Over the past days and nights, Mount Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano, has put on a spectacular show, spewing glowing lava fountains and ashes into the sky. 🌋 Etna’s eruptions fascinated many ancient writers, such as Pindar, Thucydides and Strabo, who described the powerful explosions that have lighted up Sicilian nights for thousands of years. Byzantine authors were no exception. More than eight centuries ago, John Tzetzes dedicated the following, very imaginative epigram to the famous volcano.
✒️ Αἴτνη τίς ἐστιν Ἰταλῶν ὄρος μέγα,
ἐξ ἧς καταρρεῖ παμφάγου πυρὸς νᾶμα
μέχρι πολίχνης Κατάνης λεγομένης·
ῥοιβδεῖ δὲ δεινῶς ὡς ποταμὸς ἐκρέον·
πνεῦμα γὰρ ἐν γῆς ἐμπεσὸν ταῖς κοιλάσι
κισσήρεως νάφθης τε πεπληρωμένης,
χωροῦν σοβαρῶς ἐκπυροῦται τῇ βίᾳ·
εὑρὸν δὲ ταῖς σήραγξιν ὕδωρ ἐκρέον
τὸ πνεῦμα παντάπασιν ἠραιωμένον
ἀναφλογωθὲν ἐξανάπτει πῦρ ῥέον.
📖 The Etna is a big mountain of Italy, from which a stream of all-devouring fire flows down to the city called Catania, and it moves with a terrible whistle, as a river that flows forth. For when a puff of air has fallen into the valleys of the earth, which has been filled with stones and inflammable liquid, it violently goes forward and is burnt up with strength. But if it encounters water flowing from caves, the puff, completely rarefied, kindles the inflamed flowing fire.
The poem is preserved in three manuscripts as a book epigram, following Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: Florence, Laur. Plut. 28,25 (last quarter of the 13th. c., 📸), Milan, Ambr. N 175 sup. (15th c.) and Vat. gr. 58 (15th c.). The Greek tragedy refers to the eruption of the volcano around 479 BC and provides a mythological explanation for the volcanic activity of the Etna with the story of the monstruous giant Typhon, who was imprisoned underneath the mountain by Zeus and breathes forth rivers of fire in his boiling rage. 🔥