Interpretation of the Ritual of the Madonna del Lume

Victor Turner's (1966, 1977, 1982) approach to the study and the interpretation of ritual is based upon the consideration of ritual as "...a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence prenatural entities of forces on behalf of the actors' goal and interests (1977: 183)". In his analysis Turner points to the social, public and systematic aspects of ritual. Ritual is social because of the connection between people and deities, and it is public in the fact that the whole community takes part in it. It is systematic for the reason that a ritual represents "an ensemble of beliefs, sentiments, and practices which have for their object invisible and intangible beings or powers which a human group recognizes as superior, on which it depends, and with which it can enter or has entered into relation, either by interior workship (prayer, meditation) or by exterior, liturgical acts (Turner 1982:201)".

These aspects -- social, public, and systematic -- can be applied to the analysis and the interpretation of the celebration of the Madonna del Lume. First, the social aspect can be identified by way of the symbolic relationship that connects the Madonna and people within the community. The legend of the Madonna del Lume, for example, tells how she was brought from the sea. The significance that she has for the community is grounded in this founding myth. Second, the ritual is public. The entire community takes part in the event as spectators as well as actors. Third, the ritual is systematic because it assigns a higher power to the invocations and other liturgical acts such as the procession on land and at sea. These religious acts are used by the people to come into contact with the divine. People both in Porticello and in San Diego express their devotion for the Madonna del Lume, which they recognize as having been given to them by divine action. All these aspects, social, public and systematic ground the representation of the ethnography in the play format.

Turner suggests that every culture has a theme which is expressed during the ritual by means of the symbols involved. In the social and cultural context of the daily life of fishermen in Porticello and San Diego, the main theme which emerges is one of a strong sense of community solidarity - solidarity on the sea when they are fishing, and solidarity during the celebration when the participants collectively respond to the invocation sung by the soloist, while carrying the Icon of the Madonna. The invocation is sung during the different processions in the small streets of the Sicilian village or on India street, the heart of the Italian community in San Diego. They carry the Icon in procession after they put it on the platform called the Vara. The Vara is not a religious symbol in the Catholic sense because it doesn't have an Icon on it and it is not kept in a religious place such as a church. And yet, it is considered sacred by the fishermen and kept at the fishmarket. It is worshiped every day and it gives rise to different symbolic behaviors such as the singing of the invocation.

Fishermen preparing for the Vara
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The Madonna del Lume and the Vara, both sacred objects during the ritual, express another theme, namely the sea. The Madonna symbolizes the light that the fishermen need to find a safe place when they are at sea. The Vara symbolizes the entire community of fishermen and their solidarity. Both these sacred objects serve to mediate the community's relationship with the sea. The sea for the fishermen is their source of livelihood; the sea is essential for their survival. At the same time the sea can be a negative force.

Boat greating the Madonna
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Another important theme also came to the fore, the strong component of individuality and competitiveness in the community's life. This theme works at the social and economic level. Individuality and competitiveness are also present in the call and response of the invocations. Only one person does the call and the group responds. To be the soloist is a privilege given by the community to an individual, but at some point the individual has to struggle with others in order to keep this privilege. This is also a reflection of their life at sea, in which solidarity on one side, and individuality and competitiveness on the other, are two opposing forces which the fishermen reconcile within the work organization and the singing of invocations, or during the casting or retiring of the nets.

Turner points to the presence of a dominant symbol which gives rise to a "context of symbolic objects, activities, gestures, social relationships between actors of ritual roles, and verbal behavior (prayers, formulas, chants, songs, recitation of sacred narratives and so on) (1977: 187)." Many symbolic behaviors are constructed around the Madonna del Lume. One of them is singing invocations in the form of call and response. During the fishing activities the ritual of the invocations is re-enacted and it assuages the difficulties and the hard labor of the fishing. This form of song, sung in the context of the work environment, reflects the ritualistic organization. Alan Lomax (1968) states that every culture expresses itself in a particular style. Since, according to him, musical style is a function of the social environment, there is a strong relationship between style and socio-cultural traits. Rather than merely saying that musical style reflects a particular social structure, I would propose that music does more than that -- it mediates the social organization with which it has a dynamic relationship. In fact, the invocations also have symbolic power during the fishing, because they tie the work of fishing to the celebration of the Madonna.

Dissertation Abstract | References
Updated 10 Oct 1996