National Geographic : 1924 Sep
ZIGZAGGING ACROSS SICILY BY MELVILLE CHATER AUTHOR or "THROUGH THE BACK DOORS OF FRANCE," "EAST OF CONSTANTINOPLE," "THE LAND OF THE STALKING DEATH," ETC., IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE THE train-bearing ferryboat floated our Naples - to - Messina section across the straits to Sicily. Behind us, on the Calabrian coast, rose Scilla's castle-crowned promontory. Ahead lay the vast curve of Messina (Zancle-that is, sickle, as its early inhabitants named it), of old the landmark of Charybdis' fabulous whirlpool, "which thrice daily sucks down water and thrice vomits it forth." "Whirlpool?" repeated the ferryboat captain, to whom we had quoted this bit of Homeric lore. "Well, we Sicilians call it garofano" (carnation). "The strait's irregular currents, together with their bastard currents-those running in the opposite direction-cause some half dozen vortices hereabout. Look yonder !" He pointed to a rotating patch of water whose circular shape and flicked-up sur face sufficiently suggested an enormous carnation. Two fishermen, manning a light craft, were breaking their backs to avoid the suction. Presently another current caught them, and they were liter ally rushed across the strait toward Calabria. They had been caught una wares "between Scylla and Charybdis." We had identified Homer's whirlpool! But what of his voracious sea monster, "with twelve dangling legs," who squatted in a sea-cave under Scilla's promontory, devouring sea-dogs? It was Messina's fish market, aswarm with polypi, with their multiple "dangling legs," which gave us the clue. Some early Greek sailor's yarn, plus a poet's imagination, might easily account for Scylla. AN ISLAND RICH IN MYTHICAL LORE But exit romance! For nowadays Scylla, the devourer, is chopped up, stewed in her own sepia, and consumed by Sicilian epicures. At least, one must be prepared to swal low Greek mythology-a much pleasanter dose-if one would understand modern Sicily. We accepted point-blank the myth makers' statements that Cronus and Zeus inhabited this three-cornered island of Trinacria-as the early Greeks named it-during the Golden Age; that Athene dwelt on its northern coast, Artemis at Syracuse, and Ceres at Enna; that Daeda lus, of waxen wings fame, flew hither on his non-stop flight from Crete. Hercules left on Sicily the huge "footprints" which we may conjecture were earthquake fis sures. Ulysses, sailing up its eastern coast, was captured by the Cyclops just north of Catania. And still to-day the little Sicilian shepherd boy hums century old tunes to his nibbling flock, uncon scious that his art sprang from Daphne, the resident muse of pastoral poetry. SCENE OF AN EARTHQUAKE WHICH COST MORE THAN 77,000 LIVES As our train crawled upward and around Messina's sickle curve we glimpsed the roofs of the modern town, rising over the former site, which was earthquake-shattered in 1908. Though there are still vast nude spaces of the artificially prepared basis upon which the city is being constructed, some 80,000 people occupy the red-roofed stucco houses of uniform design, government built, at a cost of $6,000,000. The catastrophe of 1908, beginning with a 35-second shock and lasting with intermittent vibrations throughout a month, affected an arc-shaped zone* 18 miles long and 12 miles at its greatest breadth. The accompanying tidal wave engulfed both coasts of the strait, obliter ating the Sicilian shore line for 60 miles. Ninety-one per cent of Messina's build ings were destroyed, and of its 120,000 people 77,283 perished. In the new Messina one's house must not exceed 23 feet in height and one's garden must attain a certain proportion ate maximum. It is a safety-first city low, wide, well spaced-which exceeds its former total area by 50 per cent and its * See "The World's Most Cruel Earthquake," in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for April, 1909.