Today is the Sunday after Easter (domenica in albis). This is the day we celebrate the feast of the Madonna of the Hens, or Madonna delle Galline in Pagani. She is one of the Seven Sisters, the famous Black Madonnas of Campania.
Madonna delle Galline
"Madonna of the Hens"
Sunday after Easter
Popular legend has it that an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was found buried beneath the earth. It was located by a flock of hens in the 16th century, who scratched persistently at the soil where the icon was located until it was dug out. Between 1609 and 1610, eight miracles were performed by the icon, including the healing of a cripple who was visited in a dream by the Madonna.
The miraculous image is displayed year-round. However, the wooden statue, seen in the film below, is only revealed during this feast and another in September. The doors of the sanctuary are closed from Easter until the feast day while the statue is unveiled and a throne set up in her honor. The feast begins when the doors to the sanctuary open.
The procession occurs on Easter Sunday. The statue of the Madonna is placed on a chariot which is driven by motorbike. Devotees, either people of Pagani or pilgrims, make offerings to the statue. The traditional offerings are live birds, such as hens, doves, turkeys, or peacocks; or rich peasant food, including savory torts made of salami and eggs. Mothers bring their children to the Madonna to be blessed and protected by her. The procession, including the statue now covered in live birds, moves throughout the city streets and alleyways. It passes by shrines called toselli, such as the ones seen here and here, which are set up in honor of the Madonna. These are often draped with satin and lace, and sometimes contain paintings or small statues of the Madonna to whom prayers and food offerings are made.
Of course, throughout the feast, the tammurriata is played and danced in honor of the Black Madonna.
In this documentary, Madonna delle Galline tra sacro e profano ("Madonna of the Hens Between Sacred and Profane") by Michele Pelioso, you see all of these elements of the celebration: the altars, the offered birds (hens, doves, even a peacock!), food, and the tammurriata.
So, what's up with all those birds?
As Peter Grey explores in Lucifer: Princeps, birds have been associated with the souls of the dead residing in the underworld since ancient Sumeria. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes them thus:
They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away for ever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old.
The emphasis on hens is particularly interesting, given the association that some traditions draw between the the older woman and her hen in the presepe with the agricultural goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, maiden goddess of the underworld. This association between Demeter and the Madonna of the Hens has at the very least been commented on by Protestant writers such as Theodor Trede, who wrote about the ritual similarities between Southern Italian Catholicism and Greco-Roman paganism.
In African-American folk magic, hens' feet are used to protect against harmful tricks because of the scratching they do in the ground. If someone has laid a harmful powder or charm against you in your yard where you are likely to walk over it every day, thus poisoning yourself through your feet, the scratching of the hens (literally or magically) helps to tear that power up out of the earth. It would be a stretch to say this practice and the Madonna of the Hens share a common point of origin. But the image of the hens' feet digging magic out of the ground resonates nicely with the popular legend of the hens clawing at the buried icon of the Madonna.