Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily
2. Cults of indigenous origin


The Greek colonization of the eighth century. BC found, in Sicily, a population mainly devoted to agriculture and pastoralism. It is natural, therefore, that the religious thought of the indigenous population followed the principles of one natural religion, where the manifestations linked to nature prevailed. Precisely the affinity that linked the indigenous divinities to the Greek ones, meant that most of the indigenous cults were subsequently absorbed or otherwise modified by the Greek culture, thus leading to a process of Hellenization of the pre-existing cults. The affinity between indigenous and Greek cults was due, both to the fact that the two religions were predominantly religions natural  but, also, from the presence, in Sicily, of the Sicilian population, belonging, as well as the Hellenes, to the Indo-European stock.

 A deity linked to the earth seen as a "great mother", ready to offer its fruits to the population and a symbol of fertility, existed throughout the Mediterranean area and must surely have existed in Sicily even before the cults of Gaia were imported to the island , Demeter, Cybele and Isis all considered "great mothers" and representing a tribute to the "mother", understood as an anthropomorphic representation of fertility.

In reality, the concept of "mother goddess", seen as a female symbol of fertility, was already present at the time of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (28-18 thousand years ago)[1], therefore, long before classical antiquity. Starting from the Neolithic period (8000-4000 years ago), with the transformation of the communities into an agricultural character, women saw their social weight increase and some aspects of matriarchy began to assert themselves within society. The goddess of fertility also began to become goddess of agriculture, protector of crops and fields. The pig began to be seen among the animals sacred to the goddess[2], which would later be associated with the great mother  Demeter.

Venus of Lespugue (French Pyrenees) 23.000-27.000 BC

Venus of Savignano (Savignano sul Panaro - Modena) (18.000 - 8.000 BC)

Venus of Willendorf (Lower Austria) (24.000 - 26.000 BC)

Venus of Laussel (Dordogne, France) (20.000)

 Trace of a probable overlap between the Greek cult of Demeter and a pre-existing indigenous one, can be found in a legend where it is said that Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was kidnapped by Pluto in the countryside of Enna and that a nymph named Ciane, opposing the kidnapping , had been transformed by Pluto into a source that tradition places in Syracuse.

 The cult of Daphni was linked to the pastoral life of the Sicilians, even if the literature, first Greek and then Latin, deprived this divinity of much of its indigenous character.

Persephone Demeter and Triptolemus, Greek relief, XNUMXth cent. to. C.


Pan teaches Dafni to play the "Pan Flute". Pompeii, ca. 100 BC

Coin with the face of the god Adrano on the obverse and one of his dogs on the reverse

naftia lakes in an 700th century watercolor 

The lakes of the Palici in an eighteenth-century watercolor

 The presence of a volcano like Etna had to ensure that its personification in the name of the god Adrano was venerated, a divinity similar in some respects to that of Hephaestus (the Volcano of the Romans). Adrano, unlike Dafni, maintained for a long time its indigenous character as well as the cult of the Palici, also linked to the telluric aspects, quite intense at the time. The cult of the Palici was even considered as an element of cohesion that saw the Sicilians, reunited under the command of Ducezio in the fifth century. BC, to rebel against the predominant Greek element.

 It has been thought that also the cult of Venus Ericina was, at least originally, purely indigenous; [the thing could turn out to be true, if we associate the cult of the goddess to that of the protector of fertility and not to that of the goddess of beauty]. It cannot be excluded that Venus Ericina has oriental origins, given the many affinities that link her cult to that of the Punic goddess Tanit.

Venus Ericina

Roman coin of 57 BC with Venus Ericina

Coin with Tanit (Pantelleria)

Tanit symbol

Hephaestus (Volcano) - Marble by Guillaume Coustou - Louvre Museum Paris

 The emergence of the Christian religion has not made some of the traditions linked to the ancient pagan cults completely disappear. The syncretic phenomenon of the "mother goddesses" also affected the cult of the Madonna, the "great mother " of the Christians, who absorbed some of the characteristics of the other great pagan mothers.

Residues of pastoral cults in Sicily were found, up to the last century, in the feast of the Blessed Sacrament in Geraci Siculo. It is said that during the third Sunday of June, dedicated to the shepherds, some of these, dressed to resemble ancient rural deities of Greek-Roman mythology, paraded on horseback in the main street of the town until arriving in front of the church where, I got off on horseback, they entered and asked for blessings for the animals and for the fields.

Traces of the ancient custom of sacrificing animals to the gods of the past can be found in some patronal feasts that lasted at least until the beginning of the present century, told by Giuseppe Pitrè in his "Patronal Feasts in Sicily" published in 1900.

On the Christian feast of S. Rocco in Butera, one of the major attractions was a show that had very little Christianity. It was "lu jocu by lu surpintazzu " (the snake game)[3]: a man slipped inside a puppet with a strange shape and a long beak, which in popular fantasy was to represent u surpintazzu, and preceded by some drummers, he crossed the streets of the town, stopping at the point where a beam had been prepared. One end of a rope was attached to the top of the beam and the other end was held by a person standing at a window not far from the beam; in the middle of the rope a poor goose was tied by the feet and anointed the neck with soap. U sirpintazzu it approached the poor goose, trying to catch it with its long beak, but the rope was pulled at the last moment in such a way as to steal the animal from the snake's beak. The event repeated itself until the snake gave up. The goose's fate was in any case sealed, in fact the cruel game continued until one of the participants in the game, either because he was lucky or because he was helped by those who had the task of pulling the rope, managed to detach the poor animal's neck.

The religious festival just described was not the only one in which poor birds were treated "Christianly ". The feast of St. Lucia in Syracuse had its appendix in May, with “S. Lucia delle quaglie ”, which was similar to that of December. The only difference consisted in the fact that, at a certain point, in the square of the cathedral, some nuns, threw hundreds of quail, doves, turtledoves, and birds of various kinds on the crowd. The crowd fought over the poor birds who had not managed to take flight, trying to catch them in various ways (with hats, handkerchiefs, etc.) and with the consequence that many of them were crushed or killed during the dispute.[4].

A similar scene took place, up to the last century, during the feast of S. Giovanni in Ragusa, during the so-called good luck[5]. A wooden building about ten meters high was built on top of which a table full of food and various gifts was set. To access it one had to climb through smooth, greasy and very inclined boards; those who managed to climb to the top were entitled to food and gifts. The arrival at the top of the winners was followed by the throwing, among the crowd, of many doves whose wings had previously grown; some lucky bird managed, despite the handicap suffered, to escape by fluttering on the nearby roofs, the others ended up prey to the crowd. In the evening, on many tables, the poor pigeon was the main dish.

Again, on the day of Pentecost, in Mineo, the dove became, in spite of itself, a symbol of the Holy Spirit: after being decorated with ribbons it was sprinkled with spirit (this time not the holy one) and, during the sung mass, fire was set on the feathers of the bird, which fluttered inside the church, until terrified and in the state that one can imagine, it fell to the ground mangled[6].

Butera: lu jocu by lu surpintazzu

Syracuse: quail throwing


[1]JF Kozlowski: Religiousness in prehistory. p.67.

[2] M. Gimbutas: Religiousness in prehistory p.93

[3]Giuseppe Pitre: Patronal Festivals in Sicily p.545

[4]Giuseppe Pitre: Patronal Festivals in Sicily p.279

[5]Giuseppe Pitre: Patronal Festivities in Sicily p. 327.

[6]Giuseppe Pitrè: Sicilian Popular Shows and Festivals p.430

Ignazio Caloggero


Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily by Ignazio Caloggero

Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily

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