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The Sanctuary of Mephitis

The sanctuary of the goddess Mephitis is located near Rocca San Felice, in the Ansanto valley, at a short distance from the Fredane, a tributary of the Calore river. As documented by ancient sources, among which the most important is Virgil, the sanctuary was the most venerated place of worship for the ancient Irpini people. A decisive factor in establishing the sacredness of the area was the presence of a lake of bubbling water that emanates strong fumes. The ancient population believed these exhalations to be dangerous and, therefore, linked to underworld. According to one interpretation, the very name of the goddess of fertility and death, Mephitis, signifies "she who is in between": in other words, she who puts in communication the worlds of gods, of men and of the dead. Archaeological exploration of the area was begun by V. M. Santoli (1736-1804) in the 18th century and was continued in 1950's by G. O. Onorato. the many objects unearthed from the deposit of votive offerings are now housed in the Museum of Irpinia. The preciousness of the gifts brought to the temple by the pilgrims is proof of the importance of this place of worship and of the reverence that it inspired. These gifts consist of various types of ex voto, all datable to the period from the VI century B.C to the I century AD. they include small statues of men and women in the act of praying, small bronzes, gold fibulae or brooches, small pieces of jewelry in amber, such as a necklace and three scarab amulets. Of great archaeological interest are the so-called xoana, wooden torso-shaped sculptures, that have remained in excellent state of conservation thanks to the peculiar local conditions. Among these sculptures, particular mention must be made of the great xoanon, a statue of unusual height which, in all probability, is a cult figure: its profile shaped by an ample "S" suggestive of the body structure, the figure is characterized by two lines that cross and overlap at the upper part of the torso, simulating the outline of a cloak pinned to the breast as in the ancient Italic custom. Successive archaeological excavations conducted in the 1970's by B. D'Agostino and J. Rainini has brought to light a number of structures from the Hellenistic period. these finds are the relics of an altar, a portico and other remnants of buildings that are datable up to the period of the Roman conquest. these remains testify of the persistence of the cult of Mephitis which gradually come to be superseded, then was definitively supplanted by the Christian worship of St. Felicity.

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