Spirits of the Road: The Cult of Animitas

The traveler who exits the Estación Central in Santiago, Chile and walks down San Francisco de Borja street, after less than twenty meters will stumble upon a sort of votive wall, right on the side of the train station on his left, a space choke-full of little engravings, offerings, perpetually lit candles, photographs and holy pictures. A simple sign says: “Romualdito”, the same name present on every thankful ex voto.

If our hypothetical traveler then takes a cab and heads down the Autopista del Sol towards the suburb of Maipù, he will see by the side of the opposite lane an altar quite similar to the first one, dedicated to a young girl called Astrid whose portrait is almost buried under dozens of toys and plush bears.

Should he cross the entirety of Chile’s narrow strip of land, encased between the mountains and the ocean, maybe crossing from time to time the border to the Argentinian pampas, he would notice that the landscape (both urban and rural) is studded with numerous of these strange little temples: places of devotion where veneration is not directed towards canonical saints, but to the spirits of people whose life ended in tragedy. This is the cult of the animitas.

An expression of popular piety, the animitas are votive boxes that are often built by the side of the road (animita de carretera) to remember some victims of the “mala muerte”, an awful death: even if the remains of these persons are buried at the cemetery, they cannot really rest in peace on the account of the violent circumstances of their demise. Their souls still haunt the places where life was taken from them.

 

The Romualdito at the train station, for instance, was a little boy who suffered from tubercolosis, assaulted and killed by some thugs who wanted to steal his poncho and the 15 pesos he had on him. But his story, dating back to the 1930s, is told in countless versions, more or less legendary, and it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happened: one thing is sure, the popular faith in Romualdito is so widespread in Santiago that when it was time to renew and rebuild the station, his wall was left untouched.

Young Astrid, the girl with the plush toys altar, died in 1998 in a motorcycle accident, when she was just 19-years-old. She is now known as the Niña Hermosa.

But these funeral altars can be found by the hundreds, mostly installed by the roadside, shaped like little houses or small churches with crosses sicking out of their tiny roofs.

At first they are built as an act of mercy and remembrance on the exact spot of the fatal accident (or, in the case of fishermen lost at sea, in specific sectors of the coast); but they become the center of a real cult whenevert the soul of the deceased proves to be miraculous (animita muy milagrosa). When, that is, the spirit starts answering to prayers and offerings with particular favors, by interceding bewteen the believer and the Holy Virgin or Christ himself.

 The cult of the animitas is an original mixture of the indigenous, pre-Hispanic cult of the dead (where the ancestor turned into a benign presence offering protection to his offspring) and the cult of the souls of Purgatory which arrived here with Catholicism.
For this reason it shows surprising analogies with another form of folk religiosity developed in Naples, at the Fontanelle Cemetery, a place to which I devoted my book
De profundis.
The two cults, not officially recognized by the Roman Church, have some fundamental aspects in common.

Animitas, built with recycled material, are folk art objects that closely resemble the carabattoli found in the Fontanelle Cemetery; not only for their shape but also for their function of making a dialectic, a dialogue with the Netherworld possible.
Secondly, the system of intercessions and favors, the offerings and the ex voto, are essentially the same in both cases.

But the crucial element is that the objects of veneration are not religious heroes, those saints who accomplished miraculous feats while they were alive, but rather victims of destiny. This allows for the identification between the believer and the invoked soul, the acknowledging of their reciprocal condition, a sharing of human misery – a feeling which is almost impossible when faced with “supernatural” figures like saints. Who of course have themselves an apotropaic function, but always maintain a higher position in respect to common mortals.
On the other hand the
animitas, just like the anime pezzentelle in Naples, are “democratic” symbols, offering a much easier relationship: they share with the believers the same social milieu, they know firsthand all the daily hardship and difficulties of survival. They are protective spirits which can be bothered even for more modest, trivial miracles, because they once were ordinary people, and they understand.

But while in Italy the cult developed exclusively in one town, in Chile it is quite ubiquitous. To have an idea of the tenacity and pervasiveness of this faith, there is one last, amazing example.
Ghost bikes (white-painted bicycles remembering a cyclist who was run over by a car) can be seen all around the world, and they are meant as a warning against accidents. When these installations began to appear in Chile, they immediately intertwined with popular devotion giving birth to hybrids called
bicianimitas. Boxes for the ritual offerings began to appear beside the white bicycles, and the funeral memorials turned into a bridge for communication between the living and the dead.
Those living and dead that, the
animitas seem to remind us, are never really separated but coexist on the city streets or along the side of dusty highways stretching out into the desert.

The blog Animitas Chilenas intends to create an archive of all animitas, recording for each one the name of the soul, her history and GPS coordinates.
Besides the links in the article, I highly recommend the essay by Lautaro Ojeda,
Animitas – Una expresión informal y democrática de derecho a la ciudad (in ARQ Santiago n. 81 agosto 2012) and the in-depth post El culto urbano de la muerte: el origen y la trascendencia de las animitas en Chile, by Criss Salazar.
Photographer Patricio Valenzuela Hohmann put up a
wonderful animitas photo gallery.
Lastly, you should check out the
Difunta Correa, Argentina’s most famous animita, dedicated to the legendary figure of a woman who died of thirst and fatigue in the Nineteenth Century while following her husband – who had been forced to enroll in the army; her body was found under a tree, still holding her newborn baby to her breast. The cult of the Difunta Correa is so widespread that it led to the construction of a real sanctuary in Vallecito, visited by one million pilgrims every year.

The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

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Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

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In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

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So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

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But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

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In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

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The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

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In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

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The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

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The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

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Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

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The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

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Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

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The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

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One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

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The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

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