assisi, la Festa del Fuoco e Guazza di San Giovanni celebrates St. John the Baptist’s feast with fuoco (fire) and guazza (dew). On the vigil of the feast, June 23rd, six young men for each of the three rioni (or sections of the village) run madly through the village bearing fiery torches and then race through the town dragging fire-bearing tregge, a sort of wooden sled, once used by the poor rural people to drag crops in from the fields. Farm carts had to be bought and so poor farms never had more than one. The farmer himself could make the tregge.
Each treggia bears a flaming rudimentary cero (“candle”) – called “incije” in the dialect of Grello – made of straw, food and other inflammable materials by the rione team. The Grello night is illuminated by the fiery sled-born “candles” as the villagers cheer all to the finish. The proud winning team accepts the palio (banner) which will have a place of honor in the winning rione til the next year. After the race, all gather for a feast before ballroom dancing in the square and the panetto (or “little bread”) of San Giovanni is offered to all. Before going to bed that night, all the women of Grello will put their basins of water filled with wildflowers and plants outside of their doors – so that the flower-filled water will absorb the guazza, the heaven-sent dew.