Sicily, an island of secrets
The festival celebrates life after death, and in Sicily the contrast between light and dark, life and death, has always been extreme. Though the island, historically, is poor, things have always grown very well here. A drive along some of its long, straight, inland roads – like that from Modica to the hilltop town of Enna – passes huge tracts of unpopulated land, great wheat fields and wild, empty landscapes. From Enna, it is possible to look out in all directions across this vast, fertile island. It is not difficult to understand why so many different cultures wanted to own and occupy it.
The ruins of Selinunte, once one of the most powerful cities in the world, are one of the great legacies left by Sicily’s Ancient Greek colonisers. Sitting on a beautifully unspoiled stretch of coastline, the temples have shielded the area from the kind of overdevelopment that has ruined other parts of Sicily’s shore. The riverside area of land between Marinella di Selinunte and Porto Palo is a protected nature reserve, and from the beaches you can swim out to sea for a view of the ruins from the water or just sit and watch fishing boats bob by.
In 1998, the crew of one such boat, the Capitan Ciccio, was searching for prawns off Sicily’s southwest coast when it found an Ancient Greek bronze statue entangled in the net. Covered in barnacles and strings of seaweed, it emerged headfirst from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. The boat’s captain, Francesco Adragna, tells me that it seemed ‘to dance out of the water’. The piece was worth at least £150 million at auction, but Francesco accepted just a tiny fraction of that sum from the local authority so that the statue might remain in Sicily. The Satiro Danzante, or Dancing Satyr, now has its own museum in the port town of Mazara del Vallo, where it was brought ashore. Undoubtedly one of the world’s great objects, the statue represents a character from classical mythology that accompanied Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, during his drunken rampages. Depicted in the middle of an ecstatic dance, the figure is full of movement, with startlingly white eyes that seem alive.
Sicily was just a satellite of Greece’s empire, but Mount Etna obviously had a huge impact on the Greek imagination, because it was the birthplace of so many of its myths. It’s where Persephone, daughter of Zeus, goes into the underworld; it’s where Zeus’s son Hephaestus (Vulcan is his Roman god equivalent) has his forge. Then there’s the myth about the cyclops Polyphemus. In Homer’s Odyssey, this one-eyed monster threw the top of a mountain into the sea to try to sink Odysseus’s ship – and when Etna explodes, a similar upheaval occurs. Etna is a ‘multi-flue’ volcano, which means that there’s no central crater, so an eruption can take place anywhere. This unusual geology is reflected in the texture of classical myth.
Today Etna is a strange and mysterious place, with dark black stone that looks like somebody’s just given the surface of the moon a going-over with a digger. Because the volcano is still active, the landscape is constantly changing. If you find a slope with the right degree of volcanic matter, you can take giant strides down the side of the mountain, Etna’s rubble shifting in small landslides under your feet. Although Etna is a world apart on Sicily, it encapsulates the island’s extremes. It’s created a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape that seems like it’s all about death, but just a stone’s throw away is the most incredibly fertile volcanic soil, where everything from grapevines to tomatoes flourish and grow.