Sicily: An isle of myth

The impressive ancient temples, villas, and theatres of Sicily understandably attract the attention of many visitors, but looking beyond the monuments to their spectacular natural surroundings and the stories they inspired also offers a way to understand the island’s ancient societies. David Stuttard guides us through Sicily’s mythological landscapes.

The snow-capped Mount Etna has long dominated the Sicilian city of Catania, seen here. In mythology, the volcano was linked to the fury of the giant Enceladus, or of the god of storm winds Typhon, or the forge of Vulcan.

Mythology is rooted deep within the soil of Sicily. Indeed, for many in the ancient world, mythology explained that very soil’s existence. Some told how, with conflict raging through the cosmos as anarchic giants battled with the gods, Athena crushed her foe Enceladus beneath a massive rock, so heavy that it stayed forever rooted in the sea, and so became the island that we now call Sicily. The Roman poet Virgil (who claimed that it was Jupiter who crushed the giant) imagined that the undead Enceladus still lay there, ‘charred by the lightning bolt, imprisoned, while above him mighty Etna exhales fire from fissured furnaces. Whenever he turns his sleepless body, all Sicily groans and thunders, and fumes blot out the skies.’

For others, though, another terrifying creature was to blame for Etna’s fires: Typhon, the god of storm winds. With huge black wings, a hundred snaky heads, and eyes that shot out flames, he was the stuff of nightmares, and when the gods of Mount Olympus killed his sibling Titans, he launched a whirlwind-swift attack on Zeus. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled, and many lands became so scorched they turned to desert – until Zeus blasted Typhon with his thunderbolt and shackled the exhausted Titan deep beneath the earth. There, thanks to his gargantuan size, his body stretched from Sicily’s Mount Etna north past Stromboli and Lipari as far as Mount Vesuvius and Cumae’s Phlegrian Fields. Though he was fettered, they maintained, the Titan’s fury was still deadly and, as often as his rage boiled over, these loveliest of lands were plagued by earthquakes and volcanoes.

Athena and Enceladus on a metope from Temple E at Selinunte, now housed in Palermo’s Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum. The goddess crushed the giant beneath a massive rock that stayed rooted in the sea and became the island of Sicily.

For any who saw Etna erupting, the experience was unforgettable. The 5th-century BC praise-poet Pindar described how from caverns far below the mountain there shot ‘pure sacred flames, which no man might come near. Rivers of burning vapour pour out by day, while in the dark of night, with clattering thunder, searing fire hurls rocks down to the glassy sea… a miracle to watch, a miracle to hear of.’ While for some the explanation of this miracle was the everlasting fury of Enceladus or Typhon, others favoured a third explanation. For them, the fires of Etna were flares from Vulcan’s forge, the god who gives his name to all volcanoes. Deep within the mountain, they said, he and his team of one-eyed Cyclopes laboured day and night in a network of underground smithies, whose ‘booming anvil-blows are heard reverberating as the din resounds’.

Picturing Polyphemus

The three-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus (above), an adversary of Odysseus, devours a sheep in this Roman mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina (below)
Image: Holger Uwe Schmitt / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Not all Cyclopes were blacksmiths. According to the 8th-century BC poet Homer, some were primitive shepherds, who ‘neither plant nor plough… They have no assemblies or laws, but live on towering mountain peaks in caves, each governing his own wives and children.’ Among them was the hapless Polyphemus. Legends told of his passion for the sea nymph Galataea, whom he wooed by singing or by playing on shepherd’s pipes. Although some pictured the unlikely couple, beauty and the beast, swooning in each other’s arms, most maintained that Polyphemus’ ardour was unrequited, for Galataea loved not him but Acis, son of Pan. When Polyphemus spied them clasped in passionate embrace, he hurled a boulder at them, killing Acis. But the goddess Venus would not see the lovers separated. From beneath the rock, instead of Acis’ blood, spring water bubbled to the sea to mingle with Galataea’s currents. The Fiume di Iaci (Acis’ River) still flows near Catania, a city dominated by Mount Etna, the mountain that has shaped its history. Repeatedly engulfed by lava, Catania has been just as repeatedly rebuilt, and, while the dark volcanic tufa of its baroque palaces and churches can at first appear forbidding, the relaxed warmth of its welcoming inhabitants shines through.

Deprived of Galataea, Polyphemus hardened his heart. By the time Odysseus and his companions reached his remote cave, the Cyclops had no compassion left. The tale, immortalised in Homer’s Odyssey, was so ingrained in Sicilian imagination that the Roman owner of a prestigious villa at modern Piazza Armerina commissioned gifted mosaicists to illustrate it in the early 4th century AD. They imagined Odysseus and his companions trapped in Polyphemus’ cave, where they had broken every rule of hospitality by feasting on his flocks and cheese without permission. The Cyclops, however, turned the tables and took his revenge by eating six of Odysseus’ men, whom he trapped by rolling a huge boulder over the cave’s mouth. But Odysseus had a wily plan, and its execution is what that the artists have portrayed: knowing that Cyclopes were strangers to alcohol, Odysseus offered him a bowl of wine (which he just happened to have with him). Roman viewers, familiar with the story, would have no need to be told what happened next: Polyphemus became quickly drunk and fell asleep; Odysseus and his men blinded him; and next morning they effected their escape. The mosaic contains details, nonetheless, which may have puzzled them. Why, for example, have the artists shown the Cyclops feeding on a sheep (a ram?) and not a Greek? And why does Polyphemus have not one eye but three? It would certainly have complicated the plan to blind him.

The shoreline of the harbour city of Messina. Across the Straits of Messina (home to the mythological monsters Scylla and Charybdis) is mainland Italy.

To us, such details appear baffling, but mythology evolved. We do not know every version of every myth the ancients told, and, besides, Romans were never reluctant to weave new tales from old. In the last few decades BC, when Virgil wrote his epic the Aeneid, entwining ancient legend and contemporary politics to create propaganda for Augustus – his new emperor – the poet revisited the story of the Cyclops. Virgil’s hero, the Trojan prince Aeneas, is described sailing west to find a home and found a city, when he puts in to Sicily. While Aeneas was ashore, a ragged figure burst out from the undergrowth. He was Achaemenides, one of Odysseus’ companions, left behind in their hurry to escape. But, even as the Greek recounted his woes, down from the mountain lumbered the wounded Polyphemus, intent on washing his suppurating eye in sea water. Taking Achaemenides with them, the Trojans hastily cast off, but Polyphemus heard their splashing oars. Roaring in anger, he summoned the other Cyclopes, who ‘rushed from the woods and high mountains and stood thronging the seashore. We saw them, the grim brotherhood of Etna, eyes blazing, heads towering to the sky, a terrifying gathering.’ It was to be one of the last sightings of these Cyclopes. Not long afterwards, the god Apollo killed them.

Dangerous waters

This did not mean that Sicily was henceforth safe for mariners. Separating the island from Italy are the Straits of Messina, home to that pair of mythological monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Charybdis haunted the Sicilian side of the straits, where ‘spray shot up and sand churned in the heaving sea’. Once an undistinguished sea nymph, she possessed one tragic flaw that led to her downfall: an insatiable appetite. As Heracles was passing through mainland Reggio, driving the cattle of Geryon, which he had stolen as one of his labours, Charybdis saw the beasts and salivated. She rustled several and wolfed them down, but Zeus was furious. The cattle were under his protection. He hurled his thunderbolt at poor Charybdis, who fell, trapped beneath a rock, her hunger unabated, and three times each day she sucked down all she could into the jaws of her prodigious whirlpools. Charybdis’ deadly eddies were once a real maritime phenomenon, so potent that the Roman-era geographer Strabo wrote of his wonder at the ‘great depth, into which vessels can so easily be sucked thanks to its back-flowing currents, plunging prow-first into its fast-flowing whirlpool. When these ships are swallowed and shattered, the wreckage is carried ashore at Taormina, which for this reason is named “Excrementa”.’ For politeness’ sake, modern visitors to Taormina – an elegant town clinging to a cliff side, with smart shops, chic restaurants, and a celebrated Roman theatre with stunning views of Etna – should probably refrain from reminding its inhabitants of its ancient soubriquet.

Taormina’s Roman theatre offers stunning views of Etna. Popular with tourists today, the ancient town was known as ‘Excrementa’ because of the wreckage that was washed up on its shore, according to the Roman-era geographer Strabo.

Opposite Charybdis on the Italian shore crouched another terrifying creature. Scylla had once been so winsome a water nymph that Poseidon, the sea god, himself was smitten. But when his wife, Amphitrite, found out, she dissolved potions into the pool where Scylla bathed. As the nymph sank into the waters, she felt her body change. Although her upper body still preserved its loveliness, from her hips six hounds’ heads coiled on snaky necks with snapping jaws and three rows of teeth, while her legs became twisted and deformed into a fishy tail. Shunned by Poseidon, Scylla perched in a high cave, her only distraction the ships that entered the straits. Then, her hounds’ heads concertinaed out, snatching sailors from decks, and whipping them back to her lair, where she would devour them.

Out of the Underworld

Not unsurprisingly, some myths connect Scylla with the Underworld, but an even more powerful link between Sicily and the kingdom of the dead is found in the myth of Demeter and Persephone. This, too, contains an explanation of Mount Etna’s flames, for it tells how they first flared in sympathy for Demeter, goddess of crops and harvests. As Demeter’s young daughter, the beautiful Persephone, was picking violets and lilies by the shores of Lake Pergusa, Hades, King of the Underworld, erupted from Mount Etna’s heart, driving his chariot drawn by four black horses. Swooping down, he snatched Persephone and thundered off. But, at Syracuse, the water nymph Cyane refused to let him pass, so he flung his sceptre into Cyane’s pool, opening a portal to the Underworld. As chariot and riders vanished, the traumatised Cyane dissolved in silent tears.

When Persephone failed to return home, Demeter (Roman Ceres) was distraught. She wandered Sicily, searching for her daughter, and at the western tip she dropped her sickle near a curving bay, at a town that the Greeks called by their word for sickle, drepanon, and that we today call Trapani. Only at Syracuse did Demeter find evidence: the belt Persephone had dropped into Cyane’s pool. But poor voiceless Cyane could not tell her where her daughter was, and, frustrated, Demeter unleashed her wrath on Sicily, parching its fertile soil and causing crops to fail – until, at last, she learned the truth from another troubled water nymph, Arethusa.

Arethusa, who was turned into a stream as she escaped the clutches of a river god in Greece, lends her name to this freshwater fountain on the island of Ortygia. This site in the city of Syracuse is where the nymph surfaced after flowing beneath the sea.

Arethusa originally lived in Greece, but one day, when she was bathing, Alpheus, her local river god, tried to molest her. Terrified, she called on Artemis to save her, but she had not foreseen quite how the virgin goddess would elect to intervene. She turned Arethusa into a stream, opened a chasm in the ground, and ordered her to flow through it. Deep beneath the sea she ran, until she surfaced on Ortygia, the island that forms part of Syracuse. But Alpheus pursued her, and in her lovely pool, like Acis mingling with Galataea, he mixed his waters with her own. Today the freshwater Fonte di Arethusa (Fountain of Arethusa) is lush with vegetation and alive with wildfowl, a rich oasis nestling between Syracuse’s bustling Great Harbour and the smart sophistication of Ortygia, with its fashionable boutiques and elegant piazzas – and its dazzling cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in whose outer walls the pillars of its predecessor, the towering 5th-century BC Temple of Athena, can be easily discerned.

Columns of the ancient Temple of Athena can be clearly seen both within (below) and outside (above) Syracuse’s cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Images: Holger Uwe Schmitt / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

It was as Arethusa fled through the Underworld that she had seen Persephone. She told Demeter, who sought help from Zeus. The god agreed the girl should be released, on one condition: that Persephone had eaten nothing in the Underworld. But she had nibbled a handful of pomegranate seeds, as the result of which each year she was compelled to spend six months beneath the earth (when the land lies barren) and only six above it (when crops grow to fruitfulness).

Sons of Venus

Sexual desire infuses many of the myths from Sicily, so it is little wonder that Greek Aphrodite, Roman Venus, was celebrated in a major shrine at ancient Eryx, modern Erice. On the summit of Monte San Giuliano, inland from Trapani, this site was where Carthaginians once worshipped their own goddess of love (and war): Astarte. It was Venus’ son, Eryx, who brought her to Erice. His father Boutes, a handsome Argonaut, yearned to hear the Sirens’ song and so leapt overboard. But Venus saved and slept with him, and in Sicily their son Eryx ‘consecrated a sanctuary to his mother, adorning it with a graceful temple and many gifts and dedications.’ Eryx, however, would not live long. While Heracles was at Reggio with Geryon’s stolen cattle, a bull broke free, swam across the Straits of Messina, and wandered west until it came to Erice, where Eryx was so impressed that he introduced it to his own herds. When Heracles demanded the bull back, Eryx replied that he would return it only if Heracles defeated him in wrestling – an unwise move. Heracles not only killed him, he took the kingdom and bequeathed it to his own children.

 The Doric temple and theatre of Segesta. According to the Roman poet Virgil, the city was named after Aeneas’ friend Acestes, who settled in Sicily with the Trojans who were weary of their voyage (above and below)

Erice was connected with another son of Venus, too: Aeneas. Twice he visited the town. On the first occasion, his father, the venerable Anchises, died. On the second – returning from his dalliance with Dido in Carthage – Aeneas celebrated funeral games in Anchises’ honour. For Virgil, writing his Aeneid, these games provided a treasure chest of allegory and opportunity, not least because the family of Augustus’ adoptive father, Julius Caesar, claimed descent from Aeneas and Venus. Virgil’s description of the games includes an archery contest where the target is a dove (the bird of Venus) tied by a cord to a ship’s mast. One bowman misses the bird but cuts the cord; another shoots the dove; but the soaring arrow of Aeneas’ friend Acestes bursts into flames to vanish far away ‘like comets which often plunge, detached from heaven, and trail their burning hair behind them.’ Roman readers needed no reminding of the comet that blazed shortly after Julius Caesar’s assassination, which some interpreted as his soul ascending into heaven to take its place beside the gods.

At Erice, too, Aeneas’ enemy, the goddess Juno, inspired many Trojan women, exhausted by their voyage, to set fire to their ships. But Aeneas prayed for help to Jupiter, who rewarded his piety by dousing the flames in a sudden deluge, and that night Anchises’ ghost appeared, advising Aeneas to let the weary stay in Sicily under Acestes’ command. Ever obedient, Aeneas ploughed the boundaries of a city, which he named after Acestes and which we now call Segesta. Then, before leaving Sicily, according to Virgil, Aeneas performed one final action. ‘As high almost as the stars, on Eryx’s peak, he founds a sanctuary to Venus of Mount Ida, while at Anchises’ tomb and sacred grove he consecrates a priesthood.’

The Norman Castello di Venere, built on the site of the Temple of Venus at Erice. The ancient sanctuary was said to have been founded by one of the goddess’ sons, Eryx or Aeneas. Today, the sudden mist that can engulf the clifftop castle is known as ‘the veil of Venus’.

Whoever its founder was – Eryx or Aeneas – the Temple of Venus Erycina was renowned in Roman times. It was clearly a breathtaking building. A 2nd-century BC visitor observed that it ‘surpasses all Sicily’s sanctuaries in wealth and splendour’, but, despite its connection with Aeneas, by the Augustan period it was relatively deserted, although ‘previously it was thronged with female temple-slaves dedicated to the goddess in fulfilment of promises by Sicilians and foreigners alike.’ We can only imagine the rituals performed there. One involved the doves of Venus. In mid-August every year (when Erice’s patron saint, Our Lady of Custonaci, is now honoured), hundreds of doves were released outside the temple. All were pure white, except one, whose red plumage identified it especially with Venus. The birds flew south-west, a journey of nine days, until they came to the Temple of Sicca Veneria (El Kef in Tunisia), where Venus was worshipped on the peak of another towering mountain.

Today, a sudden mist can eddy unexpectedly up the sheer cliff face of Erice to pour through streets and squares, and to engulf the Norman Castello di Venere, which occupies the temple’s site. Locals call it il velo di Venere, ‘the veil of Venus’, and it transforms the town into a ghostly other-world. It muffles sound; it distorts vision; and, as it swirls along the cobbled lanes and seeps deep into ancient soil, our senses start to trick us and reality begins to shift, until – as often happens here in Sicily – the lost world of mythology seems just a breath away.

David Stuttard is the author of numerous books on the Graeco-Roman world, including Roman Mythology: A Traveller’s Guide from Troy to Tivoli (2019) and Greek Mythology: A Traveller’s Guide from Mount Olympus to Troy (2016).

All images: David Stuttard, unless otherwise stated