The mysterious and deadly banquet of Mount Etna

When Mount Etna erupts it is a deadly and terrifying sight to behold. Image: geologyin.com

The sea waters boiled furiously, and most of the fish near this molten lava were cooked in an instant.

There is a unique bookmark in my world atlas.   I tore the page from a magazine because I was so impressed by the photograph.  It is an aerial view of the coast of Sicily from an August 2001 issue of a weekly news magazine.   The satellite image is from 515 miles above the earth. 

The most impressive part of the image is the puffy charcoal smokestack of Mount Etna erupting, the plume blowing in a southeasterly direction. The hardened lava that came from its violent center seems to be an abstract black paint spatter, radiating outward like spokes on a dial. 

There are dangerous red gashes of molten lava—though flowing from the volcano, they seem to be bleeding wounds in the earth, from the overhead perspective.  Also indelible, the actual building roofs of nearby villages are visible.   The roof groupings are dense at their centers, becoming sparse at their perimeters.  You can make out the deep greens and sandy beiges of the Sicilian topography.  

You can clearly see the buildings of the village of Catania in this satellite image, and you can see the white wakes of boats navigating the channels of the Mediterranean Sea.   I am drawn to study this oversized bookmark every time I open the atlas.

When Mount Etna erupted in 126 BC, so many masses of molten lava fell into the Ionian Sea near Lipari—located on a nearby tiny island—that the sea waters boiled furiously.  Most of the fish near this molten lava were cooked in an instant.

The Lipari villagers ran to the shore where the fish washed up emitting Tuna Spewmanti and Sardine Provencale aromas.  They gorged themselves on this early version of take-out, forgetting their table manners.  A bystander, a chronicler of the time, recorded the event:  “they were “promptly afflicted with a fatal distemper.”

Down through the ages Catania has been ravaged by Mount Etna’s lava.   There were especially awful events in 1169 and again in 1669.  In this later event, the roar of Etna could be heard from fifty miles distant.   After this roaring warning, the side of the mountain opened up sending a two-mile-wide river of molten red devastation.

The citizens of Catania had planned ahead for these catastrophes.  They had built a sixty-foot tall wall between the mountain and their village, to serve as a dam.  The wall was impressive but it could not stand up to the two-mile-wide river of hell.  Here it came, with complete farms sizzling and floating on its surface, and before long, a sizable breach had occurred in the dam.

The Catanians could not stand it.  Some of the bravest covered themselves in water-soaked cowhides and began hacking through the hardened lava which had created its own levee.  By hacking a large opening, they were able to divert the lava flow to a point higher up and farther away and the molten lava then chose that route to go.

It was probably not intended that the new hot lava flow headed straight for Paterno, but that is where it went.  The citizens of Paterno were terrified and angry.  They armed themselves with deadly weapons and headed straight for Catanians that were still trying to keep the gap open with their hacking tools.  The people of Paterno drove the Catanians away from their amazing homemade hot lava diverter.   Catania was soon in smoking ruins when the lava returned to its original route, going over the sixty-foot wall to do so.

Over 115,000 souls perished in these Mount Etna Events of 1169 and 1669.  The volcano’s antics have been the subject matter of several eerie medieval paintings.  Mount Etna has provided a subject for great artworks, a tiny war, and an early but deadly version of fast food.  

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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