Reflecting on My Month in Sicily
On Women’s Communities, Transitions, Goddesses, Volcanoes, and Bread
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Sicily has been a revelation to me. So many new veins of interest and energy have opened up for me here. I haven’t been able to work much. Instead, I have opened myself up to Sicily and let it do its work on me.
I think I needed to come here to blow out the cobwebs and start to consider what if on a grander scale. So far I’ve been visiting places already familiar to me, places I’ve loved in the past, to see if they still had a pull on me. In England, I fell in love with the culture again and began dreaming of a cottage an hour or two from London. I also fell again for Cassis, France, and promised myself I’d be back. I enjoyed my stays in Paris, Menerbes, Sailsbury, Stratford, and Canterbury as well, but felt no compulsion to return.
Then . . . Sicily broke me open.
The Powerful Women of Catania and Sicily
While in Catania, I have been particularly struck by the veneration of sacred women here. Behind the facades of the Baroque Catholic churches all over the city lies a deeper appreciation of the feminine than I have seen anywhere else. It has made me eager, in fact, to discover more such places.
It started on the plane, as I read Francine Prose’s Sicilian Odyssey and discovered that it was on the island of Sicily that Hades dragged Persephone away from her mother, Demeter, and into the Underworld. Then, when I got off the bus from the airport, the first thing I saw was a huge fountain depicting the powerful Hades’ capture of Persephone.
This is the introduction to Catania that visitors get when they exit the train station. It’s an arresting, chaotic image, one that I didn’t fully comprehend when I first saw it. It was only on repeated sightings that it became clear to me what I had mentally glossed over before, having even taken a picture of it—namely the prelude to Hades’ rape of Persephone.
Since first seeing this representation of a helpless Persephone ready to leap out of Hades’ arms and the brute force by which he has claimed her, I have learned that her mother, Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, was devoutly worshipped on Sicily, including in Catania. Her cult was the largest and most influential on the island. As Cicero explained in his speeches published around 70 B.C., there was in Catania a sanctuary dedicated to the goddesses that no man could enter. Men had no idea what it looked like even. He the described a violation of this sanctuary by the Roman magistrate’s slaves, who presumably acted on his orders, stealing the statue of Demeter from the shrine. “To all the fact appeared painful, shameful, a real mourning for the city,” he wrote. (This was one of the many crimes of Verres, whom Cicero successfully prosecuted.)
The sanctuary devoted to Demeter and Persephone (Ceres and Kore to the Romans) was unearthed in 1959, along with a cache of devotional objects, dated to the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., many representing the goddesses. Unfortunately, the contractors eager to continue their project, paved over the site before it could be fully excavated. Yet, as this website explains, the cache “seems to outline a cult addressed to a female divinity with a wide sphere of action, responsible for the renewal of the social body through the growth and development of the new generations.” In other words, Demeter and Persephone represented the cycle of life itself. The were powerful indeed, and it was women’s responsibility to ensure their favor on the community.
The looting of the female-only sanctuary and the paving over of the archeological dig that discovered its remains are only two instances of the ways that female deities and the worship of the feminine has been suppressed. Yet, signs of it remain everywhere in Sicily. In Catania, it seems that it reemerged in another form with the advent of Christianity.
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