1 Nov 2010

Phallic Saints (1) St. Cosmas and Damian

One of the most reliable accounts of phallic saints is in a letter written by Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador at the court of Naples from 1764 to 1800. This describes the Festival of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Intrigued by an account of the Priapic cult from "a person of liberal education" engaged in constructing a road to the town, Sir William then visited Isernia and verified the details by quizzing the town's governor.

The letter is dated Naples, December 30, 1781. Here is the most significant portion describing the festival.

On the 27th of September, at Isernia, one of the most ancient cities of the Kingdom of Naples, situated in the Province called the Contado di Molise, and adjoining to Abruzzo, an annual Fair is held, which lasts three days. The situation of this Fair is on a rising ground, between two rivers, about half a mile from the town of Isernia; on the most elevated part of which there is an ancient church, with a vestibule. The architecture is of the style of the lower ages; and it is said to have been a church and convent belonging to the Benedictine Monks in the time of their poverty.

This church is dedicated to St. Cosmus and Damianus. One of the days of the Fair, the relicks of the Saints are exposed, and afterwards carried in procession from the cathedral of the city to this church, attended by a prodigious concourse of people. In the city, and at the fair, ex-voti of wax, representing the male parts of generation, of various dimensions, some even of the length of a palm, are publicly offered to sale. There are also waxen vows, that represent other parts of the body mixed with them; but of these there are few in comparison of the number of the Priapi.

The devout distributers of these vows carry a basket full of them in one hand, and hold a plate in the other to receive the money, crying aloud, "St. Cosmo and Damiano!" If you ask the price of one, the answer is, piu ci metti, piu meriti: "The more you give, the more’s the merit." In the vestibule are two tables, at each of which one of the canons of the church presides, thus crying out, Qui si riceveno le Misse, e Litanie: "Here Masses and Litanies are received;" and the other, Qui si riceveno li Voti : "Here the Vows are received." The price of a Mass is fifteen Neapolitan grains, and of a Litany five grains. On each table is a large bason for the reception of the different offerings. The Vows are chiefly presented by the female sex; and they are seldom such as represent legs, arms, etc., but most commonly the male parts of generation.

The person who was at this fete in the year 1780, and who gave me this account (the authenticity of every article of which has since been fully confirmed to me by the Governor of Isernia), told me also, that he heard a woman say, at the time she presented a Vow, Santo Cojmo benedetto, cosi lo voglio: "Blessed St. Cosmo, let it be like this;" another, St. Cosimo, a te mi raccommendo: "St. Cosmo, I recommend myself to you;" and a third, St. Cosimo ti ringrazio: "St. Cosmo, I thank you." The Vow is never presented without being accompanied by a piece of money, and is always kissed by the devotee at the moment of presentation.

At the great altar in the church, another of its canons attends to give the holy unction, with the oil of St. Cosmo; which is prepared by the same receipt as that of the Roman Ritual, with the addition only of the prayer of the Holy Martyrs, St. Cosmus and Damianus. Those who have an infirmity in any of their members, present themselves at the great altar, and uncover the member affected (not even excepting that which is most frequently represented by the ex-voti); and the reverend canon anoints it, saying, Per intercessionem beati Cosmi, liberet te ab omni malo. Amen.

The ceremony finishes by the canons of the church dividing the spoils, both money and wax, which must be to a very considerable amount, as the concourse at this fete is said to be prodigiously numerous.

The oil of St. Cosmo is in high repute for its invigorating quality, when the loins, and parts adjacent, are anointed with it. No less than 1400 flasks of that oil were either expended at the altar in unctions, or charitably distributed, during this fete in the year 1780; and as it is usual for every one, who either makes use of the oil at the altar, or carries off a flask of it, to leave an alms for St. Cosmo, the ceremony of the oil becomes likewise a very lucrative one to the canons of the church.

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