Sicily: Where Cultures and Histories Converge and Giants Roam
Sicily is the most famous triangle in the middle of the Mediterranean. But unlike Bermuda, nothing disappears here - it’s actually where many things and people have been gathered. The island shines like a beacon in the night for its history, acquired culture, and artistic works left by the myriad of peoples who have dominated it over the centuries.
Around 6,000 BC it was the dominion of the Sicans, then its soil was trampled by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and by the Romans by 246 BC. The Arabs dominated it for three centuries, and after that came the Normans, and then the Swabians, the Angevins, and the Aragoneses. And there was the Spanish domination, which was no less tyrannical than the French one, and subsequently it was the Savoy’s turn, then the Austrians and the Bourbons...
The Sicilians finally became the masters of their island in 1860 with their unification and the annexation from the Kingdom of Italy.
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Sicily is a Land Plenty of People Have Wanted
Every one of these occupations left something great - creating a mixture of styles that’s found nowhere else in the world. This is a unique combination of splendid buildings, churches, gardens, and even cuisine which are now key to the island's culture. Even the local dialect didn’t escape the influence of a chaotic mixture of multiple languages.
It is a land of myths and legends, of violent landscape contrasts, and sweet temptations. It is said that one day Pluto, god of the underworld, who fell in love with Proserpina, daughter of mother earth goddess Ceres, abducted her while she was collecting daffodils in the green fields at the foot of Etna. The young girl was dragged down into the bowels of the Earth, into the world of Shadows, to become his bride.
Ceres, desperate at the loss of her daughter, asked Jupiter (the earth goddess’s brother) to ease her pain. And Jupiter, magnanimously decreed that Proserpina spend six months each year with her mother and six months with her husband Pluto.
Statue of Ceres. ( Alexey Achepovsky /Adobe Stock)
A forerunner of the best legal rulings on the subject. It is believed that the sacrifice of Proserpina had determined the rise of spring and the abundance of the fruits that have always made the land of Sicily famous. In honor of the delicate bride, Pluto gave birth to a blue spring, the Fonte Ciane, from which the river of the same name emerges and where papyrus grows on the shores. From this story we attain mythical origins for papyrus, a famous river, and Etna, the most important active volcano in Europe.
The island has two large green lungs: the Madonie range, with altitudes that reach almost 2000 meters (6561.68 ft.) and the Nebrodis, mountainous reliefs covered by forests and dotted with mirrors of water, which continue along the Apennine ridge. To the south of these, we find lands of history and ancient finds: Selinunte, Agrigento, and Syracuse.
Selinunte – Splendor and Celery
Selinunte was an ancient strategic base along the Mediterranean coast. It was built on the seashore between two rivers, the Selinos (today Modione) and the Cottone, which was formerly navigable. Founded in 650 BC by Diodoro Siculo, it was conquered by the Carthaginians around 200 BC and is one of the largest archaeological parks in Europe. Here lie the ruins of an ancient Greek city which, in its maximum splendor, is said to have reached up to 80,000 inhabitants.
The name of this city could be derived from the wild celery (ancient Greek: σέλινον, romanized: Selinon) that grew on the spot.
Sicily, Italy - Acropolis of Selinunte . (robertonencini/Adobe Stock)
For the same reason the celery leaf was used as a symbol on their coins. However, there are conflicting reports concerning this plant - some say that selinon was parsley, others celery. Dr. Alfonso La Rosa, naturalist and botanist, believes that the inhabitants improperly called the plant "Petroselium" (origin of the word Petrosino still used in the local Sicilian dialect) which belongs to the same family as parsley but lived and thrived in the aquatic environment.
Through a specific ecology and also on the basis of historical elements available, the "selinon" plant would still belong to the Umbelliferae family but its specific name is Apium nodiflorum, whose vulgar name is "water celery".
In 10 of the 270 hectares of the archaeological park, with the coordination of a consortium headed by the Sicilian Regional Council for Agriculture, the "Wheat of the Gods" Harvest Rite is celebrated for the second year. Ancient grains of several varieties found during excavations and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas are sown and then harvested.
Syracuse’s Ear of Dionysus and Burning Mirrors
2,800 years old, Syracuse shows off its Greek theaters, Roman ruins, mysterious caves, Norman castles, and Gothic and Byzantine churches. These reminders of the different ages of its past live side by side in a fascinating mix of cultures.
The Latomies, stone quarries used in ancient times as prisons, are a particular source of intrigue. There are many, but the most famous is the one called Latomia del Paradiso which houses the famous Ear of Dionysius just below the Greek theater.
Entrance of the cave of the Cordari, in the latomia of Paradise in Syracuse, in Sicily, Italy. ( serghi8 /Adobe Stock)
According to legend it was excavated by Dionisio of Syracuse. Thanks to the particular shape of the cave, the cruel tyrant was able to hear the speeches of his imprisoned enemies magnified by an echo from an opening above. This artificial, funnel-shaped cave carved into the limestone is about 23 meters (75.46 ft.) high. and 5 to 11 meters (16.4 – 36.09 ft.) wide. It is auricular and descends for 65 meters (213.26 ft.), with an unusual S-shape and sinuous walls that converge in a singular sixth pitch. The cave also boasts exceptional acoustics and each sound is up to 16 times louder.
These acoustic characteristics and the shape prompted Michelangelo di Caravaggio, who visited Syracuse in 1608, to call it the Ear of Dionysus (Orecchio di Dionigi), thus giving strength to the 16th-century legend. Indeed, although to the detriment of the suggestions and the legend, it is worth noting that the shape of the cave is simply due to the fact that excavations began from above, following the downward route of a meandering aqueduct, and it widened more and more as it deepened, having found an excellent quality of rock. This is demonstrated by the walls - on which the traces of the stone quarrymen’s tools are clearly visible and, horizontally, the planking level of the blocks. It is general opinion that the Ear of Dionysus was actually used to improve the acoustics of the adjacent theater.
Another legend tells that in 216 BC, following the death of the tyrant Gerone, Syracuse allied with the Carthaginians and for this reason it was besieged by the Roman army commanded by the consul Claudio Marcello. Then the Syracusans asked for the help of Archimedes to defend the city. According to popular imagination, Archimedes invented and used the "burning mirrors" to burn Roman ships.
Illustration of the Burning Mirror setting a ship on fire. (Public Domain)
Galen first spoke of this invention, then Cassio Dione, the Byzantines Giovanni Zonara and Giovanni Tzetzes, and also Baron Von Riedesel (a German officer who served in the Seven Years' War and American War of Independence). They describe the burning mirrors as composed of 24 large flat mirrors, arranged in a hexagonal shape on a trellis rotating on a pole fixed on the ground: the central mirror was used to direct the solar ray reflected on the lens, while the side mirrors were made to converge with a belt system.
Few in the scientific community believe in the use of burning mirrors during ancient wars. The reasons are both historical and scientific. In the first case, Polibio does not talk about it, nor Livio, nor Plutarco, but only later authors. And regarding the science behind it, many believe that it is impossible to obtain sufficiently high temperatures with mirrors, considering that wood has a temperature of auto-ignition above 300°C (572°F).
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Then, there is the unaccredited hypothesis that a thousand women in the port stands, holding a single bronze toilet mirror each, maneuvered them to set fire to the sails of enemy ships passing through the Strait of Syracuse.
Since Archimedes actually managed to burn Roman ships - and on this they all agree - it is thought that the basis of the legend is a mis-translation of a Greek term that would refer to “incendiary substances” that was wrongly translated as “burning mirrors.”
Fortunately, there are free spirits who love to get to the bottom of things. After seeing a program on the Discovery Channel which denied the possibility of burning a ship with mirrors, David Wallace, a professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), posed the problem to his students. The class conducted several experiments. The type of wood that was used at that time to build the ships was also taken into account. Finally, it was possible to burn the hull of a ship model in 2009 with 127 mirrors directed towards it - a nice smoking hole was the result of their efforts.
Dr. Wallace has opened the path for an expansion of historical data which, while sometimes denying possibilities, makes some historians cling to old ideas.
The Large Ledends of Agrigento-Akragas
Agrigento, a city in southern Sicily, is known above all for the Valley of the Temples, an archaeological area containing 12 important Doric temples of the Hellenic period that are characterized by an exceptional state of preservation. The area corresponds to the ancient Akragas, a monumental original nucleus of the city of Agrigento.
Today it is a regional archaeological park. In 1997 it was included among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was one of the leading cities of Magna Grecia during the golden age of ancient Greece, with population estimates in the range of 200,000 to 800,000 before 406 BC.
Valley of Temples, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy. ( wildman /Adobe Stock)
Founded around 580 BC, Agrigento boasts a territory in which the various peoples who left traces on the island settled. Already home to indigenous peoples who maintained commercial relations with the Aegean and Mycenaeans, the Agrigento area saw the rise of the city of Akragas (Ἀκράγας), founded by the inhabitants of Gela (Sicily) coming from Rhodes and Crete. It reached its peak in the 5th century BC, before the decline started due to the war against Carthage. During the Punic war it was conquered by the Romans, who latinized the name to Agrigentum.
Subsequently it fell under Arab rule, with the name of Kerkent, and in 1089 it was conquered by the Normans, who renamed it Girgenti, a name that it maintained until 1927. This is its history. Now for the myth.
The town's coat of arms is interesting. It depicts three giants placed on a plain supporting a "platform" with the symbolic image of the city. At the base is the Latin motto "Signat Agrigentum Mirabilis Aula Gigantum" (The extraordinary palace of the giants distinguishes Agrigento).
The reference to the giants that adorn the temple of Olympian Zeus is obvious. It was built after the victory of Himera over the Carthaginians (480-479) to honor Zeus. It was the largest temple in all of the ancient West and architecturally unique. A large number of slaves built it up to the roof, but left it unfinished because of the war against Carthage.
Giant Telamon, Atlas supporting statue of ruined Temple of Zeus in the Valley of Temples of Agrigento, Sicily, Italy. UNESCO World Heritage Site. ( Sergio Monti Photos /Adobe Stock)
The Temple of Zeus was characterized by the presence of giants (called telamoni) - immense sculptures seven and a half meters (24.61 ft.) tall. These are depictions of Atlas holding up the celestial vault. One of these is still on the site, while another - Telamone dell'Olympeion - is in the archaeological museum of Agrigento. Most of the ruins of the temple are accumulated on the west side, where the colossal parts of that building fell, and where there are fragments of half columns. Diodorus Siculus (an ancient Greek historian) had observed that a man can comfortably find a place in the columns’ grooves.
The legend tells that to reach the summit of the Olympus, the giants had to place three mountains one above the other, but they were defeated and driven out under Etna. The 12 gods of Olympus did not win thanks to their own strength, but had to resort to the help of a demigod - Heracles - corresponding to the figure of Roman mythology Hercules.
24 tall and terrible giants participated in the battle. They had long, ringed hair and long beards and snake tails covering their feet. Alcioneo was the leader. He was also the first that Heracles killed. Then, with a little help from Zeus/Jupiter, Heracles destroyed them all one by one. Ares was saved with Heracles’ help.
The surviving giants were discouraged and tried to escape. But Athena grew to a gigantic size, even bigger than the giants, and succeeded in hurling a large rock at Enceladus, which collapsed into the sea and became the island of Sicily.
However, the idea that giants walked on Earth is a hypothesis considered by more people in recent years. Due to mysterious discoveries made throughout the world, a large number of researchers are considering the possibility that these "mythological" beings actually existed on Earth in the distant past. There are indeed archaeological finds throughout the world of skeletons with exceptional dimensions: from 3 meters up to 8 meters (9.84-26.25 ft.) tall.
Some researchers resort to one of the most famous episodes of the Bible: the story of the fearsome giant Goliath killed by the young David. According to them, the origin of giants dates back to the time of Methuselah, when the men of the Set generation (the third son of Adam and Eve, quoted in Genesis) joined the beautiful women of Cam (one of the three sons of Noah).
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‘David and Goliath’ by Guillaume Courtois. (Public Domain)
Stories and novels about gigantic beings that inhabited the Earth can be found in almost all ancient civilizations and in their cultures: from Greece to Norway, Germany to India, Indo-Europe and as far as the New World in the traditions of the Maya, Aztecc, and Inca peoples. But above all, these stories can be found in almost all the principal sacred books of antiquity: the Lebhar Gabhale, the Hindu Ramayana, and even in the Bible. In Genesis 6: 4 we read: "At that time there were giants on the earth, and there were also afterwards, when the sons of God approached the daughters of men, and these made them children...".
Many people have defined Sicily as the ‘Land of the Giants’: Boccaccio (Giovanni Boccaccio, Italian writer, poet, and Renaissance humanist) tells us of a 100-meter-high (328.08 ft.) skeleton found in Sicily in 1371. Ovid calls the giant Tifeo, Virgil calls it Enceladus, and later it even finds confirmation in Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, who mentions it in a passage of his work.
Even if they are only myths and legends, the Sicilians are very keen on their "giant" roots and, every year, the Gathering of Giants takes place in Mistretta (in Messina province). For three days in a row, from August 20th to 22nd, the streets of this town are crossed by paper-mache giants up to seven meters (22.97 ft.) tall that dance madly to the beat of drums and rattles.
Top Image: The Ruins of Taormina Theater, Sicily (romas_ph / Adobe Stock)