HISTORY | His Majesty, Etna

The superb peak of Mount Etna that soars up to the sky, and its valleys that are already all black, and its snows that shine with the last rays of the sun, and its woods that tremble, that murmur, that stir. G. Verga, Story of a Capinera

This is how Verga describes Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe with its 3326 mt. Declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013, the Mongibello (another name of the Sicilian volcano), rises majestically and bursting on the Ionian coast. From its top you can admire a wonderful panorama, which includes not only the Ionian coast and the sea, but also Calabria, the Nebrodi mountains, the mountainous ridge of the Madonie and the inland areas of Sicily.

Called by the Greeks Αἴτνη (Aítnē), the Romans Aetna, and the Arabs Mongibello, Etna has inspired legends, myths, stories and tales in anyone who saw it.

It is quite difficult to reconstruct the etymology of the name, which seems to derive from the Greek toponym Aitna (Aἴτνα-ας, a name also attributed to the centre of Catania), which derives from the verb αἴθω (aitho, “to burn”). Another possible origin is from the noun “sicano” aith-na (“burning”). Perhaps the most evocative denomination is that of the Arab authors who called it Jebel al-burkān (“mountain of the volcano”), Jebel Aṭma Ṣiqilliya (“sum mountain of Sicily”) or Jebel an-Nār (“mountain of fire”). From these expressions it is possible to trace the dialectal name “Mongibello”, which seems to derive from the fusion of the Latin word Mons (“mountain”) and the Arabic word Jebel, with the same meaning. Today, instead, Sicilians often refer to the volcano with the appellation “a Muntagna”.

Etna (geologically a volcanic stratum) has its origins around 570,000 years ago, in the Quaternary period (during the middle Pleistocene), when construction and destruction processes took place, which started violent eruptive activities. Today Etna is one of the main places for geology studies: in fact, in Catania there is the important National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology which monitors its activities. In this regard, the presence of the Astronomical Observatory at an altitude of 2900 mt. cannot not be forgotten. This one, no longer in operation today, is one of the oldest in Italy.

To inspire more the works of ancient and modern writers, poets and directors is precisely its grandeur and its unpredictable behaviour.

Particularly suggestive are the explanations of the eruptive activity of the volcano, described by ancient authors such as Thucydides, Diodorus Siculus and Pindar. For example, it is said that the god of the winds Aeolus had reclosed, after a bitter fight, some winds in the caves below Etna.

Hesiod, Aeschylus and Virgil, instead, tell that the reason for the eruptions is linked to the rebellions of some giants like Enceladus. This one, defeated by the gods after a war, was buried under an enormous heap of land, the island of Sicily. Under Etna would be found, therefore, his head and the crater would coincide with his mouth. The eruptions would be the cries of pain of the defeated giant. The ancients, however, also thought that in the belly of the Mountain there was the workshop of Hephaestus (or Vulcan), god of fire, metallurgy and blacksmith of the gods.

The Volcano

Today there are four slopes of Mount Etna that can be visited, but the most easily reached are the northern slope (Linguaglossa) and the southern slope (Nicolosi).

Characterized today by a variegated flora and a very rich fauna, Etna represents a unique place in the world. It satisfies, in fact, the interest of mountain and winter sports enthusiasts (alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, ski touring, snowboarding), nature lovers and hikers (Etna Park). Moreover, the most demanding “palates” can enjoy unique dishes and taste the famous “Nero dell’Etna” wine, both during local festivals (Sagra del Pistacchio di Bronte, etc.) and in very characteristic places. For art lovers it is possible to buy works of the typical Etnean handicraft and to admire in the ethnic villages (Bronte, Randazzo, Maletto, Milò, Paternò, Adrano, just to name a few), numerous sanctuaries, churches, fountains or the wonderful buildings built in lava stone.


– Patanè, S. La Delfa, J. Tanguy, L’Etna e il mondo dei volcani’, Catania, Giuseppe Maimone editore, 2004.

– AA VV, Etna, myth of Europe, Catania, Giuseppe Maimone publisher, 2000.

– Etna Cooperativa Etna Sud – Environment, history, traditions, 1990, Tringale Editore.

– Carlo Gemmellaro, La vulcanologia dell’Etna (anastatic reprint by Salvatore Cucuzza Silvestri), Catania, Giuseppe Maimone Editore, 1989.

– Pierre Grimal, Mythology, Garzanti, 2005.