Tag Archive: sacred places

Awed in Agrigento

Hubby and I are just back from a trip to Sicily, highlighted by four nights in a lovely B&B with a view of the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. If you’re not familiar with this site, well, you’re not alone. I suspect it’s one of most under-appreciated places in the world — a true candidate for one of the Seven Wonders. The Valley boasts a complex of enormous temples built in the fifth century BCE when the area was a Greek colony. (The Parthenon in Athens was built around the same time.) It’s the largest archaeological site in the world.

At the Valley's best-preserved temple, dedicated -- I'm guessing -- to Athena

At the Valley’s best-preserved temple, dedicated — I’m guessing — to Athena

We entered the archaeological park (10 euros to get in) from the lower end. The first temple we encountered, traditionally ascribed to Castor and Pollux, has only four columns and a corner standing. But as I walked up to the towering reconstructed remains, the beauty of the architecture and the immensity of its purpose brought tears to my eyes. It’s unclear now which deities were worshiped in which temples in the Valley, but votive offerings to Demeter and Persephone show they were important in this zone, and despite extensive robbing out of the structures for Dark-Ages building projects, the sacred atmosphere lingers.

The largest of the temples, in a very poor state, is firmly connected to Zeus. Next up the hill comes Hera’s sanctuary, followed by the best preserved temple, called Concordia (a Roman name, not Greek). Oddly, I haven’t read any theories about which deity it celebrates, but knowing that Roman cities typically had their main sanctuary dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, my guess is “Concordia,” juxtaposed by temples to Zeus and Hera, was dedicated to Athena. 😉

If, like me, you’re a lover of sacred places, Agrigento is a pilgimmage I can’t recommend strongly enough. Also, if you’re interested in Hellenistic religion (and romance!), please check out my time-travel adventure Templum.

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Templum, my new time travel, is up on Kindle and Nook! (Print edition coming soon.) Check it out:

Cover for TemplumAfter losing her job, her boyfriend and her best friend, Brit Colladay thinks she’s hit rock bottom. Then while touring Roman ruins, she’s accidentally transported to the first century. Living as a slave near Pompeii, she fakes a gift of prophecy, but when she predicts Vesuvius will erupt, her owner doesn’t believe her.

Nicomachus, a Roman priest renowned for the “miracles” he engineers, knows a fraud when he sees one, but Brit’s brains and beauty intrigue him, and he’d rather join forces than expose her. In exchange for sharing her tricks, she wants help escaping the upcoming eruption, but helping a slave run away could get him executed.

As time runs out, they try to forge a plan. Is the answer fleeing, traveling through time, or even changing history? And can they stay together, or will survival mean living apart?

Links to Amazon and Barnes and Noble below the cover pic on left. (How do you like the cover? 🙂 )

To find on Amazon, go here.
For the Nookbook, click here.
For the UK Amazon page, use this link;
Amazon Australia, click here;
Amazon Canada, here.

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In my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig, the team excavates an ancient Roman temple complex — but temples weren’t the only place where the ancients worshiped the gods. The household shine or lararium was a central feature in a Roman home, usually located in the atrium or near the kitchen hearth, which was convenient, since offerings of food and drink would be burnt at the shrine.

We don’t know a lot about the symbolism behind the images on these shrines, but vesuvioweb.com, an Italian website, has compiled a gallery of lararium photos from PompeiiInPictures.com, and it’s fascinating to try to decipher them. The most common image is a snake, which represents some sort of deity presiding over the individual house or, according to some sources, the fertility of the land surrounding it. The snake is often shown under the floor level of several figures who are making a sacrifice to it. The underground location reminds me of the idea of a household deity dwelling under the threshold, which, apparently, is why brides are carried into to their new homes. It also makes me think that the snake is an “infernal” deity, related to the dead, rather than the greater gods of the sky. Maybe it somehow represents the family ancestors.

The word lararium is derived from the Lares, twin deities with obscure origins, whose statues are usually displayed in the household shine. Although they look like they’re dancing and joyful, the Lares also seem to have a connection with the dead. According to the poet Ovid, their mother was Lara, a nymph whose tongue was cut out as punishment for revealing Jupiter’s secrets. Mercury escorted her to the underworld, but along the way, he impregnated her, resulting in the birth of the Lares. Roman minds may also have linked the Lares to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome — reinforcing the connection to ancestors.

The website vroma.org notes that in the scene above from a Pompeian lararium, a pig is about to be sacrificed — the proper offering for the Lares — and that the snakes are approaching an altar with eggs on it. Am I the only one who thinks this could be why we have a tradition of having ham and decorated eggs on Easter?

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At one point in my archaeological mystery/romance, The Five-Day-Dig, Chaz speculates that the building he and Winnie are excavating is an ancient purgatorium, like the one (shown below) that visitors to Pompeii can see on the grounds of the Temple of Isis. A purgatorium isn’t as scary as it first may sound. The name has the same root as the word purge, and this type of building was used for ritual cleansing with water from the Nile — sort of a pre-Christian baptism.

Though Isis is an Egyptian goddess, her worship spread to ancient Greece after Alexander conquered Egypt in the fourth century BCE. From there, the goddess reached the Roman Empire. At the time of Vesuvius’ big eruption in the year 79, she was a popular deity, and her temple in Pompeii is the best-preserved one in town. An inscription records that it had been rebuilt after an earthquake about a decade before the eruption.

What made Isis so popular in the Greco-Roman world? Well, she is often pictured with baby Horus — a mother-and-child image that many people are instinctively drawn to. Her mythology as the reassembler of her murdered husband’s body parts also paints her as a devoted wife and connects her to the idea of resurrection and eternal life. She was also a patron deity of sailors, an important occupation in the ancient economy.

The original paintings and sculpture from her temple in Pompeii are now a half-hour away by train in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Wouldn’t you know that Hubby and I missed them while we were there? But that gives us a reason to go back. 🙂

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The ruins in my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig date to the same era as Pompeii, but at Paestum, Italy — an hour farther south by train (€10 or US $13.20 roundtrip) — the ancient ruins are even older, and the lizards are even bigger. 🙂

Although the town’s Greek-colonist founders named it Poseidonia after the god of the seas (“Paestum” is a Roman corruption of that), archaeological evidence shows that residents left most of their votive offerings to the goddess Hera. The mother-and-child statuettes dedicated to her intrigue me, because I’ve never otherwise seen Hera depicted in a motherly fashion, only as Zeus’ jealous consort. And the baby offering shown in the pic to the left looks like a very familiar piece from my Christmas manger (or lararium, as I like to call it).

Paestum’s big attractions are the town’s three huge Greek temples, the earliest dated to 550 BCE. At least one of them was dedicated to Hera, but it’s unclear who was worshiped at the other two — possibly Poseidon and Athena or Ceres. (Strangely, the Wikipedia entry seems to want to avoid attributing any of the temples to the god the town was named after.)

The site is in a very rural setting and a lonely 20-minute walk from the train station. Buy your return train tickets when/where you get your departure ones, because the ticket office in Paestum is often closed, and any shops that might sell tickets are way back near the ruins. When Hubby and I were there, there was also no validation box for tickets at the station, so when you board the train, get the conductor to validate your ticket (or, as a local advised us, just write “Paestum” on it, along with the date and time you left). For practical info about visiting, I recommend Rick Steves’ Italy 2012.

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