Messina: the city of mythology

Even though Messina battles the usual problems of a big city in Sicily, it is much more cosmopolitan and laid back than the other provincial capitals.

What attracts me most to Messina is the unusual mixture of mythology and legend, which intertwines with the city’s history to create an intoxicating and alluring tapestry. As is common in Sicily, history has made a layering of stories from one invader to the next, each leaving its unique footprint on the city.

The city on the Strait is Christian and pagan, old and new, historical and mythological. It rests between two worlds, that of man and that of mythology.

Messina is between the sea, and the mountains, separated from the rest of Italy by a strip of sea which seems easily traversed yet is full of danger. It looks tranquil, the public servants are ordered enough, yet the laziness, corruption and apathy run as deep as the rest of Sicily.

The marine passage between Sicily and the mainland is one of the most trafficked strips of the sea in the Mediterranean; literally, all invaders have passed across the strain and into Messina.

Its geographical layout is always striking when approaching Messina from either land or sea.

As you drive down from the Autostrada (highway), Messina-Catania or Messina- Palermo bores its way through the mountaintops in a series of tunnels punctuated by strips of road balancing itself on cement columns hundreds of meters high, on giant stilts. The spaces between each tunnel reveals breathtaking views for brief moments before entering the darkness of the next tunnel.

Taking the exit to the centre of Messina and the port, the highway turns through Mount Petoritani, which forms the outside border of Messina, giving it an amphitheatre shape with the city spreading out along the coast. The modern town is slowly climbing into the mountains with different sections cutting themselves up high in endless apartment buildings, slowly pushing the city up into the hills away from the sea.

In ancient times the slopes of Mount Peloritani, where Messina was founded, were known as the Hill of Neptune and the ridge to the north descended to the temple of Poseidon, protector of sailors.

Journeying down the curves of the Auto Strada, the glimpses of the city reveal hidden sections of Messina between the mountains, large groups of houses and apartments grouped in different quarters, each scattered with large church domes dotted evenly around the outer parts of the city.

One of the most spectacular curves down to the city gives a view of the Strait of Messina. Even though the heavy steel barrier grill partially blocks your view on the mountain top autostrada, you can still make out the shape of the expansive city which curves out in a giant semi-circle.

The tip of the Strait seems to be reaching out for Calabria’s coast on the other side of mainland Italy, which is trying to grab onto Sicily, just missing one another.

The spot in the shortest space between Sicily and Italy is to the north of the city between Capo Peloro and Torre Cavallo. It is here where the project for the Messina bridge is planned, which includes a massive suspension bridge some 3 kilometres long with two railway lines and a six-lane highway.

The Ponte di Messina has always been a source of much political and environmental debate. Some say the bridge is needed to create a better connection to the mainland to improve the economy of Sicily, bringing in tourists and making it easier to transport goods.

Others don’t want it at all because of the effect it will have on the natural environment. In fact, on either side of the Strait where the bridge is projected, there are natural lakes and reserves filled with birdlife.

Then there is the genuine concern over seismic activity on the island. Sicily is moving further away from the Calabrian coast at an average of 1,5 centimetres every ten years as the island continues to geologically evolve and shift.

Not to mention the delicate economic situation between local businesses, ferry companies, transportation companies, politics, and the vested interests of local criminal organisations.

Whatever side you take in the debate, it still hasn’t been started even after many years of planning. The approval of the final project and assigning the work to a reputable Japanese construction company are still unclear.

They have been talking about this bridge since ancient Roman times. Several politicians have offered it up on the usual platter of political promises. The Ponte di Messina employs people in their regionally funded offices in the port city up until today. Lord knows what someone who works at the Messina bridges offices would do since it still doesn’t exist.

Today Messina is still connected to Italy by ferry and a curious train system that sees train compartments being loaded into the hulls of massive ferries. After crossing the Strait, the ferries offload the carriages one by one on the other side of the Strait, in one of the most unique train journeys in the world.

Taking the ferry from Reggio Calabria to Messina, the harbour stretches out before you on an inlet off the Strait of Messina, shaped like a sickle. The ancient Greek name for Messina was Zancle or sickle city, which came from its unusual shape on the natural terrain.

During a night crossing of the Strait, the city’s lights create a magical effect, lighting up the coast in a halo of light, sketching out the city in the nighttime sky. The ferry doesn’t make a straight journey across to Messina from the train’s final stop at Villa San Giovanni but instead curves around in a “U” shape as if avoiding an iceberg.

In reality, this indirect course of travel along the Strait is because of the strong currents which create powerful vortexes at different points along the strip.

There is a solid descending whirlpool in front of the Faro (Lighthouse) of Messina, which forces the ferry to swerve to avoid the opposing currents caused by the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas that meet directly in front of Messina. The two seas’ bodies intertwine to create a dangerous combination that joins and repels at the same time.

The currents flowing from the south to the north between Calabria and Messina change according to the sun’s position, the moon’s phases and the winds’ strength.

The currents usually alternate every six hours, changing course or length; they are known to reach the width of 1000 meters. Other whirlpools are known and have been easily identified and recognised since ancient Greek times.

The vortexes at Messina have created the legends of the sea monster Scilla and the blowhole of Cariddi. Homer’s hero Ulysses in “the Odyssey” recounts the dangers of crossing the tightest part of the Strait of Messina as a life-threatening and nearly impossible endeavour.

Just before the arrival in the Strait, there is the first obstacle of the Sirens, beautiful mythological creatures who tempt sailors onto the rocks with their mesmerising songs.

The sorceress (goddess) Circe warns Ulysses about them, saying: the Sirens enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the Sirens singing, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. A great heap of dead men’s bones are lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.

Ulysses overcomes the siren’s songs by blocking the ears of his ship’s crew with wax and ties himself with firm ropes to the boat while steering so he can’t get near them, his men holding him back when he is tempted to jump overboard.

Manoeuvring their way through the Strait of Messina, Ulysses has to negotiate the treacherous rocks, known as ‘the Wanderers’, where not even a bird is permitted to pass as the rocks will carry them off.

Homer menacingly notes how no ship has ever come to these rocks and got away; the waves and whirlwinds of fire are freighted with wreckage and with the bodies of dead men.

Apart from the danger of losing his ship Ulysses finds a menacing and intimidating rock face between the two coasts of Messina and Calabria.

Homer continues his description of this terrifying location between Messina and Calabria, saying how: one of the rocks reaches heaven, and its peak is lost in a dark cloud. This never leaves it so that the top is never clear, not even in summer and early autumn. No man though he had twenty hands and twenty feet, could get a foothold on it and climb it, for it runs sheer up, as smooth as though it had been polished.

Scylla, the sea monster, lives deep inside a cave on the Calabrian side of these rocky coastal out-crops. Inside the cave, she sits and yelps with a voice that you might take to be that of a young hound, but in truth, she is a dreadful monster, and no one—not even a God —could face her without being terror-struck. She has twelve deformed feet and six necks of the most prodigious length. At the end of each neck, she has a frightful head with three rows of teeth; all set very close together so that they would crunch anyone to death in a moment. She sits deep within her shady cell, thrusting out her head and peering around the rock, fishing for dolphins, dogfish, or any larger monster she can catch. No ship ever got past her without losing some men, for she shoots out all her heads at once and carries off a man in each mouth.

Scylla is the whirlpool created by strong currents off the coast of Calabria, which is so vividly invoked as a monster and indeed, for an ancient Greek sailor in a rudimentary craft approaching a vortex was like confronting a mighty sea monster.

Moving towards Messina, where the modern port is now located, there is another low-lying group of rocks so close together that there is not more than a bow length between them. A large fig tree in the whole leaf grows upon it, and under it lies the sucking whirlpool of Charybdis. Three times in the day, she vomits forth her waters, and three times she sucks them down again; see that you are not there when she is sucking, for if you are, Neptune himself could not save you.

Once again, this whirlpool near the port of Messina becomes a deadly threat to the mariners from ancient Greek times.

It isn’t only during ancient times that the Strait of Messina became the focus of mythology because of certain phenomena. However, even today, certain curiosities still occur that haven’t been entirely explained by science.

The strong currents aided by powerful winds cause the whirlpools to tear grasses and algae from the bottom of the sea. And at certain times of the year, strengthened by certain meteorological conditions, the vortexes can pull up deep-sea animals from the deep waters of the Strait, including strange fishes from the abyss with highly developed eyes and unusual forms.

Looking out from the coast of Reggio Calabria towards Messina, there is the unusual visual effect known as the ‘Morgana Fairy’. This mirage effect occurs briefly during hot days with calm winds and sea when the Sicilian coast seems to move closer to Calabria.

The mirage reflects Messina onto the waters, distorting itself and creating a mystical city on the water. There is no exact explanation of why this mirage happens, yet it is similar to the mirage effect in deserts.

The mythological explanation for the Morgana Fairy is reflected in its very name. Apart from housing sea monsters and mermaids, the Strait of Messina was also the home to Morgana, a fairy and enchantress.

It is strange to think how on earth this figure from Arthurian literature would have chosen Sicily as the place to build her elaborate underwater castle, but she did. Morgana was king Arthur’s step-sister, and she is said to inhabit the Strait and cause the strange illusion of the two shores moving closer.

Incidentally, Morgana is not the only character from Arthurian legend to have a connection to Sicily. Sicily is the final resting place of King Arthur. These stories were no doubt brought to the island during the Norman domination.

Making it past the Sirens, the Wanderers, Scylla, Charybdis, Morgana le Fay and into the harbour, the mythology of the world outside Messina ends. At the entrance of Messina’s port with the golden Madonna statue, yet another mythological story begins, this time one based on Christianity.