The Temple of Astarte at Erice
by Katinka Soetens
A large part of coming to Sicily on holiday for me was to make a pilgrimage to the amazing Temples of that land, and especially to visit the site of the Temple of Astarte, of Aphrodite and of Venus of Erycina at Erice. This temple site holds such a long and deep resonance of worship of the Goddess of Love I felt a strong pull to come and experience the echoes of Her memory and history and place offerings on the spot of the ancient altars.
I knew there wasn’t much left to see of this celebrated Temple of the Goddess of sacred sexuality and love, which had been renowned throughout the Ancient World and withstood the changing political landscape of that world for centuries, with only the name of the Goddess served and worshiped here changing with the new rulers of the land. Having felt strongly connected to Astarte since learning Her name in childhood, and remembering the feeling of carrying Her image in procession, I have wanted to stand on the sacred ground of Her high and great temple singing the praise song of Her name. I was not prepared for the experience I had in fulfilling this long held dream of visiting here.
This may not be so surprising for those who understand the weaving of energy of the Glastonbury Goddess Conference, where we’ve been intensely working with the wounding of the time of the endings of the Goddess Temples for some years now, and which formed an important part of the heart of the mysteries of the 2015 Conference. None the less it was surprising for me working with the reclaiming of sexuality as sacred in a patriarchal world where we as human beings have become conditioned on a societal level of lived experience, to be as far removed from that innate in-the-body truth as it is practically possible to be.
Eryx, an Elymian city famous for its magnificent Goddess temple, was built around the site of an altar and sanctuary to the Goddess of the Sicans (the Bronze Age population giving Sicily its name). The fires of Her temple flame were an important mark for navigators from and to Africa since the earliest times.
The Phoenicians, pioneering explorers, expert seafarers and the founders of Carthage, which was later strongly linked with Erice, loved and honoured Goddess as Astarte here. A bowl inscribed by ‘a servant of Astarte Erycina’ found in Carthage bears witness to the widespread reaches of Her honouring. Every year the Phoenicians released hundreds of white doves (bird of the Goddess of Love) from Erice’s temple on the feast of Anagogia (outward journey) in mid August, as offering for safe navigation and thanks for safe journeys. Nine days later, a red (or pink) dove would fly back from the temples of Carthage in response, representing the Goddess of love Herself, and arrive at the festival of Katagogia (homeward journey). To this day, the feast day of the Catholic patron saint of Erice; Our Lady of Custonaci, is held on the 16th August.
Greek mythology names Aeneas (son of Venus according to the Romans) and the surviving Trojans (whom the historian Thucydides in 500BC names as the Elymians) travelling with him after the Trojan war (so perhaps 1300-1250 BCE), as founders of the city and temple in honour of his Mother.
There are mythical as well as archaeological links between the Minoan and other Goddess cultures of the Bronze Age Mediterranean and Erice. As a noted landmark of important trade routes, the seafaring traders of Crete would have known this place. One of their settlements a little further down the coast from Erice at Herakleia Minoa, attests to the presence of these great Goddess-loving people on this island. Indeed, it is said that Daedalus in his flight from Crete’s decent into Mycenaean rule, came here and also founded a city in these lands where according to Temaeus (Greek historian 345–250 BCE; ‘The Histories’) “the daughters of Sican king Cocalo held the power of inheritance, of life and of death and welcomed him”. Daedalus, great designer, architect and engineer, visited the Temple of Aphrodite, ‘golden bee hive of love’ at Erice. As the Greek historian and polymath Posidonius (315-51 BCE) tells us, the famed architect saw that the cliff was so high that the buildings of the temple threatened to fall over the precipice. He undertook the strengthening and building of a surrounding wall still standing today, the impossible big blocks on top of the very edge of the cliff rising into the sky.
Offering magnificent views and often shrouded mysteriously in the mists known locally as the ‘Veils of Venus’, the great Temple stood, raised above the surrounding temple complex as a bright beacon for the world to see. Perhaps it had doors like those of the Temple of Athena at Syracuse, made of ivory and gold gleaming in the sunlight, or perhaps a simple marble building radiating healing, and offering the gifts of the Goddess where Her priestesses served all who came in search for Her.
The Romans greatly honoured the temple of Erice, Emperor Claudius paid for a restoration (which added the Roman ritual preparation baths to the side of the sanctuary of the Goddess), as She was much loved in Rome where Venus Erycina had her own temple dedicated on the Roman Capitol. Diodorus, Greek Sicilian historian, in his classical work ‘Bilbliotheca historica’ (60-30 BCE) states that the veneration expressed by Romans had a considerable official and political meaning. Once on the island, consults, praetors and other authorities had to honour the Goddess here in Her temple through traditional ceremonies as well as by visiting the sacred embodyment of the Goddess (Her priestesses) so that the Goddess could be pleased by their presence.
At all times, the Temple of the Goddess of Love named as Astarte, Aphrodite or Venus, had sacred sexual priestesses serving Her and performing Her rites. The magical powers of Love and embodied sacred sexuality are easy to underestimate through a patriarchal lens of perception. The women of the Temple of Erice, like elsewhere in the Temples of the Goddess of Love, were not prostitutes, sacred or otherwise, nor temple slaves. They were not drugged by priests and forced into sexual servitude; they were not bound by threat or shame into a duty they had to perform for their family or standing in society. They were empowered priestesses choosing to serve their Lady as sacred sexual vessel through which to fully experience the physical and emotional Love of Goddess.
It was said that the sacred sexual priestess of old could stop the warring between people with her presence and with her love-making. It was also said that no one entering into the full experience
of Love with Goddess could ever be in a place of violence within themselves and with another; and that such a one would honour all women as Her mirror and all men as the reflection of Her Beloved.
This was a profound, consciousness expanding, heart opening, sacred and life changing experience for all involved, as I can attest from personal experience, and I am not surprised that the Temple of Erice was so renowned and famous for so long. Finding myself standing in what once was the sanctuary of this most sacred ground of which only some few bits of Roman and Doric pillar and the odd temple stone once incorporated into a Medieval church wall are to be found, was a strange experience.
A sense of desolation, even in the glorious sunshine, hangs over the evidence of the Roman ritual baths and part of the temple steps on which I sat for a while contemplating the complete eradication of Her temple under the Christian emperor Constantine (272-337 CE). I saw the contemptuous disrespect of patriarchal religion to what was sacred then and what is sacred to me now.
Recent excavations have found some deeply dug foundations, which, by their masonry techniques of the use of large square sand stone blocks instead of the later use of shapeless local limestone, proof the outline of the temple sanctuary and of some of the outer temple buildings. These, and the large stone ‘impossible’ outer walls, are now all that remains within the ruins of the fortification.
Tears streamed softly for all that has been lost here and left in desolation. I was struck by the deliberate and utter nature of the destruction and the profound attempt at eradication of anything that might have held the memory of this temple.
It felt to me that apart from the teeth of time that leave their mark of decay, here there was an element of great vindictiveness to the destruction, similar to that of the vengeful Romans, who upon their long fought victory over Cathage, raised the city to the ground, leaving no stone standing, and, sparing no one, killed all inhabitants, before ploughing the fertile fields with salt so nothing was to grow there. I have no doubt the desecration of the temple here was as complete.
The temple of Astarte, of Venus Erycina disappeared beneath the now also long-gone church to Santa Maria della Neve (snow-white, the colour of Aphrodite), originally placed in the centre of a Norman ford. Her temple’s marble and stone were used for other buildings; Her altar was broken and Her priestesses killed. The later Norman ford, which with the fullness of its towering walls must have blocked the once magnificent views to be had from and of the temple site, were a testament to, and place of, warfare; and a strong statement of the power-over rule of the victor in the place of the sanctuary of Love. These high-fortified walls still stand; such a perfect symbol for a world and individuals becoming closed to sacred sexual love. Our world’s systems and religions have cut off connection to Goddess, and encourage fear of ‘others’ with teachings telling of the feminine, the body and sexuality, as sin. Imposing power-over undermining fear based rules, these ways of being ensure that men and women, instead of being wide open in ecstasy practicing the sacred connection, become ‘walled off’ from each other and from Her love.
Sitting in a quiet corner on a Greek temple pillar base, I reached into the spaces between time, feeling for the resonance of Her energy, for the sisters who served here, the brothers who came to honour and be held in Her love here, for a memory, and found no one and nothing.
For the first time in a very long while I could not feel the threads of connection to the Beyond, to the time before the Great Forgetting. It was as if a door had closed on that far past and a sense of nothingness, of broken links, where not even an echo remains to trace back, pressed in on me. I felt anger, outrage, fear, a lot of fear and loneliness and a feeling of nonattachment, of drifting away lost. Then slowly came a sensation of spaciousness and stillness as I continued to breathe it all up into my heart, wave after nauseating wave, daring the heart-breath practice we do as part of the Rhiannon priestesshood.
After what felt like a long while, when I opened my eyes, there were large orange butterflies all around the crumbling stones, vibrating with aliveness. I was calling Her name then, kissing the temple stone, bowing in gratitude on the Earth, invoking Astarte, whispering Her name in the sunlight, smelling the far below sea on the breeze. I felt Her, strong and total, immediate and soft, Radiance, Love, slipping into full embodiment, and She told how nothing is lost even when everything is lost and gone.
Exquisite ecstasy like soft orgasmic ripples wanted to rock my body as I breathed, opening to Her, making space, expanding into the surrender of Yes, becoming Her in me and being still, sitting on a broken stone in sunlight filled with butterflies. Sending Her my gratitude, in this sacred place, for all that She gives me, for this life now, this golden life of freedom, of pleasure as ritual, of remembering, of sacred service and of love.
Then I felt my heart overflowing as I sensed priestess sisters of this lifetime around me. Crying again, I called them in: my way-showers, visionary priestess teachers, my friends; those women and men who work as the bringers of the change in sacred sexuality within tantra, within the misconceptions of our ‘norm’, sacred birth workers, those who serve the Lady in this life time as priestesses of now, in Avalon, in Europe, in the world; my soul sisters; my fellow sacred sexual priestesses of Rhiannon, Tribe…. calling their names into that place.
Then I called the brothers, men of the Goddess, men of my heart, embodied walkers of the Path of Love who dare to remember and who choose freedom from fear, Priests of Rhiannon, I said their names in that temple place of Love, Her people who love and serve life. And all those who choose in their own ways to walk the Path of Love, known to me or not, I honoured them there.
May we serve Her well, may we remember and be the change, may we walk in beauty, may we know and support each other when we meet, May She bless and guide us. The time of hiding is over. This is the time of the Great Remembering, the turning of the Age, the beginning of the new. I know that for me this remembering, this commitment is the gift of Her temple at Erice today.
Photos © Katinka Soetens.
For more details of Katinka’s work and training visit her website at: www.herpathoflove.com.