Just WHO lives in a house like this? Is it a prison? Is it paradise? Is it the home of the eternal fires of hell? Daft questions? Not if you believe the myths and legends. In a genre obviously prone to hyperbole and bombast, where else but Mount Etna could boast connections with a king, a queen, a philosopher, a one-eyed giant and numerous gods. When considering a piece about Etna’s mythical heritage, the real question is where to start. In the interests of memory, ours that is, we’re going to take a plunge into the crater from our latest departure point – Camelot! Yes, indeed, you did read that correctly, we have evoked the misty Isle of Avalon.
One of us hails from the west of England and is unavoidably steeped in the legend of King Arthur, Camelot, his court, and all the knights of the ubiquitous table. It couldn’t be dodged at school when you lived relatively near to Glastonbury with all its legendary associations. Imagine our surprise when recently perusing a copy of Sicilia esoterica by Marinella Fiume, we came across Mongibello’s associations with Britain’s leading purveyor of knight errantry. In fact, more than one chronicler or fabulist recounts a version of the king ending up in Sicily. The interestingly titled, Gervase of Tilbury (interesting only because Tilbury is now a container port), wrote that Arthur snuck into the Isle of Avalon via a cave in Etna’s side and his tomb still rests there. In another tale, Floriant and Florete, Arthur begins to sound suspiciously like King Roger I of Sicily in his efforts to conquer the island.
Is Artù really dead or is he sleeping? As Dr Caitlin R. Green tells us, the sixteenth century Welshman, Elis Gruffudd, thought that Arthur was simply sleeping under South Cadbury Hill in Somerset. Cervantes also quotes the legend of the eternal king and it would be no surprise, given the content of Don Quixote, to believe that the Spanish Sicilianophile new all about the attributions to Etna. Gervase’s text has the king’s wounds weeping on the anniversary of his last battle as he lies on his Etnean slab. Another, more alarming story, has Arthur ruling the Kingdom of the Dead in the mountain’s depths. A page sent to find a horse returns to his master, the Dean of Palermo, with tales of Arthur and the absolute necessity of presenting himself to the legendary leader. A derisory scoff from the Dean resulted in his own untimely death.
From Avalon to the Tudors – it seems Etna is a magnet for British monarchs. In the course of researching our literary guide to Sicily, we came across this priceless story from the Grand Tourist and letter writer supreme, Patrick Brydone. Brydone travelled in the late eighteenth century and was inevitably drawn to an ascent of the volcano. Aside from being a wonderful evocation of Bourbon Sicily, Brydone’s book, A Tour Through Sicily and Malta, was most esteemed for its passages on Etna – although decriers thought he had exaggerated his endeavours. During his climb through the surrounding villages, he was asked about his nationality. On replying ‘inglese’ (Patrick was Scottish), he was regaled with the account of an English queen who had perished in the mountain’s fires.
Now intrigued, Brydone stopped to quiz the man in question, who was under the misapprehension that Patrick was on the mountain in homage to his lost monarch. In reply, Brydone assured the gathering crowd that ‘the Inglesi had but too little respect for their queens, even before they were dead, and that they never troubled their heads about them after’. Further enquiry yielded the name, Anne, and that she, by marrying a king, had made him a heretic. For her pains, it seems she was now languishing in Etna’s flame-ridden pits of hell. The queen could be none other than Anne Boleyn and her husband, Henry VIII. Patrick’s sardonic response was the following: ‘I asked, if her husband was there too, for that he deserved it much better than she.’
Brydone goes on to mention reaching the Torre del Filosofo, the Philosopher’s Tower, a refuge nearing the summit. On cue, Patrick segues into the story of Empedocles of Agrigento. Centuries before the Christian era, Empedocles bestrode the Greco-Siculian philosophical world, writing on the elements, cosmogony, nature, perception and reincarnation. According to the classical biographer, Laertius, the philosopher threw himself into the mountain’s crater in search of immortality, destroying his body in the act of persuading the populace he had become a god. Ever the leveller, Etna responded with a belch and coughed up his bronze sandal. From Horace to Arnold, Hölderlin to Russell, writers and thinkers have been obsessed with the actions of this Ancient Greek.
In the realms of classical myth we also find the story of Acis and Galatea. In a cave near Santa Maria La Scala a love story develops between the sea-nymph, Galatea, and Acis, son of Faunus. The path of true love never runs smoothly, just ask Arthur and Guinevere, but in this couple’s case a giant got in the way, rather than a randy Lancelot. Polyphemus, the cyclops, was also enamoured of Galatea’s charms and was rather miffed when he discovered them in full embrace. Taking up his weapon of choice, Polyphemus heaved an Etnean boulder at a soon to be crushed Acis only to find that Galatea had turned her beloved into a river spirit. In their watery medium, the pair could happily mingle. From Stuttgart to Versailles, St Petersburg to California, the lovers and their jealous foe have been immortalised – everyone enjoys a good love story.
In the interests of brevity, we will finish our short mythological tour with two Ts – Titans and Typhon. The titans were a race of giants and one, Enceladus, was a prime example. In a battle with the Olympian gods, Enceladus ended up being buried under Mount Etna – assuming those burying him could find the room in this most crowded of camposanti. The giant was understandably annoyed at his new residence and decided to spit fire in order to make his presence known. The tremors that emanate from the ground apparently have nothing to do with seismic shifts, but are, in reality, Enceladus thrashing about in bed, no doubt with some serious arthritis after all those cramped years.
Finally, we come to Typhon. We’ve left him to last deliberately, for he is the most fearsome of all Greek mythological creatures. This son of Gaia is that archetype of legendary horror – the many headed monster. From Evelyn-White’s 1914 translation of Hesiod’s Theogony, we have this startling description: ‘From his shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire…’ The poet, Pindar, even goes as far as to suggest that Typhon lies under the entire volcanic region of Southern Italy. From the Phlegraean Fields in Naples to Etna’s basement, Typhon is waiting to release his terrible wrath – perhaps a timely reminder of nature’s power over man and ultimately a serious message to all who contemplate life in volcanic realms.
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’.