Gods and Cults 

Valley of the Temples

The sacred places of Akragas

The deities of Akragas
We do not know to which deities the Doric temples – known by their conventional names of Juno, Concordia, Hercules, and Vulcan – of the southern hill were dedicated. Certainly, however, the construction of the beautiful buildings on the southern hill of the city was certainly part of a single and coherent programme, implemented throughout the fifth century BC, which exploited the dramatic potential of the rocky ridge overlooking the sea. Akragas offered sailors a singular spectacle of beauty and an unequivocal message of power: a city held in the close embrace of its gods. According to the testimony of Cicero, not far from the Forum there was a temple of Hercules, where there a statue of the god  consumed by the kisses of the faithful, who determinedly resisted the heinous attempt of Verre to seize the simulacrum. But we do not know if the temple mentioned by Cicero is the same as the temple conventionally called by this name. The orator also tells us of a temple dedicated to the god of medicine, which the Romans called Aesculapius and the Greeks Asclepius, where there was a beautiful bronze statue of Apollo carved by Myron. Archaeologists have identified a sanctuary of Asclepius on the plain to the south of the city, beyond the walls, built in the fourth century BC.

So-called Temple of Juno

So-called Temple of Concordia

So-called Temple of Hercules

So-called Temple of Hercules illuminated

So-called Temple of Vulcan

Sanctuary of Asclepius, god of medicine, built in the fourth century BC to the south of the city, outside the walls

 The Rape of Persephone
Hail daughter of Persephone! Thus Pindar, the great Theban lyric poet, guest of the tyrant Theron at the beginning of the fifth century BC, addressed Akragas, calling it the most beautiful city of mortals. No wonder, in a community that owed all its wealth and power to the proceeds of a flourishing agriculture, that there would be filial devotion and gratitude to the protective deities of the earth and its productive cycles, the most venerated in Sicily, according to the testimony of Cicero. It was the smile of Demeter, the mother of Persephone, which made crops flourish, the fields fertile the hard labour of man fruitful. The myth tells of the kidnapping of the young Persephone in Enna by Hades, god of the underworld, who carried her into the afterlife to make her his bride. A desperate Demeter lit two torches in the crater of Etna, and searched all over Sicily for her missing daughter. The sadness of the goddess had an impact on the earth, everything becoming dry, arid and barren. At this point Zeus intervened, imposing a compromise: Persephone, who had linked her fate inextricably to the realm of the dead by eating seven seeds from the hellish pomegranate fruit, would return to her mother for only half the year. These are the six months in which the earth flourishes, cheered by the joy of the goddess and coinciding with spring and summer. For the rest of the year, autumn and winter, the fields sleep and do not give fruit. This is how the ancients explained the changing seasons. 

Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities. The circular altar and the temple.

Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities. Doric temple rebuilt in 800.

Sanctuaries and feasts of Demeter
The cult of Demeter and Persephone, also known as Kore, that is young girl, is documented in Akragas by the monumental sacred area in the western part of the southern hill, known as the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities. Here stood two Doric temples, one of which was partially rebuilt in 800 and is known by the name of Castor and Pollux, along with rectangular and circular altars where sacrifices were offered to the goddesses. At dusk during the feasts of Thesmophoria, women with torch in hand recalling Demeter's search brought suckling pigs in procession, which were then sacrificed. The ritual lasted three days, during which the sadness of the goddess was evoked through fasting, until rebirth on the last day. There are hundreds of terracotta statuettes from the sanctuary of offerers with torch and pig, probably votive offerings for the goddesses, made in the figurine workshops of the city, and which are on display today at the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento. Perhaps the temple located on the eastern slopes of the Atenea cliff was also dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, where the Romanesque church of San Biagio was later built. Numerous oil lamps, attesting to midnight rites, have come from this area, where two circular altars remain. Dug into the rocky ridge, a few metres further down, there are some caves and constructions for water, certainly linked to a sacred context of the classical age. Female clay busts – probably of the Nymphs, minor deities who protected nature, the woods and the springs – have been found here. According to the theory of the four elements developed by Empedocles, the great Akragantine philosopher of the fifth century BC, alongside the deities of air, earth and fire – Hera, Hades and Zeus – is the nymph Nestis, the Akragantine goddess of water.

Circular altar at the Temple of Demeter on the eastern slopes of the acropolis

Church of San Biagio. Detail of the crawlspace foundations of the Greek temple dedicated to Demeter

Temple of Demeter. The altars

Church of San Biagio built on the foundations of the temple of Demeter on the eastern slopes of the Rock of Athena

Zeus and Athena in Akragas
Ancient sources recall two temples on the acropolis of Akragas, the highest part of the city where the most important cults were worshipped. Here stood the temple of Zeus Atabyrios, erected by the cruel tyrant Phalaris, and the temple of Athena, two divinities of the pantheon of the island of Rhodes, where a group of the colonists who founded the city came from. Among them were the Emminidi, the descendants of Theron, the tyrant who brought the city to the apogee of its power and who built the temple dedicated to Athena, the remains of which have been identified under the mediaeval Greek Church of Santa Maria dei Greci on the hill of Girgenti. Theron is also responsible for the construction of the Olympieion, one of the largest temples of antiquity, the remains of which are a few metres away from the so-called temple of Hercules. Built to celebrate the victory over the invading Carthaginians at Himera in 480 BC, the temple, with its unusual proportions, was a veritable manifesto of propaganda for the power of the tyrant's power. Alongside the imposing thirty-metre high columns there were telamons, giant figures which were mythical representations of defeated enemies. Theron, like Zeus, who had blocked the attempt of the giants to overthrow his power, had stopped the invading barbarian on the same day on which, as the ancients loved to repeat, the Panhellenic army had defeated the invading Persians in Greece.

The imposing ruins of the temple dedicated to Olympian Zeus

Monumental altar placed to the east of the Temple of Zeus

Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Giusi Messina.
General Coordination: Giuseppe Parello, Director of Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples.
Texts: Maria Serena Rizzo and Valentina Caminneci
Photos: Emanuele Simonaro, Fabio Florio, Angelo Pitrone.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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