In western Sicily, perched high on a steep mountain called Erice, once stood a magnificent and illustrious temple dedicated to the Goddess of Love, known successively as Astarte by the Phoenicians, Aphrodite by the Greeks, and Venus by the Romans. This temple stood for over a thousand years and a sacred fire always burnt from its enclosure, so brightly that sailors used it as a guiding beacon. It was here that the Priestesses of Venus served the Goddess with their bodies through the art of sacred prostitution, a spiritual practice that included the celebration of the sacred marriage rite. Today, sparse remains of this remarkable temple can be found in the Castello di Venere, a twelfth-century Norman castle incorporating some of the original foundations.
Myth traces back the foundation of Erice to the very beginning of creation, when the Titans revolted against their father, Uranus. Cronus castrated his father with a sickle and threw both sickle (hence the name of Sicily) and genitals into the sea of Cape Drepanum (Trapani). To mark the spot where her ancestor’s genitals fell, Aphrodite rose from the waves in a cockleshell chariot and created the mountain of Erice, claiming it as her own. It was here that the Goddess brought Butes, the Argonaut, when he succumbed to the sirens’ song and threw himself into the sea, and here that she bore him a son, Eryx, who gave the mountain his name.
Although I am half-Sicilian and know the island very well, I did not become consciously aware of Erice’s significance until early 2006, when I was immersed in writing a play about Aphrodite and sacred prostitution. One particularly inspired day, I wrote a monologue called ‘Salome Speaks’ (see Goddess Pages, issue 3) in which a Mediterranean temple priestess speaks of her training and her spiritual practices, as well as her first encounter with a ‘stranger’. As I wrote the piece, I had an overwhelming vision of looking down onto the sea from a high mountain. I was later stunned to find out that a Temple of Venus in fact existed on Mount Erice in Sicily, and that the location looked near-identical to what I had experienced during writing. At Beltane 2006, I performed as Salome in the ‘Temple of Sensual Delights’ in Birmingham, and ever since, I wished to go and celebrate Beltane at this sacred spot, in the actual Temple of Venus.
A year later, I set out to turn my dream into reality. I booked a flight to Palermo with a vague plan to stay in Trapani, the island’s West, for a few weeks. I was lured here at Easter time by the prospect of witnessing the Misteri, a colourful procession that takes place in the city every Good Friday, and the proximity to the medieval town of Erice, which looms on the eponymous mountain right above Trapani. Passing through Palermo, I made friends with the lovely people of the Pagan organization Anima Mundi, and suggested a joint Beltane celebration at Erice. To my delight, they thought it a splendid idea, and we agreed to meet later in the month to discuss details.
My first visit to Erice came to pass, sooner than I expected, three days after my arrival in Trapani. My Palermo contacts had introduced me to Elio, a fellow Pagan and devotee of Venus, and together, we ascended Mount Erice in his jeep late one Saturday night, climbing the precipitous road that slithers its way up the mountain like an extensive, lustrous serpent. The night was still, and anticipation grew inside me as we set foot on the small path that leads to Venus’ castle in the dark. The site itself was locked, but we clambered onto the vertical cliff on which the Temple once stood, and sat down in midst of little flowers, herbs and stones. We remained quietly on the ancient rock for a long time, looking down towards Trapani and the sea, listening and savouring the magical atmosphere.
During my time on Sicily, I travelled extensively in the West. Through a series of wonderful synchronicities that always seem to occur when we travel and click into collective unconscious mode, I was led from one sacred site to the next, and introduced to many different Goddesses and energies that spoke to me strongly. Yet, in between trips, I always returned to Trapani, and Erice. It was as though She was calling me back with Her captivating, siren-like song, making sure I never strayed too far.
Coming up to Beltane, the sensual energies were extremely strong. I could really feel Venus’ presence – fast, wild, sensual, sexual - with all of my body. Physically, I was on fire for much of the time, burning with ethereal electricity. I wrote in my journal: She is like a wild mare, the tide, the forces of the moon, the storm, the elements. She is uncontrollable, yet if we let go she exalts us to places of pure bliss, of ecstasy, a place where the mind shuts down and the soul merges with divinity. There is only light, the awakening of the senses, the primal dance of bodies. Ecstatic prayer, body worship, celebrating love. I had visions of dancing wildly on Mount Erice, of invoking Venus with my arms open wide, her winds caressing me, teasing me, going through me and all around me.
Half-way through my stay, I came across a serendipitous piece of information in Mary Taylor Simeti’s On Persephone’s Island, a Sicilian journal I had been dipping in and out of. Whilst leafing through the book one quiet Sunday afternoon, I found a piece on Erice and the Temple of Venus, informing me that Venus Erycina’s feast day was once celebrated on the 23rd April. 23rd April? ‘Hang on’, I thought, and went to check my diary. ‘That’s tomorrow!’ Thrilled, but not really surprised, I decided to visit Erice the next day to mark the festival.
Simeti writes that, in ancient times, the Carthaginians worshipped Venus in the guise of Astarte: each spring they released a white flock of doves from Erice toward North Africa and the sister shrine of Sicca Veneria. After nine days, the flock would return with a red dove, symbolising Astarte, in the lead, signalling the reawakening of nature.
Inspired by this recollection, I bought eight white roses plus a red one as an offering for the Goddess the next morning. It was a hot, sunny day, and, fresh roses in my arm, I began my ascent to the mountain town.