Question: Where in the world was a mysterious elephant used to predict volcanic eruptions?
Answer: Catania, Sicily
Nobody knows for sure when the elephant U Liotru appeared in Catania. Carved from black volcanic rock, U Liotru may have been there since the days of the Romans, but its material is local and its design isn’t quite like anything found in either culture. Being mysterious in origin was only the start of its mystique; locals claimed the elephant was magic.
One legend says an eighth-century nobleman named Heliodorus was upset at not being chosen as bishop, so he turned to the dark arts, creating an elephant and bringing it to life. The actual bishop was furious at being upstaged by his rival and had Heliodorus burned alive—but when the bishop tried to get rid of the elephant, the citizens of Catania rebelled and insisted it be allowed to stay. (Apparently, they felt no such need to protect Heliodorus.)
By the time of Muslim rule in the ninth century, Catania was well known as The City of the Elephant, suggesting how prominent the statue was. When 12th-century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi mapped Catania, he noted the location of the elephant and said locals reported that it possessed magic powers, specifically that it would wake to alert them whenever nearby Mount Etna was about to erupt. With a mythic pachyderm as protector, Catania naturally chose the elephant as its official symbol when it became a free royal city in 1239.
Five hundred years later, when Sicily’s most famous architect was commissioned to create a fountain in the heart of the city, he appropriated the elephant statue for the centerpiece. He added a marble saddle and placed a nearby obelisk atop the elephant’s back. Vaccari may have been trying to replicate the famous Elephant and Obelisk in the Piazza della Minerva in Rome, but as the Catania obelisk is inscribed with the Egyptian hieroglyphs for Isis, goddess of the underworld, some like to say the architect was trying to bring back Heliodorus to see what more mischief could be made.
6 More Sicilian Legends
- The Golden Lion: A king promised whoever could find his daughter in his castle would win her hand, but if they failed, they’d lose their heads. One man sent his three sons, one at a time, to try. The first two failed and were decapitated. The third son met an old crone who told him that if he was kind to her, she’d help. She made him a golden lion big enough to hide in, and snuck him into the castle, where she made the gleaming treasure a gift to the king. When the king gave his daughter the grand bauble, the prince emerged from the lion, and told the princess why he was there. She told him how to locate her chamber and then he slipped away, so he could return as a proper suitor. He shocked the king by finding the princess, and in the end, the young couple married, and ever after took care of the old woman who made it possible.
- Lucky 13th: The 13th son in a large family was loathed by his brothers because he was always successful, so when the King sought someone brave (and foolish) enough to steal things from an ogre in exchange for a ransom of gold, the 12 older sons volunteered the youngest, hoping he’d fail and be eaten. But 13th, as he was known, was clever: He stole the ogre’s blanket while pretending to be a cat, captured the ogre’s horse by feeding it cake, lured the ogre’s wife into her own oven and cooked her, and then tricked the ogre into entering a barrel, where he was imprisoned. The pleasantly surprised king rewarded 13th with all the promised gold—none of which the young man shared with brothers 1-12.
- Water and salt: A king wanted his three daughters to declare how much they loved him. One said she loved him as much her own eyes, one said as much as her heart, and a third said as much as water and salt. That last answer—seemingly of low value—made him so mad, the king had her killed, or so he thought. She was actually rescued by another king’s family and fell in love with the prince. Her father was invited to the wedding banquet but not allowed any water to drink or salt for his food, and soon he was miserable. When the bride asked him why, he said he was reminded of his daughter’s answer; he finally realized what she meant and he felt guilt for having her killed. The bride changed into the dress she was wearing when he sent her to die and he realized who it was. Seeing his remorse, she forgave him.
- Giufa’s Whistle: Giufa, the village fool, was going to a fair in town and one of the village children asked if Giufa would be willing to bring him back a whistle. Giufu said yes. A dozen more boys asked for whistles and he told them all that he was willing. A last boy gave him a penny and asked the same question, getting the same reply. But Giufa returned carrying only a single whistle for the last boy. When the others complained, he said, “I was willing for all of you, but only he paid for a whistle!”
- The Magic Figs: A king swore that whoever could make his despondent daughter laugh could marry her. A poor shepherd found a ring that made him sneeze every time he put it on. He took it to show the king’s daughter and the king put in on, immediately seized with convulsive sneezing; though his daughter did laugh, the king was furious because he had been made to look foolish and he banished the shepherd. The young man found a sorceress to sell him magic figs: black ones that made you grow horns and white ones that made the horns go away. He paid a cook to feed the king’s family black figs and then, once they were terrified by the sudden appearance of horns, he offered to give them the antidote figs if the king kept his original promise. The king agreed, the kids were married, and seeing how happy his daughter was, the king eventually passed his crown on to the shepherd.
- The Hermit: A hermit was convinced that the innocent were being punished unfairly, so he renounced god. Leaving behind his cave, he set out for the long journey back to city life, and met a handsome youth, to whom he complained about god’s lack of judgment. They got a ride with a mule driver and then stayed at inn together, but to the hermit’s horror, he discovered the youth had stolen the mule driver’s wallet; worse, the lad went on to kill the innkeeper’s baby. When the hermit started to say that this proved his point, the youth revealed himself to be an angel. He explained that the mule driver had himself stolen the money first, and that the innkeeper’s baby had been destined to become a murderer if he’d lived. The angel explained that the hermit simply couldn’t tell the difference between what was just and unjust because he was human. The angel disappeared and the chastened hermit returned to his cave, did penance, and died a saint after all.
Discover the myths, legends, and wonders of a rich culture when you explore Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions.