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Friday, 27 July, 2001, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Etna: The stuff of myths
Reproduction of a fresco showing the 1669 eruption of Mount Etna
Reproduction of a fresco showing the 1669 eruption of Mount Etna
By BBC News Online's Tamar Shiloh

An angry, ancient monster, trapped for thousands of years under the 3,315-metre-high Mount Etna, periodically loses his temper and spurts out spectacular columns of fire from one of its 100 dragon heads.

Yea, how often have we seen
Etna, her furnace-walls asunder riven,
In billowy floods boil o'er the Cyclops' fields,
And roll down globes of fire and molten rocks!

This, according to one Greek myth, explains the eruptions of the highest, most active volcano in Europe.

Etna (its name derives from the Greek word aitho, or "I burn"), towers above Catania, on the eastern coast of Sicily.

Its geological characteristics indicate that it has been active for more than two-and-a-half million years.

Great mythology

For the ancient Greeks, the mountain housed the workshop of Hephaestus, otherwise known as Vulcan, the god of fire and metalwork, and was home to the giant one-eyed monster, Cyclops.

A drawing of Typhon on a plate
Greek mythology said Typhon, a monster with 100 dragon heads, was trapped under Etna
Another myth said that Typhon, a 100-headed monster who was the son of earth goddess Gaia, was trapped under Mount Etna by Zeus after he tried to rebel, and he has been spitting out his angry flames ever since.

Virgil described the volcano in The Georgics, written in 29 BC: "Yea, how often have we seen/Etna, her furnace-walls asunder riven,/In billowy floods boil o'er the Cyclops' fields,/And roll down globes of fire and molten rocks!"

And Homer placed the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops who captured Odysseus and his comrades, on Etna's slopes.

Long history

The volcano's first recorded eruption was in 1500 BC, and it is believed to have erupted about 200 times since.

One of the mountain's most dramatic eruptions lasted four months, from March to July of 1669.

A drawing of Cyclops standing on Mount Etna, throwing a rock at Ulysses boat
Homer placed the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops, on Mount Etna
That eruption caused great damage to surrounding areas, submerging a dozen villages in western Catania, including the village of Nicolosi, which is currently under threat by lava from the latest eruption.

But Etna's eruptive behaviour has changed over the past 400 years.

For nearly a century following the 1669 eruption, Etna's output is believed to have been very low.

A flank eruption in 1755, however, brought about several years of volcanic activity, including overflows of lava.

A huge eruption in 1865 was among the largest since 1669. A few weeks after the end of that eruption, a devastating earthquake (measuring about 4.7 on the Richter scale) in the area killed more than 70 people near the village of Macchia.

See also:

22 Jul 01 | Europe
In pictures: Etna in action
15 Mar 00 | Europe
Living with a volcano
01 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Why volcanoes explode
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