1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Etna

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ETNA (Gr. Αἴτνη, from αἴθω, burn; Lat. Aetna), a volcano on the east coast of Sicily, the summit of which is 18 m. N. by W. of Catania. Its height was ascertained to be 10,758 ft. in 1900, having decreased from 10,870 ft. in 1861. It covers about 460 sq. m., and by rail the distance round the base of the mountain is 86 m., though, as the railway in some places travels high, the correct measurement is about 91 m. The height cannot have been very different in ancient times, for the so-called Torre del Filosofo, which is only 1188 ft. below the present summit, is a building of Roman date. The shape is that of a truncated cone, interrupted on the west by the Valle del Bove, a huge sterile abyss, 3 m. wide, bounded on three sides by perpendicular cliffs (2000 to 4000 ft.). Its south-west portion, which is the deepest, was perhaps the original crater. There are also some 200 subsidiary cones, some of them over 3000 ft. high, which have risen over lateral fissures. On the slopes of the mountain there are three distinct zones of vegetation, distinguished by Strabo (vi. p. 273 ff.). The lowest, up to about 3000 ft., is the zone of cultivation, where vegetables, and above them where water is more scanty, vines and olives flourish. Owing to its extraordinary fertility it is densely populated, having 930 inhabitants per sq. m. below 2600 ft., and 3056 inhabitants per sq. m. in the triangle between Catania, Nicolosi and Acireale. The next zone is the wooded zone, and is hardly inhabited, only a few isolated houses occurring. The lower part of it (up to about 6000 ft.) consists chiefly of forests of evergreen pines (Pinus nigricans), the upper (up to about 6800 ft.) of birch woods (Betula alba). A few oaks and red beeches occur, while chestnut trees grow anywhere between 1000 and 5300 ft. In the third and highest zone the vegetation is stunted, and there is a narrow zone of sub-Alpine shrubs, but no Alpine flora. In the last 2000 ft. five phanerogamous species only are to be found, the first three of which are peculiar to the mountain: Senecio Etnensis (which is found quite close to the crater), Anthemis Etnensis, Robertsia taraxacoides, Tanacetum vulgare and Astragalus siculus. No trace of animal life is to be found in this zone; for the greater part of the year it is covered with snow, but by the end of summer this has almost all melted, except for that preserved in the covered pits in which it is stored for use for cooling liquids, &c., in Catania and elsewhere. The ascent is best undertaken in summer or autumn. From the village of Nicolosi, 9 m. to the N.W. of Catania, about 7 or 8 hours are required to reach the summit. Thucydides mentions eruptions in the 8th and 5th centuries B.C., and others are mentioned by Livy in 125, 121 and 43 B.C. Catania was overwhelmed in 1169, and many other serious eruptions are recorded, notably in 1669, 1830, 1852, 1865, 1879, 1886, 1892, 1899 and March 1910.

According to Lyell, Etna is rather older than Vesuvius—perhaps of the same geological age as the Norwich Crag. At Trezza, on the eastern base of the mountain, basaltic rocks occur associated with fossiliferous Pliocene clays. The earliest eruptions of Etna are older than the Glacial period in Central and Northern Europe. If all the minor cones and monticules could be stripped from the mountain, the diminution of bulk would be extremely slight. Lyell concluded that, although no approximation can be given of the age of Etna, “its foundations were laid in the sea in the newer Pliocene period.” From the slope of the strata from one central point in the Val del Bue he further concluded that there once existed a second great crater of permanent eruption. The rocks erupted by Etna have always been very constant in composition, viz. varieties of basaltic lava and tuff containing little or no olivine—the rock type known as labradorite. At Acireale the lava has assumed the prismatic or columnar form in a striking manner; at the rock of Aci it is in parts spheroidal. The Grotte des Chèvres has been regarded as an enormous gas-bubble in the lava. The remarkable stability of the mountain appears to be due to the innumerable dikes which penetrate the lava flows and tuff beds in all directions and thus bind the whole mass together.

From the earliest times the mountain has naturally been the subject of legends. The Greeks believed it to be either the mountain with which Zeus had crushed the giant Typhon (so Pindar, Pyth. i. 34 seq.; Aeschylus, Prometheus Vinctus, 351 seq.; Strabo xiii. p. 626), or Enceladus (Virgil, Georg. i. 471; Oppian, Cyn. i. 273), or the workshop of Hephaestus and the Cyclopes (Cic. De divin. ii. 19; cf. Lucil., Aetna, 41 seq., Solin, 11). Several Roman writers, on the other hand, attempted to explain the phenomena which it presented by natural causes (e.g. Lucretius vi. 639 seq.; Lucilius, Aetna, 511 seq.). Ascents of the mountain were not infrequent in those days—one was made by Hadrian.

See Sartorius von Waltershausen, Atlas des Ätna (Leipzig, 1880); E. Chaix, Carta Volcanologica e topographica dell’ Etna (showing lava streams up to 1892); G. de Lorenzo, L’Etna (Bergamo, 1907).