Protecting ourselves from earthquakes: emergency rituals and seismic memory.
The past months’ earthquakes in Central Italy were dramatic and exhausting: they killed hundreds of people, ravaged dozens of villages, and dismembered many human communities. During this time, various religious practices have spontaneously arisen, such as propitiatory fastes, penitential processions, and choral prayers. These rituals, here indicated by Giovanni Gugg with the term “emergency rituals”, are considered as folkloric devices useful to absorb the shock caused by a disaster and, at the same time, to hold together a community after a trauma; in this sense, they represent a critical window on the way a specific community feels the crisis and expresses its cultural identity. As the author explains, the “emergency rituals” are «liturgical ceremonies and social events performed with the goal of containing the anxiety: an attempt to dominate what is uncontrollable, but also a way to express the shock, the anger, the disbelief, and the grief. In other words, the emergency rituals are the ways in which survivors look for consolation, clutching to each other in order to remain united and overcome despair and disintegration».
Drawing on historical and literary sources about the Vesuvius case, the author argues that the “emergency rituals” are not just spontaneous expressions, but also practices organised by the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the political administrators. Subsequently, by presenting some cases of collective prayers and processions carried out in earthquake sites since August 24th, 2016, Gugg specifies that if in the future the stricken community will recognize the “emergency ritual” as effective (if it recognizes the occurrence of a supernatural intervention on their condition), then it is possible that such a specific “miraculous event” will be commemorated later on through a so-called “commemoration ritual”. This one should primarily be regarded as a form of collective memory which selects the past and hands down only what is considered exemplary. In this way, the effects of the divine grace will be re-actualized at every performance of the ritual. But of course, whether this will be the case for the 2016/2017 Central Italy earthquakes or not, it can only be verified in the next years through a constant ethnographic observation.
A collective prayer in front of the basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia (Perugia), 30 Oct. 2016 (SkyTg24).