The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. The presepe presents a large set of rich images which stands on its own merit as a symbolic landscape but can also provide a deeper understanding of the symbolic language of Neapolitan folktales.
The featured image of this blog post is a photograph of a Neapolitan presepe on display in Most Precious Blood Church in Manhattan. More images of a presepe are available in this post.
Reflecting the pagan antecedents of Christmas, the presepe has a distinctly Saturnalian character. Time is stopped in the presepe–which, incidentally, may be why tombola (a lottery game similar to bingo) is traditionally played for fun or employed for divination at Christmastime.
The presepe represents both a descent into the underworld, as well as the periodic return of the dead to this world from All Souls’ Day to Epiphany. This is why the presepe is normally set up on November 2 and left up until January 6.
At the heart of the presepe are the Madonna and San Giuseppe, who await Gesù Bambino in the cave where he will be born. It is in the dark depths of the earth that the light is born, year after year. Traditionally, the figure of Gesù Bambino is only placed in the presepe at the stroke of midnight when Christmas Day begins. Feasting until daybreak often follows this momentous occasion.
But the Holy Family are not the only entities present. Many other figures from mythology and folklore constitute the majority of the elements in a traditional presepe. An exhaustive list of these elements, of which some sources claim there are up to 72, is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, we can review some of the most interesting characters, including pagan divinities, spirits and devils, and the dead.
A figure on a driving a cart full of barrels called Cicci Bacco represents Dionysus, god of wine.
An older woman who represents Demeter, goddess of agriculture, gives birdseed to a hen who represents Persephone, maiden goddess of the underworld.
A hunter with a bow represents the sun-god Apollo. .
A noblewoman, either white or black and present with the Three Kings, represents the moon-goddess Diana.
An elderly couple represents Chronos and Rhea, the father and mother of the gods.
Three elderly women spinning thread represent the Fates.
Spirits & devils
The devil himself is often represented in the presepe.
The innkeeper and his hostel have a particularly sinister reputation and are believed to represent the temptations and the dangers of the temporal world.
One folktale recounts how the elderly washerwoman was a disguise employed by the devil so that he could get near the Madonna and try to prevent her from giving birth.
Some say the monk represents a mischievous spirit called the Munaciello.
The wandering souls of the dead are represented by sheep. The shepherd who leads them represents Hermes in his role as a psychopomp, or guide for the recently deceased making the journey to the underworld.
Beggars can also represent the dead, particularly the suffering souls in Purgatory, who suffer from heat, hunger, and thirst, and who must be prayed for and given solace through traditional methods.
Various water sources present in the presepe are also connected to the dead. The well has a diabolical reputation, particularly on Christmas Eve, when its water was traditionally taboo. It was also believed that one could scry into well water to see the heads of all those who would die during the year. The river, meanwhile, is linked to death through the mythological underworld rivers such as the Styx.
Lo straordinario simbolismo del Presepe Napoletano di Luca Zolli
Il presepe popolare napoletano di Roberto De Simone
Il presepe nella cultural napoletana