Multilayered arrays of candles are created for the purpose of making offerings to the local saints in many parts of southern Italy. In past times, however, candles were an expensive commodity that was not within everyone’s means. Peasants would instead create these arrays by tying ears of wheat together using a similar wooden frame but without the candles. Thick with ears of wheat, these offerings, often called gregne or scigli, weighed several kilos and would remain the property of the church after the festival. In some places, the name used to refer to the wheat offerings continues to be cirii, which in the local dialect means, literally, candles.
A different scenario plays out in Episcopia, where the participation of villagers of all ages in the festival of the Madonna del Piano is massive. It is especially remarkable to see the numbers in attendance among the younger generations, attracted by the party atmosphere and the careful management of sound by the priest (see previous chapter). Here the wheat offerings, put together by village districts and hamlets, sometimes dance along the whole procession, which due to its sheer size allows the various different components – and forms of devotion – not to get in each other’s way sonically.The medieval statue of the Madonna del Piano is showered with wheat as it exits the rural sanctuary that marks the beginning of the procession. She carries in one hand a bundle of ears of wheat, which demonstrates very clearly that these festivals were as much ceremonies to mark the end of the harvest and the success of people’s efforts in the fields as they are Catholic festivals dedicated to the saints. Indeed, older people will often say that the saint or Madonna whom they honour with wheat will ensure a good harvest.
Yet, the analysis made by De Martino of a wheat harvest ritual in San Giorgio Lucano, called ‘game of the sickle’, did not relate it to the cult of St Roch of Montpellier. In this ritual, a harvester dressed up in an animal skin steals the last sheaf of wheat and is ‘hunted’ around the field by the reapers. Once the harvest was complete, the workers would then ritually humiliate the landowner by undressing him using their sickles. Significantly, since in San Giorgio the property of the land was concentrated in the hands of few, most of these labourers did not own the wheat they were harvesting.
This custom had already been abandoned by 1959, when De Martino was in San Giorgio, whereas still today people carry wheat offerings in a procession with the statue on the day of St Roch. Perhaps because of the brevity of his stay and because he had been informed of this tradition by his contacts in the Workers Union, De Martino did not seem to be aware of this. Even while noting its enactment of class struggle, he called the ‘game of the sickle’ a survival of a pagan era, that Christianity had disconnected from the cult of the agrarian gods (De Martino 1962: 163). In the discourses surrounding wheat festivals today, it is still possible to witness the mobilisation of an imaginary ‘cereal civilisation’ of the Mediterranean, whose legacy should still pervade elements of folk religiosity across the Italian South.
The participants come from villages surrounding the area, and have different agendas. For the organisers, there is clear desire to spectacularise the event, turning a practice of the old rural lifeworld into a show that includes live commentary, traditional music, and branded aprons and banners, plus an audience confined to a designated area. Some of the participants have not necessarily experienced manual reaping in their lifetime, while others, visibly older, clearly take part as an opportunity to experience again the actions that they associate with their past. In 2018 it was striking to see teams made up of older men and women go about their work in a way that was not competitive at all – in fact they would not even try to catch up with the faster teams. The impression was that for them the competition was a moment to be savoured, dense in affective significance, and a way to experience actions, sounds and other perceptions that connect directly with the past. Behind one of these teams was an old lady who gleaned stray ears of wheat, saving them for an upcoming religious festival.
The role of communal work was clear in another context in which wheat offerings are created as a common effort of a district or hamlet. In 2019 Manca di Sopra, in the territory of Episcopia, the wheat of the offering was renovated in a public park, which became the centre of a real feast in which each participant contributed food and drinks. Though only a minority took part in the actual process of tying the bundles of ears of wheat to the frame of the offering, many of the inhabitants of the small hamlet showed up for the occasion. The commensality added to the community-making character of the event, which also saw the presence of many returning migrants from northern Europe or northern Italy. It is also an opportunity to transmit specialised knowledge across generations, such as that for the making of the offerings.
That wheat festivals are going through a process of revival is also evident in a case that shares some features with processes of inven- tion of tradition. In Chiaromonte, formerly an important agricultural centre in the valley of river Sinni, since the first half of the 2010s the patron saint’s festival of St John the Baptist has included an exhibition and procession of wheat and candle offerings coming from a number of villages in the surrounding area. Held at the end of August, the festival culminates in a prize-giving ceremony that awards the best offering on the basis of a popular ballot.This format was introduced by local associations and the parish as a way to reinvigorate the festival. In particular, Andrea Mobilio was instrumental in the reintroduction of wheat offerings in Chiaromonte. He learned to make them from a man in San Giorgio Lucano, and since then he has been collaborating with other villages providing support and at times making new offer- ings for other festivals in the time left by his job as a truck driver. He has created a network of village festivals that becomes visible during the exhibition and parade in Chiaromonte, in some cases stimulating awareness of the cultural value of the offerings beyond specific acts of individual devotion.