Etna: Geology, History, Legends and Wine

By 06/09/2015September 8th, 2015News

Mount Etna is, with its 3343 meters above the sea level, the highest volcano in Europa and for us it’s also the most beautiful. It stands uncontested against the huge sky that has witnessed its birth and its polyhedral transformations over the course of time. Ruler of part of Eastern Sicily, its pride and its restless nature have been accurately recorded over thousands of years, bestowing upon Mungibeddu, a nickname affectionately given to the mountain by the population living on his slopes, a sense of reference, gratitude and respect unique all over the world, which is typical of a holy mountain.

The history of the Etna volcano has been shaped by many distinguishing elements, a perfect mixture of pure scientific concepts connected to geology and volcanology. However, mere science is not enough in this case; it is not enough for Etna. Its history is full of magic, legends, poetry, love stories and extreme challenges. Stories of astounding passions but also of humility, stories of wine, joy, carefreeness, all echoing in the wind and in the red coloring the lava and my glass, full of Nerello Mascalese. They can also be found in the tales told by old men with few teeth and a skin that has been carved by the sun and the salty air, and whose dialect is difficult to understand, even for me.

Etna gives it all and Etna takes it all…

The area surrounding this magnificent volcano is still considered as a sacred territory. Here you can breathe a different air, a good, pure and uncontaminated air, where signs of man’s work have always been erased by the many lava flows of this splendid Mount Etna, wishing to maintain its status as a lonely and godlike beauty. A feature that makes it enormously charming.

“It is one of the most emblematic and active volcanoes on the whole planet!” So Unesco has defined it, declaring it a World Heritage Site in 2013.

Men have been writing about this Sicilian volcano for 2700 years. A real record of historical material for documentation about Mount Etna”, Unesco writes in its motivation. “Craters, ashes, lava flows, caverns and the hollow of the Bove valley make this mountain a preferential place for researches and education”, the official note says. “It keeps influencing volcanology, geophysics and other Earth sciences”.

Etna Crateri

For us who have grown up with Mount Etna, among snow balls and endless walks, for us who have laughed and dreamed with this volcano, the loyal companion to our truest moments, it is a honor and a great joy to know that our Mungibeddu, our Pole Star, has been acknowledged as an asset which is to safeguard and protect for the whole Humanity.

In order to try to better understand better the mystic bond connecting Mount Etna with its most faithful worshipper, men have to undertake a true journey back in time towards the discovery of this volcano, tracing the incredible transformations that characterize it.

Approximately 130 million of years ago there was the Tethys Ocean, located between Africa and Europa. Due to the famous plate tectonics, constantly moving even if in a slow and imperceptible manner, the oceanic ridges and the continents were set adrift. The African plate, after a strong expansion of the Southern Atlantic Ocean, moved inexorably closer to the Euro-Asiatic plate, covering and absorbing forever the Tethys Ocean.

Between the African continent and ancient Europe, there was a series of small islands: these would later become great part of our Italy.

Usually volcanoes are created when the earth’s crust or lithosphere is subjected to phenomena of compression or distension. In the first case, a plate is pushed until it slips under another and sinks into the mantle. In the event of a distension, a plate is broken along a fracture, forming two pieces of lithosphere that move far away from each other. These phenomena cause temperature and pressure variations, forming magma in the depths of each volcano and fostering its rise towards the surface.

Etna’s millennial paroxysms present similar features as the ones happening in areas subjected to a distension phenomenon, even if Sicily is located in a compression zone, along with the African continent. Due to this extreme coincidence, many fractures have been created during the centuries. They tend to expand because of the compression push, creating zones subjected to an even stronger distension and located in a greater compression area. That explains why the eastern ridge of Sicily is subjected to the African continent’s push, fracturing even more and increasing the lava flow that created Mount Etna. The volcanic islands belonging to the Aeolian archipelago and the rise forming the Peloritani Mountains have arisen, instead, from compression and subduction phenomena.

Etna cuore di neve

The paroxysmal activity of Mount Etna, according to deep and sever scientific and geological studies, can be divided into three different phases:

First phase: the most ancient, dated back to a period between 700000 and 200000 years ago.

It is the pre-Etnean phase (quaternary), during which the Etna complex as we know it did not exist yet. The volcanic activity extended into the so-called pre-Etnean gulf, located between the Peloritani and the Iblei mountains. First there were submarine eruptions (whose remains, which today can be see surfacing, can be found in the wonderful Aci Castello, right on the promontory where the ancient medieval castle is located). Thanks to those submarine eruptions, the rising of the interested aria was enhanced and the eruptions “surfaced”, expanding over the preexisting clay sediments. They were the result of basaltic explosions, whose remains can be seen today along the southeastern and southwestern edges of our Mongibello. These eruptions, over time, created small minor volcanoes and more liquid lava flows. These primordial eruptions on the mainland could be seen over 15 km south-west of the volcano, creating a performance of disarming beauty. In this creation phase, what would later turn into Mount Etna was aided in its shaping by the eruption of isolated volcanoes, whose small reliefs can be seen today in Motta S. Anastasia and Paternò. These are old towns, located on the slopes of Mount Etna and very close to the more famous Catania.

Second phase: this phase allows us to trace a clearer outline of Etna structure, forming between 150000 and 80000 years ago.

We are facing a primordial and ancient Mount Etna, characterized by explosive eruptions and sediments covering the remains of the precedent activity. The remainder of these very ancient lava flows can be seen today at the foot of Timpa di Acireale (a wonderful slope overlooking small villages along the sea) and of Timpa of Saint Tecla, whose pyroclastic deposits present a thickness of 140 meters. Today we can still find sediments of great thickness in the northern outskirts of Catania, eroded by ancient streams or by mudflows. Studies have shown that, in this second primordial Etnean phase, its eruptions were effusive, while theatrical explosions characterized the next ones. We have to imagine two structures: one shaped by wide lava flows and with not very steep sides, the other with a conical shape and steep sides, subjected to landslides. The very landslide phenomenon affecting the many layers of this structure caused the explosive eruptions that would later characterize Mount Etna, starting from the oriental side of ancient Etna and sliding towards the sea. We can still see today the remainder of this movement in the volcano’s uneven silhouette.

Third phase: dated back to approximately 25000 years ago and characterized by the formation of many eruptive centers, one above the other, enlarging and raising continuously the Etnean structure. Geologists could reconstruct these passages studying the many lava flows and collapses affecting the wonderful Bove Valley, which have literally dissected a side of Mount Etna.

Etna ash

The eruptive centers are divided into:

  • Ancient: Mount Calanna, 1325 m. high, Mount Trifoglietto I and Trifolgietto II, whose remains are located today in the lower part of the Bove Valley.
  • Intermediate: part of the effusive products of Trifoglietto II, located in the southern area of the Bove Valley, with a thickness of more than 300 meters, and Mounts Vavalaci and Cuviggini. The main eruptive mouth of Etna was probably located towards the center of the Bove Valley.
  • Mongibello: the great cone covering the current central area of the volcano, representing more than 1/3 of its volume. It is the latest eruptive center and is characterized by the presence of many mouths on its summit. This last eruptive center can also be divided into 3 phases:
  • à Ancient Mongibello, whose products represents almost 90% of the cone. Its eruptive center was elliptical and its activity ended approximately 14000 years ago when the highest volcano part sank, creating the so-called “Caldera dell’Ellittico”.
  • Recent Mongibello, which includes the Caldera dell’Ellittico and is characterized by some effusive and some explosive eruptions, dated back to approximately 9000 and 2000 years ago.
  • Modern Mongibello, the one that we know today. Characterized by a persistent activity of the top cone, it emits ashes and lapillus covering the underlying towns for kilometers. It presents basaltic flows and a moderately explosive activity.

Regarding its eruptive characteristic, Etna has created majestic, catastrophic and sometimes marvelous shows, all documented in the last 2500 years. It has often destroyed whole towns, like Catania in 1669, and dried out lakes, like the Nicito (that has been submersed, later, by another lava flow). It also contributed to extend the oriental side of the island, subtracting kilometers of land from the sea. Other eruptions changed river courses, like the Amenano, while others gave life to wonderful caverns, like the Grotta del Gelo (Ice Cavern) and the Grotta dei Lamponi (Raspberry Cavern).

Etna grotta

The history of Mount Etna is truly fascinating. Even its etymology is mysterious. According to some scholars the name Etna originates from the Greek Aitna or Aitho, meaning “to burn”, and before that from the Phoenician word Attano, while Romans already called it Aetna. According to other scholars, instead, Mount Etna was called by Arabs Gabal al-Nar. Later, in the medieval era, this name was turned into Mons Gibel (both words mean “mount”, the first in Latin and the second in Arabic), two times mount, in order to emphasize its supremacy, its magnificence, its greatness (and proving the variety of cultures that were melted together here, like volcanic lava). The name finally became Mongibello (Montebello – Beautiful Mountain), in order to glorify its primordial beauty even more.

Besides, there are many myths and legends regarding Mount Etna, starting from its very name!

According to Greek mythology, anciently Etna was thought to be a very beautiful goddess, daughter to the goddess Gaia (the Earth, mother of all gods, the first material entity in the creation). Gaia generated a living being similar to her, the god Uranus (the sky), so that she would be protected and covered. According to classic mythology, the god of winds, Eolo, enclosed all the winds in the world under the Etna caverns. These winds were believed to be the cause of earthquakes and landslides. The poet Eschilo wrote that the terrible giant Tifone, son of the goddess Gaia and of the god of the afterlife (Tartaro), tried to dethrone Zeus, who managed to defeat him throwing at him the very Mount Etna. Mount Etna keeps erupting thanks to the lightning bolts thrown by Zeus.

Greek myths narrates that Hephaestus, or Vulcan, god of fire and metalworking and the cleverest blacksmith among the gods, put its forge right below Mount Etna, after he had subdued the fire demon Adranos and taken him away from the mountain. Cyclops were loyal servant of Hephaestus and helped him produce Zeus’ powerful lightning bolts.

Legends tell that right below Etna there is the access to the reign of the dead. Even the beloved Saint Agatha, patron of Catania, had to intercede after her death in order to calm down the volcano. The population, who had scrupulously guarded her veil after her martyrdom, during the eruption of 252 B.C. took this very veil and put it at the city gates, in order to protect it. The eruption ended but the veil turned red. Therefore, the devotees invoke still today the name of the Saint when they seek for protection against fire and lightning.

Etna Fiume alcantara

The myth of the Etna Volcano extends well beyond Sicilian boundaries!

Even the famous King Arthur, according to the legend, would be still living in a castle on Mount Etna, whose gate is being kept accurately hidden by Merlin in one of the mysterious caverns scattered around the volcano.

According to another English legend, instead, the soul of Queen Elizabeth I of England inhabits Mount Etna because of a pact she made with the devil, in exchange for his help to rule her kingdom.

Myths and legends that have always charmed men leave space to a powerful and sometimes dangerous volcano that, despite its constant lava activity, today is seen as a true geological, agricultural and cultural phenomenon waiting to be discovered or rediscovered.

In the last 30 years, thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs and winegrowers, the rediscovery of our volcano has started. Among breathtaking landscapes of forgotten beauty and charming geology, the wine-making area and the contrade are being enhanced. These are places where the most ancient vineyards, the prephylloxera and the most suitable ones are assaulting the volcano from every side: from the marine area of Mascali, from where the red bunch of Nerello Mascalese, the prince of Etna, originates; to the golden triangle between Randazzo, Linguaglossa and Castiglione di Sicilia; to Milo, area of origin of the precious Carricante; to the heroic heights of Contrada Nave where, during the centuries, farmers have selected the strongest vines of Grecanico Dorato and Albanello that, with impudence, are able to resist to the extreme temperature variations and to the weather shocks that are typical of the Contrada’s altitude, 1100 meters above the sea level.

Every time I taste its wines, that I dirty my shoes in the black soil of its vineyards, that the mountain and at the same time the sea wind touches me lightly during a late harvest, and every time I feel lost in its violence exploding against the sky, while other times the mountain seems to be observing it silently, with its thoughts lost in the starry nights, every time I watch the enormous strength and the disarming beauty with which the broom makes its way between the stone remainders of the primordial incandescent lava, every time I look at it, I am moved by Mount Etna.

Etna Rainbow

And Etna is there. It is alive and it is sacred.


Author: Sonia Spadaro Mulone – Sommelier and Etna True Lover

Photographs by Dario Di Bella – Etna True Lover

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