Mount Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe, and has erupted frequently over the last half-million years.
Despite blasts and dense ash plumes, officials say nearby villages are safe
By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
With the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology reporting recent continuous episodes of eruptions, lava fountaining, intra-crater explosive activity, and ash emissions, Mount Etna is displaying its power and beauty again.
Although Italian authorities said the volcanic activity posed no danger to surrounding villages, gas emissions that rose from the several summit craters and occasional explosive activity were visible, as well as dense ash plumes. These plumes rose to heights of 18,000 feet and caused ashes and lapilli to fall in Milia, Nicolosi, and Catania. Through all this, Italian authorities said it posed no danger to the surrounding villages.
“We’ve seen worse,” commented Stefano Branco, the head of the Catania office of the INGV.
Mount Etna is Sicily’s most prominent landmark, and visible to most of the population who live on the eastern
side of the island. Almost 25 percent of Sicily’s residents live on the slopes of the active volcano which the Sicilians call Mungibeddu. The actual name of Mount Etna derives from the Greek Aitne, from aitho, “I burn.” Mount Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe. It has been studied systematically since the middle of the 19th century. Three observatories have been set up on its slopes; they are located in Catania, Casa Etnea, and Cantoniera.
With small stones and ashes raining down, authorities decided to close Catania’s international airport and continued to extend monitoring the situation closely in the three other villages of Linguaglossa, Fornazzo and Milo at the foot of the mountain. Images showed a spectacular rose-colored plume of ashes above the snow-capped summit.
At 10,906 feet, Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe and has erupted frequently in the past 500,000 years. Etna’s geological characteristics indicate that it has been active for the past 2.6 million years. The volcano has had more than one active center. A number of subsidiary cones have been formed on lateral fissures extending out from the center and down the sides. The present structure of the mountain are a result of the activity of at least two main eruptive centers.
The Greeks created legends about the volcano. They believed that it was the workshop of Hephaestus and the Cyclops or that underneath it the giant Typhon lay, making the Earth tremble when he turned. The ancient poet Hesiod spoke of Etna’s eruptions. Two other Greeks, Aeschylus and Pindar, referred to a famous eruption of 475 B.C.
Another better-known ancient eruption took place in 396 B.C., which kept the Carthaginian army from reaching Catania. From 1500 B.C. to 1669 A.D., there are records of 71 eruptions, 14 of which occurred before the birth of Christ. An eruption in 1381 sent a lava flow as far as the Ionian Sea, about 10 miles away. The most violent historical eruption, however, was in 1669, when about 29 billion cubic feet of lava were thrown out. The eruption took place along a fissure that opened above the town of Nicolosi, widening into a chasm from which lava flowed and solid fragments, sand, and ashes were hurled. The latter formed a double cone more than 150 feet high, named Monti Rossi. The lava flow destroyed a dozen villages on the lower slope and submerged the western part of the town of Catania. Efforts to divert the lava stream away from Catania were made by workers who dug a trench above the village. Historically, this seems to have been the first attempt to divert a lava stream.
Between 1669 and 1900, 26 more eruptions were reported. The eruption of 1852–53 flattened large stands of timber and nearly destroyed the town of Zafferana. During the 20th century, there were eruptions periodically between 1908 and 1999. One in 1928 cut off the railway around the base of the mountain and buried the village of Mascali. The eruption of 1971 threatened several villages with its lava flow and destroyed some orchards and vineyards. Activity was almost continuous in the decade following 1971, and in 1983, an eruption that lasted four months prompted authorities to explode dynamite in an attempt to divert lava flows.
The first major eruption of the 21st century began in July 2001 and lasted several weeks. Now with the latest eruption, one earlier 21st century eruption will go down on the pages of Etna’s
Approximately 77 human deaths are attributed with certainty to eruptions of Etna, most recently in 1987 when two tourists were killed by a sudden explosion near the summit. Often it is the structures and fields outside of the small towns that have borne the brunt of lava flows. In 1971, a 200 yard wide river of lava from Mount Etna came within 2.5 miles of the village of St. Alfio, destroying crops and at least one structure. Once again, the pious villagers prayed to Sant’ Alfio to spare the village as he did during the Etna eruptions of 1928. The villagers of St. Alfio and other towns that lie on the slopes this beautiful, fertile but also destructive mountain have not left their fate to chance when it is in eruption.
Alfio is actually the oldest brother of a trio of patron saints revered in the region, in particular in the town of Trecastagni. “Viva St. Alfio!” (Long live Saint Alfio!) is what devotees call out during the annual “Martyred Brothers” festival, celebrating the Saints Alfio, Filadelfo and Cirino, one of the most noteworthy and impressive religious festivals in Eastern Sicily. Residents believe that the sanctuary of St. Alfio invites pilgrims to reflect on the story of the saints’ painful journey by foot from Apulia to Lentini, where they were eventually executed for not giving up their faith. Celebrations date to the 16th century and feature religious processions and dramas as well as spectacular parades, town bands, and a traditional garlic fair that celebrates the arrival of spring.
Every year, Trecastagni townspeople publicly show their deep faith and gratefulness toward the three patron saints as they typically undertake long barefoot pilgrimages from local towns surrounding Trecastagni to the sanctuary to thank the saints for being spared from an illness or a disaster.
The festival of the three saints is also held in other parts of Sicily such as St. Alfio, St. Fratello and Lentini, Italy.
According to tradition, the name of Trecastagni is linked to the three saints through the belief that the three brothers ate “castagne” (chestnuts) during their visit to the town. The legend is that three chestnut trees, common in the area, wondrously sprouted from the empty shells dropped by the brothers. Others believe that Trecastagni comes by the Latin words “tres casti agni” (three chaste lambs), a name that remembers the tragic sacrifice of these three young heroes of Catholicism.
Strong ties between these towns in Italy to towns in the U.S. where immigrants from Italy settled, prompted the celebration of these traditions here. St. Alfio has been celebrated for many years in the town of Swedesboro, New Jersey and was also an important feast for the town of Chester Heights, PA for many years. The largest festival on the east coast is in St. Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Today Etna is one of Sicily’s main tourist attractions, with thousands of visitors every year. The most common route is through the road leading to Sapienza Refuge ski area, lying at the south of the crater at elevation of 6267 feet. When it is safe one can also use the Ferrovia Circumetnea – railway – a narrow-gauge railway constructed between 1889 and 1895. It runs around the volcano in a 68 miles long semi-circle starting in Catania and ending in Riposto 17 miles north of Catania.
While Italian Americans from Sicily are not directly affected by the perils of Mount Etna, our connection to the people and places of the island lead us to also pray for those who continue to live and work in the midst of this magnificent but dangerous volcano.