The tallest volcano in Europe and one of the most active of the world's fiery mountains, Mount Etna is located by the eastern coast of Sicily. As the summit changes shape with each eruption, so does the mountain's height, but it tends to stay around 3350 metres. Etna's other name among Sicilians is Mongibello. The name combines the Arabic Gebel, which means mountain, and Sicilian Mon', which also means mountain. So Etna, mountain of mountains is the glorious result.
Etna was originally called Aitne, from Greek aitho, 'I burn'. The Greeks had several beliefs about who it was that was burning: Hephaestus working his forge, the giant Enceladus whose rage was burning, or Typhon, a monster with a hundred dragon heads. The latter two were both trapped under the mountain for trying to take over the world and were so angry about it that they periodically made the earth quake and the lava break. The Romans called it Vulcano, after their blacksmith god Vulcan. So now we have the origin of that word. Cyclopes were thought to help the blacksmith god in his workshop. With their single burning eye in the middle of the forehead, they were seen as human versions of the flame-spouting mountain.
At wintertime, Etna's head is veiled in snow, but further down oak and stone pine, birches, beeches, and broom plant cover her surface. Watching human adventurers from their hiding places are also wild cats, lizards, falcons and the occasional golden eagle. The volcano is surrounded by a national park, opened in 1987 and filled with olive, orange and palm trees, more trees, and several flowers. It offers a beautiful backdrop to the huge black cone, which can be seen in a radius of 250 km.
The history of the stratovolcano is long and restless. Underwater eruptions began its slow construction about 500,000 years ago. Numerous fits of passion followed - only in the Antiquity the volcano exploded at least 135 times. Etna held its neighbours in a chronic sway of awe, which turned to mortal dread when in 1669 a great flow of lava destroyed large parts of nearby Catania. In 1910, an eruption changed the makeup of the volcano completely by creating twenty-three new craters, and a 1923 eruption simply refused to cool down, the lava staying warm for eighteen months. Smaller and larger eruptions have been observed from 1500 B.C. until today. The damage ranges from pretty sparks scorching the air to ash falling on nearby villages to violent destruction.
In October, 2002, after a fitful summer, Etna spewed forth streams of lava, setting fire to forests and alarming nearby inhabitants. About a thousand locals were evacuated as the fires and earthquakes threatened their homes.
Etna is still smoking as badly as ever, and may at any moment resume activity. Because the volcano is still untamed, paths and shelters along the way to the summit still look somewhat impermanent. Visiting the main crater is prohibited because of the constant danger of eruption. However, most of the time the stratovolcano is a kind and dignified lady. Visitors are killed more often from the shifty weather conditions (such as getting lost in the fog or being struck by lightning) than from actual eruptions.