Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia

Basics 

Hagiography & Miracle 

Not much is known about the life of Santa Rosalia. She was born to a noble family. She rejected that life, instead pursuing one as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino. She died there alone in 1166. 

Things became more interesting in 1624, when a plague struck Palermo. At that point, Saint Rosalia appeared to a sick woman, then to a hunter. She told the hunter where her remains could be found and ordered him to bring them to Palermo, where they would be carried in procession throughout the city. 

The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave, exactly where the saint had told him to look for them. He brought them back to the city, where the people carried them in procession three times. After that, the plague ceased. In gratitude for this miracle, the people of Palermo adopted her as their patron saint, and a sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered. 

Heraldry 

Crown of roses, lily, rose, skull, pilgrim's staff, crucifix, Bible, rosary, chisel, Basilian monastic dress or hermitic dress, the following epitaph (in Latin): "I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ."

Feast Days

Santa Rosalia has two major feast days: the liturgical feast day of September 4, which Sicilians and others celebrate by making the pilgrimage to her sanctuary on Monte Pellegrino; and a feast day on July 15, which celebrates her deliverance and subsequent patronage of the city of Palermo, Sicily. It should be noted that, while the July feast is the major focus for Palermitani, the September feast is more widely celebrated in Italian-American communities due to the popularity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose feast falls on July 16. 

In the video below, you get a sense for the enormity of the July feast in Palermo: 

Santa Rosalia and Magic 

Weather Magic 

After she saved the city of Palermo from plague, Santa Rosalia became known as a fierce protectress. She was credited with defending the people from earthquakes and storms, and was appealed to in prayers for a safe and successful harvest. The folk prayer (incantation? Mystery play?) below, taken from Sara Favarò's wonderful Santa Rosalia: Immagini, curiosità, preghiere, canti, demonstrates how she was appealed to for protection from dangerous weather: 

Siciliano 

Rusulè, Rusulè
'n mezzu a lu mari chi sireva
l'Arcangelo Gabrieli
'nfàvura chi durmeva. 

- Susi, susi Gabrieli
chi sta vinennu 'na tempesta d'acqua
e 'n timpesta di ventu. 

- Timpesta unni vai? 

- Vaiu arbuli a scippari
e vigna a cutulari. 

- Nun ghiri arbuli a scippari
e mancu vigna a cutuliari
vattinni 'n 'on voscu scuru
unni è ca 'un ci àbita
né suli, nè luna e nudda criatura. 
Né campani sunari
e mancu addi a cantari. 

English 

Rosalia, Rosalia
sat in the middle of the sea
the Archangel Gabriel
slept on the ground. 

- Get up, get up, Gabriel
a storm of water is arriving
and a storm of wind. 

- Storm, where are you going? 

- I'm going to uproot trees
and vines. 

- Do not go to uproot trees
or vines. 
Begone to a dark wood
where there isn't living
the sun, the moon, or any creature. 
Where no bells are sounding
nor roosters singing. 

Folk Altars

Several stunning edicole votive, or votive altars, have been documented here by the Santa Rosalia di Palermo Facebook page. 

Pagan Antecedents 

Santa Rosalia's sanctuary was once a sacred site dedicated to Tanit, also called Tinnit, Tannou or Tangou. Tanit was a Berber Punic and Phoenician goddess. She was the chief deity of Carthage alongside her consort, Ba'al Hammon. She was equivalent to the moon-goddess Astarte, and later worshipped in Roman Carthage in her Romanized form as Dea Caelestis or Juno Caelestis

In a striking parallel to Santa Rosalia's traditional role as a protectress from bad weather and a custodian of the harvest, it is customary in modern-day Tunisian Arabic to invoke "Omek Tannou" or "Oumouk Tangou" ("Mother Tannou" or "Mother Tangou", depending on the region) to bring much-needed rain during long periods of drought. 

A figurine depicting the goddess Tanit from the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum in Israel

A figurine depicting the goddess Tanit from the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum in Israel

Necromancy

Why that skull, though? 

The common answer I have found in English-language sources is that the skull indicates a saint who spent much of their life contemplating death. St Gerard, for example, is said to have kept a skull and crossbones on his desk to inspire continuous contemplation of death; he is now often depicted with a skull in his icons. In this case, the skull is essentially a momento mori. But is that the case for Santa Rosalia? We know so little about her life, how can we be sure she spent it in contemplation of death? 

I wonder whether the skull is actually meant to indicate the manner in which she was "born" as a saint: by indicating the location of her remains to someone who then retrieved them. That is what her feast on July 15 commemorates. And it points to the underlying "technologies" of sainthood: the emphasis on martyrdom (in the ancient Mediterranean, murder victims were more likely to become revenants), the veneration of relics (which are disturbed remains, another way to create a revenant), the use of novenas (which are a period of ritualized mourning), etc. 

I know several practitioners based in the US and UK who have independently associated Santa Rosalia with necromancy, perhaps due to the heraldry of the skull. Wolf & Goat, makers of several quality oils dedicated to saints according to traditional practices, offer the following description of their Oil of Saint Rosalia

The Flower of palermo, protectress of souls, Saint Rosalia, the Santuzza–the Little Saint–is a powerful mediator on behalf of the Land itself and the Dead who dwell within it. She echoes the superintending care of the Creator for His people, and gives voice the Souls forgotten whose blood and sweat has given fruit to the Land upon which we dwell. He-in-whom-we-move-and-have-our-existence is celebrated through Her, and her protection and intercession from the Mountains where she dwells is true manifestation of the might and love of God.

Of course, this is deviating a bit from the Sicilian tradition as I have yet encountered it. So take it with a grain of Trapani sea salt. 

Hymn to Santa Rosalia 

I love including some traditional music in my devotional practice, even if it's just something to play in the background while I pray or meditate on the saint's Mysteries. This beautiful hymn to Santa Rosalia does just the trick: 

Italian 

Lyrics courtesy of SantaRosaliaPalermo.it

Diva, cui diedero
lor nome i fiori:
o santa, o nobile
stirpe di re!
Tu il puro anelito
dei nostri cuori,
tu il faro vigile
di nostra fè!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida
che dolce olia
o Giglio candido
spruzzato d’or.
Fiore freschissimo,
o Rosalia,
accogli il palpito
del nostro amor!

Tu, che di gelida
cavernsa in seno,
scolpivi il nobile
patto d’amor.
Tra cento ostacoli,
concedi almeno
che della grazia
serbiamo il fior!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

Tu che sui culmini
del Pellegrino,
sfogavi all’aure
l’immenso ardor;
Tu fa che il fervido
fuoco divino
avvampi ogni anima
bruci ogni cor!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

Tu, che sollecita
de la tua terra,
la lue malefica
fugasti un dì.
O Pia, difendici
da fame e guerra,
d’ogni contagio
che ci colpì.

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

Tu, che con l’anima
in Dio rapita,
sorella agli angeli
fosti quaggiù;
l’arcano insegnaci
de la tua vita:
sognar la Patria
cercar Gesù!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

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