I was lured to Sicily by my southern Italian heritage and photos of the Valley of the Temples, an archaeological site on the southern coast outside the town of Agrigento. What I found was an ancient landscape alive with myth and magic. For a thousand years, Sicily was the centre of Magna Graecia, the colonial settlements west of Greece. Gods, Goddesses, and nymphs still inhabit almost every hill, lake and spring.
I flew from Malta to Catania to search for traces of Proserpina and Ceres (Greek: Persephone and Demeter). Proserpina is the Goddess of Sicily – her name comes from the word ‘proserpere’ – to emerge. Ask a Sicilian about Proserpina, and you will hear the tale of her abduction by Pluto on the banks of Lake Pergusa, close to the mountain town of Enna in the centre of Sicily.
I travelled by train through the mountains from Catania to Enna, where the ruins of an ancient sanctuary of Ceres sit atop a high outcropping of rock overlooking the Plain of
Catania. For over 2400 years, this Goddess sanctuary was the heart of Sicily. Beneath the Rock of Ceres, a sacred spring still flows into a dark pool…
The Rock of Ceres is where Ceres/Demeter stood looking for her daughter. Did She see the same fields of wheat we see today? The smoky mountain of Etna? The distant lake from which the God of the Underworld arose?
In nearby Aidone museum, I stood before a glowing 2400 year old statue and listened for her answer…
The statue once stood in a temple on the outskirts of the town of Morgantina, where the Goddess looked out over the Land She tended. I sat by the base where the statue had rested and imagined the temple filled with flowers and song…
I then followed Ceres’ footsteps to Ortygia, the ancient centre of Syracuse. There the Goddess encountered the nymph Aretusa, whose spring feeds a sacred pool that has inspired poets, writers and composers for centuries. Wild papyrus has grown in the centre of the pool for millennia, one of only two thickets of papyrus in all of Europe. I was reminded of another Mother Goddess – Isis suckling Horus in the papyrus swamps of Egypt.
In Syracuse I also visited with the Grandmothers in the vast Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum. The hundreds (thousands?) of Goddess statues are from archaeological sites throughout Sicily.
My next stop was Agrigento, where the famous Valley of the Temples is located on a ridge outside the town – ancient stonework, golden light, and beautiful, gnarled olive trees.
One morning I set off in search of a Demeter temple that lies somewhere outside the archaeological park. The ruins were not open to visit, but I set off with a rough map and much optimism. Two hours later, I was laboriously climbing a very steep path beside a winding road, when a woman stopped her car and insisted on driving me to the top of the mountain, where she proceeded to phone all over Agrigento in search of the temple. We never did find the ruins, but I had found a modern day Demeter – a dynamic woman who ran a government department from her “temple” atop the mountain!
Further along the southwest coast is the Selinunte archaeological park. Abandoned over 2000 years ago, the city was built on a high plain overlooking the sea, and is now one of the largest archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. Past the impressive temples, over the acropolis, and across the river, I walked amongst the remains of an ancient sanctuary to the Goddess of fertility, Demeter Malophorus (the fruit bearer).
Archaeologists have found signs that the site was originally free of buildings, providing an open area for ceremonies. Later, with the erection of the temple and of the high enclosure wall (temenos), the site was transformed into a sanctuary. Between the altar and the temple runs a canal carved in the rock, once carrying water to the sanctuary from a nearby spring.
I spent the last days of my Sicily pilgrimage in Segesta, staying at a farmhouse across the valley from a beautiful temple nestled in the mountains of northwestern Sicily. The ruins of the ancient city are located on the top of Monte Bàrbaro, 305 m above sea level, with a vista that goes on forever. Below the mountain, on a small rise, the temple glows serenely in the sun. The grapes are sweet, ancient pottery shards poke through the rich soil, and the folds of the Land hold Her secrets…