Sicily, land of gods and heroes
Hades abducted Persephone from her mother. In this wood we just walked through, Demeter ceased her swift running and tired of her fruitless search, sat on a rock, and despite being a goddess, she wept, the Greeks say, since she was a mother. In these valleys, Apollo pastured hisflocks; these groves, stretching down to the seashore, have echoed with Pan’s flute; the nymphs got lost under their shade and breathed their scent. Galatea fledfrom Polyphemos and Acis, close to succumbing to the blows of his rival, enthralled these shores leaving his name here […] In the distance you can see the lake of Herakles and the rocks of the Cyclops. Land of gods and heroes!
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, VOYAGE EM SICILE, 1861
‘Land of gods and heroes!’ is how the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described Sicily in his Voyage en Sidle. His words deftly sum up the rich and diverse ancient stories that revolved around the island. The ancient Greeks loved travelling and treasured storytelling; writers, poets and historians consumed these tales of gods, heroes and monsters, weaving them into epic tales of exploration and wonder.
More than anything, it was Sicily’s geology that inspired a host of ancient stories, many of its most distinctive features rationalized through legendary heroes and heroines. For instance, the so-called Isole dei Giclopi (‘the Islands of the Cyclopes’), to the north-east of Catania, found their mythical origins in Homer’s Odyssey. It was here that the one-eyed giants once lived, the most infamous being Polyphemos, son of the sea god Poseidon. In Homer’s epic tale, Polyphemos captured and imprisoned Odysseus and his companions in his cave, sealing the entrance with a huge, immovable boulder.2 Almost at once the giant Cyclops seized two of Odysseus’ men and began to feast on their flesh and bones. More of the prisoners were devoured the following day until Odysseus sprang into action, got Polyphemos intoxicated with wine , and then blinded him with a stake. He and the surviving men escaped from the cave by clinging under the bellies of Polyphemos’ sheep, which were kept in the cave overnight. In great fury at Odysseus’ trickery, the blind Polyphemos threw huge rocks at Odysseus’ boats, which narrowly missed them, and the heroes escaped from the island. Although this wonderful story lives on, the reality is that these enormous ‘Cyclopean’ rocks were formed by volcanic activity .
An even more celebrated story concerning Sicily’s coasdine and seas also derives from Homer’s account of Odysseus’ adventures. The tale prompted the modern phrase ‘between Skylla and Charybdis’: an expression used when a decision has to be made between two equally hazardous choices. In Homer’s epic tale Odysseus has to sail through a narrow channel, one that in later tradition was identified as the Strait of Messina between Sicily and mainland Italy. Skylla was described as a six-headed monster, while Charybdis was a perilous whirlpool. Strabo, the ancient geographer, vividly describes this treacherous maritime feature: Charybdis is visible a short distance in front of the city in the channel, an extraordinary depth into which the reflux of the Strait cleverly pulls down boats, which are swept away with the twisting around a great whirling. When swallowed down and broken up, the wreckage is carried along to the Tauromenian shore, which, because of what happens, is called Kopria (refuse).
STRABO, GEOGRAPHY, BOOK 6, 2.268-9*
The terrible dilemma was which route to follow for, whichever was taken, neither danger could be avoided. Odysseus chose Skylla, believing that his ship would be less likely to be lost following this path, and more lives saved. Representing a treacherous whirlpool was a challenge for ancient Greek artists, but Skylla was a popular subject, particularly in southern Italy and Sicily.
Another pertinent story relates the mainland of Greece to Sicily through a tale of love and adventure. Arethousa was the chaste daughter of the sea god Nereus who, while bathing in a clear stream in Arkadia on the Greek mainland, encountered Alpheios, the river god, who instantly fell in love with her. Alpheios pursued her relentlessly, despite her protests of wishing to remain pure to the goddess Artemis, to whom she prayed for help. This help arrived in the form of a metamorphosis, for in her flight Arethousa had perspired so much that she transformed into a stream. She escaped Alpheios by running under the sea, finding refuge at Ortygia on Sicily, where her fresh-water spring remains to this day. Her migration from mainland Greece to the shores of Sicily echoes with the journey of the Greek settlers from Corinth who founded Syracuse, by Ortygia, where they gave her special honours in the city for centuries after.
In addition to stories explaining particular geological features and the dramatic coastline, Sicily also laid claim to one of the most poignant and evocative myths of the ancient Greeks: the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, god of the underworld.6 The island’s fertile landscape saw the establishment of a great number of sanctuaries to Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the goddesses of agriculture, fertility and the seasons. These were a great testimony to the people’s desire to give thanks to and to appease the earth through offerings and sacrifices to the goddesses. This widespread devotion to Demeter and Persephone, the two Olympian deities who undoubtedly served the greatest need of humankind, naturally led to the island laying claim to the dramatic event that was fundamental in explaining the cycle of the seasons and the precarious nature of the natural world. Tradition relates that Persephone was snatched by Hades at a spot near Lake Pergusa, close to the city of Enna, located almost exactly in the centre of the island (fig. 8). Due to Demeter’s grief, while Persephone was with Hades in the underworld, the earth was barren. Persephone was eventually permitted to spend two-thirds of the year with her mother, which once again caused the flowers to grow and crops to ripen. A less romantic reason for Sicily’s fertile landscape, however, is its geology and climate, and of course the dominant force of Mount Etna.