On the theme of Mt Etna

One really can’t talk about Sicily without mentioning the Mt Etna volcano, here are some short pieces I’ve written about this strange monster that dominates this island, following along on the theme of earthquakes from yesterday.


Etna is a real monster, a living breathing part of the Sicilian landscape. Its sixty by forty kilometre base is the heart of the island and its three thousand three hundred meters tall shadow has given birth to the fertile Sicilian land, rich in mythology. The volcano is different things to different people. For the ancient Greeks, it was the forge of Vulcan, the god of earth and fire. It was the home of the Cyclopes who terrorised the island by throwing pieces of earth into the sky, their appetites subdued by regular animal sacrifices. It is the resting place of the giant Escalades, upon whom the god Jupiter placed the mountain. Each eruption signifies the motion of the giant trapped by Etna’s weight. 


Etna has forged Sicily after hundreds of thousands of years of activity and it still is the centre of the island’s evolution. Sicily is still developing and geologically it is relatively young and so the volcano will continue to reshape the island’s destiny. Etna is a living breathing force of nature which holds the terrain firmly in its grip.


Like Naples’ Mount Vesuvius which, lies above and below the city in a perpetually active state, Etna has the potential to create great damage. Early in the seventeenth century, it went through a period of hibernation only to erupt violently towards the end of the century. This eruption in the late sixteen hundreds caused powerful earthquakes. New mouths of the volcano were opened throughout the island, some hundreds of kilometres away. The main lava flow during this eruption lasted many years, destroying most of Catania and eventually reaching the Ionian sea.’


I have had the privilege of seeing Etna in her highest fury, from afar and at night time yet it was enough to inspire the following description that is included in my travel book, ‘Descent into Sicily.’

 The sun having set I can now see the splendour of Etna’s eruptive heat. The opening at the head of Etna is spewing out diabolical black ash, a second opening can be seen about halfway down and it too is vomiting out smoke which flows up to combine with the fumes of the main opening.

From the new mouth, lava is rocketing up into the sky. There is a red-hot halo of heat around Etna’s summit. It is a colour unlike any other I’ve seen. It is a piece of steel being melted in a furnace, translucent, like the surface of the sun. The magma is spurting forth like a fountain and although we are hundreds of kilometres from Etna we can see the lava spewing out of its mouth as if it were only meters away.

Watching television when we return home, I hear that fifteen new mouths have opened up overnight and the residents of the towns below are terrified by massive explosions as lava explodes into the air above them.

In the weeks after its eruption, the ash from Etna is taken by the wind across to Catania where it covers the city in a fine grey film. The scirocco, a desert wind from Africa, moves the ash further north to Calabria. The breeze changes direction covering everyone with a fine blanket of ash.’