Thursday, June 2, 2011


This post isn't easy for me to write, but since it looks like I'm supposed to (I've avoided it for 2 days and can't anymore), I'm going to limit this to my only complaint and get to reporting. To preface: I am a vegan because I do not kill anything that isn't threatening harm to anyone. I've been a vegan for 15 years this month. With that said, let's talk about the cool part: The following post is about a Sicilian tradition that goes back to at least 500 years, the Tonnara. The entire endeavor is an ancient ritual which survives, barely, to this day.

Blue fin Tuna are caught in a series of nets, which haven't changed since the middle ages, and killed in a cruel, bloody way with spears and knives and other sharp, close range weapons. The practice is so bloody it's called La Mattanza, the slaughter.

A huge trap (called the tonnara) leads the fish into a chamber, called la camera della morte, which has a net floor that can be raised. The fish are then brought to the surface and killed. During this festival, while the tuna are being caught, Tonnarotti sing special songs called scialome which have been passed down for so long that much of the meaning has now been lost.

The residents would head down to the shore or out in accompanying boats and sing as well. Once the fish are lifted up from the water into the net, several men jump in and kill the fish, hence, the mattanza part of the action.

Blue fin tuna has been so overfished that in recent years the mattanza has been canceled or nothing has been caught. I'd be happy about it except that it means there are no more fish left, not that everyone has gone veg. Tonnara is an ancient technique that has apparently been outdone, to everyone's detriment, by Japanese and Korean industrial fleets.

Here is an excerpt from a 2005 paper published in the Journal of Mediterranean studies in 2005:
The first tuna caught is offered to the Madonna. An outdoor altar construction of the Virgin Mary holding a tuna in her arms is facing the sea. Women gather daily at this Madonna of the Tonnaroti to pray for the success of the mattanza (Singer 1999: 64). The tonnaroti revere the Madonna del Rosario in the church of Sant’ Anna. Before deploying the tonnara, a local priest blesses the boats that the fishermen have adorned with bouquets of flowers, and all the other equipment, the sea, the fish in it and the rais as well (Maggio 2000: 97). As we have already seen, religious worship accompanies all stages of the tonnara operation, making it not only a focal point of local economic, social and cultural life, but also of spiritual life. After all entrapped tuna are taken, the tonnaroti jump in the bloody water in a ritual act that, according to anthropologist Serge Collet (personal communication), is symbolic for regeneration and reproduction.
Gladiolas, lillies, palm and pictures of the patrons are put at the mouth of the entrance and the rais prays over the whole endeavor. Rais means "lord," as in "lord of the manner" or "Lord and Lady." I think we'd call him the High priest of this ritual.

And that's what it is: Ritual. This isn't the impersonal industrial fishing, or the fish version of bull fighting, as many have derisively called it. The endeavor is out of respect for the fish, and the sea and the community. The sacrifice of life is recognized, much in the way we understand Native American traditions to be.

This video is not for the faint of heart. In the first part you can hear some of the singing and chanting under the wind and chatter of people taking the video.

500 years doesn't seem so ancient. True, but how about 11,000 years?

The Grotta del Genovese, about 6 miles west of Trapani where la mattanza is held, is a cave famous for its paleolithic art. Paleolithic? Yeah. There are scenes, engraved and drawn by hand that show daily life, animals, dancing figures and a scene of tuna being killed. An 11,000 year old confirmation of this ritual:

le pitture

While exploring the pictures of the art in the cave, I came across this lovely picture and bit of information, confirmed an all official and tourist sites I've read:

"The fourteen idols painted in the cave are well known not only among scientists. Six of them, which remind a little flask or a violin, are round-shaped, with a belly and a bottle-neck in the middle and short arms. The other eight idols have got a cylindrical-shape and short arms too.
The Levanzo's idols are very similar to the stone simulacrums which referrer to the fertility cult, founded in many Neo-Eneolithic sites in the Mediterranean. The little statues founded in Creta, some Greek islands, Spain and Sardinian, are very similar to those founded in Grotta del Genovese. So in Levanzo too they practised the Creatrix Mother cult (Mother God)..."

This has been another 3 hour tour. I had planned to be asleep by 10 PM so I could be up by 6 AM and start the day right. I've been reading articles and web sites and you tube and ancient Italian songs, and I think I've picked up more Sicilian tonight than in the past 6 months... Remember way back at the start of this post I said I felt like I was supposed to be writing about this event, even though I didn't want to? I'm glad I did. 

It feels like this whole trip was to get me to explore this cave and artifacts. It's the second one I've talked about on the blog and this one has Goddess imagery and had votives as well. Looks like this is only the start of my mission. Now I have to find the songs, the votives, and The Goddess of the Cave. I have found something tonight: A renewed sense of tradition. I don't mean doing something just because it was done before. The unthinking, unquestioning mentality has got to go. If someone had asked what the chanting meant we'd still know all of the words instead of just some. This is a particular tradition I wouldn't personally want to take part in now, but something about it makes me want to defend it against naysayers.



  1. If this ritual really is 11,000 years old, that means it was probably instituted before the dawn of agriculture. If that's true, it puts an entirely different spin on the relation the people at the time had with the sea. The ability to make ethical and moral choices about our food sources is, after all, just another modern luxury.

    If the one and only option you had to ensure the survival of your village (read, your entire extended family, out to the third cousin) was to participate in an annual tuna harvest, the correct moral and ethical choice would be very different. In this context, allowing the tuna to survive would directly threaten the lives of everyone you knew.

    Not arguing against veganism, of course. Just pointing out that veganism only makes sense in an appropriate context... and that this practice makes perfect sense, too, in the presumed context of its origin.

  2. I agree. That's was what I was trying to express at the end of the post: My conflict between my current practice and my respect for the ancient one.