LA SERPE DI CHIAVENNAIn addition to numerous reasons of historical interest that Chiavenna offers visitors, there are also several curiosities. One, in particular, is striking for its singularity: on several doors of several houses, full of illustrious history, we find, instead of the classic swing, the figure of a serpent wrought iron. Surprising choice, if you think that the snake is one of the most classic symbols of evil, in its insinuating, subtle and repellent. Evidently the snake guarding these doorways assumes a different value, is charged with meaning protective or, as they say the word with a little ‘difficult, apotropaic (used to ward off evil influences).
An ancient legend (reworked by Alfredo Martinelli in the collection “The grass of memory – Legends and stories from Valtellina,” Small Tibeti, Milan, 1964, p. 205-211) explains the origin of this meaning. It tells of a time in which the Chiavenna had to suffer the negative consequences of a real invasion of flies and small insects, consequences not only annoying, but also disastrous for agriculture: the unwanted guests, in fact, feasted behind the labors and the sweat of the peasants storming the crops, especially fruits and vegetables. It was a true biblical plague, and Chiavenna, after having tried everything to get rid of the insects, they turned, exasperated, to a magician who had a reputation for powerful operator of sorcery and magic.
He loved to talk in riddles, and enigmatic was the answer he gave to them: they merely asked if they had seen a white snake, without adding anything else that could clarify the meaning of his mysterious words. The Chiavenna were quite amazed in front of them, but dared not ask for more, merely answer that snakes you could see many, but no one had ever seen white. If returned, then, at home, convinced that the magician did not want or could not help them. The wonder grew, then, when they saw the wizard enter the town on the evening of that same day, rallying the people around him. What was happening? The magician had changed his mind? He, oblivious to the eyes from which transpired these questions, he asked, in a firm voice, which was preparing a large bonfire. No one dared ask the reason, and the pile of wood was prepared. He himself set fire, and it blazed up, spreading its glow in the shadows of the evening.
At one point the magician drew from his coat a magical tool, and began to sing a melody. A strange melody, which he had never heard, a magical melody, which evoked, from the fire, a mysterious being. At first you could not distinguish what it was that being that took shape in the flames, and then his form became clearer, more defined. It was a white snake, the white snake had mentioned the magician. The mysterious animal, darting among the flames, pulled all the insects and flies that had infested the area. Everyone, absolutely everyone, was so engulfed by flames and disappeared forever. The inhabitants of Chiavenna had witnessed the scene, and they were dismayed.
They had not yet recovered from the surprise, when it happened something even more miraculous: the fire was even more vivid, almost blinding, and the snake, which seemed to make one with the fire, leaned in the direction of the magician, the wrapped him in its coils and dragged him into the heart of the flames. All this happened in a few moments. The magician, always wrapped in the coils of the snake began to burn, wasting away, and he also ate the snake. At the end you could not see the flames: the snake and the magician had disappeared. Even the flames began to fade, quickly, leaving, under the gaze of the astonished present, the place to a great heap of smoking embers.
Imagine, now, what could go in the minds of those who had witnessed the events of that evening prodigious. The thoughts chased each other, and with them the mixed feelings of relief and fear, relief for the end of the scourge of destructive insects, for fear the miserable end of the magician.
But the dominant thought concerned the mysterious white snake: what was it? What was the meaning? In some the idea prevailed that it was the visible manifestation of magical force evoked by the magician, who had liberated the city from pests, others preferred to think it was a magical force that the magician had punished for having implemented a wicked spell and probably deceiver, perhaps, in fact, he intended to take over the city, after loosening it, and subdue the people, perhaps had even been to unleash him, with his magical practices, the invasion of insects, that had nothing natural. In both cases, the white snake was seen as a protective force, either against insects, either against the evil magical practices and underhanded and deceitful. And as such it was placed at the door of several palaces.