Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily
4 Cults of Eastern Origin

The Eastern Myths in Sicily

In the next chapters we will deepen the cults of: Baal, Tanit, Isis and Serapis, of clear oriental origin that spread in Sicily. The oriental influence on the cults in Sicily is the consequence of two factors that take into account the period and the vectors with which oriental religious thought arrived on the island. It could be hypothesized that the cults of oriental origin arrived in Sicily thanks to the Phoenician element. In reality, to find an oriental imprint in Sicilian religious cults, one must go back to the most ancient populations that inhabited the island.

I Sicani and Elimi, which we can consider belonging to the Mediterranean lineage, have their cultural origin in the East. And we must not forget that the Hellenes, as belonging to the Indo-European lineage, in the most primitive form of their cults, report the influences of their homelands.

Generally we want to distinguish between the oriental influence linked to the very origin of the peoples who settled in the Mediterranean and the subsequent one, relating to the period in which there was a de facto separation between the two cultures: eastern and western. In the latter context, the main vectors of the cults of oriental origin in Sicily were the Phoenicians before ei Punic after.

Human Sacrifices

A characteristic normally attributed to the ancient oriental religions is the presence, in many religious rites, of human sacrifices; in reality, these sacrifices were widespread throughout antiquity and probably began with the first religious manifestations.

The most ancient form of human sacrifice is perhaps that concerning the so-called "building sacrifices”In which, on the occasion of new constructions, victims were buried under the structures of the new building. Archaeological finds testify to the presence of building sacrifices among the prehistoric peoples of Europe. The barbaric custom was slowly abandoned, or in any case replaced with simulacra of a purely symbolic character. In Italy, in the territory of Praglia near the Euganean Hills, under the structures of a Neolithic village, a human figure in wood was found [1]. According to some archaeologists this would testify that in Italy, since the early Bronze Age, the building sacrifice took on a less bloody character, unlike other European populations where, instead, it was maintained until historical times.

Building sacrifices existed near the Celts. Vincenzo Manzini [2], with reference to the legend of S. Colombano, reports that he asked the population that a volunteer would offer himself so that his body consecrated the place where the church was to be built:

"..Odharano stood up, saying: If you accept I am ready. Columkille replied: O Odharan, you will have your reward; no grace will be granted to anyone until he asks for you. Odharano went to Heaven. Columkille founded the church of Hy in that place ".

Testimonies on building sacrifices also come from Bible; in the Book of Kings, 1.XVI, 34 there is mention of a certain Hiel of Bethel, who, during the reign of King Ahab, rebuilt Jericho above his first-born Abiram and laid Segub, son of Num.

In 1907, the German society for archaeological excavations in Palestine discovered, under the walls of Mageddo [3], the skeleton of a child of about 15 years [4]. Human sacrifices were also practiced among the ancient Egyptians and in Mesopotamia, where newborn babies were sacrificed to the Sun god and the Moon goddess.

In Greece it was not uncommon to sacrifice human victims to Artemis, Dionysus, Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus and other deities. Human sacrifices were later replaced with animal sacrifices.

Traces of a transformation towards less bloody forms of sacrifice are also found in classical mythology; we have seen it about Ifigenia, destined to be sacrificed in honor of Artemide, and which the goddess herself saved, contenting herself with making her priestess of one of her temples. The Lacedaemonians sacrificed men who were drawn to Artemis. This rite was replaced by that of the scourging, without killing, of men, always drawn by lot, whose blood was sprinkled on the altar of the goddess.


The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Pompeian fresco

Another example of a transformation towards a symbolic form of human sacrifice could be found in a ceremony that took place on the first day of Targèlie, the expiatory festivals that took place in the month of Targelione (April - May) ad Athens and in the Ionian cities, in honor of Apollo and Artemis. During the ceremony, two people were taken to the city and after being accused by all the citizens for their crimes, they were banned. It is probable that, in the oldest form of the ceremony just described, the two people were actually sacrificed.

However, the horrible custom of human sacrifice did not always disappear from Greek culture. Still in the second century. AD, in Arcadia, in fact, human victims continued to be sacrificed a Zeus Lykaios [5].

In the Mediterranean area, the sad primacy of human sacrifices, in terms of frequency and diffusion, belongs to the Phoenicians and the Punics. Among these peoples, human sacrifices were performed in honor of Baal, melkart (a kind of Phoenician Hercules), Astarte, (the consort of Baal revered, with this name by the Phoenicians and with that of Tanit by the Punics).


Human sacrifice on the altar of Baal


Symbols of Astarte / Tanit

Among the human sacrifices, the most frequent was that of sacrificing a firstborn. In Phenicia the spread of this custom was so rooted that it persisted even after the arrival of the Jewish people of the Jewish religion.

In the oldest form of the Decalogue taken from chapter XXXIV of the Exodus, the book that describes the escape of the Jews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, we read:

"Every firstborn male will be mine, even of the cattle, whether they are oxen or sheep, will be mine. You will redeem the first born of the donkey with a sheep and, if you do not want to redeem it, kill it. You will redeem the firstborn of your children and you will not appear before me empty-handed ".

Also in Exodus (chap. XII.2) God, speaking to Moses, says:

"Consecrate to me every firstborn who opens his mother's womb among the children of Israel, both men and animals, because all things are mine " [6].

In the Psalms, the book of hymns to God, in chap. CV, it reads:

"They lent (the Jews) worship their idols (those of the Canaanites) which became a snare for them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. And they shed innocent blood: The blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by blood ".

The rite was opposed by the official Jewish religion which imposed a series of prohibitions to discourage the practice of human sacrifice. In Leviticus, the book containing the prescriptions regarding feasts, purifications and priestly functions, is read in chap. XVIII:

"You will not give any of your children to be consecrated to the Moloch idol and you will not profane the name of your God ”.

In the book of Jeremiah, in chap. XIX, we read:

"Because they have forsaken me, they have made this place a stranger, making libations there to foreign gods who were unknown to them, their fathers and the kings of Judah, for they have filled this place with innocent blood, for they have made high places for Baal , to burn in the fire with their children in a burnt offering to Baal, things that I never commanded, of which I never spoke and that never occurred to me, for this, here comes the time, says the Lord, in which this place it will no longer be called Tofet, nor Valley of the sons of Ennom, but Valley of the massacre " [7].

Traces of an initial use of human sacrifices and of their evolution towards less bloody forms, can be glimpsed in the well-known story taken from the book of Genesis chap. XXII, in which the Lord first commands Abraham to sacrifice the firstborn Isaac in his name but, when he has the knife ready to sacrifice his young son, he has him stopped by an Angel, and Abraham sacrifices, in place of his son, a ram that was nearby.


Abraham. The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, Uffizi Gallery, 1594-1596

Remains of the ancient sacrificial rite could be glimpsed during the feast of S. Sebastiano in Melilli, in the province of Syracuse, where some children dressed in red are stripped in front of the statue of St. Sebastian and symbolically offered to the saint [8]. 

In the Sicilian popular tradition, traces of human sacrifices that recall the ancient building sacrifices can be seen in the ways foreseen to take possession of the enchanted treasures (truvatures). It is said, in fact, that, in some cases, the spell was accomplished by killing a man in the place where the treasure was hidden and that it can be removed with a new tribute of blood.

It is said that near Naro (Agrigento) there is a mountain called La Montagna del Furore, where an immense treasure is hidden. To disenchant him, seven innocent children must be sacrificed on the spot.

In the S.Lena quarry, not far from Chiaramonte Gulfi, in the Province of Ragusa, would graze a flock of gold. The flock can be appropriated if a man is killed on the spot on Good Friday.

In a church in the territory of Modica, called Church of Scrofani, there would be an enchanted treasure. To take this treasure, it is necessary to kill a child named Clemente, by the hand of his godmother who, on the spot [9], must eat the liver. Someone must have tried, in fact, towards the end of the last century, a process took place in Modica that had as its object the following event: a woman, who had a two-year-old godson named Clemente, took the baby away without her knowledge of her mother and, accompanied by another accomplice, she entered the church; the two women killed the child on the slab which, according to the people, hides the treasure, they tore out the liver but could not eat it raw, they vomited a little, and the treasure could not, therefore, be disenchanted.

The Modica episode highlights another very ancient habit, that of eating some parts of the body of the sacrificial victims. Diodorus Siculus, (LIb.XXII.5) speaking of the Tyrant Apollodorus who conspired to conquer power [10], he says:

"And wanting to make sure the outcome of his conspiracy, he called a young boy, his friend, as if for a sacrifice, he slaughtered his throat as an offering for the gods, gave it to the conspirators to eat its entrails, and, mixing its blood with wine, made them drink it ”.

Religious syncretism

At Grandi mothers, which they were originally Gaia, Cybele and Demeter, here, from the East, one adds, at a certain point, Isis, destined to become the pivot of a great syncretic movement that will prepare the ground for the great mother of Christians, the Madonna. Isis, seen by the Egyptians as the mother of the gods, represented, like the others mothers, the concept of fecundity. Thanks to these characteristics, despite being the goddess of the Egyptians, her cult spread to the Greco-Roman world, where she was often compared to Demeter.


Isis and the Madonna del Latte

In Sicily the cult of Isis had to spread, together with that of Serapis, towards the III, II sec. B.C. The phenomenon called "religious syncretism " that is, that mixture of different cults which, originally distinct from each other, were united by a common ideology.

[1] Vincenzo Manzini: Human sacrifices and ritual murders in antiquity p.2

[2] Vincenzo Manzini: Human sacrifices and ritual murders in antiquity p.17

[3] Biblical city already uninhabited at the time of Christ.

[4] Vincenzo Manzini: Human sacrifices and ritual murders in antiquity p.81

[5] Vincenzo Manzini: Human sacrifices and ritual murders in antiquity p.10

[6] Traces of the right on the firstborn are also found in Exodus chap. XIII 12, 13, 14, and chap. XXII 29,30.

[7] Other condemnations of this ritual are also found in Deuteronomy XII, and XVIII.

[8] Sebastiano Burgaretta: The "nudes" of S. Sebastiano in Avola and Melilli p.23

[9] Giuseppe Pitrè Uses and Customs beliefs and prejudices of the Sicilian people. Vol IV. p.436.

[10] Apollodorus of Cassandria, a city founded by Alexander on the northern coast of the Aegean, was tyrant of Cassandria from 279 to 276 BC

Ignazio Caloggero


Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily by Ignazio Caloggero

Cults of Eastern Origin



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