The Legend's Of The Moorish Heads

Sicily is a place full of myths, legends and love. There are many love stories associated with the island, both fact and fiction. From stories of nymphs and river gods from Greek mythology, love struck Hollywood movie stars, books written by some of the worlds most famous literary authors and operas that depict lives of lost loves and loveless marriages. Some stories have happy endings and some not so happy endings. Then there is the legends of Le Teste di Moro, the Legends of the Moorish Heads. A unique story to Sicily of love, betrayal, revenge and basil. Yes that's right basil.

Sicily is also a place well known for its beautiful and colourful ceramics and as you walk around towns and villages one of the most popular examples you will see are the beautiful ceramic heads of Moorish characters, especially if you look up at balconies where some will be overflowing with plants. You will also see a lot of these heads for sale in ceramic shops. Many people ask me what the significance is and I tell them that there are two versions of the story.

Muslim Moors, who first invaded the island in 652 AD, seized control of the entire island from the Byzantine Empire in a prolonged series of conflicts from 827 and the conquest was finally completed in 902 with the fall of Taormina. An Arab-Byzantine culture developed producing a multilingual state and the Moors made Palermo their capital.

The first story of the Moorish heads starts in the Arabic quarter of Palermo known today as La Kalsa.

The Arabs established their government in this area with its narrow winding streets which later became a densely populated residential area called "Al Hàlisah" which means the pure or the chosen.

Around the year AD 1000 in this area there lived a beautiful young maid with fair skin and eyes that matched the colour of the Sicilian blue sea. She led a quiet life and dedicated all her attention to her beloved plants and flowers on her balcony.

One day a young Moor was walking along the alleys of La Kalsa and looked up to the balconies where he saw the beautiful maid and fell in love at first sight. He instantly decided that without her he could not live and did not hesitate to enter her house and declare his love for her. The girl was struck with so much passion for her exotic suitor and welcomed and returned his love readily. The couple began a passionate love affair however the young man concealed a heavy secret in his heart.

One day the maid found out that the Moor would have to leave her to return to the Middle East where a wife and children were waiting for him. The heartbroken girl wailed for hours until night fall, filled with feelings of hurt and betrayal. She was then filled with such an anger that it led her to take the path of revenge.

After night fall when the Moor had fallen into a deep sleep she killed him by cutting of his head, but after doing so decided that the face that she had loved should always be by her side, so she made his head into a plant pot and placed a shoot of basil in it, thereby despite her terrible foolish deed she could continue her love for him by caring for the plant.

Basil was known in ancient times as a regal plant. The Greeks and Romans believed that it was associated with hatred and according to belief the plant had to be sown while swearing and ranting, which I am sure she probably did. In ancient Egypt the plant was a symbol of mourning and used during the embalming of mummies.

Soon the maids grief stricken tears from crying so much watered the basil and it grew big and lush arousing the admiration and the envy of other residents in La Kalsa who went to a local ceramic artist and asked for vases that looked similar. Since that time people wanted Moor head shaped terracotta vases to plant their basil in. Today every Moorish head that is sculpted by hand in Sicily has a crown as a remembrance of this regal plant.

The second version of the story relates to a Sicilian girl of noble origin who lived a clandestine life of love with a young Moor but their forbidden love was soon discovered and they were both punished by being beheaded by her brothers. The shame of their affair was shown as a warning to others by displayed their heads on their balcony and this is the reason why the Moorish heads are usually made in pairs.

More recently the design of the heads have been made popular and brought to fame in the fashion industry by the designers Dolce and Gabbana. Domenico Dolce was born in Sicily and the duo have always used inspiration from Sicily for their collections and a while ago dedicated an entire collection which included the Moorish heads printed onto fabric and shaped into jewellery.

The popularity of the heads is now so well known as a iconic symbol of Sicily that they are now also regularly used as props at weddings and events on the island and you will literally see them everywhere.

The original pots were life sized but nowadays they are made in every size, even as egg cups and there are many modern versions too. The town most famous for making these heads is Caltagirone, the city of ceramics. The name itself Caltagirone derives from an Arabic word meaning the Castle or Fortress of the vases.

So next time you are walking the alleyways and streets of Sicily look up and think of the tragic love story of the Moor and the Sicilian girl.

If you enjoyed this Legend then you might
 enjoy these two posts from my archive:

Mount Etna & The Legend of King Arthur
Persephone's Island

Moorish Photo Gallery


Basil the Royal Herb

Mavi Bikini
I would love to introduce you all to a very talented lady called Martina Vintaloro founder of Mavi Bikini.
Originally from Siracusa but now living in London, all her bikinis are designed by herself drawing inspiration from all things Sicilian, most of them are created from illustrations designed by Martina using pencil and watercolours then she prints her illustrations onto Lycra and after that she sews her bikinis together. She is really lovely too. 
The Bikinis are FABULOUS and Perfect for your holiday
in Sicily or in fact anywhere in the world.
I am in love with this bikini with the Moorish head print,what do you think? 
Check out her ETSY page for more designs

(Photo Credit: Mavi Bikini)

Thank you for following me atWhite Almond Sicily BlogSpot
I am also a contributor
For NEW Blog updates and all things SicilianFollow me on …Facebook
For Travel Tips, Trip Advice, Recommendationsor if you would just like to share something with meEmail me on [email protected]
Love Sarah & Daisy???