Last Word: Earth, Air, Water, Fire
We made our landfall on Aiolia Island,
domain of Aiolos Hippotades,
the wind king dear to the gods who never die —
an isle adrift upon the sea, ringed round
with brazen ramparts on a sheer cliffside.
By Christopher Camuto
The ancient gods lived well. In the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Vulcan worked his forge on Isola Vulcano, while volatile Aeolus governed the four winds from his palace atop those cliffs on Isola Lipari that so impressed Homer. Aeolus welcomed Odysseus and bade the Greek hero recount for him the story of the Trojan War. After a month of feasting, they parted amicably, but soon there was trouble, as there always is in stories.
The Aeolian Islands have been one of the great crossroads of the world since the upper Paleolithic. A major source of obsidian — volcanic glass — Lipari has been a trading post for at least 12,000 years. Etruscans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Arabs and Romans taught themselves how to negotiate this striking volcanic archipelago, a gathering of seven major islands — Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Alicudi and Filicudi.
The Aeolian Islands are the most stunning vantage on myth, nature and history that I know. The gleaming origins of the Western mind in pre-Socratic philosophy was whetted to a working edge against the spare beauty of this landscape, a dramatic display of the four elements — earth, air, water, fire — that science and poetry have pondered for millennia. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Zeno, Empedocles and other poet-philosophers of Magna Graecia studied the nature of nature, as well as the relation of words and things, in this beautiful part of the world.
The islands reward all sorts of study. Take a night hike up to the fiery crater of Stromboli and look into red eye of the working earth. Sail in the evening just to watch the strange shapes of islands familiar to classical antiquity darken as the sun disappears into the Mediterranean. Join the passeggiata on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Lipari and the late night bustle on the quay at the Marina Corto. Brave a severe mezzogiorno and climb among the scrub oak and maquis on the slopes of Monte Fossa delle Felci flushing Sardinian warblers and blue rock thrush as you go. Wake early in a white room in a white house on Isola Salina stirred by Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn blooming behind Isola Panarea, while corn buntings and blackbirds stir in the gardens and lemon groves below. One boards the ferry back to Naples with regret.
I keep a chunk of obisidiana—haggled from a street kid on the worn steps to Lipari old town — on my desk in Bucknell Hall as a reminder to return. When students ask about it, I give them an earful.
Supported by International Research travel funds, Professor Camuto is writing a memoir about southern Italy and Sicily — the native country of his grandparents — and a book about the relation of pre-Socratic philosophy to landscape and nature.