Have you ever heard of Lent’s “Pupatta”? It is a doll dressed in black cloth made and exhibited in Molise homes during the forty days preceding Easter, as a symbol of patience and abstinence. The tradition, steeped in pagan references, is still very much alive in some Molise villages such as in Santa Croce di Magliano, where the Pupatte hanging from the balconies decorate the streets.
The “Pupatta of Lent” is a doll with the appearance of an old lady dressed strictly in black; it is set up in many Molise homes on the occasion of the six weeks preceding Easter as a sign of mourning and penance. At the base of the skirt it has a circle to which the foods allowed in these forty days of abstinence are hung: cod, anchovies, garlic, chilli and a corncob. In the center of the circle there is also an onion with six chicken feathers stuck, one for each week.
In her hand the old lady holds the spindle and the cone to represent patience but also the passing of time. According to a different version, Lent, wife of the deceased Carnival, spins waiting to be reunited with him on Easter day. The links to the pagan tradition and the references to the three Fates and to Penelope’s canvas are therefore evident.
Some believe that the “Pupatta” should be displayed outside the house to protect it. This use could derive from that of the “oscilla”: small sculptures from the Augustan era hanging from trees or outside the “domus” on the occasion of some special celebrations. A different version, on the other hand, provides for the doll to be placed on the fireplace, inside the house, so as to be able to use the hung foods as seasonings for the bread consumed for breakfast. On Easter day, the scraps of these foods are detached and burned as a sign of purification.
Although today’s “Pupattas” look more like ordinary rag dolls than the old Lent, this tradition remains alive in many Molise villages; in particular in the center of Santa Croce di Magliano in the Lenten period you can see many “Pupatte” hanging from the balconies. This year many dolls present new accessories, suitable for the difficult period we are experiencing due to the spread of Covid 19: gloves, mask and sanitizer. So the “Pupatta” of Lent becomes the “Pupatta” of the quarantine.
Silvia Di Menna
“Pupatta of Lent”, Santa Croce di Magliano, Molise (photo: A. Martino)