Erice and Custonaci’s Mother Goddess


This week of Ferragosto in Erice, they are venerating their patron saint, the Madonna di Custonaci (pictured), with their annual week-long Festa della Madonna. It’s important to know that Ferragosto is another name for The Assumption, the feast celebrating when the Virgin Mother ascended to Heaven. In other words, there are feasts for the Madonna throughout this mid-summer season.

Earlier this week, I showed you the Black Madonna of Castellamare del Golfo. Erice is not far from Castellamare del Golfo and its nearby ancient site Segesta. Both towns are in Trapani province, and both trace their civilizations to the pre-Pheonician/pre-Greek Elimi people. Let’s also remember that Erice possesses the Norman Castello di Venere, or Castle of Venus, which was built on top of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love… and before that, the same site was dedicated to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite; and before that to the Carthaginian goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war, Astarte; and before that to the Elimi tribe’s mother goddess of nature and fertility, Potnia. The region has a long history of sensual goddess worship. Knowing all of this: is it any surprise that Erice’s patron saint is the Madonna? Furthermore, notice the color of her skin. … I think there’s a theme here about Black Madonnas. And although the modern clergy at Erice’s mother church may tell you that the painting is discolored because of years of incense burning, I say, question them. The people of Erice love their mother goddess: a sensual goddess of love and fertility with roots to times long before the birth of Christ.

Let’s also consider how this particular iconography of this Madonna, officially called the Madonna di Custonaci, arrived at Erice. Custonaci is a town down the mountain from Erice. Legend is, that in the early 15th century, this painting of the Virgin and Child Jesus came on a ship from Alexandria, Eygpt. The sailors had miraculously survived a storm, having landed on the beach at Custonaci, and they voted to leave the painting as thanks to the Madonna for delivering them ashore safely. It is well-known among scholars (and locals!) that the Catholic clergy during 1400s were seeking a way to transfer the citizens cult worship of Venus to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Additionally, the painting’s origins, as having come from the sea, connect it further to the goddess Venus, who was born from sea foam on Cyprus (which like Alexandria, is a far-away place in the East). So, let’s this week celebrate the Madonna di Custonaci with the citizens of Erice and Custonaci, while also recognizing her origins and all she represents.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Petriano says:

    Thank you for the fascinating background to this painting.

    1. You are welcome Tom! It was a treat for me to spend the time to put all of these pieces together–all of the “flags” that point to the mysteries behind black madonnas that miraculously appeared during medieval times (a time of change from the mystery cults to Christianity) and then of course, the long tradition of the cults before this particular one. Erice is a magical place, high on a mountain with sweeping views of the Tyrrhenian sea. The earth’s power is so present everywhere you look from its heights, and it inspires love and appreciation for life immediately. There is no wonder why its citizens were devoted to such goddesses.

  2. Brian Walsh says:

    Really enjoyed all of the historical, religious, and cultural meanings related to this painting. The painting not only demonstrates the beauty and sensuality of the Madonna, but the power of femininity as she breastfeeds her infant. In the role as Mother, she nurtures and protects.

    1. But importantly Brian, she represents a sensual, powerful mother–a different image than the white, pure virginal mother most often portrayed by the Church.

  3. Beth Caruso says:

    Hello Allison! Thank you so much for this history lesson. My family comes from Erice. During the time they lived there it was known as the village of Monte San Giuliano. They long held great respect for the Madonna in all her forms.

    1. Allison Scola says:

      Thank you Beth, for letting me know! I’d love to hear more about their veneration!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.