Before I tell you this story, I’d like you to promise not to turn me into the anthropology police. You see, it’s not research. It’s not “canon,” and I might get sanctioned for telling stories out of school ( so to speak). You know the sort of thing; sentenced to reading five terrible textbooks five times until I recant my heresy and promising to avoid creating a fissure in the discipline.
Years ago, when I started studying Saints festivals, I asked a resident of the community I was working in to explain the relationship between the people in the community and the saints. During our conversation, he told me a story that he said came from southern Italy. There was a community that had a very close relationship with the patron saint of the community.
Faithfully every year at the Saint’s festival, the members of the men’s and women’s societies processed around the community carrying the saints praying, making offerings to support the upkeep of the festival and the chapel, and asking the Saint to intercede on their behalf.
A lovely chapel housed the Saint. And the community members were careful to attend to the needs of the Saint and the chapel.
The community was located very near a volcano that had been inactive for many centuries. But one day, the town was awoken to the rumblings and sound of a volcanic eruption in the making. For days the earth quaked, and domestic animals ran away or acted scared. Then, at last, the mountain began erupting. The lava flowed towards the town. Despairing any but divine help, the community members went to the chapel and brought the Saint out. They then marched towards the lava carrying the Saint at the head of the procession.
Nearing the eruption, they began praying to their Saint to intercede with God on their behalf. The eruption seemed to get worse. Again they implored the Saint, but the lava appeared to flow ever closer. A third time, they begged the Saint with no result. Finally, they picked the Saint up. The leader of the Saint’s society walked around in front and looked up at the Saint. “Saint Lazaretto, the people of this town, have believed in you and taken care of you for many years. We need your help now. Help us or into the lava you go.” It was clear that the Saint had bungled things.
The people carrying the Saint’s image raised it to pitch the statue into the lava flow. Once, Twice and then three times, they raised the Saint up into the air. Finally, the third time, the lava started to recede. It was noted afterward that the Saint who had one hand raised in a two-finger benediction had three fingers raised in blessing.
The grateful community carried the Saint back to his chapel, where he is revered to this day.
I had heard a matching story told regarding a saint in a small community in Spain. The person who told me the story was an anthropologist. Supposedly the events had happened far away from where he was doing fieldwork. But he had heard it from a reliable person who had lived in the town.
In the Spanish story, all the essential details matched the Italian one, including pitching the Saint and reminding the Saint of his duty to the community.
It can be hard or impossible to tease out the history of these things. They are like sea stories in this regard: there is usually a kernel of truth, surrounded by elaboration. They get reported as having been relayed to the teller of the story by an impeccable source. As a lover of sea stories, who am I to question the credibility of these tales? But as I said, please don’t report me. It’s not peer-reviewed for publication, and I hate teaching Introduction to Anthropology to 19-year-olds.