I’ve previously told you about how it was at least possible that my ancestors on my mother’s side of the family attended the infamous Dr. Faustus’ travelling science show when he played Krakow back in the sixteenth century, presumably sometime after he made his deal with Mephistopheles. But did you know that my ancestors on my father’s side also have a demonic connection?
I can trace my paternal ancestry back at least three hundred years, and my family comes from the village of Sant’Elia a Pianisi in Campobasso in southern Italy. For those of you keeping track, yes, that means that I am a distant relative of the two branches of the family that founded Colavita Olive Oil and Colavita Pasta. But Sant’Elia a Pianisi, with its minuscule population of less than 3,000 people, is known for more than pasta and olive oil. It’s known for its encounter with the Devil.
At the town’s Capuchin Convent, Padre Pio (San Pio da Pietrelcina) spent four years after 1905 while preparing for the priesthood and had an encounter with evil. Padre Pio went on to become famous as after 1918 as a holy man because of his stigmata, which skeptics believe were almost certainly self-inflicted. Pio, who became a saint in 2002, also claimed to be able to cast out demons. He was sent to Sant’Elia a Pianisi in 1905 with the hope that the mountain air would help his chronic illnesses, which had led to insomnia, exhaustion, fainting, and migraines.
According to the legend Pio told of himself, one summer night in 1906, unable to sleep while lying in his cell at Sant’Elia, Pio heard footsteps in the hall and assumed that Friar Anastasio had insomnia as well. The 19-year-old Pio tried to call to Anastasio, but found himself unable to form words. Then he saw a monstrous dog enter his room. In a letter, Pio wrote, “I saw the big dog enter through the window and there was smoke coming from his mouth. I fell on the bed and I heard a voice from the dog that said, ‘him it is, it is him’.” The dog then leapt from the window and vanished. This, he would later claim, was his first encounter with the Devil.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell my readers that the description Padre Pio gave, including the hallucinatory vision, the insomnia, and the inability to speak strongly indicates a waking dream, and his history of illness, insomnia, and migraines indicate someone predisposed to mental phenomena of that nature.
I can’t say that there is any connection, but it was this same summer that my great-grandfather and his new wife left their home just down the hill from the Capuchin Convent for a new life in New York. Could the Hound of Hell have driven them from their home? Was the Devil responsible for plotting my birth? Alternative theorists may say yes, but, sadly, it’s just another weird coincidence. No one knew anything about the demons until Pio started promoting his own legend after World War I. My great-grandfather came here because southern Italy was desperately poor, and only America seemed to offer the promise of a better life.
But I think I’ll go with the Hell Hound story.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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