Demeter and her lovely daughter Persephone are two of the greatest mythic characters of the Mediterranean world and of Western Civilization. Both Demeter and Persephone are archetypal figures. Archetypal means that they are universals, powerful presences or enduring elements of the soul. They are like Plato’s Absolutes. The concept of the archetypal was introduced mainly by C. G. Jung, and then the term was taken over by popular culture and educationalists, and then it became a bit of a buzz word.
Nevertheless, archetypes are always pristine and powerful regardless of how they are used.
The Sanctuario di Demetre Ruspestre is very close to Agrigento, actually within walking distance from the new city. It’s located at the extreme eastern edge of the archeological zone immediately outside the wall at Porta I. The wall is that which once encompassed all of Agrigento, Akragas.
It is a great experience to walk to the little Norman church of San Biagio near the Porta I (1181) that sits right on top of the hill, collina or rupe, under which, deep below is Demeter’s Sanctuary. The church itself is built upon the very foundation stones of Demeter’s Temple of ancient Greek times. You can still see the foundations under the church. What an amazing accretion of structures built upon the archetype of Demeter.
When I stood next to Church of San Biagio and asked the elderly Pan-like keeper “Dov’è il Sanctuario di Demetre Rupestre?”, he pointed emphatically to the earth upon which we both stood, “E qui!” He meant that deep below our feet in the chthonic depths of the hill is her sanctuary. I was astonished at first, that all of the above mentioned structures were built over her abode, her grottoes deep below.
He beckoned with eloquent gestures that only Italians have, for me and my wife Evelyn to follow him as he spryly led us down the hewn rock steps. As he did this, he spied two other visitors and directed them, again, with Sicilian motions of hand to go away! He wanted this to be our experience. His name, Alaimo Calogero. He will always be in my mind as the quardian-keeper of Demeter’s Sanctuary.
Once we arrived at the bottom of the steps, he pointed out two grottoes cut into the face of the rock cliff, the rupe. He said that they went back into the cliff about 80 meters, and that they had been occupied from Neolithic times. About 10,000 artifacts were found there, some of which are now in the museums in Palermo and Syracuse.
These artifacts are significantly meaningful because they were in the form of small ceramic vessels, vases and womb-like forms that were offered to Demeter for the conception, birth, and health of prayed for children; “the yield of Demeter”. Demeter is the archetype of the Mother Earth, the Lady in the Seed, the Source of all Creation. Her archetype was worshipped at Eleusis in Greece and later at Enna in Sicily. Demeter is central to Mediterranean mystery worship.
Everybody knows about Demeter’s daughter Persephone and how she was abducted by Hades and taken down to the underworld, into the deep earth. After her abduction she was allowed to live part of the time above ground with her mother Demeter (I suppose they “worked it out” after much arguing). This story further intensifies the chthonic nature of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Chthonic, Italian ‘ctonio’ simply means of the earth.
Today, the entrance to the grottoes is a jumble of ominous, empty sarcophagi and stone basins. Water once flowed from the grottoes and people bathed in it, and, they also liked being buried near there. People wanted to be there in life and in death.
The Sanctuary is an isolated place, and few take the time and effort to find it. There is, as yet, no McDonald’s. So, the silence, peace, and calm, are blessed at the grotto area. There is a living presence of Demeter at base of the rupe. I hope it always remains inviolable. Certainly, Signore Calogero felt a deep attachment to the place. He was devotedly, protective of it. His tiny stone keeper’s hut up the hill had many snapshots of him with teacher and professors, students of the humanities, writers, and devotees of the archetypal.
The mythology books make reference to St. John— “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much life”; something evocative of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, and their tale.
I remember the scurrying lizards, and the tiny pink and white wild flowers growing from the cracks in the broken sarcophagi. Il Signor Calogero gave me and my wife an enduring gift, molti anni fa.