…the shattered side
Of thund’ring Etna, whose combustible
And fueled entrails thence conceiving fire,
Sublimed with mineral fury, aid the winds
And leave a singèd bottom all involved
With stench and smoke…
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Now let hot Aetna cool in Sicily
And be my heart an ever-burning hell!
William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
Some say its name derives from aitho, the Greek for ‘I burn’, others that it is a corruption of attuna, the Phoenician word for ‘furnace’. For poets, Etna, the highest and most active volcano in Europe, has long been the embodiment of Hell. But, as you walk up its slopes, you realize that this is not a Hell of fire and brimstone (except, perhaps, when Etna is actually spitting fire and brimstone) but, rather, a Hell of cold, bleak, raw desolation; but one that is strikingly beautiful, in an ethereal, otherworldly way.
As you climb, the earth beneath is an unearthly black, and becomes increasingly so, the work of centuries of lava and ash. The lower slopes bear vineyards (producing some of the best wines in Italy), and vegetation, some of which is unique to Etna. Along the way are remains of buildings not quite buried in the volcano’s fury, too hefty to be ghostly, but spectral nonetheless. As you get closer to the summit, life disappears – not a plant, nor a bird, nor even a sound except for the rush of the wind. The ground is punctuated by fissures and craters. The blackness of the earth is streaked with red and purple and orange and yellow, from the sulphur and cobalt exuded by countless eruptions. The air is almost freezing, but in places the ground can be almost too hot to touch. From below rises steam and smoke, from above descends mist and cloud.
We did not reach the actual summit (few are allowed that close to the live volcano). But we did walk to the crater created by the 2002 eruption, red and black and smoky and misty and brooding and bewitching in its strangeness.
In Paradise Lost, Satan asks
‘Is this the region, this the soil, this clime’,
Said then the lost Archangel, ‘this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?’
On Etna, though, one never quite loses that celestial light, nor is ever bereft of Heav’n.