Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily

When we talk about the religion of ancient Sicily, we are led to think of the period and therefore of the Greek cults, forgetting, however, that religious thought was alive in Sicily long before.

The human species made its appearance on earth more than two million years ago with theHomo Abilis and a little less than two million years ago it evolves towards its present form with thehomo erectus. It could be argued that religion was born with man, a claim that would not be so risky, even if it is difficult to formulate hypotheses regarding the religious thought of individuals who led an existence in the wild, who did not yet know the concept of social aggregation and whose intellectual faculties must have been rather limited.

You may be wondering when thehomo erectus has acquired psychic faculties such as to justify the appellation of Homo Religiosus. The answer is not easy also because there is no longer any trace of many religious manifestations. In these cases, the study of the most ancient parietal arts and, even more so, that of the burial of ancient prehistoric populations, where traces of particular rituals and outfits can be found, helps us to understand that there are religious sentiments at the base. In Qafzeh (Israel) in 1933 a burial dating back to about one hundred thousand years was found and offerings were found on the hands of the deceased and the palms of the hands turned upwards as if to receive the offerings.[1].

The offerings that were made to the deceased in burials a hundred thousand years ago would suggest that theHomo Religiosus it already existed in the Upper Paleolithic, which had become aware of death and tried to overcome it by believing that something of itself remained even after death. So here comes the concept of the immortality of the soul.

We can speak of religious events organized only after the emergence of the first forms of social aggregation, favored by the first collective hunting trips and the discovery of agriculture, which led to more stable forms of settlement and the birth of the first villages. We could suppose that, at least in its primitive form, religious thought was born at the moment in which man began to perceive himself as a limited and at times powerless being towards external reality and began to intervene in it. The first religious manifestations probably consisted of magical rituals that had the aim of carrying out a sort of manipulation or, in any case, of interacting with a reality that was sometimes hostile. Magical rituals were practiced to encourage hunting, to ward off drought or to fight the demons of disease.

The first form of religious thought that one might think of is the one called religion natural, meaning, with this term, that category of religions that divinized the various phenomena of nature[2] which

  • Meteorological phenomena (thunder, lightning);
  • Astronomical (stars, planets, sun);
  • Aspects related to the plant world (birth and growth of vegetation and fruits necessary for man's sustenance);
  • Aspects related to the animal world (veneration of animals with specific characteristics);
  • Aspects of human life (the various human virtues, the significant moments of life such as birth and death).

In natural religion we can distinguish a first phase that can be defined totemistics[3], characterized by a sort of bond between the clan and the Totem. The latter was generally a plant or animal being considered protector of a tribe or a clan and to which the clan considered itself linked by a particular relationship of kinship. The link, however, was considered not only of a biological nature but, above all, of a religious nature. Normally, such an imaginary relationship tied a group of people to certain animals or plants to which the group thought they owed their sustenance. It was not uncommon for the group itself to take the name of the animal elevated to Totem. Totemism can be considered the oldest form of religion in the history of man[4]. It was followed by a phase in which the real naturist element is affirmed, where we witness the animation of natural phenomena and human life. The two phases cannot be considered clearly distinct, since the second is destined to carry within itself the traces of the previous one. Even in the subsequent phase, in fact, the presence of the animal element denotes the influence of the totemistic phase.

Among the animals we remember the bull, present in mythology since the times of the Minoan culture, the dove associated with Aphrodite (Venus), the fallow deer associated with Artemis (Diana), the cow associated with Hera (Juno), the crow and the owl associated to Athena (Minerva), and finally the dog associated with many divinities and often a recurring element in Sicilian myths and legends.

Golden Calf
Adoration of the Sun / Calf (Golden). Deir el-Medina (near Luxor - Egypt), Ramessid period (1320-1085 BC)

Venus and the doves
Venus playing with two doves (portrait of the dancer Charlotte Chabert) by Francesco Haiez (1830)

Venus with the dove
Venus with dove and phiale (XNUMXth century BC) - National Museum of Reggio Calabria

Diana of Versailles
The Diana of Versailles, Roman copy of a statue of Leocare (Louvre Museum Paris)

Civetta and AthenaAthens - Tetradrama of the period 449 - 431 BC with Pallade Athena and the owl.

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

 Another aspect to take into consideration in the evolution of religious thought is the re-elaboration and re-adaptation of a myth, originally common to several peoples, on the basis of cultural development. From this point of view, not only for Sicily, but for the entire Italian peninsula, a distinction must be made between the peoples belonging to the so-called Mediterranean (or pre-Indo-European) lineage and those belonging to the Indo-European lineage.[5].

The populations belonging to the Indo-European lineage did not constitute, as one might think, a single people, but rather a group of nomadic peoples who spoke languages ​​similar to each other and who had in common some habits of life and religious sentiments.

The various stocks of the great Indo-European lineage were later called by different names, according to the times and places they chose for their settlement. The westernmost group of these populations was formed by the Celts, who settled in northern Europe, by the Italics, who settled in the Italian peninsula, by the Illyrians and Thracians who occupied the Balkans and by the Hellenes who populated Greece.

The two lineages are distinguished by the diversity of manifestation of religious thought. As regards, for example, the cult of the dead, the peoples belonging to the Mediterranean lineage often used the funeral rite of burial, buried their dead without burning them and laid the corpse on the left side and with the legs curled up, almost remember the fetal position[6]. Sometimes, although more rarely, the supine position was used. The Indo-European peoples, on the other hand, often used the funeral rite of cremation. The diversity of funeral rites, however, cannot be taken as a criterion of belonging to one or the other lineage. It was found, in fact, that cremation and burial, depending on the moment, were used indifferently, by the same people.

 The peoples belonging to the Mediterranean lineage who inhabited Sicily and who, therefore, influenced the religiosity of their time were the Sicani, the Elimi[7] and the Phoenician-Punic.

The Elimi and the Phoenicians[8] they left a cultural and style imprint that differed from the Greek and Roman ones. This imprint can still be found today in archaeological finds. Of the Sicans, however, few traces remain and, in any case, it is often difficult to distinguish the Sican culture from the Sicilian one, so much so that writers of the past have stated that siculus e Sicanus they are synonyms of the Mediterranean lineage. The most widespread opinion, however, maintains that the Sicilians and other peoples, such as the Osco-Umbrians, the Latins, the Venetians and the Messapians, belong to the great Indo-European family that came to Italy in the second millennium and that took the name of Italics. The Venetians stopped in Veneto, the Latins in Lazio, the Messapi in Puglia and the Sicilians, after a period of probable cohabitation with the Latins in Lazio, went down to Sicily.

 The Sicilians belonged, therefore, to the Indo-European lineage, in fact, the Sicilian is considered an Indo-European language, in some respects close to Latin[9]. The populations of Indo-European descent who have a similar religious imprint are the Sicilians, the Hellenes and the Romans.

 In its evolution, natural religion assumed, from a certain moment, an anthropomorphic aspect. The natural deities initially worshiped, considered true natural powers, were attributed typically human forms and virtues. Little by little, the ideal conditions were created that led to the birth of myths, of those tales, that is, the protagonists of which were, not only the gods but also the more or less known heroes created by the imagination of man. The birth of myths that could concern natural phenomena, rites, customs and traditions of a particular social group, can be justified by the need to explain reality. The myths, however, evolve and differ according to the times and places in which they radiate. Sometimes, for political interests, ancient legends were modified and spread, to justify certain alliances between groups of populations, attributing to the groups themselves a common divine descent. Sometimes the transformation of a myth was motivated solely by changed political conditions, by the rise or fall of an influential person or political group.

 Hellenic mythology can be considered the richest and most significant, and it is the one of which there are more traces within the Sicilian cults. In many myths traces of typically Indo-European elements can be identified, and even in the period of greatest splendor of Hellenic culture, classical mythology was affected by the influences coming from the Eastern Mediterranean. Mythology and religion are related, although myths related to human heroes are not unusual.

 With the passage of time, the intellectual abilities of man evolve, and thanks to the scientific explanation of natural phenomena, first of all obscure, religious thought also undergoes an equal evolution. The myths begin to be given a symbolic interpretation and religion begins to lean towards higher spiritual forms, freeing the divinities from the animistic elements that had initially characterized them.

This evolutionary process will prepare the ground for what will be universal religions such as Christianity, in which the universalistic concept of divinity will predominate. Here, therefore, that around some divinities (Dionysus, Demeter, Cybele, Isis, etc.) those religions called mysteriosophical (from the Greek mystes), characterized by a series of secret rites performed by the followers and defined "religions of salvation"(At least of an interior salvation, or in any case otherworldly). The need for a religious form other than the purely animistic one arose from the desire for redemption from frustrations by the marginalized classes made up of slaves, the poor and often also women who were excluded from the religious ceremonies of the ruling class. 

 In these religions, as well as in the Christian religion, sacrifice is the element that leads to salvation. The same divinity, venerated in the mysteries, often undergoes atrocious sufferings and is usually doomed to a violent death. It will be precisely the suffering of the god to which the adepts are inspired, the contribution that the divinity itself will offer for the salvation of its faithful.

The adepts of the mystery religions were often persecuted, because they disturbed the established order, questioned the very structuring of the previously constituted classes and themselves gave birth to a new concept of class.

The new class, seen horizontally with respect to the previous classes, was made up of members of various social classes, provided they were subjected to the "sacraments""who had the power to mystically free the initiate, whatever his social origin "[10]. In the Christian religion, baptism is the sacrament that frees us from original sin, starting the new religious life. The sacrament of confirmation, which prepares the boy to be the "soldier" of God, has a certain analogy with the sacrament with which the initiates of Mithras[11] reached the rank of soldiers of faith.

It will be precisely the mysteriosophical religions linked to the pagan divinities that will prepare the cultural ground suitable for the spread of Christianity.

The Christian religion received and incorporated some aspects of pagan religions, such as some festivities and some of the pagan divinities themselves were transformed into Christian saints. At times, it was the clergy themselves who supported the reception, in the Christian religion, of some of the pagan divinities, to obtain the consent of the peasant population, whose religious beliefs continued to have a polytheistic character.[12].

Supporters of Christianity also appropriated the same places that had been used for pagan cults. In fact, the habit of building Christian churches in place of the ancient temples soon prevailed. St. Augustine, speaking of pagan temples, suggested three possible solutions: destroy them, use them for public use or transform them into Christian churches.

An imperial edict of the fifth century ordered that temples and sanctuaries not yet demolished, were destroyed and, as an expiation, the sign of the cross was planted.[13]. Before that, other edicts had ordered that pagan buildings be expropriated and assigned to Christian worship.

In light of what has been said, it should not be surprising that the places where pagan temples stood, later saw the proliferation of churches and convents. In the second century. AD the emperor Marcus Aurelius described Anagni as a city with an incredible number of religious buildings and superstitions of all kinds, where each street had its own temple, sanctuary or chapel. The same Anagni will become, in the Middle Ages, papal residence and will be full of churches and convents. It is still considered a city full of churches.[14]

In Syria, on an inscription, placed in memory of a pagan temple transformed into a Christian church probably in 514 AD, we read:

 “That which was the inn of demons became the house of God: the saving light shone, where it was a hiding place of darkness; where were the sacrifices of the idols now are the choirs of the angels; where God was angry, now God is merciful "[15].


In Sicily there are many churches where a pagan temple originally stood. The best example is perhaps given by the cathedral of Syracuse which incorporates the columns of a Doric temple of the fifth century. BC, dedicated to Athena.

Syracuse Cathedral - Remains of the Temple of Athena

Syracuse Cathedral

Syracuse Cathedral - Remains of the Temple of Athena

Remains of the temple of Demeter near the medieval church of S. Biagio (Agrigento)

Temple of Concord (Agrigento)

Temple of Concord (Agrigento)

In Agrigento, the cathedral of S. Maria delle Colonne was built in place of a Doric temple, possibly identifiable with the Athenaion erected by Terone in 488 BC[16]. Another Doric temple in the city, dedicated to Demeter, also saw the medieval church of S. Biagio rise in its place.[17]. Also in Agrigento, the temple of Concordia, considered one of the most remarkable in the Greek world, was transformed by the bishop Gregorio towards the end of the sixth century. AD, in the church of SS. Peter and Paul[18]. The Concordia temple was returned to its primitive forms in 1788.

In Taormina, under the church of S. Pancrazio, the remains of a temple dedicated to Isis and Serapis are still visible[19].

  1. Gregory the Great[20], in a letter dated June 22, 601, addressed to two religious who went to England, he wrote:

 “One must beware of destroying the temples of idols; it is only necessary to destroy the idols, and sprinkle holy water in the temples themselves; build altars and place relics there. If the constructions of these temples are solid, it will be good and useful that they pass from the cult of demons to the service of the true God; for as long as the nation sees its ancient places of devotion remain, it will be out of a kind of habit, willing to go there to worship the true God. It is said that the men of this nation use to sacrifice oxen. It is necessary that this custom be converted by them into Christian solemnity, and that on the day of the dedication of the temples transformed into churches, as well as on the feasts of the saints the relics of which will be placed there, be allowed to build, as in the past, huts. of leaves around the same churches; that they bring their animals there, kill them, no longer as offerings to the devil, but for Christian banquets in the name and honor of God, to which after having satiated they will give thanks. Only in this way, by reserving something for men for their outward joy, will you lead them more easily to taste the joys of the spirit ”.[21]


In the passage from paganism to Christianity we are witnessing a process of transformation that does not completely erase some ancient cults. This means that even in the full Christian period it is possible to find a series of relationships between pagan divinities and Christian saints. Some of these relationships are, perhaps, completely random, others, on the other hand, need to be reviewed in a syncretic light.

There are two aspects, in particular, that must be examined when it comes to the relationship between the ancient pagan deities and the Christian saints:

 1) The first aspect is the syncretic one, according to which the mythical divinity and the Christian saint have common characteristics, so, for example, Apollo and St. John are both endowed with prophetic virtues. In some cases the link concerns the protection of the same social class, as in the case of St. Nicholas, protector of sailors, who seems to have replaced Neptune, the lord of the seas. The cult of the "great mother" is part of the syncretic context, first represented by Demeter, Cybele and Isis and then, in the Christian era, by the Madonna.

 2) The second aspect is of a toponymic type, according to which, the Christian saint, protector of a specific locality, takes on some of the typical connotations of the pagan divinity venerated before, in that place.

In some cases, it can be assumed that some saints are, in reality, the same pagan deities dressed in Christian clothing. Perhaps it is not entirely accidental that a “Saint Demeter” is, today, particularly venerated in Greece; St. Elijah rising to the sky recalls the solar myth of Helios and the angel of death Charos seems to have replaced the figure of Charon, the mythical ferryman of the dead.

When paganism had not yet been completely supplanted by the Christian religion, the first "theorists" of emerging Christianity, to justify, in some way, the survival of the old cults, even came to theorize a sort of Christian Theogony where the origin of demons was explained more or less like this:


“After God created the universe, he wanted the angels to visit the world, here they were lured by the devil who made them his followers. The angels now become ministers of the devil, wanted to escape the dominion of the lord, so they rebelled, for this action they were expelled from heaven, and condemned to become demons. On earth, the angels who became demons, gave themselves names of gods, had the men build temples after having bewitched them with magic and arrogating themselves the ability to predict the future “.[22]


In Greek mythology Artemis is often described as a nocturnal hunter, accompanied by nymphs. With the arrival of Christianity, Demeter becomes the devil who guides the nymphs at night, now witches.

Better fate does not touch Venus who, if at the time of the Greeks was considered the goddess of love, becomes a deceiving and tempting demon. The Pantheon, considered by the ancients to be the main temple of the gods, was destined to become, in Christian times, the temple of all demons[23].

Not all deities, however, are transformed into evil devils, only the "bad" ones, the good ones become angels or saints[24].

 If we look closely at many of the current religious manifestations, it is not difficult to find remnants of pre-Christian beliefs that are part of the religious-cultural heritage of populations that have now disappeared.

 Traces of animal sacrifices were discernible, until some time ago, during some religious events: on the feast of S. Rocco, in Butera, a poor goose was slaughtered during "lu jocu di lu surpintazzu"; better fate did not touch some quails during the celebrations of “S. Lucia delle quaglie ”in Syracuse, and to the pigeons thrown onto the crowd (after having sprung their wings), during the celebrations of San Giovanni in Ragusa.

 The ancient habit of throwing pieces of bread in the fields, on the occasion of the feast of St. George in Ragusa, recalls the ancientThesmophoria, festivals in honor of Demeter, during which rotten pork meat was thrown into the fields to encourage the harvest.

The same tradition of opening new wine barrels in honor of St. Martin recalls a privilege that, at the time of the Anthesteria Greek, it was the turn of Dionysus, the Bacchus of the Romans.

 During the celebrations of the Madonna di Custonaci in Monte S. Giuliano, some characters borrowed from the pagan religion paraded on horseback: Venus, Mars, Mercury and Saturn.

 Even today in Melilli, in the province of Syracuse, during the celebrations of St. Sebastian, some devotees symbolically offer their children dressed in red to the saint, this perhaps recalls the ancient sacrificial rite according to which parents had to immolate, to the gods, their firstborn son.

Butera: lu jocu by lu surpintazzu

Syracuse: quail throwing

Melilli: Feast of San Sebastiano

[1] Fiorenzo Facchini: Religiousness in Prehistory.p.50. The site is called Monte del Precipizio or Monte del Salto (Jebel Qafzeh in Arabic), it is located about 2 km southeast of Nazareth. In 1933 the French paleontologist René Neuville found a prehistoric cave with the remains of various human fossils.

[2] Animism is based on the idea that the soul is the cause of everything, of life and death, and this concerns both man and natural reality which, in this way, comes to be considered as endowed with a soul. It is a short step from this to the personification of natural phenomena.

[3]  The word Totem is the shortened form of the word ototeman and derives from the dialect of the Ojibwa Indians of North America, and the term Totemism indicates the religious cult of the Totem.

[4]Ambrogio Donini: A brief history of religions. p. 48

[5]The populations that lived in the Italian peninsula in the Neolithic period (8000-3000 BC) and in the Eeneolithic period (3000-2000 BC), called Mediterranean or pre-Indo-European descendants, are distinguished from the Indo-European populations that appeared in our peninsula starting from II millennium BC, that is in the Bronze Age. Between the third and second millennium BC a migratory wave of peoples from the steppes of central Asia began, called Indo-European (or Aryan) because they spread over the vast area between India and Europe. The migration of these peoples was probably determined by a strong demographic increase of the population and the need to find new fertile lands.

[6] The Western Mediterranean by Jacques Hergoun. p.23

[7] As for the origin of this people, there are two distinct versions: according to Dionysius of Alicarnassus, the Elimi came to Sicily from mainland Italy, from where they had been driven out by the Enotri three generations before the Trojan War. Thucydides, on the other hand, considers them Trojans who have escaped the destruction of their city. The recent excavations carried out in the Elymian area and especially in the Egesta area have ensured that the Thucydid theory prevailed. Much of the archaeological material discovered, due to the shapes and decorations, leaves, in fact, a glimpse of an original cultural imprint of the eastern Aegean area.

[8] The Phoenicians, a Semitic population, settled in the region of the same name on the Mediterranean coast in ancient times. It was a long and narrow strip that starting from the north of Lebanon reached as far as Israel, limited by the Mediterranean to the west and the Orontes and Jordan rivers to the east. They were experts in navigation and trade and also dedicated to piracy, they expanded to the west. founding colonies in Africa (Carthage), southern Italy, Sardinia and southern Spain. One of the strengths of the Phoenicians' activity was the trade in colored fabrics. The colors they used were obtained from the maceration of molluscs. The purple red of the clothes they colored ended up identifying the entire people, in fact in Greek they were indicated with the name of Phoinikes and in Greek Phonix means "purple red", from it derives the Latin points and finally Punicus with which, later, they indicated the Phoenicians of the West and in particular the Carthaginians.

[9] The Western Mediterranean by Jacques Hergoun. p.19

[10] Ambrogio Donini: A brief history of religions. p.192

[11] Mithras is an Iranian solar deity identified with the sun. His cult also spread to the West, in particular to Rome where the emperor Aureliano made him official.

The mysteries of Mithras took place in underground caves, where initiates could aspire to the seven degrees of what could be called the prototype of Freemasonry: crow, husband, soldier, lion, Persian, courier of the sun, father. The cult of Mithras was officially suppressed in Rome in 394 AD, although it continued to survive for many more years.

[12]Ambrogio Donini: A Brief History of Religions p.108.

[13]Carlo Pascal: Gods and devils in dying paganism. p.169.

[14] Ambrogio Donini: A Brief History of Religions p.44.

[15]Carlo Pascal: Gods and devils in dying paganism. p.87.

[16] see Athena.

[17] see Demeter.

[18]Filippo Coarelli and Mario Torelli: Archaeological Guides Laterza - Sicily p.138.

[19] see Isis.

[20] St. Gregory the Great (540-604) was elected Pope in 590. He did the work of evangelization of the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples.

[21] The passage is mentioned by Pitre in his "Patronal Feasts in Sicily" pag. LIX.

[22] Carlo Pascal: Gods and devils in dying paganism. p.80.

[23] Carlo Pascal: Gods and devils in dying paganism. p.89

[24] Ambrogio Donini: A Brief History of Religions p.142.


Ignazio Caloggero


Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily by Ignazio Caloggero

Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily

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