Monday, 27 August 2012

Etna: Mount Doom!

I have been a lover of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" since I was very young, and as soon as I saw Etna I recognised it: here was Mount Doom itself!

At almost 11,000 feet high, far taller than any peak in Britain, Etna dominates the north-eastern corner of Sicily. It is the most active volcano in Europe, and boils over every few years. In the surrounding regions you can find what appear to be enormous fossilised caterpillars snaking out over the ground, which are trails of solidified lava from earlier eruptions. Sometimes they reach as far as the sea.
Vesuvius looks a very feeble mountain by comparison. I am surprised when I am told that the Romans could not understand what was happening when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, since they must surely have noticed the resemblance to Etna. Virgil in the "Aeneid" describes an eruption, which must surely be based on Etna.

When I visited Etna, some years ago, the cable-car up the mountain was out of action, since the top section had been melted in the last eruption. We were driven most of the way up by Land Rover, and then had to walk the last section. It looked, and felt, like a gigantic heap of coke. The air at that altitude was cold, even in August, but we could sense the heat of the volcano through the soles of our shoes. There were layers of snow left over from a previous winter, preserved by being covered in ash: they resembled an extremely dirty Neapolitan ice cream.

This is a view down into the main crater. We could see the floor deep below us, and were not sure whether it was solid or liquid. If we tumbled down the very steep sides into it, would we sink? Constant smoke and steam rose from the depths, clouding the view to the far side. One could imagine the mouth of Hell looking something like this. It was here, according to tradition, that the Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles hurled himself in, to prove he was an immortal god.

"Great Empedocles, that ardent soul,
Jumped into Etna and was roasted whole"

("Matthew Arnold wrote a poem on this subject, but, although one of his worst, it does not contain the above couplet." - Bertrand Russell, "History of Western Philosophy", chapter VI)

This is not Frodo and Sam on the brink of the crater of Mount Doom, though it might well pass for such a shot.

I am refusing to follow the example of Empedocles!

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