Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

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How do the people living near Etna feel about "their" mountain?


The relationship of the inhabitants of the Etna region with the volcano is a peculiar one. In the first place, it is characterized by a strong pride for the mountain, which they are fully conscious of being a kind of myth and of worldwide fame and fascination. It is no coincidence that the people living around the volcano call themselves "Etnei", which means "Etneans". Etna and its eruptions strongly condition their lives in both a positive and a negative sense - positive because the mountain is their home, and its volcanic nature is the reason for the extreme fertility of the area, the beauty of the landscape and the arrival of numerous tourists which provide a major source of income for the region; negative because eruptions at times disrupt the daily routine and may even destroy homes and land property.

The Sicilians call Etna "a' muntagna", which simply means "the mountain". THE mountain. "A' muntagna" is female, and it is common to hear people talk of "la nostra signora" (our lady), which reveals feelings that are both a love affair and a mother-children relationship. In fact Etna is something like a big Sicilian "Mamma" that provides enormous quantities of very tasty food and a comfortable home, but every now and then the Mamma gets nervous and slaps her children in the face without letting them really understand why. In a kind of "appeasement" strategy, the "Etnei" insist on telling people that come from elsewhere that "la montagna è buona", she is a GOOD mountain, a good volcano. That might have changed a bit due to the 2002 eruption (which is continuing as of 9 December 2002), when Etna revealed her more violent face. To many "Etnei" this eruption has brought a rough awakening. Etna is not a good mountain (or a good volcano), it is an active volcano. Active volcanoes are to be taken serious, even if they are of the more benign type like Etna, Kilauea (Hawaii), or Piton de la Fournaise (Réunion island, Indian Ocean). The violence and destructive power of the 2002 eruption, the never ceasing ash falls, and frequent earthquakes have provoked a sense of profound insecurity within many people as far as their relationship with the volcano is concerned.

There is a strange difference between the people living in the villages higher on the slopes of Mount Etna and those living in the larger towns near the coast. While the earlier - especially the simple farmers - rarely look up to see what happens at the summit and NEVER EVER go there, the city people are quite curious, although very few of them ever go to the summit area. They prefer to have nicely illustrated books, videotapes and photographs at home and assist to public slide shows and video projections. Only when lava flows reach areas or can be seen from points that are easily accessible by car they begin to move in masses to "see the lava". The July-August 2001 eruption provoked an unprecedented assault on such areas, with people hiking many kilometers without being prepared in the least way to get as close to the advancing lava flow as possible. There are a few associations of naturalists, hikers and passionates of trekking in Catania and nearby towns, but these represent a very small fraction of the population.

Knowledge of Etna and its dynamics is surprisingly limited among the people to whom the volcano is part of the everyday life. For this reason unfounded and at times grotesque rumors rapidly spread in times of significant eruptive events, as has been seen during the 2001 eruption, and even worse during the 2002 eruption. A common misconception is that when there are eruptions there will be no earthquakes, which is probably based on the fact that many flank eruptions are preceded by (relatively small but frequent) earthquakes which essentially end once an eruption has begun. The major tectonic earthquakes that occur in the eastern part of Sicily at intervals of a few centuries are actually not related to the eruptive activity of Etna. In any case the strong seismicity accompanying the 2002 eruption might have persuaded many people that eruptions and earthquakes may well occur together, even if the earthquakes in this case were to some degree related to the eruption.
The "Sangiuliano vent" in the historical center of the city of Catania was mentioned in an earlier version of this page as another example of erroneous notions. This is a low hill of which many "Catanesi" believe that it once was a flank crater of Etna, which would make it the most remote eruptive center of the volcano. Naturally the presence of an old vent in the center of the city would be reason for significant concern, although the Sicilians quite easily consider a volcano "extinct", as they do in the case of the "Sangiuliano vent". The nearest eruptive centers related to the Etnean volcanism lie in the Acicastello-Acitrezza area to the north of the city, and these were active only at the beginning of volcanic activity in the area, about half a million years ago. Somewhat younger eruptive centers at Motta Sant'Anastasia and Paternò to the NW of Catania are still very old (some 200,000 years) and unlikely to erupt in the future. Most striking, though, is the fact that the Sangiuliano hill in Catania not only has never been the site of eruptive activity, but it is actually one of the few places in the urban area that have NEVER been covered by lavas of Etna (Monaco and Tortorici, 1999; Monaco et al. 2000). The substratum consists of Pleistocene sands, deposited before volcanism began in the Etna area, and this has been recognized by past generations of "Catanesi" for a large church sitting on the Sangiuliano hill is named "San Nicolò l'arena" ("arena" means sand). Recent research, however, seems to have revealed that an eruptive center was located in the area before the Pleistocene sands were deposited. This vent rather belongs to the Hyblean volcanism, which preceded the construction of Etna and thus is not to be considered potentially active.

The Sicilians enjoy worldwide fame of being a highly religious people. Images of processions are associated with many eruptions which threatened villages even in the late 20th century and as recently as in 2001 and 2002. It is also widely known that the veil of the patron saint of Catania, Sant'Agata, is believed to have miraculously stopped lava flows that were menacingly advancing toward major population centers on various occasions. The veil was carried in processions to the active lava fronts, and as a result these stopped moving and disasters were thus prevented. Such cases are reported for the eruptions of A.D. 253, 1444 and 1886 and significantly contributed to the strong feeling of veneration of the "Catanesi" for their patron saint. Yet far more eruptions of Etna, including that of 1669, caused widespread destruction, and it is not known whether the veil of Sant'Agata was employed in efforts to halt the lava flows of these eruptions. The historical sources simply do not mention them. In any case it seems that there is a logical, not all-too-mystic explanation for the miracles of A.D. 253, 1444 and 1886. Throughout the past centuries clergymen were among the few people in Sicily that possessed a certain level of education and semi-scientific knowledge, and they certainly had precise concepts about how Etnean eruptions worked. It must have been of little difficulty to them to recognize when an eruption was showing signs of exhaustion, and those were the right moments to carry the sacred veil to the lava fronts, because it was more or less foreseeable that these would advance little further.

Images and video footage of mass celebrations and processions were common during the July-August 2001 eruption on the S flank of Etna, and they had a certain touch of dramaticism with the erupting volcano behind the anxious expressions in the faces of the participants. While it is true that most Sicilians are catholic, religious practice in their everyday life is often routine and demonstrative rather than an expression of true conviction, since in many respects they do not strictly follow the rules of life and social and sexual behavior imposed by the Catholic Church. Participation in the processions of July 2001 was rather for "better safe than sorry" reasons, there was never anything like true fear during that eruption, and after fulfilling their religious duties many of the people joined a much larger, non-religious procession which continued from the first to the last day of the eruption, the procession of those who went to "see the lava".

In October-November 2002, when a lava flow from the Northeast Rift slowly advanced in the direction of the town of Linguaglossa, the statue of the patron saint (Sant'Egidio) was placed at the margin of the village, facing the volcano, for several days until the lava flow stopped. Although the lava flow stopped simply because magma supply had ceased (the quantity of available magma within the central conduits was relatively limited), many Linguaglossa people feel that their saint had protected them and their town from Etna's fury. Liguaglossa had narrowly escaped destruction by a much larger lava flow in 1923, and the miraculous influence of Sant'Egidio was claimed to have saved the town in that case as well.

See "Etna and Man" for more information on the complex and fascinating coexistence of the "Etnei" and the volcano.


Monaco C and Tortorici L (coordinators, 1999) Carta geologica dell'area urbana di Catania (1:10,000). SELCA Firenze.

Monaco C, Catalano S, De Guidi G, Gresta S, Langer H and Tortorici L (2000) The geological map of the urban area of Catania (Eastern Sicily): morphotectonic and seismotectonic implications. Memorie della Società Geologica Italiana 55: 425-438.

Next Question: What is the relationship between Etna and the earthquakes of the region?

Copyright © Boris Behncke, "Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology"

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