Feasts and Traditions

St. Pellegrino and the dragon

In Sicily festivals and fairs are always the best moments to discover fascinating places and stories. Among the Norse peoples, many a legend of Viking heroes and dragons has been told but the sicilians also have their fair share: the Hydra of Lerna killed by Hercules is an example which goes back many centuries to the world of Greek mythology of which Sicily was part. At the dawn of Christianity in Sicily the conversion of the pagan population was a very demanding and very dangerous mission.  A mission in which the victory of good over evil was often illustrated by drawing on previous traditions. Every year on the 18th of August in the charming medieval village of Caltabellotta, San Pellegrino, the Saint who defeated the dragon, is celebrated. Let’s find out the story.

Once upon a time, many centuries ago, there was a ferocious dragon that lived in a cave hidden amongst the rocky crags above the village of Triocali (Caltabellotta). Every day the dragon terrorized the inhabitants of the village, destroying and devouring everything he saw, including the misshapen peasants unfortunate enough to cross his path. On a memorable day a traveler  arrived in this unfortunate hamlet. His name was Pellegrino. According to local tradition and various contradictory historical sources, Saint Pellegrin, the first bishop in Sicily, was born in the 1st century AD on the Greek island of Lucca (Leukad), not far from Itaca. Once in Rome, he encountered Saint Peter who ordained him as a bishop and sent him to Sicily to preach the gospel, drive out the demons that afflicted the island and convert the pagans to Christianity. Pellegrino set out for the island and landed on the southern coast, not far from Eraclea Minoa and 16 miles from Caltabelotta. After a few days of prayer he set off inland to Caltabelotta accompanied only by his walking stick. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Caltabellotta had come to a diabolical compromise with the dragon: he would leave them in peace in exchange for a tender youth.

So every day a youngster was selected from one of the local families and sacrificed to the beast. Upon his arrival in the small town, Saint Pellegrino encountered a woman who was baking fragrant loaves of bread. He asked her to offer him a piece but she refused and sent him off empty handed, only to discover that the loaves had turned into stone. As soon as word of what had happened spread, the villagers searched for the strange visitor, but in vain. He only reappeared when the soldiers were about to bring a young boy to the dragon’s cave for his daily meal: it was the son of the baker and his contemptuous wife. The woman was obviously bereaved by the tragic lot of her son and Pellegrino, moved by the woman’s desperate tears, promised her that her son would be saved in the name of God. He took the boy by the hand and walked up to the dragon’s cave, followed by a small crowd of curious villagers. When the ferocious dragon emerged from the cave and came upon the holy man, he was terrorized by the Saint’s presence. Petrified, he shrieked and howled out and fled back into the cave. Pellegrino, fortified by his faith, followed the monster into the cave and plunged his miraculous walking stick deep into the beast’s throat, killing him on the spot. And so the village was freed from the dragon and the boy returned to his mother, who baptised him and gave him the name of Libertino.

Soon after, all the villagers who had witnessed e the miracle were converted to Cristianity too. Saint Pellegrino remained in the area of Caltabellotta for several years, preaching the gospel and converting the population to Cristianity; he became a hermit and chose the dragon’s cave as his dwelling and since then the mountain above Caltabelotta is called Monte San Pellegrino. He spent his days in prayer and meditation, curing the ill, helping the poor and professing his faith. Many years later, a church and a convent were built on the site of the hermit’s cave and over the centuries the complex has been enlarged to accommodate the ever growing comunity of religious followers of Pellegrino. To the day of today the Hermitage of Saint Pellegrino perched on the rocks above the town of Caltabellotta is shrouded in an aura of religious mysticism, especially 18 August when the Saint is solemnly celebrated.

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