By the ancients AEtna was supposed to be the prison of the mighty chained giant Typhon, the flames proceeding from his breath and the noises from his groans; and when he turned over earthquakes shook the island. Many of the myths of the Greek poets were associated with the slopes of 2 Etna, such as Demeter, torch in hand, seeking Persephone, Acis and Galatea, Polyphemus and the Cyclops.
Aetna was once a volcano in the Mediterranean and in the course of ages it completely filled the surrounding sea with its lava. A remarkable feature of the mountain is the large number of minor cones on its sidessome seven hundred in all. Most of these subsidiary cones are from three to six thousand feet in height and they make themselves most strongly felt during periods of great activity. The summit merely serves as a vent through which the vapors and gases make their escape. The natural boundaries of Aetna are the Alcantara and Simeto rivers on the north, west, and south, and the sea on the east.
The most luxurious fertility characterizes the gradual slopes near the base, the decomposed volcanic soil being almost entirely covered with olives, figs, grapes, and prickly pears. Higher up is the timber zone. Formerly there was a dense forest belt between the zone of cultivated land and the torc of cinders and snow; but the work of forest extermination was almost completed during the reign of the Spanish Bourbons. One may still find scattered oak, ilex, chestnut, and pine interspersed with ferns and aromatic herbs. Chestnut trees of surprizing growth are found on the lower slopes. “The Chestnut Tree of the Hundred Horses,” for which the slopes of AEtna are famous, is not a single tree but a group of several distinct trunks together forming a circle, under whose spreading branches a hundred horses might find shelter.
Above the wooded zone AEtna is covered with miniature cones thrown up by different eruptions and regions of dreary plateau covered with scoriae and ashes and buried under snow a part of the year. While the upper portions of the volcano are covered with snow the greater portion of the year, Etna does not reach the limit of perpetual snow, and the heat which is emitted from its sides prevents the formation of ‘glaciers in the hollows. One might expect that the quantities of snow and rain which fall on the summit would give rise to numerous streams. But the small stones and cinders absorb the moisture, and springs are found only on the lower slopes. The cinders, however, retain sufficient moisture to support a rich vegetation wherever the surface of the lava is not too compact to be penetrated by roots. The surface of the more recent lava streams is not, as might be supposed, smooth and level, but full of yawning holes and rents.
The regularity of the gradual slopes is broken on the eastern side by the Valle del Bove, a vast amphitheater more than three thousand feet in depth, three miles in width, and covering an area of ten square miles. The bottom of the valley is dotted with craters which rise in gigantic steps; and, when . Etna is in a state of eruption, these craters pour forth fiery cascades of lava. The Monte Centenari rise from the Valle del Bove to an elevation of 6,026 feet. At the head of the valley is the Torre del Filosofo at an altitude of 9,570 feet. This is the reputed site of the observatory of Empedocles, the poet and philosopher, who is fabled to have thrown himself into the crater of AEtna to immortalize his name.
The lower slopes of AEtnaafter the basin of Palermoinclude the most densely populated parts of Sicily. More than half a million people live on the slopes of a mountain that might be expected to inspire terror. “Towns succeed towns along its base like pearls in a necklace, and when a stream of lava effects a breach in the chain of human habitations, it is closed up again as soon as the lava has had time to cool.” As soon as the lava has decomposed, the soil produces an excellent yield and this tempts the farmer and the fruit grower to take chances. Speaking of the dual effect of AEtna, Freeman says: “He has been mighty to destroy, but he has also been mighty to create and render fruitful. If his fiery streams have swept away cities and covered fields, they have given the cities a new material for their buildings and the fields a new soil rich above all others.”