Bartholomew the Englishman

On Mountains

Introduction by Juris Lidaka

Bartholomew says: "Aetna is a mountain on the island of Sicily, from which fire erupts with sulfur, as Isidorus says in book 14 chapter 6. This mountain has, on the side which the Eurus or Affricus blows, caves full of sulphur which extend all the way to the sea, caves which, when they receive waves into themselves, make wind, which, having been agitated, brings forth fire from the sulphur, and for this reason smoky fire from this mountain often contaminates the ground. This is what Isidore says.

"And certain shapes are said to appear often on this mountain and the groaning of Aetna and mournful voices are often heard by the inhabitants of the land around the mountain: as a result of which it is believed by the majority of people, that there are places of punishment there in which souls are punished; nevertheless, I do not assert this. But blessed Gregorius appears to make a mention of this in his dialogue."

Original Latin

A Fiery Nymph

In Classical mythology, Mt. Aetna was named after the Sicilian nymph Aetna. There Hephaistos (Vulcan, in Latin) made thunderbolts for Zeus (Jupiter). Enkelados, disabled by Athena’s spear in the war between the Titans and the Gods, was buried alive, causing earthquakes when he rolled in pain.

Those "pagan" days being over by the thirteenth century, Bartholomew turns to Isidore of Seville to explain that the largest active European volcano was in his days seen as a possible analogue to Hell. Other tales just make it the entryway. Either way, brimstone -- and hence sulfur -- is involved. As Bartholomew notes, Gregory the Great’s fourth Dialogue does, indeed, refer to “gaping gulfs of torments, casting out fire continually” at Sicily, but Gregory does not explicitly name Aetna.

How are mountains made?

Bartholomew's account of mountain-building is far different than ours and makes no mention of plate tectonics. Instead medieval thinkers believed that the world was first made as a perfect sphere. They supposed that the waters (created the second day) must have washed away the soft parts and thus left the hard parts as mountains. Soft parts within the mountains also washed away, making way for springs.

Having erupted now for 500,000 years, Mt. Aetna itself is Europe's tallest volcano and also one of the most active. Aetna's caves are also the stuff of myths, since they are the only caves in Europe of volcanic origin, and they are huge. The "Cave of Ices" is approximately 2,000 meters high.