What is Ferragosto, anyway?

Though I have lived in Italy for over 11 years, I have never stopped to really ask myself what this holiday Ferragosto is all about.  For those of you who don’t know, Ferragosto, which falls on the 15th of August, is a national Italian holiday on which it is canonical to go to the beach, if possible.  The highways are packed with travelers, almost every office and shop is closed for the week, and the beach bums are proudly present.

But there’s much more to Ferragosto, and until yesterday I never knew about it.  And I wouldn’t know anything about it if it weren’t for my friend Giulio V. who called me up yesterday to give me a bit of brotherly advice.

“Remember, tomorrow is the feast day of Yemanjà, the goddess of the sea.”

“Who?” I said, understandably.

“Yemanjà.  Her festival is tomorrow, so if you’re down at the beach, especially near dusk, you should give an offering.  She particularly prefers white flowers.”

I casually commented that tomorrow was also Ferragosto, and wondered aloud if there was a connection.

“Of course,” Giulio said.  “Ferragosto is the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  She and Yemanjà are just two manifestations of the same divine impulse.”

And so it got me thinking.  After a bit of research I discovered the following.  Ferragosto is indeed a holiday because it falls on the feast day of the Assumption, but it was a fertility holiday even during the pagan Roman period.  And Yemanjà, the Umbanda water goddess, is indeed related to the Virgin, but also to the great female African water deity Mami Wati, a profound and widespread influence throughout central Africa.

One of the things that Giulio and I have often spoken about is the wonder of the interconnectedness of all things.  I’ll be damned if this isn’t a great example.  And I thought Ferragosto was just an excuse to shut up the shops and head to the beach!

And so in homage to Yemanjà and all other goddesses, if you’re heading down to the sea later, make sure to have some  flowers in hand.

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