Around Etna

Legends of Etna: from myth to tradition

Sicily is by far among Italy’s most interesting regions in terms of culture and history. From the ancient times, several folks conquered and populated it, each one leaving its own mark. Indeed, they left us many stories about Etna, which survive up to this day. Here we thought of listing some of the most famous for you to know:

The Buried Giant

The first legend of Etna we want to tell is the one about Encedalus. According to Greek mythology, he was a giant and one of Zeus’ brothers. Envious of his brother’s power, he decided to defy the King of the Gods; he built the highest mountain aiming to get to the Olympus and take his brother’s place. The powerful Zeus, however, did not accept the rebellious act. As a punishment, he cast his lightning bolt right through Encedalus’ construction, causing its collapse. Consequently, the debris of the building buried the giant. Incapable of moving under the weight of rocks and stones, Encadalus remained imprisoned; only his furious incandescent breath came up from the pile in the form of what we call lava. Up to this day, according to the legend, Encedalus resides under the volcano; his sudden rage attacks and movements would justify Etna’s eruptions and earthquakes.

Etna is female

Another of the legends of Etna (or formerly known as “Aitna”) tells that she was the daughter of Ouranos and Ge; she kept beneath her the Giant Encedalus, mentioned in the previous story. The tradition of identifying Etna with the female sphere is strong up to this day. The rich soil of the Etnean area, in fact, is easily associable with the idea of motherhood, abundance and fertility. Moreover, to the question “Why is Etna female?” lots of Sicilian men would reply that it is because of its – her –  frequent “mood swings”, that being the alternation between periods of relative quietness and sudden eruptions and explosions. 

The God’s smith

After the Greeks, the Roman Empire settled in the same area and took some of the previous inhabitants’ customs. This obviously included religion as well, so that the whole Greek pantheon had to adjust to the Roman culture. In particular, according to the stories about Etna, the Etnean area became the residence of Vulcan (Hephaestus for the Greeks). He was the Gods’ smith who had its furnace inside Mount Etna; there he worked iron to craft weapons for his brothers.

Aci & Galatea

Acireale is one of the cities along Sicily’s eastern coastline, located midway between Catania and Taormina. According to the myth, this city owes its name to Aci, a handsome young shepherd who fell in love with Galatea, a beautiful sea-nymph. The Cyclops Polyphemus, who lived in a cave of the Etna was also in love with Galatea. She, however, refused his romantic interest, and the Cyclops as revenge brutally killed Aci. To ease Galatea’s grief, the Gods transformed Aci’s blood into a river, which flows in the ionic Sea, on the beachside near Acireale (but is now submerged). This tragic love story moved and inspired several writers and artists such as Ovid and, later on, German musician Händel.

Polyphemus & Ulysses

A faraglione in Acitrezza thrown by Polyphemus from the Etna
A Faraglione on the Acitrezza coastline

Probably the most famous legend of Etna. Ulysses was the hero of the Trojan War, thanks to the well-known Wood-Horse trick. However, he was cursed to make it back to his homeland after years of roaming and terrible perils. According to the Odyssey, one of Ulysses’s stop was also in Sicily, right at the foot of Mount Etna. There he met Polyphemus – mentioned above – and entered his cave; the Cyclops, feeling robbed, started decimating Ulysses’ men and promised to kill him (who said his name was “Nobody”) for last. The smart Ulysses, however, got the Cyclops drunk and during the night blinded him with a wooden stake. Raged and blinded, Polyphemus got out of the cave shouting that “Nobody had blinded him”. Furiously realizing the mockery, he started throwing giant volcanic rocks towards the sea. These rocks now define the coastline of Aci Trezza, a fishermen village near Catania. 

The Hundred-Horse Chestnut

Legends of Etna: the Hundred-Horse Chestnut
A painting of The Hundred-Horse Chestnut

The biggest and oldest chestnut tree is located in Sant’Alfio, an Etnean village right at the foot of the volcano. Back in the day, Queen Joanna of Aragon and her army of one hundred knights were traveling in the area. As a thunderstorm surprised them, the huge space covered by the tree’s branches gave shelter to the whole company. The Castagnu di Centu Cavaddi has also a mention in the Guinness World Record as ‘Greatest Tree Girth Ever‘; his trunk has measures 58 meters (190 feet) of diameter.

These are only some examples of the many legends and stories about Etna; if you want to hear more, our guides will be more than happy to share them during our tours