This post was written by Allison Scola, owner and curator of Experience Sicily – a daily blog and boutique tourism company. She’ll be leading a small-group tour in May 2015 called Myths & Mysteries of Sicily that will feature the sites and myths mentioned above. To join her in May or on another tour of Sicily this year, visit http://experiencesicily.com for more details
Today, ancient mythology is still central to Sicilian culture. Here’s a round-up of some of the most fascinating myths and divine feminine sites in Sicily. If you’re a history and mythology lover, read on and enjoy.
Demeter and Kore – The myth of four seasons
The most significant ancient myth for Sicily may be that of Demeter and Kore (‘the maiden’), better known as Persephone. These two goddesses and their story pervaded the island’s pre-Christian culture. Demeter was the ancient Greek earth goddess of grain, agriculture, and fertility. Her daughter by Zeus, was Kore.
Bust of Kore, c. 500 BC, from Siracusa’s Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘Paolo Orsi’.
One day, Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, abducted the beautiful maiden Kore while she was joyfully collecting flowers in a field. Against her will, he took her with him into the depths of the Earth. When Demeter couldn’t find her beloved daughter, out of great distress and distraction, she allowed the Earth’s crops to die and the land to grow barren.
Finally after some months, Zeus intervened and ordered Hades to return Kore/Persephone to Demeter; however, before she reached the Earth’s surface, Hades fed Persephone pomegranate seeds, a powerful and ancient representation of fertility.
“But if [you tasted food], returning beneath [the earth,] you will stay a third part of the seasons [each year] … By what guile did the mighty Host-to-Many deceive you?” the Goddess Demeter asked her daughter Persephone in the The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (As translated by Helene P. Foley).
Hades’ cunning action condemned Persephone to spend part of each year in the underworld as his wife. And thus explains why we have seasons, for when Persephone goes to the underworld, she brings her seeds along with her mother’s joy into the depths of the Earth (i.e., winter), and in spring, when she is reunited with Demeter with seeds in hand, she brings renewed life and abundance.
As a grown woman, Persephone was revered as queen of the underworld and a psychopomp, graciously welcoming the dead to the afterlife. The myth teaches us about life and death.
4th century BC terracotta figurines from the cult of Demeter and Kore from Siracusa’s Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘Paolo Orsi’. Note how the stance of the statue is similar to the representation of Santa Lucia below.
From Greek myths to Christian tradition
Archeological museums in Sicily such as Siracusa’s Museo Archeologico regionale ‘Paolo Orsi,’ Aidone’s Museo Archeologico, and Agrigento’s Museo Regionale Archeologico (to name a handful of the many that exist) are jam-packed with statuettes of Demeter and Kore. Their cult was, without doubt, pervasive and powerful. Once Christianity spread through Sicily, after Roman Emperor Constantine decriminalized it in 313, the iconography and cult practices of devotees of Demeter and other divinities were, over time, transformed into Christian traditions.
Rites and mysteries celebrated in reverence to pre-Christian goddesses such as Isis, Cybele, and Aphrodite-Venus where recast to celebrate patronesses such as Catania’s Sant’Agata, the Black Madonna of Tindari, and Erice’s Maria SS. di Custonaci: La Madonna dell’acqua. In the case of Demeter, one can see the similarity to Siracusa’s patron Santa Lucia.
Statuette of Santa Lucia, purchased in Siracusa in fall 2014.
Therefore, while you are visiting various archeological sites, witnessing local feasts celebrating patron saints, and taking in artwork in chapels and cathedrals throughout Sicily, you may want to consider which ancient mystery, myth, or cult figure may have been the root of the saint venerated today.
The 12th century Castle of Venus in Erice sits on top of a site that for centuries was dedicated to practicing the rites of various goddesses of love, beauty, and procreation starting with the Elimi tribe’s mother-goddess Potnia, followed by the Phoenicians-Carthaginians’s Astarte, then, the Greek’s Aphrodite, and finally, the Roman’s Venus. Today in Erice, they celebrate their patron, Maria SS. di Custonaci: La Madonna dell’acqua—the Madonna of the Water (NB, Aphrodite was born from sea foam and is often associated with water).
Legend is that no one knows from where the statue of the Black Madonna of Tindari originated; However, her sanctuary, perched atop a magnificent seaside promontory in northern Sicily, was, since ancient Greek times, the site of a temple dedicated to the ancient Earth goddess Cybele. Scholars believe the cult of the Black Madonna to be the descendants of those from the mystery cult of Cybele.