La Madonna di Polsi:Although recently religious rites have undergone processes of transformation, in the south of Italy, many expressions of popular Catholicism have resisted the wear and tear of time. In Calabria the pilgrimage to the Madonna of Polsi has ancient origins and is still very important.
Beside being a religious event it is also cultural event for local music and dance. Even unbelievers who come to Polsi feel as if they have set out beyond a “new frontier”...it is a duel between the sacred and profane, it is a beautiful madness.
Worshipers come from June to November, but the numbers increase between the end of August and 2 September to over 50.000.
The whole event is accompanied by wild performances of the tarantella, a local dance, which represent an ancient and universal way of honoring the divine being. Therefore pilgrims go to Polsi to pray, thank, ask for graces to be granted, but also to feel free, live the illusion, be together, dance and sing. The origins of the cult at Polsi go back to well before the Medieval era, findings of "pinakes" or votive clay artifacts manufactured in pre-Roman times by settlers from the nearby Hellenic colony of Locri, indicate the existence of a female fertility cult associated with Persephone.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi, also known as the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi or Our lady of the Mountain, is a Christian sanctuary in the heart of the Aspromonte mountains (harsh mountains) 13 km from San Luca. It was founded by Roger II of Sicily in 1144.The church and monastery are situated in a spectacular setting at the bottom of a gorge at an altitude of 865 metres surrounded by high mountains on the east side of the Montalto (1955 metres) the highest peak of the Aspromonte. The sanctuary is difficult to reach and until some years ago Polsi could only reached by foot.
Before the road to Polsi was constructed, people would walk for hours of even days. During the pilgrimage they would dance along stretches of the road. Women in particular might make the vow to dance along the route if they wanted to ask for a favour or to give thanks. According to the Calabrian writer Corrado Alvaro in his book ‘Calabria’ in 1931: “Girls thus dance along the entire route, and will be dancing night and day for the hours that they have specified in their vow, until they will collapse on the ground or need to lean on a wall while their feet are still moving.”
The festival had nothing of the sadness of others where the sick and deformed met in search of pity and help. It was more a great religious bacchanal, a Dionysian feast, to which people flocked as to a giant picnic in the mountains, ate, perhaps prayed a little and especially where one danced, according to Francesco Perri in his book ‘Enough of Dreams’ from 1929. “Caravans came down from every point in the valley. The people sang and uttered short, loud cries of ‘Viva Maria’ and continually fired their guns. Among the crowds around the sanctuary and in the nearby wood the shooting was incessant …. And over all that multiple discordant din that boomed like the surf of the sea rose a mingled music of pipes, harmonicas, violins, guitars and Basque tambourines.”
Inside the sanctuary the song of the elderly women in veneration to Our Lady breaks the repeated sound of the non stopping tarantella; people sleep on the ground piled up in the corners, someone eat, someone despairs or cheers up, someone kneels and proceeds towards Our Lady crossing themselves and kissing the Virgin. Outside 'a rota' (dancing circle) keep on turning and the megaphone of the sanctuary tries to challenge that sound in the total unconcern of musicians and dancers who never stop.
The contemporary festival is slowly changing, the long walk has almost disappeared and nobody dances on the way. People now drive to the sanctuary, mainly by truck – and the journey is accompanied by the sound of religious chants played by portable amplifiers.
At Polistena, the Good Friday procession culminate in a candlelight parade accompanying the dead Christ ; the renowned Giudaica at Laino Borgo (Cosenza province) has a cast of 150. The scenery for that latter was made specially by a local man, one Domenico Longo, in 1557, who , wanting to create a true replica, went specially to Jerusalem.
Other interesting sacred plays are those held in Plati' (Reggio province), and Nocera Tirinese (Catanzaro province ) where the amazing sight of flagellants known as 'vattienti' can still be seen on Good Friday, as they lash themselves till blood flows. The same tradition also exists at Terranova dei Sibari (Cosenza province).
On Easter Sunday, when cheerfulness is restored, the 'aggute or sgute' are brought out and everyone goes to the 'affruntata', ( the meeting) held in a large number of towns, eg. Polistena, Cittanova and Gioiosa Jonica (Reggio province) and Vibo Valentia and Tiriolo (Catanzaro province), when the Risen Christ meets the Virgin Mary.
The meeting between the Virgin Mary and the Risen Christ, was propitiated by St. John. The crucial moment is the so-called "sbilazioni" (unveiling), in which the Virgin still veiled in mourning recognizes that her son is resurrected. Each village has its own variations on this theme: in some places, St.John runs to tell the good news to the Virgin three times.
Firm part of the Calabrian tradition is, of course, the Crib and midnight mass; one or two artistic Cribs still exist, for example at Caulonia, where it is mechanical and can be visited all year around. The shepherds are dressed in traditional clothes and the scenery that of the Ionian coast. Naturally, Christmas in Calabria is a family affair, celebrated with the emigrants who come home for the holiday.The father is still head of the family, with recognized authority over its members. It is he who breaks the bread, carefully laying it tidily on the table; this, in effect, is a year around ritual, connected with the Last Supper.