Protection and Blessing of the Animals
St. Anthony is the protector of cattle and domestic animals.
The typical ceremony of blessing the livestock was very widespread, especially in Italy and Spain. In many villages of the countryside, on January 17, the priests went to bless the animals in the stables, where it was usual to hang a picture of the saint on the wall with a small light in front of it.
A similar custom, spread also in the towns, was to bring pets or any domestic animals (so even monkeys and parrots) to the church to receive blessing.
According to this tradition, all the animals were brought to the forefront of the church with hanging bells. After the Mass, the priest went to the threshold of the church and blessed them. In some villages of Central Italy, after the statue of the saint is brought in front of the door of the church and after the sprinkling of holy water on the animals, horse riding across the village begins. Horse races are very popular and widespread in Spain, where horses have to jump over bonfires, so to be purified by the smoke (see the next paragraph of Traditions in Europe).
That day was also dedicated to the treatment of animals: the priest, after receiving alms, distributed the "bread of St. Anthony"(small round loaves or cookies some centimeters wide, marked with a cross or an image of the saint in the middle). These, after being blessed, were considered efficient for healing the animals who had not taken part in the blessing or who were sick, so it was enough to let them eat these loaves to recover. Similarly, when the cattle became ill, the farmer brought to the church a candle to be lighted on in front of the image of the saint.
On that day the animals did not work, and none of them was killed. People did not stay in the night in the stables, because they believed that after midnight the animals could speak to each other, but no one was allowed to listen to their speeches, as it could bring bad luck.
A popular legend says that in the night Anthony went in all the stables and asked the animals if they were mistreated by people. For this reason the stables were kept very clean on the day of St Anthony, and all the animals were given the double amount of food: for example, in the Marche region in Macerata this was called "satollaccio".
The origin of the link between the holy hermit and animals is not very clear. It seems it is due to an incorrect interpretation of the images and iconography of the saint in the popular tradition.
Actually, from the beginning of his life, Anthony was surrounded by animals, however they were dangerous and represented manifestations of the devil. St. Athanasius, disciple and author of Anthony’s life, wrote that when Anthony lived as a hermit in the desert "…demons came in shape of several wild beasts and reptiles and all the cave was filled immediately with ghosts of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents…, so that they could be hardly be expelled by the saint”. Even Athanasius tells of the damages caused to Anthony by the beasts: "...some wild animals, approaching to drink, frequently caused damage to sown and coltures. Then he grabbed one of them and said: why do you bring me harm, while I do nothing to you? Go away and don’t come here anymore for the Lord's name...".
Among all animals, the pig represented the main example of such tormentors, considered for a long time a symbol of diabolical presence.
These evidences of the late Roman Period, were transformed in the Middle Ages, so to depict Anthony as a friend and a protector of the animals, even accompanied always by a docile pig, once representing the defeated devil. From the pig Anthony passed to protect all the other animals.
The difficult relationship with certain animals, perhaps appropriate in the desert and in the Middle East, could not be accepted in the medieval Europe with still many pagan influences. Anthony’s celebration fell in the middle of winter, close to ancient pagan feasts mainly related to agricultural rites, that Catholicism later incorporated. This process caused therefore the turnover of Anthony's relation with animals, which already existed in the popular customs and later was confirmed by the official rite “Benedictio equorum aliorumve animalium”.
As told in the previous paragraph, among all animals accompanying St. Anthony in the iconography, the pig has a special role.
The origin of this association is the privilege granted to the Order of St. Anthony in 1095: the Antonians could raise pigs, whose fat was used as a medicine against ergotism, the illness called "St. Anthony's fire" (read more about it in the next paragraph). According to this privilege, only the Antonians were allowed to raise pigs within the walls of the towns. Pigs were fed at the expense of the community and circulated freely along the streets, with a bell hanging at the neck, and could not be touched by anyone.
This practice gave origin to a tradition in the countryside of Novoli in Salento (Puglia, Italy), where a small pig called “little Anthony” with a red ribbon could move undisturbed on the streets and then became a prize during the feast of the saint.
Elsewhere in Southern Italy people speak of “St. Anthony of the pigs”. By this medieval custom, it is considered a sin to harm the pig or steal it, rather than to feed it. The pig was auctioned at the feast of St. Anthony to raise funds for the banquet or for charity. It underwent a ritual killing and its meat was offered to beggars. Even in the countryside, in several regions of Spain and Italy, the meat of this pig was distributed among the faithful, as it was supposed to have healing powers.
The reversal of the relationship of Anthony towards the pig was implemented in an agricultural Europe still covered with woodlands, where the many oak forests easily allowed nurturing of pigs with the acorns. Not by chance, the pork was the most consumed meat, while ox was especially a driving force. As consequence, the pig, already appreciated by all the ancient civilizations in Europe, could not be considered absolutely negative.
The protective function of the saint was encouraged locally in Europe by remnants of pagan religions, especially in Gaul, where boars and pigs were consecrated to Lug, the Celtic god of the arts and skills.
Afterwards the tradition tried to explain the link between the saint and the pig. It is told that Anthony spent his life in complete isolation except for a pig. Actually, this was the devil, who had taken this shape to tempt the hermit, but Anthony managed to make the pig become a docile animal.
A reference to the original iconography of Anthony and animal-devils can be found in Portugal, in the Alentejo region: in several villages on a fig tree, once commonly placed in the central squares of the villages, in front of the church, people used to hang some ham, a piece of bacon or a sausage, symbolizing the pig-devil defeated by Anthony.
The link with the pig is still reinforced by other writings, such as the "Antonianae Histories" (1534): it is told that, being in Barcelona, the saint was joined by a sow carrying in its mouth a little piglet, all lame and sick. The sow placed it at Anthony's feet as a request for help. Anthony made the sign of the cross over the piglet, and it was immediately healed. This prodigy had an effect of converting the entire city to the Christianity. Since then, the saint is depicted together with a pig.
Another legend, always set in Spain, tells that the king of Catalonia, having learned about Anthony's holiness and his fight against the devils, called him to exorcise his wife, possessed by the devil. Anthony left the cave and the desert and went to Spain. After some time he came to the king's court and successfully performed the exorcism. At that moment a sow came to him, placing a piglet born without eyes and legs between the king and the saint. Crying and pulling the saint by his religious habit, the sow as if was asking for the grace to heal its offspring. The saint perfromed then a miracle healing the piglet, which followed him from then on as a sign of gratitude.