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Goddesses of Love, Sex & Death in Sicily

by Tiziana Stupia

My personal connection with Sicily, the enchanting island in the Mediterranean Sea, started at, or before, birth. My father is Sicilian, and I have visited his beautiful homeland many times since I was a child. I have always been enamoured with Sicily’s sensual scents of jasmine, lemon trees and lavender; the playful lizards, the exquisite food, the lively people, and the colourful explosion of wildflowers that beautify the mountainous landscape at springtime However, it was not until 2003 that I consciously discovered the wealth of ancient Pagan sites and the magnitude of Goddess worship that once existed there. Ever since I made that first serendipitous connection in Ortigia, mythical birthplace of Artemis, four years ago, Sicily has been calling me back always louder and more frequently, and for increasingly longer stretches of time.

This April, I spent a month in Western Sicily, where I discovered much evidence of worship of the Goddesses Tanit, Astarte and Venus/Aphrodite, as well as Demeter and Persephone. I visited an abundance of sacred sites during my stay that it would be impossible to describe within the confines of this article; hence I will concentrate on a select few that made a special impression on me.

Mystery Processions in Trapani and the Temple of Venus in Erice

Having visited Sicily’s west only fleetingly many years ago, I am excited at the thought of exploring it more deeply. I am lured here at Easter time by the prospect of experiencing the Misteri, a grand and colourful procession that takes place every Good Friday in the coastal city of Trapani. In ‘No Pictures in my Grave’, Susan Caperna Lloyd suggests that the Misteri, like many other religious processions, originate from Pagan times, and have their roots in the mystery cults, in particular that of Demeter and Persephone. Upon experiencing them myself this year, I certainly feel this to be true. Although, contemporarily speaking, the processions mark the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the main protagonist in the Sicilian people’s hearts is always the Madonna, the grieving Mother Goddess in search of her lost child, Demeter lamenting the abducted Persephone. The outer story may have changed, but to me, it seems as though the ancient vibrations in people’s collective unconscious are still the same.

Temple of Venus at Erice

Significantly, Trapani is located directly beneath the legendary Mount Erice, one of the most sacred spots in the Mediterranean. In antiquity, Erice was famous for its magnificent temple, situated on a perilous cliff, where, in succession, the Phoenicians worshipped Astarte, the Greeks Aphrodite, and the Romans Venus. This temple stood for over a thousand years and a sacred fire always burnt from its enclosure, so brightly that sailors used it as a guiding beacon. It was here that the Priestesses of Venus served the Goddess with their bodies through the art of ‘sacred prostitution’, a spiritual practice that included the celebration of the sacred marriage rite.

Fountain of Venus at Erice

This practice continued into Roman times, and the divinity Venus Erycina became so famous that a temple was dedicated to her in 217 BC in Rome, while her cult spread throughout the Mediterranean. Today, remains of the original temple can be found in the Castello di Venere, a twelfth-century Norman castle incorporating some of the temple foundations. Inside the castle area, you can still see some of the temple walls, a Roman bath and an ancient well. According to legend, this well was Venus’ private bathing spot. It is a wonderfully enchanting site, naturally lush with fragrant herbs, grass and wildflowers. Beneath the cliff, a dense, abandoned path leads to old stone steps that may have been used by the sailors to reach the temple. I spend many happy hours here, including Venus’ original feast day on 23rd April, and a long-held dream comes true on Beltane Day, when I, together with a group of Sicilian Pagans, organize a small procession to the temple site, where we create a bountiful altar on one of the original stones and meditate.

The Santuario di Demetra Malophoros at Selinunte

Selinunte, site of the Greek city of Selinus, is an ancient archaeological site situated in the most glorious and remote of seaside settings.

Temple of Hera Silununte
Temple of Hera Silununte

Altar Demetra Malophorus

It contains a series of mighty temple remains, felled by earthquakes. Of the five temples in the acropolis, only Temple E, dedicated to Hera, has been re-erected. When I visit in early April, I am greeted by the sight of the massive Temple of Hera, its Doric columns glistening golden in the sun against its backdrop of azure sea. The site is abundant with delightful flowers, and the smell of wild herbs is overwhelming. It feels sacred, peaceful, and sensual in its serenity. Time seems to have stood still here. There are various other remains behind Hera’s Temple, and one column appears to have a large owl impressed on it – Athena? – and I later read that this Temple was probably dedicated to Her.

Yet, the most interesting site lies outside of the main acropolis. An enchanting twenty-minute walk leads me across a river to the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros (‘She who bears the pomegranate’), a large, walled enclosure dating back to the 5th century BCE. Here I find the ruins of several shrines where worshippers once placed offerings called stellae, stone-carved; objects and figurines whose purpose was to honour the Goddess. Many of these stellae have been recovered and placed in museums. To the south is a large area that is believed to have been consecrated to Hekate Triformis.

Santuario de Demetra MalophorusNext to it is a small shrine dedicated to Zeus Meilichios, whose name derives from the sacred fig-tree famous for its cathartic virtues. He was the numen of the heart, regeneration and the Underworld.

I am delighted to see a beautiful array of spring  flowers, shells and cones on what appears to be the sanctuary’s main altar, and more flowers in the stone basin before it. I add some incense and nuts. There is not a soul in sight, apart from a couple of courting lizards and a profusion of snails, and I blissfully revel in the quiet afternoon atmosphere.

Mozia

Another place rich with Goddess worship is the tiny island of Mozia, just a few minutes off Marsala at Sicily’s westernmost tip. Mozia was one of the most important Phoenician and Carthaginian settlements in the Mediterranean area. Measuring just 45 hectares, it encompasses the remains of a Punic city dating from the 8th century BCE. There are remnants of a temple, and a tophet, a sacred area where the Phoenicians placed their sacrifices in honour of the Goddess Tanit and the God Baal. Here, a number of cinerary urns containing the remains of animals and people, mainly children, were found. At that time, the immolation of firstborn male children was widespread. Franco, a man I meet here, tells me that the intriguing masks of a half-crying, half-laughing face that were recovered here encapsulate the situation of Phoenician mothers: on one hand, they were happy to make their offerings to the God/dess; yet, on a human level, they were naturally devastated at the loss of their children.

There is also an archaic necropolis nearby, consisting of stone sarcophagi where cremated remains were buried. They look like tiny versions of the burial chambers we can see in Britain. When I visit, I am struck at the powerful energy that emanates from the little tombs. It is as though each of them draws me in with a different story, and I spend a long time here, listening to the ancient voices.

Levanzo

At the April Dark Moon, I visit the island of Levanzo, about forty minutes by ferry from Trapani. It is here that the famed ‘Grotta dei Genovesi’ cave is  located, which contains wall paintings from Neolithic and Palaeolithic times. I am particularly intrigued to see the famous red fertility Goddess, painted onto the cave walls with ochre and animal fats thousands of years ago.

When I catch sight of Levanzo on this clear spring morning, I am immediately smitten. The island is a small, unspoilt paradise. Just a handful of white-washed houses line the rocky coast, together with a shop, a restaurant and two bars. I am met here by Natale, the custodian of the cave, and together with his puppy, we set out to the cave in his jeep. The island’s interior consists entirely of wild nature, rocks, a few sheep, and a donkey, and the sea is of a crystal-clear cobalt colour. The blissful silence is only interrupted by the crashing of waves against the shore and the cries of seagulls and the occasional motor boat.

We park the car and walk down a long flight of stone steps towards the sea, and the grotta. The cave is locked with a little metal door, which Natale   unlocks. We enter, crouching, through a tiny gateway, which resembles a birth canal in its narrowness that gradually becomes taller and wider to reveal the cave. Inside, it is dark, warm and moist, and I inhale the comforting, musky smell All around the cave are stalagmites, and I can literally hear the ancestors chanting and worshipping here. Natale shows me the many drawings of animals and ancient people, some in postures of dance or ritual, and then finally he leads me to the far end of the cave, where She, the Red Goddess, resides. Of menstrual colour and bigger than the other figures, She is beautifully  preserved, and resembles a mermaid. I look at Her for a long time, enveloped by timeless shadows, until it is time to leave.

The Sanctuary of Tanit on Monte Pellegrino

Hovering high above the capital Palermo, on Monte Pellegrino, stands an ancient sanctuary, called Santuario di Santa Rosalia, named after city’s  patron saint – Rosalia, a pious maiden of noble descent. She renounced worldly matters in 1159 and retreated to the mountain; nothing more was heard of her until 1624, when a vision led to the discovery of her bones in a cave. Yet,  literary sources, and certainly my feeling when I visit, suggest that this is a much more significant place, connected with Goddess worship. The mountain was occupied as far back as 7000 BCE, and Palaeolithic drawings were found in a nearby cave. Monte Pellegrino was the seat of a Phoenician cult, and most likely dedicated to Tanit.

Carving of Tanit from Mozia Museum

Even though the sanctuary is extremely touristy, it is very evocative. I enter through a small chapel that is built over the big cave in the hillside where Rosalia’s bones were found. The atmosphere is reverential and primeval. Water emanating from the interior rock is dripping down the cave walls into a basin, channelled by steel plates. Displayed all around the cave are silver votive offerings and requests for healing. I touch the moist, coarse stone and close my eyes for a moment. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed by an incredible grief and anguish. I feel choked, almost suffocated, sadness grips my heart and tears are welling up in my eyes. The feeling increases in intensity the longer I remain in the cave. Yet, it is also strangely peaceful, and  despite the emotional turmoil that has befallen me, I feel held and comforted. After a while, I exit into the bright midday sun, and share my experience with my Sicilian friends. Dario and Dora smile knowingly at each other and nod. They explain that my reaction is normal: the cave is ‘filled’ with tears, hope and sorrow, as countless pilgrims come to Santa Rosalia for healing, and it is easy to sense these emotions in the cave.

I feel that this is not the full story, though: I have experienced these unpredictable, contrasting energies at all of the Sicilian power places associated with Tanit. I felt them in Erice, in particular on Beltane night; on Mozia, and especially on Pantelleria, a volcanic island between Sicily and Tunisia, sacred to Tanit. At these sites, the atmosphere often changed from blissful to harsh in an instant. On one hand, it is a loving, wild and inviting energy, but there is a certain rawness to it, with a cold, almost cruel, intangible edge.

As I read up on Tanit on my return, I learn that Her name was once also given to the moon, which changes from pale to bright to invisible. Therefore, Tanit ‘existed as antithetic Goddess of Love and Death, Creation and Destruction, Tenderness and Cruelty, Protection and Betrayal.’ This makes perfect sense, as it is these two distinct sides of the same coin that I intuitively picked up.

Tiziana Stupia is currently researching Sicilian power places for her forthcoming book, of which this travelogue is an excerpt. She will also be leading sacred tours to Sicily from 2008.