Monday, August 11, 2008

Our Sicilian Temenos

Persephone first crossed our path in Rome, freed as she was from the block of marble by the hands of Bernini only to be captured by Hades and forced into the underworld.

When her mother, Demeter, the goddess of all fertility, goes after her, she deprives the earth of its ability to grow food. Hades relents to the mother, and says Persephone can go, if she hasn’t eaten anything; he then tricks her into eating six pomegranate seeds. Demeter still strikes a deal with Hades: Persephone will spend 6 months in the underworld, during which her mother is sad and nothing grows, and then 6 months on earth, and her mother is so joyous that the earth blossoms into spring.

Legend believes that the very spot where Hades descended with Persephone is at Lago di Pergusa, near Enna, in the middle of Sicily. History says it became the seat of the sacred cult of Demeter.

We came to one of the worship sites of her cult at the strange sounding Selinunte.

Selinus is from the Greek name for the sweet-smelling herb Selinon, aka wild celery (heleioselinon – Apium graveolens) as well as mountain parsley (Oreoselinon – Petroselinum from which the English term is corrupted).

One of the glories of our rented beach house is that it sits at the edge of the archaeological park of the ruins of ancient Selinus. And so we are able to walk out our back door, down to the water, and a half hour later turn to walk up the hill directly to the ancient Acropolis, coming upon it by surprise, as the main entrance by car takes you to the Eastern hill temples.

Selinunte was the most westerly of the Greek colonies, established in 628 BC. Originally allied with Carthage, it switched alliance to Syracuse in 480 BC. Under Syracuse it grew powerful and wealthy, until it bothered its northern rival, Segesta, who called upon the jilted Carthage to help vanquish it. That brought Hannibal (an earlier one that the great), who destroyed the city in 409 BC. An earthquake in the Middle Ages brought down whatever structures were still standing. It was the Englishmen William Harris and Samuel Angell who started the excavations in 1823.

You can still get a sense of the teeming city on the Acropolis, where the thoroughfares are wide and intact. There are many temples in the city itself, mostly huge piles of rubble, except for two that have been partially reconstructed like a jigsaw puzzle.

One of our vacation party, a professor of Greek philosophy, brings the rubbles to life for us with commentary from the great thinkers. He also brought a pair of walkie talkies. It was a brilliant stroke to keep people connected amongst the rubble piles, which are so huge that you can’t see from one side to the other. It was part nerd, part practical. Just perfect.

From the Acropolis we make our way to the Eastern temples, outside of the city. There lies the celebrated Temple E, with 2 others. Temple E is the most completely reconstructed. What we didn’t entirely appreciate until later is it is one of the only temples you can walk into.

As we moved from column to column, I tried to sense the spirits of the original inhabitants, but the sun was so blinding and bleaching that I could see no shadows. And yet there we trod, where our distant, distant cousins worshipped Hera, (or Dionysius, the designations are not certain). Sitting and talking among the gigantic stones felt like inhabiting a dust to dust adage: their reality came to this—a pile of stones to be stared at by generations to come.

As we head back to the beach house we take the detour to the Demeter Temenos. The function of this sanctuary is linked to its place on the road from the Acropolis to the large necropolis of Manicalunga: funeral processions broke their journey here to call upon Demeter, the Goddess of Fertility and her daughter Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld and Sicily's chief goddess. There we saw the remains of one of the cult’s major places of worship, where Demeter was revered as Malophoros (Apple Bearer).

It boils down to the story of the mother who went to Hell to protect her daughter: the Greeks knew human nature very well.

Mary Taylor Simeti, who wrote the engaging Persephone’s Island, has her own take on the daughter: “Persephone, the eternal expatriate, the goddess of unreconciled contrasts and alternate allegiances, chose to eat the seeds of the pomegranate, that she might enjoy two roles, two worlds.”

Nice idea, or just making lemonade from her abduction.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

But this is magical - thank you, thank you! Having read it I had to run downstairs in great excitement to tell J. the derivation debt 'parsley' (persil in French) owed to Selinunte, a place where we spent several happy hours two years ago being misinformed that Hannibal (he of the Alpine elephants, Q.Fabius Maximus Cunctator's opponent)had pulled the temples down, etc., probably with his teeth.

I remember an excellent lunch at Marinella afterwards and I wear the straw hat I bought at Selinunte practically every day, well worth the embarrassment of wearing it on the flight back. Happy days.

M.A.Peel said...

Hannibal of the elephants lived from 247 BC to 183 BC, but the stone piles do look like a heard of elephants got at the buildings, so the general misattribution is understandable.

That hat would be essential, and a great memento. I regretted that I didn't pick up a parasol in Rome at the Colosseum. I have started seeing more women use them in New York. They are very practical.