Tree rites and the liturgy of nature in Basilicata


Basilicata is a land rich in traditions and boasts unique rituals which, since ancient times, have celebrated the ancestral bond between man and nature. In particular, during the spring and summer period, the region becomes the stage for truly unique ceremonies: “wedding between trees”.
The unusual marriage takes place between a trunk and a treetop of two different trees, a symbolic union between “two spouses” that recalls the archaic ode to fertility and the renewal of life in the hope of abundance. The arboreal rites therefore celebrate the union of two plants that are literally grafted together to form a single new tree and raised into the sky in an atmosphere of celebration and solemnity.
These rituals usually take place as the spring equinox approaches, coinciding with the rebirth of the plant world but also a material and spiritual re-generation of the Lucanian community.
The ceremony is well defined and articulated but may change slightly depending on the town in which it takes place. In most cases, the “marriage” involves cutting down a tree from the wood which is towed into the village by pairs of oxen; the trunk is then joined, in a mystical partnership between heaven and earth, to the treetop of another tree felledfrom a different wood to the first. The trunk represents masculine vigour, while the treetop represents the feminine side. The “wedding” ends with a climb by the bravest, who climb up to the top amid the applause and incitement of the crowd.
The trips that lead the trunk and the treetop from the wood to the town square have become special events and, to alleviate the effort of transporting them, there are several stops at traditional food and wine locations in the area. The festival also features traditional music and the cries of the cattlemen who, together with the bellowing of the oxen themselves, accompany and mark the progress of the ancient rite in a slow and cadenced rhythm.


Tree rites are ceremonies that have their origins in the distant past and that take place in different parts of the world and in some parts of Italy. But it is in the Lucanian land where they are most widespread and where they appear in their most complete form, characterised by a perfect dualism between the sacred and the profane.
In Basilicata these rituals are born as a sort of magical ceremony that celebrates the very close relationship of the population with the nature that surrounds it. However, while originally the “marriages” between the trees had more profane values linked to the world of paganism, later, over the centuries, they have been transformed by welcoming and amplifying the religious significance of this tradition.
Today, therefore, both the pagan and the Christian aspects coexist in the rite. To the original meaning of the rite, linked to the Nordic-Celtic traditions and to the veneration of nature, the Christian value has been added, in a perfect union, through the concomitant celebrations of the patron saints of the various towns in which they take place. In most cases, the saint of reference is Saint Anthony of Padua.
The rite is carefully blessed by the priest and the oxen that are used to transport the trunk and the treetop, as well as being adorned with broom and coloured ribbons, bear the image of the patron saint on their forehead.


Over the years, something that has never changed in Lucanian tree rites is the strong sense of belonging and the spirit of identity that have always characterised these events. For the local people it is a moment eagerly awaited for the whole year: the “maggiaioli” (trunk bearers) and “cimaioli” (treetop bearers) compete to be able to take part in the “spouses” procession and, proudly, guide the pair of trees along the route.
The ritual thus renews every year the inextricable bond with its land and history and there is no lack of dances, songs and typical products that are enjoyed an atmosphere of celebration and solemnity.
In Basilicata there are eight towns where tree rituals are celebrated, divided into two areas, the “Maggio” area and the “Abete” area.


The “Maggio” area includes the area of the Gallipoli Cognato Regional Park and the Lucanian Dolomites and in particular the villages of Accettura, Castelmezzano, Oliveto Lucano and Pietrapertosa. There are many theories surrounding the meaning of the name “Maggio”, as this term is not always ascribable to the month (‘maggio’ means May in Italian) in which the ritual takes place. Perhaps it could derive from “Major”, indicating the choice of the largest and tallest tree from the wood as a “groom” for the wedding ceremony, or it could refer to the goddess Maja, a divinity who personified the fertility of the land, as the feast of tree fertility was dedicated to her.


The most famous arboreal ritual in the Maggio area is undoubtedly the Maggio of Accettura. The wedding takes place between the groom, a large oak tree chosen on the first Sunday after Easter from the Montepiano wood, and the bride, a holly plant chosen the following Sunday in the Gallipoli Cognato forest. The path of the future spouses towards the “crowning of their love” through the “wedding” begins on Pentecost Sunday when the trunk and the treetop embark on their journey towards the town square in Largo San Vito. The groom and the bride proceed separately accompanied by their respective Maggiaioli and Cimaioli and their journey is enlivened by songs, dances and above all stops to taste the typical dishes of the area, washed down with plenty of good wine. The Maggio of Accettura is dedicated to the patron saint Saint Julian and takes place every year from the Octave of Easter to the Sunday of Corpus Domini. But it is when the processions of the “groom” and the “bride” arrive in Largo San Vito that the ritual reaches its peak: the trunk and the treetop are grafted together, giving life to a single tree in an atmosphere of celebration and solemn religiosity.


On the Sunday following 13 June, Pietrapertosa is the stage for the “U’ Masc’” arboreal ritual celebrated every year in honour of Saint Anthony. The two main trees are chosen, cut and pared down a few days before the “wedding” in the Montepiano wood, inside the Gallipoli Cognato Park. The wedding procession begins early in the morning, the spouses walk in two different groups and are carried by pairs of oxen (paricchij) and by the massari (ox drivers) to the Convent of San Francesco and it is there, in front of the bell tower, that the ritual reaches its peak with the spectacular union of the trunk to the treetop and lifting the tree among the cheering crowd. The “U’ Masc'” of Pietrapertosa ends with a “maggiaiolo” bravely climbing a tree.Clinging to one of the ropes used to raise the Maggio, this courageous person climbs up to the top full of prizes, moving and dancing upside down to the beat of the music.


The star spouses of the Maggio of Oliveto Lucano, are a trunk of Turkey oak and a treetop of holly chosen from the trees of the forest of Gallipoli Cognato. The arboreal rite takes place in August: on the first Sunday the trunk is chosen and felled, while the treetop is felled on 10 August. Coming down from Monte Croccia, in the town of Piano Torcigliano, the first meeting takes place between the betrothed who are led in two separate processions to the town, where the symbolic union will take place. The path from the mountain to the village lasts eight kilometres, and is a very tiring journey. The trunk, instead of being transported by pairs of oxen as in most arboreal rituals, is carried by tractors, while the treetop is transported by the strong youth of the town who intersperse the arduous journey with dances, songs and frugal banquets washed down with local wine. The two trees are grafted on the street Via del Maggio in a festive atmosphere where a perfect dualism reigns between the pagan soul of the ritual and the sacred spirit testified by the fact that the union takes place under the protective gaze of Saint Roch, who blesses the couple.


The Maggio ritual in Castelmezzano takes place in conjunction with the celebrations of Saint Anthony of Padua on 12 and 13 September. In the woods of the Gallipoli Cognato Regional Park and the Lucanian Dolomites, among the most beautiful and luxuriant trees, a trunk of Turkey oak and a treetop of holly are chosen; the couple will be taken to the town square to celebrate the wedding.
The ‘maggio’, the long Turkey oak that symbolises male vigour, is dragged by pairs of oxen, while the treetop, the female part, is carried in procession between dances, songs and banquets. The symbolic and propitiatory union of the two spouses takes place, as for any self-respecting wedding, in an atmosphere of celebration and joviality and after the mutual “yes”, the new tree is ready to be climbed in order to take possession of the prizes placed at its top.


The “Abete” (fir tree) area extends between Monte Alpi and the Pollino peaks, and covers the towns of Castelsaraceno, Rotonda, Terranova di Pollino and Viggianello.


In Castelsaraceno, Saint Anthony blesses the union between a beech trunk and a pine treetop, the “‘ndenna” and the “cunocchia”, with the wedding taking place during the first three Sundays of June on the occasion of the feast dedicated to the patron saint. On the first Sunday, the most beautiful beech is chosen and felled from the trees of the Pollino National Park, precisely in Favino at the foot of Mount Alpi. The following Sunday it is the turn of the treetop, the “cunocchia” which, chosen and felled on Mount Armizzone, is accompanied by songs, dances and lavish lunches. The couple meet for the first time on the third Sunday in June, and it is in Sant’Antonio square that the grafting and raising of the new tree takes place in a union between the sacred and the profane.


In Rotonda the bride and groom of the tree wedding are the “rocca” and “a ‘pitu”, a fir and a beech. The two trees are felled in the enchanting scenery of the Pollino Park in two distinct locations: the woods of Terranova di Pollino and those of Pedarreto. The ceremony is celebrated from 8 to 13 June in a festive atmosphere that combines the pagan tradition of the ancient hymns linked to fertility and abundance with the religious spirituality connected to the celebration of the feast of Saint Anthony. The ritual, as happens in the most classic of weddings, is enlivened by songs, dances and above all a lot of good food and local wine.


The arboreal ritual of Terranova di Pollino is the only of the Lucanian that does not celebrate the union between a trunk and a treetop through the grafting and consequent birth of a “new” tree.
What takes place in this pretty village of the Pollino park is only the felling of the “A Pit”, the tallest and straightest fir of those in the Cugno dell’Acero wood, which is then carried on the shoulders of valiant local men aided by pairs of oxen as far as the town.
The trunk arrives at its destination on the occasion of the feast of Saint Anthony on 13 June when, after the religious celebrations, it is raised and climbed by the bravest in a festive atmosphere where the protagonists are dances and popular songs that resound in every corner of the town.


In Viggianello the tradition of marriage between the trees is repeated three times a year in three different locations. The ritual begins in the first week after Easter in the Pedali district, the newest part of the town, and then continues in the last week of August in the historic centre, where the festivities coincide with the religious celebrations in honour of the patron saint Saint Francis of Paola. It is only in the second weekend of September that the “marriage” between the “rocca” and the “pitu” takes place in Zarafa, in the name of the Madonna del Soccorso. The protagonists of the unusual wedding are a beech or Turkey oak tree, the “a’ pitu”, and a fir, the “rocca”, which are chosen and felled in the woods of the Pollino National Park and then transported by oxen to a procession that winds along the streets of the Viggianello area. In the Viggianellese rite, the wedding also finds its culmination when the two plants, symbols of masculine and feminine vigour, are joined together in an atmosphere that is both joyful and solemn at the same time.