Sicily is an island so imbued with myth and legend we thought it might be useful if we took a look at the main characters involved in any Trinacrian mythology; particularly keeping a weather eye on how they relate to each other in that complex Greco-Roman family we have all inherited. It wasn’t so long ago that these legends formed the cornerstone of much western education. Sadly, as with so many of our European and American compatriots, the classical past wasn’t part of our formative years. Therefore, we make no claim that the following will be exhaustive; it’s simply a list of the protagonists who have piqued our interest in the course of much literary research.
Where better to start than with a family tree of the Greek gods. By the way, for those of you wondering what Greece has to do with Sicilian affairs, remember that at the height of Magna Grecian power in the 5th century BCE, Syrakousai (Syracuse) equalled Athens in size and wealth. We know these genealogical lineages can get extremely complicated, in life as in mythology, so we’ve kept it simple. Missing out the all-encompassing Chaos and a good few other layers, let’s take a look at who begat whom. Remember, it’s best not to forget that we’re all sons and daughters of Chaos, not just Luigi Pirandello!
There is just one proviso; for every story, you encounter a myriad variety of versions, with the supposed parents changing more rapidly than a Venezuelan soap opera. We hope Zeus will forgive us for messing around with the hierarchies a bit.
Now let’s delve a little deeper and see if we can unearth some of the stories at the heart of this complex web. Rising from the chaotic void was Gaia, or mother-earth. This belief is something of a touchstone for many cultures: in Latin America she would be fused with Demeter’s agricultural fertility to form Pachamama.
Gaia’s union with Uranus, the sky-father, produced much of the Pantheon we know today. They also experimented by producing some more esoteric offspring, including Aetna herself and the Cyclopes, who found the mountain’s slopes a suitable home. The one-eyed Cyclopes were instilled with great strength, and, to coin a northern English expression, a somewhat mardy disposition. In an act reminiscent of a yet to be Shakespeare, Uranus, the fearful father, had them thrown into Tartarus, an Ancient Greek Ucciardone with even more abysmal depths. Like habitual criminals, they ping-ponged in and out of the stygian gloom, to be freed finally by Zeus in one of his more beneficent moods. Essentially, they were repaid for their nifty craftsmanship, as Steropes and Co were the go-to creators of Zeus’ weapon of choice, the thunderbolt.
Our cyclopean story becomes more familiar with the arrival of Homer and his Odyssey. Imprisoned in a cave by Polyphemus, the hero Odysseus escapes the drunken Cyclops (good old Dionysus) by driving a wooden stake into Polyphemus’ only eye. The understandably miffed giant calls to his fellows, believing that a man called Nobody has attacked him. Needless to say, help is unforthcoming. The enraged Cyclops decides his only course of action is to throw rocks at the smug hero’s fleeing boat. These very rocks are still visible off the coast of Acitrezza on Sicily’s east coast. By way of an aside, Polyphemus’ father wasn’t Uranus, but Poseidon. The procreation of mono-ocular bipeds was a rather popular pastime on Mount Olympus.
We have already mentioned Dionysus in parentheses above; his association with a drunken Cyclops being a clue to his particular proclivities. Not to be confused with the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius (the i makes all the difference), Dionysus was the god of wine. To confuse things further, he often appears in his Roman guise, Bacchus. The wine makers of Planeta and Corvo have a lot to thank him for, or more specifically his smuggling activities. Typically, in the world of backbiting gods, Zeus (him again) and Semele had a passionate affair leading to her pregnancy. Some say the mortal at the centre of his affections was Armonia; anyway, the harmony didn’t last and Zeus was rumbled by his spouse, Hera. Convinced by said Hera, Semele/Armonia requested the presence of Zeus in all his pomp and circumstance. The shock sent her into premature labour.
The upshot of this early birth was Dionysus, son of Zeus, and a real party animal. Fleeing the old country, he smuggled a grape vine inside various creatures, starting with a bird and ending with a donkey. According to some, these unusual methods of transportation follow the stages of inebriation. How true – don’t we all end up behaving like asses!! To cut a long story short, the hidden vine, which had miraculously kept on growing, was finally planted near Naxos. The Sicilians took to the ensuing beverage like ducks to water, or should that be Nelson to Marsala.
Demeter and Persephone (Ceres and Proserpina)
We know from an earlier paragraph that Demeter is the goddess of fertility and the harvest. Her story is inextricably linked with Enna, where she is known by the Roman name, Cerere (Ceres). For those wanting a complete account of the legend, we have written more fully about her and her daughter elsewhere on this site (https://timesofsicily.com/ennas-mythical-past/). Here’s the potted history. Demeter had a daughter, Persephone, who liked nothing more than to gather flowers by the side of Lake Pergusa. This seemingly harmless pastime was bursting with latent threat: Hades, the god of the underworld who controlled the realms of the dead, was watching unnoticed and he wasn’t a nice guy. The Romans knew him as Pluto, but as that is too reminiscent of a Disney character, we’ll stick to Hades.
Driven by lust, Hades abducted Persephone and dragged her down into hell. It’s a bit tricky being flippant about this myth, as the poor mother, Demeter, was driven mad trying to find the whereabouts of her missing daughter. She became so engrossed in the desperate search she neglected her harvest duties and the island went to hell in a hand-basket. Aided by Arethusa’s waters, Persephone was found. Zeus, in a good mood again, brokered a deal – her release was reliant on fasting, why we know not. The young lass paid no heed and bit into a pomegranate… Her fate was sealed. A compromise was clearly needed, the outcome of which was Persephone spending six months in the dark and six in the light. Still reeling from this, Demeter continues, even today, to withhold her largesse for part of the year.
Alpheus and Arethusa
Somebody should have really slapped a restraining order on these machista Greek gods. This next story concerns Alpheus, the river god, unsurprisingly the son of Oceanus and his wife Tethys, a sea goddess. As the nymph, Arethusa, bathed in Alpheus’ waters, he got very sweaty under the collar – unable to contain his passion any longer he made his intentions very clear. To escape, Arethusa became a stream, and was permitted underground passage by her patroness, Artemis. The nymph surfaced on the island of Ortygia at the end of what would become Via Capodieci. The walled Fonte Aretusa, more of a spring than a fountain, is still filled by her waters.
The story doesn’t end there, however, as the overly persistent Alpheus plunged across the Ionian and mingled with Arethusa on her new island home. As if by reprimand, the nymph used her aqueous beauty to help Demeter in her search for that other victim of male entitlement, Persephone. And if you believe Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alph the sacred river ran all the way to Xanadu.
Scylla and Charybdis
Ultimately springing from the watery loins of Poseidon, as granddaughter and daughter, Scylla and Charybdis guard the troublesome Straits of Messina, which separate Sicily from the Continent. The monster, Scylla, is found on the Calabrian side and, according to Homer, was the less dangerous of the two. Perhaps her most ferocious genes skipped a generation, although that didn’t stop her devouring six of Odysseus’ crew when he made the perilous journey through the Straits.
Charybdis lives in a smaller rock and sucked sailors to their death through a whirling vortex of water. Somebody has actually made the calculation that her mouth must have been 23 metres across in order to vacuum up the kind of sea-worthy vessel that Homeric heroes would have used. Sailors are a great source of argot and slang; from such sources we get ‘can’t swing a cat’, i.e. ‘can’t swing a whip with nine strands’ and ‘keep your powder dry’. It was a foregone conclusion that they would adopt ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’ to mean something akin to ‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea’.
No doubt the troublesome twosome has a close eye on any bridge building plans. The appearance of a structure spanning the Straits will put pay to any further four course meals, mercifully a rare treat these days, owing to technological advancements in seafaring.
Aeolus and his bag of wind
There are in fact three Aeoluses (plural uncertain!) and the ancients were as confused about their myths as we have certainly been. For the purposes of our description, we’re going to stick with the son of Hippotes; Hippotes being a mortal who begat this Keeper of the Winds. Aeolus lived on the appropriately named Aeolia, now associated with the Aeolian or Lipari Islands off the northern coast of Sicily. Like the hospitable fellow he was, Aeolus was happy to welcome and accommodate Odysseus and his men for over a month. If this feat of xenophilia wasn’t enough, he presented the departing Greek with a gift of immense value, a west wind to guide him safely home to Ithaca.
In order to ensure that all the other zephyrs, siroccos and mistrals were kept safely at bay, he bagged them in a leather pouch tied with strong cord. You can just imagine the conflict inside, with icy blasts competing against sand-laden Arabian khamsins for the right to burst Odysseus’ bubble; a veritable bag of mewling felines. In the end it was curiosity that killed this particular cat. When his inquisitive crew let the cord loose, the unfortunate ship was blown all the way back to a rather grumpy Aeolus. Once bitten twice shy, our blustery guardian shunned their requests for further assistance.
To paraphrase The Beatles, so ends our brief magical mythical tour. If anyone has got any further nuggets of legendary folklore, we’d love to hear them.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains.’
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.
They are both available worldwide. Click the covers below to view them on Amazon:-