La Notte di San Giovanni: Midsummer Food & Drink Rituals in Italy
Presented at the Eleventh Legendary Weekend of the Folklore Society
‘Food & Drink in Legend and Tradition’ Conference
4 September, 2016, York
For ages people the world over have perceived the period around the summer solstice as a time of heightened cosmic power and influences both beneficial and sinister over the natural world. Summer solstice rituals intended to either harness positive potential or ward off evil began to shift in the early Christian period from pagan or cosmos-focused to a more Christianized, or church-sanctioned, if you will, tradition of observance focused on Saint John the Baptist, whose nativity was established as 24 June in the Gospel of Luke. Rarely if ever shedding their pagan influences, the practices in Italy and other parts of Europe surrounding this crucial period of the cosmic cycle grew evermore linked to Saint John with the passing centuries—his powers of protection and healing and his association with the waning sun in particular. Saint John’s eve and Saint John’s day also represent a period of the year highly associated with bonding, reconciliation, and marital and societal harmony.
Alongside today’s long-established Catholic and fairly conventional secular and civic observances of the feast of Saint John lives another set of rites. Many Italians, to whom this night is known as both La notte di San Giovanni, or Saint John’s eve, and la notte delle streghe, night of the witches or witches’ eve, carry out practices intended to invoke the saint’s protection from a range of ills—from disease and physical shortcomings to spells, the evil eye, and even bad love matches—yet are in fact practicing certain vestigial pagan, summer solstice rites.
This afternoon I will focus on two Italian San Giovanni traditions: the 23 June preparation of the walnut-based liqueur known as nocino, and the 24 June custom of eating snails, starting with an explanation of the herb and flower-based infusion called l’acqua di San Giovanni—Saint John’s ‘water’ or ‘elixir’—as this reputedly magical and therapeutic mixture is highly connected to the customs observed on 23 and 24 June.
First, a bit on John’s backstory as it relates to the summer solstice and his feast day.
John the Baptist is one of few Christian figures whose nativity is strictly linked to the birth of Christ, and the only saint recognized in the liturgical year on both the day of his birth and the day of his death (the only other figures with this recognition being Christ and Mary). The establishment of John’s nativity in the Gospel of Luke as precisely six months prior to Christ’s birth—each equally spaced from the following month’s calends (July and January, respectively)—begins John’s association with the summer solstice, which in the popular traditions of the time would have been observed anytime between 19 and 25 June. Subsequently, the waning sun becomes symbolically linked to John as well: early iconography of the saint, in fact, includes an image of the sun resting low on the horizon. Moreover, some of John’s most remembered words suggest a further connection to the post-summer solstice period in which the sun wanes and the length of the day decrease for the following six months. Religious historian Nenino Valentini describes this transition as such (my translation):
“Some of the more significant celebrations of the Latin Church seemed unable to conceal the ancient and still vivid echoes of pre-Christian traditions; this same identification of the Baptist with the June solstice sun just beginning its decline, for example, betrays aspects of great symbolic value that, despite having different origins, took hold in the Christian sensibility. And in this seemingly weak notion, one however fully assimilated into popular tradition, there has been an attempt to find justification of the declining sun as associated with [the Baptist], according to the following episode narrated by John the Evangelist: “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Further linking John to this idea is one of his epithets, “weeping” or “crying” John, which finds its counterpart in John the Evangelist’s opposite epithet, “laughing” John. John the Evangelist’s feast day falls squarely in the winter solstice period, on 27 December, and this notion of the so-called “two Johns” as figures representing opposite ends of the cosmic-cum-liturgical year has been interpreted by some as a Christianized revision of the function of the Roman god Janus, god of passageways and portals, beginnings and endings, whose two faces look simultaneously to the past and the future and represent respectively the two solstice ‘doors’: Janua Coeli and Janua Inferni. Some historians point to the similarity in names as well: Janus-John (English) and Giano-Giovanni (Italian). Seeming to further support the Janus-John connection is the occasional representation in Christian art of the two Johns side by side.
Among the many associations Saint John’s eve has inherited from its pagan forerunners is that of this night’s immense potential for bonding and making pacts. In the comparatico tradition in rural Sardinia and Sicily, strongly connected to the power of fire to illuminate, revive, and purify, individuals choose a companion with whom they wish to form a lifelong bond. Holding or tying their hands together, the two leap over a ceremonial Saint John’s bonfire on the night of the 23rd to cement this bond. Considered unbreakable, stronger even than blood ties, the comparatico, which translates to something like god-parent or blood-brother, was understood as a “spiritual bond, not officially recognized by the Church, which in the rural mentality recalled the exemplary bond that occurred between John and Jesus Christ through baptism on the banks of the Jordan; this evangelical notion of the comparatico, which could be formed between persons of opposite sex, resulted in a kind of indestructible relationship on a spiritual level, evidently transcending all other familial relations.” (Valentini; my translation). In a significant alternative version of the comparatico rite, two individuals link hands under running water on Saint John’s eve and recite the Apostles’ Creed.
The powers that facilitate this making of life-bonds on Saint John’s eve extend to the realm of romantic love and matrimony, rendering this shortest night of the year a potent time for love and lovers. One theory suggests that the tradition of marrying at midsummer derives from practical and evolutionary reasons, in that mating at midsummer meant births in spring, giving delicate infants born into a dark and primitive world a greater chance of survival. Author and Sardinian culture expert Claudia Zedda has described the powers of this night as such: “It is the reckless, arduous, passionate union of this night, so violent because it is so anticipated, between the desire-inflamed Sun and pale Moon of love, which gives rise to the creation of these beneficial energies” (Zedda; my translation). Perhaps the best known modern reference to midsummer as a night of lovers’ reconciliation comes to us from Shakespeare. Not coincidentally, then, it is on this night that women and men seek, in their respective ways, to court harmony and reconciliation in their love relationships.
One especially fascinating midsummer ritual in Italy brings together John’s curative and protective powers, his manifest association with water as the vehicle of Christian rebirth, and matters nuptial in nature—in particular with regard to the female concern of appearing healthy and desirable before potential mates. On the night of 23 June, women throughout Italian rural areas set out into the fields to gather flowers and herbs, which are then used to prepare the therapeutic and beautifying potion known as Saint John’s water (sometimes called Saint John’s elixir).
The concoction’s star ingredient is, not surprisingly, Saint John’s wort, or l’erba di san giovanni, a plant fundamental to traditional-herbal medicine whose sun-colored flowers bloom briefly around the summer solstice. Numerous other flowers and flowering herbs are used to make Saint John’s water, each with their own specific assigned function. Countless personalized variations exist, a notable example being the addition of wormwood to protect against il malocchio, or the evil eye.
To prepare Saint John’s water, the gathered herbs and flowers are placed in a bowl of water and left outside on the night of 23 June. In Sardinian dialect this act is called selenai, from the verb selenare, a fascinating and difficult-to-translate word derived from the name of the moon goddess Selene, and meaning something like “to absorb the moon’s light”. Yet alongside this clearly pagan concept of the origins of the night’s beneficial powers is the equally affirmed notion that Saint John himself delivers physical protection and even spiritual salvation, specifically through the elemental agent knowns as Saint John’s dew, or la guazza di san giovanni—literally the dew covering the natural world on the morning of 24 June.
Saint John’s dew is considered so potent on this morning that it alone is sometimes collected directly from leaves, flowers, grasses, and so on, and without the addition of any herbs or flowers is made into a distillation believed to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and prevent illness generally. In some versions of the dew-collecting ritual, a cloth is left out overnight to absorb the dew, which is simply wrung out into a container in the morning; or a glass or bowl is placed in a hole in the ground to let the dew drizzle in. These unmethodical alternative versions of the rite may seem almost lazy in their practice, yet actually underscore the peak potency of the magical, protective, and beneficial elements of the cosmos and/or Saint omnipresent on this night.
To conclude the rite, on the morning of 24 June women will wash their faces with the dew or water, with the hope of rejuvenating their skin and warding off skin ailments, and overall improving their physical attractiveness. In some parts of Sardinia, before applying the water, women will examine the arrangement of the herbs and flowers, seeking to divine their future spouse.
As touched on prior, the night of the summer solstice is not only a night of great potential for good, whether in the form of healing, spiritual salvation, bonding, or harmony—it is also a night on which evil forces are believed to manifest just as powerfully as their beneficial counterparts. In fact, Saint John’s water rituals are sometimes interpreted as protective measures specific to this very night. A particular medieval Italian legend accounts in large part for this, a discussion of which will lead us the first food item to be explored as part of Saint John’s eve traditions—the walnut liqueur nocino.
The legend of the Witches of Benevento tells of an annual witches coven around an ancient and sacred walnut tree in Benevento (Campania, 50 kilometres from Naples). According to the legend, witches desiring to harvest the abundant cosmic forces of this night would fly from every corner of Europe to reach the tree, where they would convene with and worship the devil. Countless versions of this tale exist, with some few historical anecdotes attesting to its origins. It’s also worth noting that cults dedicated to Isis and Hecate existed in the area in the Roman period; also documented is the felling of a grand walnut tree by order of the 7th-century bishop Barbatus, who cited certain ‘questionable forms’ of worship still in practice near the tree. Centuries later, the witchcraft trial of Matteuccia de Francesco in 1428 further cemented the link between witches and the Benevento walnut tree (witch trials took place at a walnut tree and evidence discovered there in later centuries included bones of a woman). With the preachings of Saint Bernardino of Siena and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) that same century, the following three centuries brought an ongoing witch-hunt fervor to the Benevento area (Romanazzi).
Why the walnut tree? Tree worshipping cults were known to exist in pagan Italy, and in fact in the Benevento area other types of trees were also worshipped, yet the intriguing symbolism of the walnut encourages an almost mystical view of the nut. Its shape suggests infinity, longevity, hidden wisdom. To the druids they were magical and medicinal. (Nocino is, in fact, likely a version of a walnut-based drink that originated in Great Britain with the Picts and eventually made its way to the Italian peninsula via the Celts.) The ancient Greeks and Romans associated the walnut with fertility, and served the nut at wedding banquets (Cooper). Other more practical aspects of the walnut might account for its special status as well—highly nutritious, the walnut has long been considered what today we might call a super food, rendered even more precious by the relatively little effort needed to maintain walnut trees and harvest the nuts. Valentini describes the walnut as “The power of new life intimately closed within the shell that can certainly be identified with the essence of creative expression; as a picture of life and abundance, the fruit springs from this cornucopia in possession of the goddess of fertility”. Interestingly, an opposite view of the walnut tree as a bringer of ill or evil exists alongside these ideas, with some Italian proverbs warning of the dangers of planting a walnut tree too close to home, or falling asleep underneath one.
Today, gathering walnuts on the evening of 23 June to make nocino is a fairly common practice in Italy. Of course, few Italians follow the original harvesting rite, according to which female virgins, barefoot and dressed in white, climb the walnut tree after dark on the night of the 23rd to gather an uneven number of walnuts, careful not to touch the fruit with any material besides wood. The walnuts are then left outside overnight to absorb those same cosmic and/or saintly forces believed to imbue all other plants, fruits, nuts and waters with beneficial properties. The still-green walnuts are then sliced into quarters, covered in alcohol, and left outside in the sunlight for a little over two months (sometimes longer). In some traditions, the year’s nocino batch is opened and tasted on November 1, All Saints Day.
While nocino is both produced industrially and made in private homes throughout Italy, the liqueur has a special link to the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, where a non-profit association of modern day witches called the Ordine del Nocino Modenese works to promote the cultural history of nocino, including offering nocino tasting classes and competitions. The association leadership has no membership limitations, but only women may join the official order, given they a) know how to make nocino, and b) are willing to take off their shoes for la notte delle streghe and climb a walnut tree.
Now let’s talk about snails.
Perceptions of Saint John’s eve as a night in which harmony and balance may be restored come to us in part from an ancient Roman festival that took place at midsummer dedicated to Concordia, goddess of harmony. During the so-called Concordia banquets, Romans would gather together to feast on pots of stewed snails, an animal which in the Roman ideology represented various negative life aspects. A predominant theory as to why the poor lowly snail came to stand for things like discord and ill-will relates to its anatomy: the ‘eyes’ of the snail recall the age-old curse known as the evil eye, or malocchio in Italian. Romans believed that in the ingestion of the thing representing discord they were in essence courting accord, for which reason it was important to consume snails with one’s friends and one’s enemies. To eat snails with anyone with whom you’d had any kind of disagreement during the previous year—whether a lover’s quarrel, a fight with your in-laws, a business deal gone bad—meant to literally digest, hence dissolve, any negativity between individuals. In this context then, the eating of snails was a means to foster reconciliation and restore harmony, both marital and societal.
The many symbolic meanings and interpretations associated with this ostensibly low and simple creature are rather astounding. Related to the snails anatomy, the horns in particular, is not only the above-noted connection to the evil eye, but also the evil eye’s cosmic counter-agent—the apotropaic sign of the horns. The snail’s horns symbolize male sexuality as well, an obvious enough association; in parts of Sardinia Saint John’s eve was also linked to rural phallic cults (Zedda), and moreover amulets in the shape of male genitals are among those believed to protect against the evil eye. The snail’s slow, voluptuousness manner of moving together with other of its bio functions—its waxing and waning motions within the shell, considered lunar or feminine, and even the substances it oozes wherever it treads—are all characteristics lending themselves to easy sexuality-focused interpretations.
A fascinating yet lesser known anecdote speaks of an additional benefit to males who eat snails on Saint John’s day: namely, protection against a wife’s infidelity. Simply put, the eating of the snail’s horns, called le corna in Italian, functions like a kind of sympathetic magic, a protective act against being cuckolded—called, in Italian, mettere le corna.
The snail-eating tradition among Romans was in later centuries to become centralized in the piazza in front of Saint John Lateran Basilica—a shift that clearly links the pagan Concordia-focused snail eating ritual with the Catholic celebration of Saint John. Roman practices on la notte delle streghe included flocking to Saint John’s square to seek the saint’s protection from witches making their way to a nearby coven. In this Roman version of the night of the witches, the witches in question were summoned by the damned spirits of Salome and Herodias, responsible for the beheading of the saint. The tradition of eating snails in this same piazza on 24 June continues today.
In the two photos below we see a lumacata, or snail festival, from the 1950s, one in particular (left) interesting in how its overall symbolic composition can be interpreted in terms relative to this tradition. The middle-aged man holding the pot of snails seems almost gluttonous, slightly lascivious even, in his comportment (sexual component), while on either side of him stands a man and woman, both looking equally cheerful (balance, harmony between the sexes). In the Roman dialect, by the way, the word for lumaca is ciumaca, which is also a slang word for ‘pretty girl.’ Lastly, this Roman proverb speaks rather indisputably to the link between eating snails and courting: “Regazze da bacià e ciumache da magnà non ponno mai sazià” (Roughly, One can never have enough girls to kiss or snails to eat.)
Next, the popularization of certain aspects of this feast day can be seen in the first image (below), a Facebook post promoting a Florentine gelato shop’s ‘Saint John’s elixir-flavored’ ice cream, next to which we have a poster for a ‘witch’s eve’ party, where lumache di san giovanni will be served.
And here are two posters for snail festivals. I’d like to point out the proverb printed on the second—it translates roughly to “this feast day is heralded (or announced) by the summer solstice/old herbs are burned, new herbs are gathered”—as it speaks to yet another Saint John’s Eve tradition, namely the ritualistic burning of the herbs gathered the year prior.
Below is an intriguing poster for a Saint John’s eve party in which the theme of reconciliation is clearly represented in the image of the handshake.
Lastly, three examples of how the traditions of this feast day are being explored and shared by contemporary Italy-based food bloggers and in various social media outlets: snail stew, nocino, and Saint John’s water.
(questions and discussion)
Cardini, Franco. Il Libro delle Feste: IL Cerchio Sacro dell’Anno. Il Cerchio Srl, 1998.
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Di Leo, Maria Adele, Feste Popolari di Sicilia. Newton & Compton Editori, 1997.
Duscio, Francesco. La Romanesca: Cucina Popolare e Tradizione Romana. Fuoco Edizioni, 2014.
Falassi, Alessandro. Folklore Toscano. Edizioni Nuovo corriere senese, 1980.
Falassi, Alessandro. Italian Folklore: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1985.
Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. V 11 Third Edition accessed May 19 2016 at archive.org 2009 digitized version.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge U Press, 1989.
Lapucci, Carlo. Le Leggende della Terra Toscana. Sarnus, 2011.
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J., Lindow, J. eds. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford U Press, 2002.
Lorini, Tebaldo. La Magia dell’Erba Voglio: Erbe e Fiori nelle Tradizioni Mugellane. Stabilimento Tipografico Toccafondi, 1988.
Romanazzi, Andrea. Guida alle Streghe in Italia. Venexia, 2014.
Spalding, Henry. A Treasury of Italian Folklore. Jonathan David/ Bookthrift, 1980.
Thiselton-Dyer, Thomas Firminger. The Mythic & Magickal Folklore of Plants. Samhain Song Press, 2008 (Originally published 1889 as The Folklore of Plants).
Valentini, Anita. I “Fochi” di San Giovanni: La Festa del Patrono a Firenze. Firenze, 2006.
Valentini, Nerino. Il Nocino. L’Elisir di San Giovanni. Sometti, 2010.
Zedda, Claudia. Est Antigoriu, 2012
Zedda, Claudia. La Magia di San Giovanni. Accessed June 24, 2016 at www.claudiazedda.it
Segreti e Virtù delle Piante Medicinali. Reader’s Digest S.p.A. Milan, 1979.