In ancient Greece and Rome every god and goddess had a plant, fruit, or tree sacred to them. The oak was sacred to Zeus, the pomegranate to Hera, the olive tree to Athena, and so on. In Greece, anyone who dared to cut down an olive tree was liable to the death penalty.
Even Hades, the god of the underworld, had a tree sacred to him: the cypress.
What about blackberries? They too had their god to whom they were sacred. He was Saturn, the Latin equivalent of Cronus, the god of time in Greek mythology.
Lake Pergusa, the only natural lake in Sicily, is full of brambles. They surround the lake like a ring. The wild rabbits that live by the lake hide among the thorny brambles to escape their predators.
Blackberries are rich in therapeutic properties. They are anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory. Today, running around Lake Pergusa, I tasted some blackberries. I found them delicious!
One of the interesting things to visit in Sicily is the bronze statue of the slave Eunus. It is located in Enna, in the center of Sicily, at the foot of the Lombardy Castle.
Eunus was a Syriac slave who lived in Enna under masters. His dream was to be a free man. To pursue his dream of freedom, he rebelled against both his masters and Roman laws, giving rise to a slave war.
In 1960, the city of Enna placed a commemorative marble plaque near the statue of the slave. In summary, the plaque reads: Two thousand years before Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, the humble slave Eunus uttered a cry of freedom in this fortress, claiming the right of every man to be born free and to die free.
Cardinal John Henry Newman is well known all over the world, for he was a great English theologian.
During his second trip to Sicily, in early May of the year 1833, in Leonforte, a small town in the province of Enna, he caught a strong typhoid fever. He spent the period of convalescence in Enna, in a house in the city center. According to a friend of mine, who is a historian, it was in Enna that he felt the desire to convert to Catholicism. Today a marble plaque on the facade of the house that hosted him commemorates his stay in Enna. Obviously, the writing is in Italian, but in summary its content is this:
St John Henry Newman stayed in this house from 6 to 25 May 1833. His steps led him not only to Enna, the heart of classical Sicily, but also to the center of his heart.
If someone asked me today, “Since you were born in Sicily, do you feel more Italian or more Sicilian?” I would reply, “My country is the world. My hometown is the place where I am at the moment. In other words, if I am in New York, my hometown is New York, if I am in Moscow, my hometown is Moscow, if I am in Addis Ababa, my hometown is Addis Ababa, if I am in Seoul my hometown is Seoul, and so on.”
“How about human races?” he would ask.
I would answer,” There is an invisible thread on Earth that links all people who have the same spiritual feelings, regardless of their race or skin color. They belong to the same spiritual race. The real races are not physical but spiritual, and you can feel it clearly whenever you have the chance to come across someone with similar feelings and nature.”
“You are just a dreamer!” he would say.
I would reply, “If you keep dreaming, sooner or later your dreams will come true.”
Today, walking through the alleys of Enna, I came across the birthplace of Napoleone Colajanni.He was born in Enna on 27 April 1847 and died in Enna on 2 September 1921.
Napoleone Colajanni was a clear example of an honest and incorruptible politician. After he was elected to the parliament of the Kingdom of Italy, he unmasked the scandal of the Banca Romana which minted banknotes illegally. The scandal also involved members of the government. Following the precise denunciation of corruption by Napoleone Colajanni, the government was forced to resign. This great son of Enna was also a professor of statistics at the University of Palermo and an author of books on the Mafia and the problems of southern Italy.
I read a book written by him entitled Nel Regno della Mafia (In the Kingdom of the Mafia). It tells of Emanuele Notarbartolo, marquis of San Giovanni, an eminent nobleman who was stabbed to death while traveling by train in a tunnel on the Messina Palermo railway line. Strangely, he was killed a few days after he had accused the general manager of the Banco di Sicilia, one of the most important banks in Italy, of financial improprieties. The book by Napoleone Colajanni is one of the first on the issue of the Mafia. It denounces the collusion between magistrates, police, politicians, and mafiosi.
Even though I don’t like politicians much, I cannot exclude that there may be some politicians like Napoleone Colajanni who are honest and aim at the wellbeing of citizens.
A marble tablet stands out on the facade of the historic Palazzo Varisano in my hometown of Enna, Sicily. On it are engraved the names of my fellow citizens who participated in the war for the unification of Italy.
To unify Italy it was necessary to topple the Bourbon kingdom which ruled over all of southern Italy. For this purpose, the patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi on May 5, 1860 set sail from Quarto, a town near Genoa, with two ships bound for Sicily, on board of which there were 1089 patriots.
During the crossing, arguments arose among the members of the expedition. The splinter group was disembarked in Talamone, a town in Tuscany. After that, only 752 patriots landed in Sicily.
Could seven hundred and fifty-two men, albeit valiant, ever defeat the mighty Bourbon army? Of course not!
When the two ships arrived in Sicily, immediately 10,000 young Sicilians joined Garibaldi and all together defeated the Bourbons.
This is the historical truth: without the contribution of the Sicilians, the unity of Italy would have been impossible.
A good book, like a good wine must offer some degree of complexity. A Hidden Sicilian History by Ettore Grillo does just that. It is not at all what I expected. It is certainly not a history of the island. We begin with the story of an old scroll found nestled in a volume of the Inquisition in a library in Enna, Sicily. The finder expects, as I did, that this will be a history of the island, possibly during the time of the Inquisition. As he translates it he finds the scroll instead to be a single fictional memoir of loss, doubt, and longing for truth. The scroll becomes the vehicle for philosophical pondering about the meaning of life and what may lie beyond. The author of the scroll is an actor, Vincenzo. Through his musings the daily life in the 1930’s and historical events of the town of Enna become alive for the reader. Even small details regarding cures, strict customs and, of course, religious activities are included. Vincenzo becomes quite obsessed with the story of his uncle, also named Vincenzo, and feels a special bond with him, his namesake. He is determined to find information about his uncle’s mysterious death, a death no living relative would discuss. The fact that Vincenzo is introduced as an actor in a church play perhaps has bearing on his insecure identity and his personal spiritual challenges. Additionally, the fact that the scroll was found embedded in pages referring to the Inquisition dramatizes the book’s theme involving the impact of religion in our lives and our attitudes about our after-lives. As we travel with Vincenzo in his quest for information about the demise of his uncle, we enter many pages of rather graphic sexual situations. This did take me by surprise but is appropriate considering the ultimate revelation of the cause of death. In his quest for universal truth the author touches on several world religions other than Christianity. This combination of real-life grit and philosophical wanderings into faith results in an interesting and unique and multi-layered read. The author is clearly highly educated and has a way with words that is both succinct and descriptive.
According to some, the main temple of Demeter in Sicily stood where the cathedral of Enna now stands. The construction of the Catholic temple was commissioned by Queen Eleonora d’Angiò at the beginning of the fourteenth century. She was a fervent Catholic and wanted to eradicate the cult of Demeter which was still alive in the hearts of the people of Enna.
In 1942, the king of Italy declared the cathedral of Enna a national monument and in 2008, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Since the building of the cathedral, the procession in honor of Demeter has been replaced by the one in honor of Our Lady, but basically nothing has changed. The devotion of the people of Enna towards Demeter is still unaltered; just the name of the deity has changed.
Today, the municipal band performed some musical pieces in front of the cathedral. However, the joy of the past years was missing. For the second consecutive year, the mother goddess Demeter could not be celebrated.
Our Lady, who is the patron saint of Enna, replaced the ancient cult of Demeter, who was the town’s mother goddess. The celebration in honor of Our Lady happens on July second every year, the same time when the old pagan cult of Demeter was celebrated. People of Enna today still invoke Kore, Demeter’s daughter.
In my opinion, the name you give to God is not important, what matters is the spiritual feeling that radiates from the worshipper. On the other hand, Jesus and the Virgin Mary are beyond time, for they existed before time, long before coming into human history.
They also existed in the pagan era and were worshipped differently.
These days, there are no processions in Enna, for the reason everybody knows. Hopefully, next year the pandemic will be over. Everything will return to normal and the citizens of Enna will continue to celebrate their feast in honor of Demeter which dates back to almost three thousand years ago.
Aunt Filippa opened the sideboard and took out a soup plate and a small cup. She put the plate on my head and asked my mother to hold it fast. Then, she poured some water into the plate and olive oil into the small cup. Finally, she dipped her finger into the small cup of olive oil and dripped some into the water.
I remained with that plate on my head for a few minutes. Aunt Filippa was not convinced, and from time to time she dripped more olive oil. Finally, she scrutinized the shape of the drops.
The drops could take different forms. They could remain as they were, become wider, or even disappear completely. If the drops maintained the same shape they had when they were dripped, it meant that there was no hex on me. If the drops became wider, there was a real hex. Sometimes the drops disappeared completely, and that meant that there was a lot of hex. In my case, the drops disappeared, and for that reason Aunt Filippa dripped olive oil several times.
“This cute little boy has a lot of hex,” she said, “but I’ll take it out of him. I swear!”
To do that she made special signs around the plate and said a special prayer, which she had learned from her mother one day on Christmas Eve. It was a secret prayer that had been handed down from generation to generation. Then she asked my mother to look at the plate carefully.
“Look, Rosa Maria! If the drops of oil combine to form one large drop, it means that the evil eye has been removed; otherwise, that is, if the drops remain separated, another treatment is needed, and Vincenzino will have to come back here next week,” said Aunt Filippa.
Fortunately, the drops of oil merged together as if attracted by a magnet. Aunt Filippa then concluded, saying that I was now hex free thanks to her prayer.
At the time, I barely understood her method of removing the hex, but with passing time I realized that what Aunt Filippa had done probably had a scientific basis. Words, thoughts, and feelings have vibrations. Everything vibrates in the universe. It means that each kind of vibration affects both organic and inorganic matter, including the shape of the drops that Aunt
Filippa used to diagnose the evil eye. In other words, if my body vibrations were good, the drops assumed a certain shape; otherwise, they got broad or sometimes disappeared.
This is an excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History.