“Cyclops pursued and hurled a massive rock, torn from the hill, and though its merest tip reached Acis, yet it crushed and smothered him.” This excerpt from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is as good a place as any to start discovering how much Greek mythology was set in Sicily. The extract comes from the story of Acis (a mortal youth) and Galatea (a Nereid sea goddess) whose love so infuriated Polyphemus on the foothills of Mount Etna that he killed the unfortunate Acis. Galatea, taking pity on her lover, turned him into a gushing river running all the way down from the volcano to the Ionian Sea where the two lovers were thus forever reunited. The present day River Aci forks in several places before arriving at its destination and the towns that find themselves on these branches are Aci Castello, Aci Trezza, Acireale, Aci Catena, Aci San Antonio and Aci Bonaccorsi.
Visitors to two of the Acis, Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, will notice a group of large rocks emerging from the sea, testimony to another of Polyphemus’ apoplectic outbursts of violence: “Rage rose up in him at my (Odysseus) words. He wrenched away the top of a towering crag and hurled it in front of our dark-prowed ship. The sea surged up as the rock fell into it; the swell from beyond came washing back at once and the wave carried the ship landwards and drove it towards the strand.” Of course we all know that Odysseus escaped, but the rocks remain today for all to see.
A great many other mythological characters visited or lived in Sicily: Persephone was abducted by Hades near Enna in the Sicilian hinterland, Arethusa, originally an Arcadian nymph, fled the amorous advances of the river God Alpheios and ended up as a spring in Siracusa, Charybdis, the water sucking daughter of Poseidon created the dangerous whirlpools that almost sank Odysseus while passing through the Straits of Messina, Hephaestus was believed (at least by Greeks in the Sicilian colonies of Magna Grecia) to have his forge in Mount Etna, and Aiolos, the God of Winds resided in the Aeolian Islands.
Meanwhile, Dionysus (aka Bacchus), so the story goes, came across a strange, unknown plant during his voyage to Sicily. Curious, he took an example with him and on arrival planted it. The plant was of course a vine! So the next time you pop open a bottle of wine, spare a thought for Dionysus and Sicily!