Perched on a one of the numerous hilltops of central Sicily sits the unremarkable town of Aidone. It’s people go about their daily work, or strike up conversations in the main piazza just as they would in any other Italian town.
If you’re in the mood for a climb to one of the highest points you’ll find a small church and the remains of a former Capuchin monastery. The buildings now house a small archaeological museum that contains a number of artefacts from the earliest occupants of the island; prehistoric through to the classical era. Most originate from excavations at the nearby site of Morgantina, and though there are some beautiful pieces this was not a collection to rival the Vatican or the British Museum.
And yet there was something remarkable in Aidone, remarkable enough that I travelled out of my way to make sure I didn’t miss it. But before I reveal what that was I need to tell a different story.
Sicily played a very important part in the world of the Ancient Greeks, not simply because Syracusa was on a par with Athens in 5th Century BCE Greece, but because it was home to several key myths and legends which are familiar to us today. The rocks off the coast of Acitrezza were believed to have been hurled there by the cyclops Polyphemus in his attempts to sink the fleeing Odysseus. (Of course when there’s a volcano nearby there might be another explanation!)
Then there are the notorious Straits of Messina that separate the island from the Italian mainland. Many ships have been lost here in the dangerous waters, though of course that is down to the descendants of Poseidon, Scylla and Charybdis, who sat on the rocks on either side of the channel ready to devour both sailors and their vessels.
The nymph Arethusa turned herself into a stream to escape the passions of the river god Alpheus, and trickled underground, only to emerge safely as a spring on Ortygia, and provide water for the people of Syracusa.
There are more examples, but for Aidone the most resonant is the tale of Demeter and her daughter Persephone who was stolen away into the underworld by Hades. (One of several entrances to hell is on the island). As goddess of the harvest, Demeter’s mourning for her lost daughter had a devastating effect on crops. To end the devastation, Zeus negotiated a compromise whereby Persephone (or Kore as she is known to some) was returned to her mother for six months of every year, thus explaining the impact on crops of the changing seasons.
In a strange reversal, some underworld figures of the 20th century (tomb robbers) unearthed a statue at Morgantina from the 5th century, believed to be either Demeter or Persephone (I’ll always prefer that to Kore thanks to Wishbone Ash!). For the sum of $18million it was bought by the Getty in LA, but the mourning of the Sicilians (where there had been a cult worshipping Demeter & Persephone) eventually saw her returned home where she brings economic rather than agricultural blessings.