Exploring new landscapes on foot is one of my favorite activities so, since we’re lucky enough to be in the countryside of Southern Sicily at the autumnal equinox, it seemed like a good time to go for a jog.
It was already ten o’clock when I set out, and the late-summer sun was blazing; good news for the laundry but not for me. No sooner had I stepped outside than my whole body was prickly with sweat. This was despite being covered with a foreign-legionnaire hat, sunglasses, sunblock, long-sleeved top, long running pants and even white gloves. It may be important to ‘celebrate the aging process’ but that doesn’t mean I want to invite it in and serve it hors d’oeuvres!
The first thing I noticed is that there is no shortage of vegetation. In the village itself, the smallest yards seem full of fruiting trees and vines—grapes turning to raisins in bunches, almonds still in their husks, gross quinces, lemons dropping from the branch and degrading prettily on ceramic tiles. Showy flowers burst from unpruned shrubs that explode over high walls—oleanders, hibiscus, jasmine and bougainvillea. Beyond town, in the countryside proper, is the productive rural area. The roadside is are overgrown with sprawling natural hedges: blackberry, prickly pear (rather romantically called ‘Indian figs’ in Italy—fichi d’India), firethorn and some other shrub with nasty two-inch thorns. Luckily, there also more austere, not to say rustic, fences. Beyond these are the fields, some newly ploughed, their soil red-brown, soft moist and full of pebbles and clods for good drainage. Others are well along in the growing process, with neat rows of some unidentifiable crop—rabbage or rape or foreseed or something. There are also fields where the hay had been neatly collected and rolled into bales, reminding me that tonight is the Harvest Moon.
Sicily has been synonymous with fertility for centuries. That was one of the reasons Greeks moved here in droves starting from the eighth century BCE. During the Roman Republic the island was the great city’s main source of grain. And throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance a huge amount of Sicilian cereal was exported all over the Mediterranean, adding to the fabulous wealth of certain shrewd merchants. It’s easy to understand the ancient belief that Demeter and Persephone–the mother-daughter pair associated with agriculture and fertility—were especially fond of the island. Writing in the first century CE, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus confidently gave the exact place where Hades kidnapped Persephone, condemning the world to three sterile months per year. This place (though some say otherwise) was Enna in central Sicily:
“… the Rape of Kore, the myth relates, took place in the meadows of the territory of Enna. The spot lies near the city, a place of striking beauty for its violets and every other kind of flower and worthy of the goddess. And the story is told that, because of the sweet odour of the flowers growing there, trained hunting dogs are unable to hold the trail, because their natural sense of smell is balked. And the meadow we have mentioned is level in the centre and well watered throughout, but on its periphery it rises high and falls off with precipitous cliffs on every side. And it is conceived of as lying in the very centre of the island, which is the reason why certain writers call it the navel of Sikelia. Near to it also are sacred groves, surrounded by marshy flats, and a huge grotto which contains a chasm which leads down into the earth and opens to the north, and through it, the myth relates, Plouton [Hades], coming out with his chariot, effected the Rape of Kore. And the violets, we are told, and the rest of the flowers which supply the sweet odour continue to bloom, to one’s amazement, throughout the entire year, and so the whole aspect of the place is one of flowers and delight . . .” Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 2. 3 – 5. 5. 1 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.)
Agriculture is still very important for the local economy: Sicilian grain is the backbone of Italian staples such as pasta, biscotti and bread. Not only that, but some of the local multi-grain bread I’ve tried is unbelievably delicious, and a few enthusiasts like Filippo Drago are bringing ancient varieties out of plant libraries and back to tables. Apart from grains, the island is proud of its vines, olives, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and honey, and it produces a lot of garden vegetables too. Not only that, but Sicily is Italy’s largest producer of citrus fruits.
After a kilometer or so I turned down a road into a little town where I had a chance to see Sicily’s other great beautiful, myth-making and food-yielding feature—the sea.
Last week, as soon as our train boarded the ferry from Italy to Sicily, we were entering mythic territory, the narrow body of water famously inhabited by Scylla and Charybdis. Messina Strait, whose opposing shores are hardly more than an ‘arrow shot’ apart, is the most likely real location for the spot mentioned in The Odyssey. On one side we have Scylla, originally a lovely sea nymph and Poseidon’s girlfriend. In a fit of jealousy his wife Amphitrite poisoned the water where she bathed and…Scylla changed:
Her voice is indeed but as the voice of a new-born whelp, but she herself is an evil monster, nor would anyone be glad at sight of her, no, not though it were a god that met her. Verily she has twelve feet, all misshapen, and six necks, exceeding long, and on each one an awful head, and therein three rows of teeth, thick and close, and full of black death. Up to her middle she is hidden in the hollow cave, but she holds her head out beyond the dread chasm, and fishes there, eagerly searching around the rock for dolphins and sea-dogs and whatever greater beast she may haply catch, such creatures as deep-moaning Amphitrite rears in multitudes past counting. By her no sailors yet may boast that they have fled unscathed in their ship, for with each head she carries off a man, snatching him from the dark-prowed ship.
A.T. Murray (Book XII 73-101)
On the opposite side was Charybdis–Poseidon’s daughter who took her dad’s side in a spat with Zeus, who objected. She was turned into a giant bladder-monster with flippers and an insatiable thirst for seawater, sucking it all up three times a day, then spewing it out, creating whirlpools. Fortunately for our crossing, both these ladies were in a serene mood, the crossing was quick and the island looked calm and mysterious but monster-free.
Today, during my run, I saw another aspect of the sea—rocky pools of clear aquamarine, a sparkling blue horizon, the mesmerizing motion of gentle waves (nothing like the more energetic Southern Pacific of my hometown). It was so pretty and relaxed it was easy to believe that sea nymphs would like to paddle about in it. The nearby town of Ortygia has its very own Nereid—Arethusa, whose backstory provides a kind of magic underground link with the old home country.
The story goes that Arethusa was originally from Arcadia (in the Peloponnese) and was having a bath in the river one day when Alpheus the river god was passing by and…you can guess what happened next. Arethusa prayed to Artemis, who hid her in a cloud but Arethusa had the fear sweats, which gave her away. Artemis opened up an underground tunnel leading from Arcadia all the way to the island of Ortygia (near Siracusa), where Arethusa emerged in liquid form. Unfortunately, the persistent Alpheus flowed through the sea to reach her and ‘mingle with her waters’. There is a statue in Ortygia by Giulio Moschetti that illustrates this story. I must admit, though, I’ve walked past it about four times and never realized it was anything but Diana with a few deformed Roman ‘dolphins’ cavorting around her.
I plodded along the coastline a bit and took in the sights. A group of cycling tourists stopped at a parked van for refreshments and listened carefully to their guide’s instructions on getting to their new destination. Near the marina a group of construction workers let out a loud cry, possibly related to the fact that a Polizia Penitenziaria van cruised into view a few moments later. A little car drove about 15 km per hour giving a shaggy dog some exercise. In the hazy distance was a single cone-shaped mountain– Mount Etna.
With a glimpse of this I’d seen enough of Sicily to keep me going for a while, and my new shoes were giving me blisters. Besides, there was a bottle of Nero d’Avola waiting for me. I flew home as if my shoes had wings.