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main index    © Jeff Matthews    entry Sept 2015       

The Sacred Spring, Bassoons & the Early Populations of Italy


I came across a reference to Aeclanum, an archaeological park (pictured) at the site of a town of “ancient Samnium”. It's not far from Benevento in the Campania region of Italy, about 70 km/45 miles from Naples. It's one of the many pre-Roman sites that tell you what a layer-cake of different cultures Italy was before it all got gobbled up by the Romans. Particularly, central and southern Italy have towns or geographical names that remind you of the ancient past, before the Romans. And so it is with Aeclanum. The ruins reveal nearly 400 inscriptions in Oscan (the language of the Samnites and a long history of pre-Roman settlement. It was then, however, close enough to the lines of Roman communication (in this case, the Appian Way) to be incorporated into all-mighty Rome by 100 BC).

Aeclanum is said to have been a chief town of the ancient Hirpini people, and that is what caught my attention, reminding me of  the high-falutin' conversations we used to have in college symphonic band rehearsals. In this case we were losing badly to Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, (originally music for a 1913 ballet, but later better-known to most people simply as concert music, although you were allowed to tap your feet to the music!). Leaning over to the bassoon player, I said, “This was originally called 'Sacred Spring' and is about those rituals of expansion to populate ancient Italy with all those tribes.” I thought I might as well educate my friends while we counted rests.

“No, it isn't. The Romans didn't speak English. They said ver sacrum. (He studied Latin as well as the bassoon). And it has nothing to do with Italy. Those old Italians didn't have bassoonists good enough to handle that solo at the beginning.” He was right. Although Stravinsky had an early title of “Sacred Spring” in mind, he, himself, wrote on the original score a subtitle that said “Pictures of Pagan Russia” So much for my theory. The bassoon? We agreed to disagree on that. But he was right in that The Rite of Spring and the Roman Ver Sacrum have in common only that they both involve spring rituals, quite common in prehistoric times and even into historic times throughout Europe.

We're not talking about all prehistoric people of the peninsula; that is, not the early hominid activity described here and here, but rather the Indo-European tribes that spread out during the early Iron Age (starting in around 1500 BC), a diffusion that gave us Samnites, Sabines, Hirpines, Picentines, Umbrians, etc. presumably radiating from central Italy southwards. Thus, we also exclude the mysterious Etruscans (who are now believed to have made their own inroads in the north around 1000 B.C., coming from an area in what is now modern Turkey). Also excluded are the mighty centers of Magna Grecia (such as Cuma or Herculaneum). The ver sacrum refers to the ritual religious practice of central Italian tribes that involved "sacrificing" selected members by expelling them from the community, whereupon they would diffuse and found their off-shoot populations, either by finding available territory or by expelling or incorporating indigenous populations that were already in place. This practice continued into the beginnings of history; that is, until you reach a period when "historians" started first to keep oral accounts of the past and then eventually written records. By that time (probably around 700 BC) stable sedentary dwelling conditions had already become general in Italy and you just didn't wander over to the next valley and settle down. (Although Roman historians wrote about the ver sacrum, by the time Rome had established itself, that ritual was an anachronism. Rome spread by conquest, not by ritual.)

Those who were sent forth were held to be under the protection of a sacred animal totem that might then become eponyms for the new communities. For example, the wolf (called hirpus in Oscan) gave us the Hirpini, a tribe of the Campania (near Avellino) and now the geographical region named Irpinia in modern Italy. Or the woodpecker (picus), producing the Piceni, a people who settled on the Adriatic near Ancona; the green woodpecker is still the symbol of the area—and so forth. The "expulsion" occurred in the spring and is often referred to in sources as a "sacrifice"some sort of ritual of propitiation in times of difficulty for the community. Most sources see it as a way to get rid of excess population and still maintain an ethnic continuity by sending out "children" of the community. There is no unanimity of opinion on whether "sacrifice" ever really meant a blood ritual of some sort.


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