Question: Where in the world did priests, prostitutes, and livestock share an ongoing party fit for the gods?
Answer: The Temple of Venus in Erice, Sicily, Italy
The Temple of Venus, perched 2,500 feet above sea level in Sicilian Erice, was known far and wide in the Mediterranean kingdoms as a fertility hotspot. Historians can’t say exactly how long there has been a temple to the goddess of love here, though the Romans liked to claim that Venus’s son Aeneas himself established it. In truth, the clifftop shrine changed hands and namesake goddesses several times over hundreds of years—Potnia for the fifth-century Elymians, then Astarte for the Phoenicians, Aphrodite for the Greeks, and Venus for the Romans.
In all manifestations, one thing was sure: procreation, recreation, and inspiration were inextricably entwined. So-called “sacred prostitution” made the joys of the flesh the stuff of religious ritual overseen by cultic priests, and the prostitutes enjoyed chambers right in the temple. It was such an intoxicating atmosphere that one second-century author wrote that sacrificial animals happily walked themselves up to the altar.
But the heady heyday of the temple was fated to pass. After Romans let the site’s conditions deteriorate, the following Arab rulers ignored it almost entirely. And, in a final blow, 12th-century Norman invaders built a fortress over the remnants of the temple, masking it completely. The new edifice, Castle di Venere as it is now known, is an imposing structure, as somber as the temple was sexy. But Venus got the last laugh: guests may no longer explore the rooms of the castle itself, so most focus on its interior courtyard, once the scene of temple fertility rituals. In that way, a visit to the hilltop is a visit to the goddess once more.
6 More Things Erice is Known For
- Visitors can ascend to the sacred hilltop by the Funivia, a cable-car that rises from nearby Trapani to the town of Erice, offering views all the way to the sea and the distant Egadi islands.
- The Ettore Majorana Center, which specializes in sub-nuclear physics, is a rare scientific center that argues that there is no contradiction between science and the dominant Catholic beliefs.
- Molecular gastronomy, the experimental cooking method that swept the world and nabbed Michelin stars for many a chef at the end of the 20th century, took its name from a workshop in Erice, followed by annual conferences held here on the topic.
- Of the many pasticcerie (pastry shops) in town tempting visitors with Sicilian almond biscuits and marzipan, none are as beloved as Maria Grammatico, immortalized in the international best-seller Bitter Almonds.
- The Duomo is the matriarch of Erice’s six dozen churches. Built in 1312 by King Frederick III, who had hidden in Erice during the War of the Vespers, its 75-foot campanile offers stunning views of the entire region (second only to Venus’s Temple).
- In an example of making lemonade when life gives you lemons, locals came up with the romantic name “Kisses of Venus” to describe the fog and mist that often swirl about the clifftop and obscure the otherwise memorable views.
Get to know this ancient gem of legend when you visit Sicily on our Mediterranean Cultures & Islands: Barcelona to Athens Small Ship Adventure.