Sicilian Mythology - Visit Sicily Easy local guide for Holidays in Sicily

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Sicilian Mythology

Sicily has an enormous treasury of myths and legends, which are the precious jewels of three thousand year-old culture and civilization. In Sicily dream and reality became one and everything seems possible...


The Myth of Sicily


There are many ancient legend about our island, legends that tell of the primitive men that lived here. One of these legends date from the Byzantine rule and is called the Legend of Sicily. This legend was born to give an explanation to the island’s name Sicily (its’ ancient name was Trinacria – land of the three capes). It tells the story of a beautiful Lebanese princess, whose name was Sicily. An oracle had predicted that before she became 15 years old she was to leave her country alone in a boat, and if she did not do so she would end up in the jaws of the monster “Greek-east” that would have appeared under the terrible form of the cat-monster. To avoid this terrible fate, upon the completion of the fifteenth year of age of the princess, her parents, crying and desperate with pain, put her in a boat and entrusted it to the waves. After three months adrift at sea the poor princess Sicily believed that her life had come to an end, since there was no more food or water. Her boat was taken by good winds upon a gorgeous beach at the slopes of Etna – this beach consisted of lumps lava and golden sand, full of flowers and fruits, but completely deserted and lonely. The young princess was in despair and cried until she no longer had tears, when suddenly a young beautiful man appears next to hear, to give her comfort and love. The young boy explained that the islanders had all died of plague, and that fate had chosen him and princess Sicily to repopulate the island with a stronger and kinder breed. Just him and her, two young and beautiful humans,,, things could not have turned out better, and you can imagine how happy they were. Sicily did indeed marry this young man, who was really capable and brave, with the looks of a true knight. Being now king of the entire kingdom, a kingdom filled with so many treasures and with all that that land was producing, he was glad and esteemed Sicily as the apple of his eye. Because of this he wished to call their land Sicily, and this has been its’ name ever since then.

Ulysses and Polyphemus


Ulysses, the principal protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey, disembarks at Sicily, where his hunger for knowledge and food, leads him and his companions to battle with Polyphemus. According to Greek and Roman mythology, Polyphemus was a  Cyclops: a giant man with just one eye. The Cyclopes were  blacksmiths, and helpers of Efesto or Vulcan, who most likely  lived in widely dispersed caves in the vicinity of Etna Volcano. Ulysses and his men, weary from their journey at sea, came upon  this territory and took refuge in one of the caves, where they feasted on all the food they could find, and rested... until the  monster, and cannibal, Polyphemus, returns home. Upon discovering the trespassers, Polyphemus imprisons them in  the cave, making no secret of his plan to eat them for dinner. Ulysses knew that the terrible monster would not be beaten by force, but by wit. Ulysses sent his men to collect the grapes of a most potent wine, probably Nerello Mascalese, which grows plentifully in those parts, and convinced Polyphemus to drink their juice, offering him “the nectar of the gods”, that is, wine. Polyphemus, unknowing of the consequence, drank as much of the delicious nectar as they could extract. He adored this newfound pleasure, and, between mouthfuls of bread and cheese, he gulped the wine until he was quite intoxicated, and fell asleep without securing his prisoners. This was the time to take action, Odysseus and four of his men brought out the pole, which they had sharpened, and with one great thrust plunged the point into Polyphemus' eye, pushing it deep, to ensure it made him totally blind. The agonizing pain made Polyphemus scream out, so loud in fact that it brought the neighbouring Cyclopes to see what was wrong. "Who is hurting you" asked the other Cyclopes, Polyphemus screamed "nobody is hurting me", (which is why Odysseus said was his name was "Outis"). Thinking his screams were a punishment from the gods, the other Cyclopes went away. At daybreak Polyphemus rolled the great boulder from the mouth of the cave to let out his flock, but being totally blind, and knowing the Greeks would try to escape, he felt each animal as he let it pass. Odysseus and his men held on to the belly of a ram, and, one at a time escaped from the cave. They quickly ran to their ship, taking with then part of the flock. Once aboard, Odysseus taunted Polyphemus by telling him his true identity, and Polyphemus, realizing he had been tricked hurled rocks at the ship, trying to smash its hull to pieces. When Odysseus had made his escape, Polyphemus prayed to his father asking him to send a curse, and throughout the rest of Odysseus' journey home Poseidon was his enemy.


The Myth of Arethusa


Probably the best known relic of old Syracuse is the famous Fountain of Arethusa, which Cicero described in prose, and Ovid and Virgil pictured in mellifluous verse, before the advent of the Christian era. From some mysterious, unknown source it rises copiously through an opening in the natural rock, and forms a deep, clear pool, enclosed now by a semicircular marble wall, adorned with graceful vases. Within it many fish are swimming, just as when the first of Roman orators beheld it; and now as then a "wall of stone" protects its sacred contents from the sea. The pretty legend of this fountain which, immortalized in painting and in poetry, has survived two thousand years, relates that Arethusa, a lovely Grecian nymph, while bathing in a sheltered forest stream, was seen by the Arcadian river-god, Alpheus, who, when she fled from his approach, pursued her to a place considered sacred to Diana. There, too exhausted to run further, the maiden prayed for assistance from the goddess, who at once transformed her into a fountain, in the hope of baffling her pursuer. The river deity, however, recognized the change; and mingling his waters with her own, sank down with her into the earth, passed under the Ionian Sea to Sicily, and rose there, evermore united to her, in the island of Ortygia.




The Myth of Aci and Galatea







The abundance of freshwater springs in the Etna area, was explained by the Greeks with the myth of Aci and Galatea, and legend has it seemed so beautiful that the filming itself Ovidio in his Metamorphoses. The legend tells that Galatea, the mermaid, which name means ‘‘milk-white’’, felt in love with the young and handsome shepherd Aci, but the Cyclops Polyphemus was in love with the nymph. He became jealous for the young shepherd, so, one day he took the two lovers by surprise and, furious, threw a huge rock against Aci, killing him. To keep her love alive, Galatea transformed his blood in the sources of a river, in this way, when the Aci river flows into the sea, Galatea, the mermaid, and Aci, the spirit of the river, can hug in the sea and love each other forever…


The Myth of Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and Charybdis is the names of two rocks between Italy and Sicily, and only in a short distance from one to another. The legend was born to explain the whirlpools and the get rough sea that killed the sailors in ancient times. The legend tells that once upon a time in Calabria lived an enchanting girl called Scilla and she was used to go to swim in the sea.  One evening, near the beach, she saw Glauco, son of Poseidon, a god of the sea - half man and half fish. Scilla, terrified, took refuge on the summit of a mountain near the beach. The god, surprised by the reaction of the nymph, began to scream his love to her, but Scilla escaped leaving him alone in his pain. Then Glauco went to the sorceress Circe and asked her for a love potion to make him fall in love with the nymph, but Circe was in love with him and asked to be with her. Glauco refused to betray his love for Scilla, so, Circe became furious and looked for revenge. When Glauco was gone, Circe prepared a potion and went to the beach, throw the potion to the sea and returned to her home. When Scilla arrived and dived into the water, her legs became two terrible and awful savage dogs that drugged her away, destroying in their insane race the land between Italy and Sicily, that so became and island. From then on Scilla, convicted in a cave, devours the sailors ground in the rocks. Charybdis, like Scilla, was initially a nymph. Zeus turned her into a monster as punishment for having stolen Hercules' cattle and condemned her to swallow the water sea, causing the whirlpools in which died unfortunate sailors.


The Myth of Spring: the rape of Proserpina








The Rape of Proserpina is a myth among the most famous in Sicilia.  According to the story of the famous poet Claudiano, playing near the Pergusa lake, Proserpina, daughter of Jupiter and Ceres, caught the eye of Pluto, god of the underworld who was struck by the arrow of Cupid. There was only one way for her to be his, he would steal her away. Pluto forced Proserpina to marry him, as her mother looked for across the Earth and Jupiter worried, sending Mercury- the winged messenger of the gods, to demand that Pluto release his daughter. But Ceres did not know that Proserpina has sealed her fate. She had eaten three pomegranate seeds. It is said that if you have eaten the food of the dead, you can not return to the world of the living, but Pluto made a deal. Proserpina was allowed to return to the Earth but she must spend three months, for the three seeds, with her husband. It was agreed upon and so is the reason for the change of the seasons. Spring occurs as Ceres celebrates having her daughter, letting flowers bloom and crops grow. Summer, the crops flourish until the three months before Proserpina must return to her husband. Autumn, the crops wither and the earth begins to sadden until winter when Proserpina is gone.




Cyclops



Cyclops were a race of giant-shepherds in mythology. They lived in Sicily, and each of them had just one eye in the middle of their foreheads. They made weapons and armour for the gods. Apollo destroyed them because they made the fire bolt that killed his son, Asclepius. The most famous  is Polyphemus, the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus.

Gorgons & Medusa


Gorgons in Greek mythology were terrifying, dragon like creatures, covered with golden-scales with snakes for hair. They had huge wings and round, ugly faces; their tongues were always hanging out, and they had large, tusk-like teeth. They lived on the farthest side of the western ocean, shunned because their glance turned persons to stone.
Medusa was one of the three sisters known as the Gorgons. The other two sisters were Sthenno and Euryale. Medusa was the only mortal out of the three. She was once very beautiful and lived far in the north were the sun didn't visit. Being very curious, she wanted to see the sun, and asked the Goddess Athena for permission to visit the south. Athena refused to allow her to visit. The medusa got angry and dared to say that Athena hadn't given her permission because she was jealous of her beauty. That was it! Athena was angered and punished her by turning her hair into snakes and cursing her by making her so ugly that who ever looks at her eyes would turn into stone.


Centaur is a race of creature composed of part human and part horse. This half-human and half-animal composition has lead many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures. Centaurs were usually depicted as beasts of Dionysus. They were thought to carry bows and are very short tempered creatures. Most Centaurs are good and work against evil.


Minotaur was a man-eating monster with the head of a bull. King Minos kept it hidden in a labyrinth (a maze) in Knossos, on the island of Crete, where he used it to frighten his enemies. Theseus killed the Minotaur.

Chimera had three heads - lion, goat, and snake. Its body was also mixed having the front part of a lion, middle of a goat, and snake for a tail. It breathed fire. It ravaged Lycia, killing cattle and setting fires until it was killed by Bellerophon.

Giants belonged to a race of beings that looked like humans but were much more larger. In Greek legend they represented the elements of nature such as earth, air, water, fire. They were called the Titans. They became powerful enough to try to unseat Zeus and the Olympians early in their rule. When the gods won they imprisoned the Giants in Tartarus. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that their ancestors had been big people with great power and strength.

Sirens were beautiful half-woman, half-birdlike creatures who sang such sweet songs that listeners forgot everything and died of hunger. The Sirens are sisters who lure sailors to their death. The song of the Sirens is irresistible but, the they reside beyond reefs which destroy the sailors boat when they try to reach the Sirens. Among those tempted were Jason on the Argo and Odysseus. Odysseus escaped from them by filling his crew's ears with wax while he tied himself to the ship's mast. The Argonauts were saved by Orpheus' music. The three most famous were Parthenope, Ligea, and Leucosia.

The legend of Colapesce

The myth tells of a certain Nicholas (Cola di Messina), son of a fisherman. He was  nicknamed Colapesce for his ability to move water; returning from his many dives into the sea he paused to tell the wonderful views and, at times, to bring back treasures. His fame reached the king of Sicily and Emperor Frederick II, who decided to put to the test: the king and his court therefore went off on a boat in the water and threw a cup that was immediately recovered by Colapesce. The king then threw his crown in a deeper and Colapesce again succeeded in the enterprise. The third time the king put to the test Cola throwing a ring into a deeper place and at that time did not emerge as Colaspesce. According to legend, Colapesce saw that Sicily was kept by 3 columns. As one of the columns was broken, he decided to stay there and hold up the column to prevent the sinking island.



The Legend of wizard Eliodoro


One of the most fascinating legends of Catania is the one related to the name of the elephant statue which is the symbol of the city. The name of the statue is connected to the legend of the wizard Eliodoro, placed in the eighteenth century in Catania. Eliodoro came from a very religious Sicilian noble family that encouraged him to catholic religion. When he was young, he studied so hard that he wanted to become bishop of the Church of Catania. Unfortunately he was not elected because the citizens preferred Leone II over him. Thus Eliodoro wanted to take revenge and started to practice black magic. He created a magic elephant using lava from mount Etna and he started to make the citizens’ lives very difficult, changing some of them into animals. Everybody hated him because of his black magic. One day Eliodoro entered the Church while the Bishop was celebrating mass and he started to tell him bad things about catholic religion. The Bishop got angry at Eliodoro and decided to challenge him on magic: who goes through the fire and does not burn himself will become the new Shepherd of the city. The Bishop went first and he came out of the fire unhurt . Then it was Eliodoro’s turn. He tried to use magic but he was suddenly stopped by the Bishop who threw a stole to him. Thus Eliodoro burnt in the fire and Catania was finally free from the wizard. Today the magic elephant is situated in Duomo square after it was banished for several centuries.


The Legend of Gamazzita


In the heart of the old town centre of Catania, we can find the remains of an old well, called the “Well of Gammazita” because a young lady, named Gammazita, threw her self into it. Around 1280 Catania was under the rule of France. The people of the town suffered many wrongs by French oppressors. In those days Gammazita, a beautiful young lady, was living in Catania. Usually she went to the well to get water. Doretto, a French soldier, fell in love with her and decided to court her even if she was engaged to a man from the town. Gammazit a rejected Doretto many times but he was very persistent. One day  he followed her secretly while she was going to the well. He  started to molest Gammazita and she tried to get away screaming for help. Nobody could hear Gammazita, so she gave up all hope. So she decided to throw herself into the well for preserve her virtues. According to the legend, still today the water of the well turns red occasionally toremember what happened a long time ago. Probably people tried to explain bloodstain in the water do to it being full of minerals and rusty materials. In her honour today Gammazita’s sculpture is situated in University Square.

Gods

In myths we come across many names of gods, goddesses and strange creatures. Many myths, legends and stories are related to them. Different gods represent different aspects of life on the Earth under their control. Some of the gods and mythical creatures are given below:


Zeus (Roman name Jupiter) was the god of the earth and the sky. His symbols were the thunderbolt, the eagle, the bull and the oak. Although he was married to
Hera, his elder sister, he would frequently cheat on her with many mortal women. other goddesses and nymphs. He is depicted in statues and paintings as a middle-aged man seating on his throne or throwing a thunderbolt.


Hera (Roman name Juno) was the queen of the Gods. Pictured as a middle-aged still charming woman, Hera was the protector of women and marriage. She was jealous in character and when she knew about an infidelity of Zeus, his mistress would suffer a lot. The peacock was her symbol. According to the myth, Hera was also the protector of the Amazons.
Poseidon (Roman name Neptune), the god of the sea and the earthquakes, was much adored in ancient Greece. As many cities had a strong naval power, Poseidon was the protector of these cities. He usually mated with nymphs of the water and had many children. His symbols were the trident, the dolphin, the fish and the horse. He was seen as an old man riding his horse-carriage out of the waves.

Hades (Roman name Pluto), another brother of Zeus, was the ruler of the Underworld, the world of the dead. The ancient people depicted him as an old man with white hair and beard. His kingdom was found under the earth. Using a trick, this old man married a beautiful young girl, Persephone, daughter of goddess Demeter.

Hestia (Roman name Vesta) was the goddess of the hearth and the household. She was the noblest and most lovable goddesses for the ancient Greeks and she symbolized harmony in the family and the city. Every household and public building in ancient Greece had an altar dedicated to Hestia in the centre of a room that burnt all day and night. Hestia was never married or had children. Not being able to bear the continuous quarrels between the gods, Hestia left Olympus and went to live somewhere quieter, giving her place to Dionysus
.

Aphrodite (Roman name Venus) was the goddess of beauty. She was forever beautiful and young. Shallow in nature, Aphrodite has a lot of affairs with mortals. Her son was Cupid, the familiar young boy with wings who played with his arrows and made people fall in love. Aphrodite was no directly connected to Zeus. She was probably a generation older than the other Olympian Gods. The myth says that she was born out of the foam of the sea either near Paphos Cyrpus or near Kythira island.


Demeter (Roman name Ceres) was the goddess of grain and fertility. She maintained the circle of life on the earth (the circle of young and old, life and death), alternating the seasons and reviving nature in spring. She is depicted in statues holding a tuft of grain. A very important festival, the Elefsenian Mysteries, was held every year dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Apollo (Roman name Apollo) was another famous god, not a brother, but a son of Zeus. Apollo and Artemis were twins that Zeus obtained from Leto, a mortal woman. Apollo was born in Delos, which later became his sacred island. He was the god of music and light, poetry and the arts, medicine, truth and prophecy. Note that the Oracles in ancient Greece were dedicated to god Apollo and people believed that god was actually speaking to them through the priests. He was pictured as a young, handsome and sensitive man.

Artemis (Roman name Diana), his twin sister, was a fierce female. She enjoyed sports and particularly hunting. Her symbols were the bow and arrows. She used to hide in the forests with her companions. Wild in nature, Artemis had asked her father never to confine her with marriage and she kept her virginity for all her life. Her female companions also ought to be virgins.

Ares (Roman name Mars), the god of warfare and violence, was son of Zeus and Hera. He was not a likable god in ancient Greece, which is why there are no many temples of Ares. However, people were afraid of his anger and included him in their offerings.

Hermes (Roman name Mercury), the son of Zeus, was the most foxy of all the Olympian Gods. He was the messenger of the Gods, which is why he knew all their secrets. He was also the guide to the Underworld and the protector of thieves, shepherds, orators, road travellers and merchants. He wore winged sandals to fly and give messages quickly.

Athena (Roman name Minerva) was also a goddess of war, but more of strategic war, not violence like Ares. She was also the goddess of wisdom and justice. The daughter of Zeus and a mortal woman, Athena was born out of the head of Zeus when her pregnant mother was killed out of Hera's jealousy. Noble in nature, Athena didn't match with men and would mostly deal with warfare.

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