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Ancient Mysteries of Agriculture

by Marco Piscedda

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I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia


May is very important for the citizens of Allerona because of an event that makes them proud of their roots: Pugnaloni. 
On the third Sunday of May, people of Allerona celebrate Saint Isidoro, farmers’ patron saint; an humble man who has earned holiness thanks to a life dedicated to prays, hard work, and sharing with the most unlucky people. 

The Origin

Pugnaloni are the evident adaptation made by Christianity of a propitiatory pagan rite.
The term “pugnalone” could be derived from a “pinch”, a stick with an iron tip on one side, used to urge the oxen to work more abruptly and, on the other, by a scraper that the plowmen used to clean the plow from the plinths.
Other sources says that it derives from the Latin verb pugnare, which means fighting, and we can rather find this connection in the homonymous celebration of Acquapendente, in the province of Viterbo.
The battle-related perception that in Acquapendente is celebrated as a re-conquest of freedom by the people – who, armed with forks and spurs, defeated the army of Federico Barbarossa – cannot have inspired the re-enactment of Allerona, probably connected to the agricultural tool.

The Modern Rite


Traditional Allerona bun

The modern representation testimonies so: they are wooden poplar beams about three meters high, topped by an ovoid cage, made of hammocks or flexible wooden shingles, and resembling a large rope. The cage is decorated with vibrant ribbons and fresh flowers set on top, enclosed in a compact bunch shaped like pommel. Inside the cage you can find fresh cheese, wine bottles, tools to work on fields, small wooden tools and banners with motto and proverbs on farm life, and photographs of the Pugnalone bearer’s family.
In the wagons, which every year go through the streets of the village, there is the agrarian life and the scene of the miracle of St. Isidore, reproduced in a miniature; a real crib made of clay statuettes dressed in traditional dresses. The event sees as the central scene the Saint, intending to pray under the shadow of a tree and two angelic forms that replace him by tugging in his place the oxen wagon; So Isidoro became, thanks to this event, patron saint of the agricultural world, and his memory is linked to the rituals that celebrate life in the fields in Italy and Spain.
The wagons are entirely manufactured, as tradition claims, by the people from Allerona, who every year with their neighbourhoods compete for the construction of the winning wagon. The most beautiful Pugnalone is then rewarded by a commission and remain on display throughout the day in the Old Town; once the carriers themselves offered to those who participated in the primaries contained in the Pugnaloni, but today the districts organize, in the afternoon, together with the re-enactment of the old trades, a more modern tasting of typical food products. 


Similar Rites

Similar shades can be found in some foreign traditions regarding the celebration in May; according to one of them, a huge tree were brought into the village, adorned with animals and plants as thanksgiving to the divinity: a ritual linked to the elemental concept of sympathetic magic. It was a very dear gesture to the farmer who, by offering the first products of the Earth to this nature-protecting entity, thought he would receive a greater fertility in return.
We can find another example in some rituals of the Classical Era, such as the celebration of the Eleusine Mysteries, which were celebrated in the first months of spring. Also during this feast were offered the first fruits of the Earth, but to appease the goddess of agriculture Demetra, the deity of crops who, sad by the rape of her daughter Persephone held in the Underworld, had decided to condemn the humanity to the eternal winter.

Tree Spirits

A particular connection that we can find within these popular traditions of central Italy is the cult of the tree spirit, still hidden today among the wrinkles of these Christian festivals. 


Repetition of peasant life

From the beginning of time, the prehistoric man, who often did not know how to explain the strange phenomena that occurred around him, created an ubiquitous deity in everything that was wild and mysterious. However, with the passing of time, a new idea spread out: the tree was no longer seen as divinity, but as its dwelling. The tree spirit instead of being considered the soul of each tree, thus became the protector of the forest and the fields. To this, one could recall the custom of carrying a decorated tree in the town centre: it was nothing but a way to bring part of the spirit that resided there and make it spread among the people, ensuring fertility and prosperity. 


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