Proserpina, Goddess of Sicily

Stygian Proserpine
"I come in purity from a pure people,
Oh Queen of the Dead;
and I claim descent from your blessed race.
But fate and the star-hurled thunderbolt
overwhelmed me, and now I have flown
out of the sorrow heavy wheel.
I move with eager steps
to touch your Crown, and sink into your lap,
My Great Lady; Oh Queen of the Dead."
"Happy and hlessed you shall be then,
as a God, mortal no more.
You shall be as a young child,
fallen into my own sweet mother's milk."
--fragment of a text from Thurii, in southern Italy, approximately 3rd century bce, relating to the mysteries of Proserpine

Pantheon: Proserpina, Goddess of Sicily

by Steve Colombo

The story of Persephone (or Proserpina in Latin) is a well known Greek myth that is popularly told around Samhain time by many Pagans and is still known in mainstream society. The stories of the abduction of Persephone into the Underworld by Hades, and Her return from there, have inspired religious devo- tion in ancient times, artistic inspiration in the Renaissance, and characters on the TV shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Gerald Gardner refers to the story's popularity in his Witchcraft Today. However, there is another side and dimension to this story that is not so well know generally, but is a cultural bedrock on the island of Sicily.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean sea. It is home to its native people, the Sicilians themselves, who are named after the ancient Sicels, but it has been the meeting place of many major cultures, empires, and civilizations. Anciently, it was home to several prominent Greek colonies, and later it became the first holding off of the Italian Peninsula. Then the Romans claimed for their Empire. Western Sicily, especially the city of Syracuse, which was founded by the Greeks and where Socrates himself taught philosophy, still has a more Greek-style culture than an Italian culture, and there are still some pockets that speak Greek as the native language. During the reign of Augustus Caesar, he promoted the idea that the "Roman" people were the people of the Italian Peninsula and also Sicily. Today, Sicily is part of the Republic of Italy, but holds a certain amount of regional political autonomy. Sicilian is still the native language, but standard Italian and Latin are taught in schools.

Here is a brief recap of the story. The lovely girl Persephone, daughter of the, Vegetation Goddess Demeter, was picking flowers by a lakeside when She when was spied by the God Hades, ruler of the Underworld. He was immediately smitten by Her beauty and spirited Her away in His chariot driven by four black steeds, which took Them to His citadel in Tarterus. When Demeter heard of this abduction, She was sadden so much that She neglected Her duties as Goddess of Growing Vegetation until all the plant life began to die away. Demeter subsequently went through Her own sad adventures until Persephone was released in the Spring. Demeter was so happy upon the return of Her daughter that the world's plant life began to renew and grow again. However, there was a catch. Since Persephone had eaten some of the pomegranate, the food of the Underworld, She had to return again to Hades and remain with Him for part of the year. Demeter would miss Her daughter during this time, and in Her sadness, let the world die again until Persephone returned. This was the story of why the seasons changed. It was also the basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were the secret re-enactment of this myth, which led its initiates through a symbolic life, death, and rebirth. The ancient center where these Mysteries were celebrated was in the Greek city of Eleusis, but there is more that is not so well known.

Persephone was known by the name Proserpina to the Latin speaking Romans, which is derived from the word proserpere, which means "to emerge." She was the daughter of Ceres, and Sicily was Her beloved island, the land over which She was Matron. Proserpina's abduction was said to have happened on the banks of Lake Peregusa, where She was picking flowers, which is by the town ofEnna, located in central Sicily. Pluto, as Hades was known in Latin, came forth from the volcanic Mount Etna, near Catania, which is on the coast of Western Sicily, in order to abduct Proserpina. Mt. Etna has figured richly in ancient mythology variously as the forge of the Roman smith God Vulcan, as the prison of the Titans who shake the Earth in their struggles towards freedom, and as an entrance to the Underworld. In Her terror, Proserpina gave chase, trying to escape from Pluto, but was eventually caught at the city of Syracuse. Both disappeared into the Underworld at Aretusa Fountain. Aretusa was a nymph who was turned into a spring by the Goddess Diana, in order to escape the wicked Alfeo who coveted her. In the Mediterranean, wells and springs were thought to be entrances to the Underworld.

The cult of Ceres and Proserpina was among the most celebrated in ancient times in Sicily. Our word "cult" comes from the Latin cultus, which simply means "cultivate" and referred to cultivating relationships with the Gods through offerings and prayers. The Ceralia, or the festival of Ceres, was celebrated anciently in April with a public procession, led by torch bearing priests, to the temple of Ceres. In The Golden Ass by Apulieus, Proserpina is referred to as being the Goddess of the Sicilians. In modem times, the story of Proserpina is known as a "Sicilian folktale" throughout Italy.

Today the area of Lake Peregusa is a Nature preserve. It has a pinewood forest that is a home for several species of birds, and the lake itself can appear red from the abundance of microorgan- isms. In the nearby area, there are Greek ruins dating back to the seventh century BCE. There are even the remains of several copper age huts and a graveyard. The myth of Proserpina is remembered by bronze statues of Renaissance master Bernini's "The Abduction of Proserpina" in the cities of Enna and Catania. Stories of Her are still remembered and told, and the legend of Her continues to echo through the ages.

Mark P.O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon (1971, 1977). Classical Mythology. White P1ains, NY: Longman, INC.
Gardner, Gera1d. (1974). Witchcraft Today. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press.
Apuleius (1951, 1979). The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass. Translated by Robert Graves. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ciao & Blessed Be,
Amra the Lion (Steve Colombo)
Rockford, I1linois;

Amra is a hereditary practitioner of Italian Paganism and magick, whose family emigrated from Palermo, Sicily. He has traveled to some of Italy's most ancient sacred site and has done research with the goal of teaching Italian traditions to the Pagan community.

Originally printed in CIRCLE Magazine, Spring 2003 pp 35-36. Reproduced here with permission of Steve Columbo, aka Amra the Lion.

Latin Underworld

The Roman poet, Horace, in his Epodes of Horace (written approximately 30 bce), recounted the story of a powerful Italian sorceress, Canidia. Horus described that certain women gathered in secret to give homage to Proserpine and Diana. These Goddesses granted the women power in magic for participating in nocturnal mysteries.

Return to index page