Folk-Lore/Volume 21/The Cult of Executed Criminals at Palermo

Folk-Lore. Volume 21 by Edwin Sidney Hartland
The Cult of Executed Criminals at Palermo

Manipur Festival



(Read at Meeting, February 16th, 1910.)

Just south of the city of Palermo the river Oreto flows down from the adjacent mountains to the sea. It is crossed by a bridge of acutely-pointed arches, the famous Ponte dell' Ammiraglio, built in 1113 by the Admiral Giorgio Antiocheno, one of the companions of the Norman Count Roger, who with his brother Robert Guiscard conquered the island from the Saracens. The bridge is now disused in favour of a more modern structure immediately beside it. If you go from the city towards the bridge, just before reaching it you may see on the right, down below the road, a little church mentioned in no guide-book and frequented only by the poorer classes of Palermitans. It is a dilapidated, a pathetic structure, without any architectural pretensions; the front is cracked from top to bottom, and shored up with timber and stones. The site was perhaps once a part of the river-bed, and the building itself is probably not much more than two hundred years old. The original dedication seems to have been to the Virgin, for it was known as the Church of the Madonna del Fiume or Madonna del Ponte. For more than a century, however, it has been known as the Chiesa delle Anime de' Corpi Decollati, or more shortly as the Chiesa dei Decollati. It occupies the far end of a small quadrangular graveyard protected by high stone walls and shaded with cypress trees and oleanders.

The Decollati are executed criminals. Herein lies the
Plate VIII.

The Chapel.

To face p. 168.

interest of the church. Formerly, criminals of rank whose friends did not succeed in obtaining their bodies for burial elsewhere, or whose sentences did not extend to quartering and the distribution of their members for public exhibition until they rotted away, were buried here, and the graveyard is filled with their tombs. The church in consequence is the shrine of a remarkable cult, the cult of the Anime dei Decollati. A tiny side-chapel opening directly on the burial ground forms the special centre of this cult (Plate VIII.). It is filled with votive offerings of wax,—legs, heads, feet, babies, and so forth,—testifying to the various benefits for which the intercession of the Decollati is besought. In a side-case is a representation in relief of Purgatory with three or four persons in the flames. Their necks are hung with hearts and other amulets. Above in the case is a crucifix to which they are apparently praying, and in the case are also several pairs of votive eyes in wax. The money box beneath is inscribed "Elema Messa nei Primi Lunedi." The front of the chapel has been restored. Over the door in the tympanum of the arch are representations of souls in Purgatory praying to the Virgin. Similar representations are on the gateposts of the churchyard and on the pier at the northern angle of the churchyard wall.

Most curious of all, however, is a case of rude watercolour drawings outside and adjoining the church on either wall of the burial ground. These drawings represent persons suffering from internal hemorrhage or various wounds; they represent accidents, shipwrecks, and attempted murders. Some unfortunates are tumbling from scaffolds; some are being crushed by tramcars, some by falling trees, and so forth. Bystanders or relatives are represented in attendance. They, or the persons more immediately concerned, appear to be praying to the Decollati, who are shown in one of the upper corners to the number of three or four up to their waists in the flames of Purgatory. They are generally manacled. Some of them have ropes round their necks, and in one instance at least there is, in a sort of inset in the scene in Purgatory, a representation of the execution by hanging. The Decollati in turn are praying from Purgatory to the Virgin and Child shown frequently just above them. The date of the miracle or answer to prayer usually appears beneath the drawing, together with the initials V. F. R. (Voto fatto, ricevuto) or V. F. G. A. (Voto fatto, grazia avuta).

The characteristic Sicilian vehicle is a light cart mounted on two wheels and coloured a bright yellow. It is a conspicuous object everywhere, and is often elaborately carved. On the sides and tailboard are painted scenes from the history and traditions of the island. Photographs of two of these carts are shown in Plates IX. and X. The second of them is adorned with paintings of the Decollati. It is a sufficient witness to the popularity of the cult.

My attention was first directed to the cult by the writings of Dr. Pitrè, the eminent recorder of Sicilian traditions, whose Biblioteca delle Tradizioni Popolari Siciliane is one of the most highly prized treasures of students of folklore. From that source the additional particulars I am about to give are drawn.

The veneration of the souls of departed malefactors is by no means confined to Palermo and its neighbourhood. On the contrary, it is known from Acireale on the east coast to Trapani at the extreme west. Its shrines are found in many a commune all over the island, even to Noto in the far south. But the most famous of all is the church at Palermo. Palermo has been the seat of government since the Saracen Conquest, and there naturally what was called justice claimed its most abundant hecatombs. The executions were public. They were surrounded with every circumstance calculated to attract the sympathy of the crowd. There were several places of execution in and around the city. One of them was on
Plate IX.


To face p. 170.
the road to Bagheria which leads past the Chiesa dei Decollati. The gallows there was not taken down until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, and, so long as it stood, the rotting members and the bones of many of the victims remained to poison the atmosphere and horrify the passers-by. The neighbouring Ponte dell' Ammiraglio had another name by which it was commonly known, the Ponte delle Teste, from the number of heads constantly on view there. These things could not fail to impress the inhabitants. Accordingly various churches of the city witnessed at different times a cult similar to that which has now concentrated at the Decollati.

The lives of these deceased malefactors had presumably been passed in crime and deeds of blood, and their disembodied souls cannot forget blood. But, whereas in their earthly life they had no pity on their neighbours and paid regard neither to their substance nor their honour, being dead and reconciled to the Church they take the part of the weak; they become the shield and defence of those who are attacked. They hate violence, and, if they do not always punish it in those who commit it, at least they ward off its worst effects from the victims. They frequently interfere to protect their devotees from robbers. An old lithographic print reproduced year after year records one of these miracles. A warm adherent of the cult was once riding by night with a sum of money. Some robbers who had got wind of it were on his track armed with daggers, knives, and guns. The unfortunate man, not knowing what was best to do, turned with true faith, (an indispensable condition in such circumstances), to the Decollati, and all at once you might have seen the skeletons of these executed criminals rising from the grave, laying hold of their bones and running to the help of their adorer, knocking the robbers right and left, killing some outright, and driving the others half-dead with terror to save themselves by flight. But it is not only deeds of blood; blood in any form draws the compassion and help of the Decollati. Accidents of every kind and haemoptysis are the subjects of their special care. There are numerous and ghastly examples of these among the votive drawings.

The special days of devotion to the Decollati are Monday and Friday. On these days pilgrims, (chiefly women), from not only Palermo but also other parts of Sicily, may be seen wending their way to the little church beside the Oreto. At eight o'clock in the morning the performance is at its height. Arrived at the church of the Annegati, half-way from the Porta Garibaldi to the Chiesa dei Decollati, the pilgrim, if his vow was to walk barefoot, takes off his shoes and begins his rosary. The prayers include addresses in rhyme to the "Armuzzi di li corpi decullati," requesting their intercession with the Eternal Father on behalf of the petitioner. When he reaches the church, he offers the rosary and prays before the altar of St. John the Baptist, who is naturally the patron of the Decollati. Then he adjourns,—or at least every devout woman who makes the pilgrimage adjourns,—to the little chapel already mentioned. There, just on the right inside the door, is a stone under which the souls are believed to crowd in the greatest numbers. There she makes known her wishes, speaking audibly or murmuring and praying earnestly. When she has finished she applies her ear to the stone, and trembling waits for an answer. The slightest sound is taken for a favourable reply; and naturally it is not wanting to a fancy wrought to the utmost tension by the religious exercises and excitement of the morning. Her countenance instantly flushes and her eyes sparkle, as she rises filled with the joy of conviction that the favour she has sought so earnestly is granted. The scene. Dr. Pitrè writes, should be witnessed by others as well as those who are especially interested in folklore. Foreign friends whom he has taken to the chapel have looked at it with open-mouthed

Plate X.


To face p. 172.

astonishment, hardly able to believe that they had not alighted on a different planet.

But it is not everybody who has a petition to the Decollati who can undertake a pilgrimage to their shrine. Where this cannot be done there is still the possibility of reaching their ears. In the stillness of the night a taper is kindled before their picture. A ghastly picture it is, of bodies hanging from the gallows or burning in the midst of the fire, the latter being usually taken for a scene in Purgatory. The cottage door or the window is opened. The devotee falls on her knees, and tells her beads. Among her prayers she states in plain terms what she wants,—for there is no need to beat about the bush with the Decollati,—winding up with a last orison in rhyme threatening them with indifference for the future if they do not grant her what she has in mind. All sorts of petitions are thus presented, nor is it only women who are the petitioners. One man will ask for success in business, and another for three lucky numbers in the lottery. The mother will pray for her children, and the wife for her husband. The maiden who has quarrelled with her lover will pray thus:

Arm'l corpi decullati Souls of the beheaded bodies,
Tri'mpisi, tri ocisi, e tri annigati, Three hanged, three slain, and three drowned,
Tutti novi vi junciti, All nine of you join,
Nn' 'u mè zitu vi nni jiti, Go into my sweetheart,
Tanti e tanti cci nni dati, Give him such and such [torments]
No pi fallu muriri Not to make him die
Ma pi fallu a mia viniri. But to make him come to me.

This reminds us of the common English charm:

It's not this bone I mean to stick,
But my true lover's heart I mean to prick,
Wishing him neither rest nor sleep
Until he comes to me to speak.

During this prayer, and indeed the whole of the rosary, the suppliant listens for what is called the echo of the souls, and by the sounds she hears she judges whether her prayer be granted or not. Among good auguries are the crow of a cock, the bark of a dog, a whistle, the sound of a guitar or of bells, a song (especially a love-song), a knocking on a neighbour's door, the rapid shutting of a window, and the rapid passing of a carriage. On the other hand the mew of a cat is a fatal augury for relatives who are travelling. The bray of an ass, a dispute, the sound of weeping or lamentation, and that of water flung into the road are all evil omens. The chance words overheard from passers-by are also very important, and inferences good or bad are drawn from them.

Whatever manifestations are vouchsafed on these occasions appear to be given to the ear only. But the Decollati also walk by night in human semblance, speaking in clipped and broken words, and giving good counsel and warnings. Sometimes they appear white-robed and wandering on the banks of the Oreto. One woman saw some of them in front of their church. A devoted girl, who had them ever on her lips and in her heart, saw them one night clad in long white garments among the poplar-trees outside the Porta San Giorgio at Palermo. At that moment she was assailed by robbers intent on taking a sum of money in gold that she was carrying. She cried out to the Decollati, and they came to her assistance. Only just before, she had left that very money in a shop, having forgotten it, and the Decollati had by dint of repeating behind her "Go back, go back!" made her return and fetch it. A carter who was conveying sulphur from Lercara to Palermo was robbed of a portion of his load by his foreman. When he got to his destination the quantity was found short, and he was required to make it up and was dismissed from his situation. But his wife prayed to the Decollati to clear her husband and punish the foreman. Her prayer was answered. The foreman, coming to Palermo not long after, was attacked by unknown persons and given such a thrashing that he remembered it all the rest of his life. The unknown persons were of course Decollati. The poor carter in some way was discovered to be innocent, and reinstated in his position.

All this and more may be read in Dr. Pitrè's interesting pages.[1] The concentration of the cult in Palermo and at the little church beside the Oreto I have already accounted for. Its general popularity in the island is doubtless attributable to the generations of tyranny suffered by the inhabitants at large and particularly by the poorer classes. These classes supplied most of the victims of the law. Tyranny produced lawlessness. The poor had little to lose, and the violence of brigands and marauders was chiefly directed against the wealthy and the powerful. A brigand became the hero of the countryside. When he was caught and put to death with the forms of justice after due confession and the rites of the Church, and with all the pomp and circumstance of a public execution, the sufferer, (l'afflitto, as he was called), received the rank of a martyr, and honours quasi-divine were paid to him. These honours were extended by analogy to all other criminals, however atrocious, provided they met their death in the same conditions. It was impossible to distinguish between them, for popular sympathy was always and inevitably against the rulers. Priests lent themselves to the development of the cult, nor need it be supposed that their motives were wholly unworthy. They were probably themselves drawn from the lower strata of society, and may be supposed to have had a sympathy by no means superficial with persons who may have been in many cases innocent, and always were rather the victims of an inequitable social order than malefactors without excuse. Such victims even in their eyes would without difficulty assume the unspotted raiment of martyrs.

Throughout Christendom the qualifications of a martyr were vague; a violent death was, (perhaps it still is), the only condition absolutely necessary to satisfy. In our own country we have only to refer to the honours paid to Saint Kenelm, king and martyr, to King Edward the Martyr, and to Simon de Montfort, Edward II., and Charles I., as examples of the extreme latitude of interpretation of the term martyr. More might easily be cited, and from other countries hundreds.

Some peoples indeed go to the length of putting to death a holy man in order to provide an object of devotion. At Gilgit there is the shrine of a famous Mohammedan saint who is said to have been thus murdered; and similar stories are told about many shrines in Afghanistan and on the north-western frontier of India.[2] These stories are very often true; for it is well known that the late Sir Richard Burton, when exploring some remote places disguised as a Mohammedan fakir, had a narrow escape from being thus honoured. The practice is of long standing, and embodies ideas of wide range in the East. Marco Polo relates that the people of a province he calls Carian were villainous and wicked. A stranger of learning and bodily perfection coming that way would be put to death at sight,—not, they declared, for the purpose of robbery, but that his beauty and learning might abide in them and their country. The Great Khan, however, conquered the province in 1296, and put down the practice.[3] Half-a-century ago it was a common practice with the Lhota Nāga, a tribe on the north-eastern frontier of our Indian Empire, to cut off the head, and hands and feet, of any one they could meet with "without any provocation or pre-existent enmity, merely to stick up in their fields to ensure a good crop of grain."[4] This approaches very closely to the famous Meriah sacrifice of the Khonds, but perhaps involves the idea rather of a guardian than of a fertilizer. More personal is the relation between the head-hunter of the Malay Archipelago and the skull of his victim. The soul of the victim seems to be attached to the skull, and becomes the bringer of luck to, and the guardian-spirit of, the murderer and possessor. So among the Eskimo of Behring Strait a man will sometimes cause the death of a new-born child and secretly steal its body to carry about with him. He believes that the child's shade will then accompany him and secure success for him in hunting.[5]

Whether the shrines of any European saints have originated like those in Afghanistan and India just referred to I do not know. The idea at least is not quite unknown. Southey put into verse the curious tale of Saint Romuald which he found recorded in both French and Spanish. The French writer, horrified at the popular wickedness and jealous for the honour of his country, laid the scene in Catalonia; the Spanish writer for the same excellent reasons laid it in Aquitaine. But both were agreed that such was the renown of Saint Romuald during his life that the people of his neighbourhood made up their minds to slay him in order to be sure of having his relics as a precious possession afterwards. Unhappily for them the saint heard of their intention; he disapproved of their excessive devotion, and fled the country. The importance of securing the tomb of a holy man is still familiar in many places; for example, in Auvergne, where, when the curé of a parish dies, the inhabitants will not, if they can avoid it, permit his burial outside the parish bounds, even though his relatives desire it, lest the village be subject to hail-storms for seven years or some other calamities happen.[6]

In this case it is not suggested that a violent end is put to the parish-priest's career. The law would look more than coldly on such a proceeding; and the superstition is in an attenuated form, glad to take advantage wherever it can of the action of a thoughtful Providence. But in East and West alike human beings have been from time to time murdered as foundation-sacrifices for house or bridge, or as guardians of hidden treasure or against a foreign invader. In all these cases the disembodied soul of the deceased is believed to become a powerful protector. On the other hand, superstitions like those concerning ghosts in the West and bhuts in the East exhibit souls disembodied by other than a natural death as vindictive and often extremely dangerous beings, who must be pacified and exorcised or even worshipped.

The cult of executed criminals in Sicily is therefore not an isolated example of the vagaries of human emotion. It is merely one of the many manifestations of the shock given to the collective mentality of any society by the death of a member. That shock is always deeper and more terrible where the severance from life is by violence, most terrible of all when it takes place under the impressive forms of law. Even where the law is the expression of the collective will, the shock and its accompanying emotions of pity and sorrow are often acutely felt. But where it is not the expression of the collective will, where it is imposed by arms or more mysterious terrors on the part of a class or classes with interests opposed to the general interests of the community, and to that extent an anti-social force, then the shock and the terror reach their height, the whole sympathy of society goes out toward the victim, and he is surrounded with a halo of more than common radiance. In some stages of civilization and under the influence of some beliefs the reaction takes the form of apotheosis of the victim. Hence the veneration paid to the martyrs in more than one highly organized religion. Perhaps the Decollati of Sicily were not less worthy of this exaltation than some other martyrs commemorated in more enlightened countries.

I have thought it needless to refer to the value in folk-medicine and witchcraft of the blood and other relics of executed criminals. The belief in these things has been recorded by many authors from Pliny downwards; it is known as far to the east as Japan; and the Portuguese found it in the kingdom of Monomotapa south of the Zambesi. It has been abundantly discussed by anthropologists.[7]

E. Sidney Hartland.
  1. Pitrè, Biblioteca, vol. xvii., pp. 4 et seq.; vol. i., p. 77; vol. ii., p. 38. La Vita in Palermo, vol. ii., c. xviii., where an impressive account is given of executions in Palermo to the end of the eighteenth century. Mostra Etnografica Siciliana, pp. 51, 80.
  2. Dr. Leitner, Asiatic Quarterly Review, 2d. S., vol. v., pp. 156, 161 note; Lyall, Asiatic Studies, vol. i., p. 29 note; Burton, Sindh, pp. 86, 387.
  3. Marco Polo (ed. 1597), ch. 86.
  4. Miss Godden, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. xxvii., p. 9, quoting Damant.
  5. Nelson, Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 429.
  6. Revue des Traditions Populaires, vol. xii., p. 447.
  7. Plates VIII, IX, and X are from photographs by Miss Alice Q. Hartland.