Sicily has an enormous treasury of myths and legends the result of a three thousand year-old culture and civilisation.
The Myth of Sicily
There are many ancient legends about the island. 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”. To avoid this terrible fate on the eve of her sixteenth birthday the princess, her parents, crying, put her in a boat and entrusted it to the waves.
After three months adrift at sea poor princess Sicily believed that her life had come to an end as she had no more food or water. Her boat was taken by good winds upon a beach at the slopes of Etna – the 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 hansome young man appeared 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. Sicily married the young man, who was 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 loved her so much he wished to call their land Sicily and this has been its’ name ever since then.
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 forming a deep clear pool, enclosed now by a semicircular marble wall and adorned with graceful vases. Within many fish swim, just as the first of Roman orators beheld it; now as then a "wall of stone" protects its contents from the sea. The legend of the fountain is immortalized in painting and poetry and has survived for 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, forevermore united to her in the island of Ortygia.
The Myth of Spring: the rape of Proserpina
The Rape of Proserpina is a myth among the most famous in Sicily. According to the story of the 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 her across the Earth and Jupiter worried, sent 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 this 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.
The Legend of Gamazzita
In the heart of the old town centre of Catania, you can ﬁnd the remains of an old well, called the “Well of Gammazita” because a young girl, named Gammazita, threw herself 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 living in Catania, would often go 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. Gammazita 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 her, so she gave up all hope. She decided to throw herself into the well to preserve her virtue. According to the legend, still today the waters of the well turns red occasionally to remember what happened so long ago. In her honour today Gammazita’s sculpture is situated in University Square.
The Legend of 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 returned 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 could 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. 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", 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 them part of the flock. Once aboard, Odysseus taunted Polyphemus by telling him his true identity and Polyphemus, realising 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.