The town Erice (pronounced Èh-ree-chay) is named for Eryx (or Eros), the mythical son of the goddess Venus and her lover, King Bute of the ancient Elimi tribe (NB that makes the Greco-Roman hero Aeneas his half-brother.). Erice boasts a 12th century Norman castle (pictured), known as Il Castello di Venere or the Castle of Venus, which was built from reclaimed materials of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the goddess of love, the Temple of Venus Idalium (Idalium is an ancient city in Cyprus, from where cult of Aphrodite originated).
For centuries, those seeking carnal blessings and success with procreation would make their way to the secluded top of Mount Eryx, 2460 feet above sea level, to this magnificent promontory overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Significantly, long before the Romans constructed their temple, perhaps in the late third century BCE, the site was dedicated to the ancient Elymi tribe’s mother goddess of fertility: Potnia, some historians say as far back as 1300 BCE.
When the Phoenicians-Carthaginians ruled Erice, the sacred spot was dedicated to Astarte or Ishtar, their goddess of love, fertility, and war. For a time, the site was dedicated to the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, and beauty, Aphrodite; however, once the Romans conquered western Sicily definitively in 241 BCE, seeing a hallowed connection through their hero Aeneas (son of Aphrodite/Venus), they brought the complex to its full glory.
Throughout the centuries, priestesses of the goddess of love practiced the art of sacred sexual rites here, where pilgrims journeyed to the summit of Mount Eryx to honor the goddess. According to the Blue Guide Sicily, “Neither Strabo nor any other ancient source gives particulars of the situation at Erice but this has not prevented persistent rumour: that the girls were initiated at the age of 12 or 13 after being trained in the art of lovemaking; that they retired at 21, rich and were much sought-after as wives; that visitors to the temple were expected to leave gifts for the girls in exchange for the sexual act, during which it was believed they assumed the guise of the goddess herself; and that the girls were fed on large quantities of milk and honey to make them pleasantly fat. It is also said that they seldom conceived, perhaps because they were made to drink a concoction of hemlock and parsley root specially prepared by priests.”
Fast forward to the 12th century, when according to The Time Travelers Guide Sicily (Alio and Mendola), Arab geographer Idrisi observed that the women in Erice were among the most beautiful in Sicily.
An ancient Roman coin depicting Venus and her Temple on its rocky promontory at Erice