The first Crusades of the 11th century gave the Normans a taste not only for conquest but also for chivalry. The first appetite they gratified in southern Italy, Sicily and England, the second in a strict code of honour and in the deeds of King Arthur, Charlemagne and Roland, ‘Orlando’ in Italian. Their new Sicilian subjects devoured the tales, and came to look upon the Norman kingdom as a Golden Age; the Normans stayed and built palaces, while none of Sicily’s subsequent rulers even bothered to visit, leaving the day-to-day corruption to viceroys and petty officials.
Dogged by centuries of injustice and misrule, the Sicilians preserved the Norman code of honour amongst themselves. Even the poorest illiterate could follow the adventures of Carlomagno’s paladins in the opera dei pupi, or puppet theatre, where the moral of the story is always the same: a man’s most important possession is his honour. And as the law of the land and its enforcers failed to defend honour or property, landowners hired companies of armed men (compagnie d’armi) to do it for them. Because of their extralegal status and the need for secrecy, the penalty for any affront, large or trivial, was the same: death. The fact that the landowners were nearly always absent from their country estates left the compagnie d’armi free to cross over into the brigandry they were supposed to fight. The Mafia was only a step away.
The origins of the name ‘Mafia’ are said to be the Arabic for protection, mu’afah. Old-style Sicilians traditionally prefer euphemisms such as the amici (friends) or the onorata società (the ‘honoured society’). Until relatively recently, the Mafia’s activities were limited to the western half of Sicily, where feudal agricultural estates survived the longest. And, for a long time, the Mafia preserved some rudiments of chivalry; even the most powerful dons led austere lives, donated large sums to charity, assisted the needy, and came down heavily on freelance crime.
But what useful purpose the Mafia may have once served in downtrodden Sicily was always balanced by its sinister stranglehold: it has always been ruthlessly efficient, murderously vindictive, diverse and hard to pin down. The Italians compare it to the many-headed Hydra or octopus, piovra, who grew a new head or limb whenever one was lopped off. The only person who came close to destroying the monster was Mussolini, who didn’t like the competition. The Mafia’s hatred of the Fascists made it a strange bedfellow for the Allies, and the collaboration of the US Army and the Mafia under the auspices of Lucky Luciano has already become Italian folklore. Liberation for benighted Sicily meant the return of ‘the friends’.
Immediately after the Second World War both the teatro dei pupi and the old Mafia suffered a decline: both had become anachronisms. New roads, money and jobs were transforming Sicily, and no one cared for the old code of honour; money, a scarcity before, became the new criterion of respect. But while the knightly puppets are now benign folklore, the new Americanized urban Mafia nefariously adapted to the times, infiltrating the government and raking off building funds, expanding protection rackets and, like the American Cosa Nostra, delving into gambling, prostitution and, most notoriously, heroin – activities the old dons would have shunned.
What has also changed are the attitudes of the Sicilians – now that the Mafia has devoted itself wholeheartedly to crime, its latent support has been replaced by a sense of shame and revulsion; the ‘friends’ have irrevocably become the enemies of the just and honourable. Their poison threatens all of Italy despite the brave efforts of anti-Mafia squads, commissions and judges, the paladins of our day who thwack off one head of the monster after another, and are themselves often the targets of assassination and intimidation. Like the puppet shows, each performance leaves spectators hanging in the air, waiting for the next episode.
…they neither plow
nor sow by hand, nor till the ground, though grain –
wild wheat and barley – grows untended, and
wine-grapes, in clusters, ripen in heaven’s rain.
— Odyssey, Book 9
In the 8th century bc, about the time when the Homeric epics were taking the form in which we know them, the Greeks were scouting the coasts of Sicily for settlement. Old legends of Cyclopes and cannibal Laestrygones could not frighten them away, for, as everyone knew, Sicily was the earthly paradise, where the crops grew of their own accord and the scent of the flowers was so thick and strong that hunting dogs could not follow a trace.
According to the Sicilian-born writer Diodorus Siculus (c.90–21 bc), in the 1st century bc wild wheat could still be found on the rich plains around Lentini (that would be rare: after wild wheat, or emmer somehow mutated into modern wheat 10,000 years ago in Palestine, wild wheat practically died out ). Grain had been the special gift of Demeter, goddess of the earth, to the island she loved more than any other. The aboriginal Sikans claimed that she had once lived among them, and besides their food she had also given them their laws. By whatever name she had among them, the Greek settlers recognized the similarity of the ancient Sicilian goddess to their Demeter, the golden-haired sister of Zeus.
The Sikans must have had some other tales that rang a bell with the Greeks. In fact, the Sikans knew the very place where Kore (Persephone), Demeter’s daughter, had been carried off by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Everyone knows this story. Young Kore had been picking flowers on the shore of Lago di Pergusa, near Enna. Her Uncle Hades, who had heard of her beauty, broke through the earth with his chariot and carried her off, returning down below by way of the fountain of Cyane, near Syracuse. Her distraught mother, not knowing what had happened, roamed the Earth in search of the girl. When she was told by the one witness to the rape, Triptolemus the shepherd, she was so angry that she forbade the fruits of the earth to grow. The land became barren; men were dying and the gods of Olympus no longer received the honour of their sacrifices. Zeus commanded Kore’s return, and Hades agreed, provided the maiden had not tasted any of the food of the underworld during her stay. But those seven seeds of the pomegranate Kore tasted did her in; in the divine compromise that was worked out, Kore and Demeter would be reunited, but Kore would have to return to Hades for three months of the year. Thus the barren season – although in the Mediterranean this is not the mild green winter but the wretchedly dry late summer after the grain harvest. Go to Sicily in September and you’ll understand.
As in so many Greek myths, there is a good deal of late literary embroidery here, superimposed on ancient faith. Along with all the other female deities of the Mediterranean, Demeter and Kore were originally not so much mother and daughter as they were aspects of the same transcendent Great Goddess: Demeter at harvest, and Kore at the anodos, the ‘rising of the maiden’ in the late autumn (or spring, in cooler climes), when life returns to the Earth. Keep her in mind, for she is the necessary protagonist of this or any other book about Sicily.
In all of the island’s Greek cities there were numerous temples – most, in that increasingly secular age, little more than civic monuments, treasuries or public art galleries. The one that counted, the only one that inspired any real religious emotion, was outside the walls, the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, where archaeologists find thousand upon thousand of ceramic ex-voto offerings. On this most religiously conservative of islands she survived the coming of Christianity to reappear as the Virgin Mary: the festival processions, with her image on a cart, or perhaps a maiden of the village on a white horse, differ little from those of two millennia or more ago.
And so she presides over the eternal Sicilian melancholy; you may feel her mourning for her lost daughter, or son, for everything that has been lost or spoilt over the centuries. The wild flowers and the rich crops still come each year without fail; Sicily’s abundance makes its historic poverty that much harder to understand. There’s no reason to think that the contradictions will cease until some greater anodos brings a saner life and culture to the island. Abundance and poverty, brilliant sunlight and sinister shadows, almond blossoms and death.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls