My friend Angela Swedberg introduced me to fellow beadworker Al Zammataro, who recently attended the annual festival of Sant'Alfio in Sicily. The story and photos he shared with me are unbelievable and should be quite an eyeful for those of you interested in unusual horse adornment!! The full set of photos follows in the rest of the post.
Al tells me the festival may have pre-Roman origins (not uncommon with European folk festivals) but is now centered around honoring the deaths of three early Christian martyrs - Saints Alfio, Filadelfo and Cirino - who were captured by the Romans in 251 AD, imprisoned in the village where the festival is now held, and executed on May 10, 253.
More relevant to this blog, locals bring ornate horse carts pulled by even more ornately adorned horses.The adornment on these carts and harnesses is frankly mind-blowing. I've never seen anything like it.
Take a look at the detail on the gray draft horse's breast collar:
Each cart carries a traditional band of musicians.The carts themselves are painted, carved or otherwise adorned:
All night the participants begin the long walk up to the Sanctuary (photo above) of Sant'Alfio (the distance being as much as 20 miles), and as the penitents and horse carts arrive at dawn, celebrations are held in the plaza in front of the Sanctuary.
After the morning celebrations, a more party-like atmosphere develops. Some participants get rides home on the horse carts. Others spend the day feasting, drinking and frolicking in the streets.
Al also says there is a legend that in the cave where the three martyrs were imprisoned, one can see hoof prints on the walls. It is said these were left by a winged horse - this is perhaps some remnant of more ancient myths from the region.
I also see some overlap with the type of adornment seen in Egypt and India - perhaps because of cultural sharing across the ancient Silk Road and other trade routes, though the enormous feather plumes are quite distinctive, as far as I have ever seen. This photo shows how tall the plumes are:
Many thanks to Angela for passing this along to me, and to Al for sharing his wonderful photos and the story about the festival.