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- Wonders of Creation - 6/15 -


ruddy glare, emanating from the hot materials beneath, and giving to the floor the appearance of being overspread with a fiery tissue, like a spider's web. From the bottom there usually rise one or two small craters of eruption, whence continually issue sulphurous fumes, and which, at pretty regular intervals, discharge showers of stones heated to whiteness.

The exterior of the cone is composed entirely of loose cinders, ashes, and stones, so that the ascent is very laborious. The region of the mountain beneath the cone presents no difficulties, and that part of the ascent may be performed on donkeys or mules. The view from the top is magnificent. The contrast between the desolate aspect of the interior of the crater, and the smiling prospect which may be seen from its edge, has been well compared to looking out of Tartarus into Paradise.

Near Puzzuoli, in the Bay of Baiae, and not far from Monte Nuovo, stand the ruins of the Temple of Serapis, so interesting to geologists. These remains, consisting chiefly of the shafts of three marble columns, still erect, though with a slight inclination sea-ward, afford distinct proofs, confirmed by other phenomena in the neighbourhood, that, since the beginning of the Christian era, the level of the coast in relation to that of the sea has changed twice--the land having first sunk and been then raised again, each time to the extent of upwards of 20 feet. The evidence of the submergence of the pillars consists mainly of a zone commencing at the height of about 12 feet above their pedestals, and extending 9 feet upwards, in which are numerous perforations, made by a marine bivalve mollusc. The upraising again of the ground on which the temple stands, to nearly its original height, appears to have occurred about the time of the formation of Monte Nuovo.

CHAPTER IV.

Mount Etna--Its Appearance and Height-Ancient Eruptions-Pindar's Allusion--Virgil's Description--Subordinate Cones and Craters- Caverns--Val del Bove--Formation of Monti Rossi--Eruption of 1852-- Whirlwinds--Lava Torrents--Cascades of Lava--Description of Crater --Empedocles--Enceladus--Craters of 1865-Cyclopean Isles--Homer's Legend-Volcanic Origin--Other Basaltic Groups

Mount Etna may well be called the Queen of European Volcanoes, so majestic does she look, with her lofty summit glistening in the sunbeams white with snow, yet pouring forth volumes of vapour. This mountain, as you will observe from the annexed woodcut, is altogether more massive in its appearance than Vesuvius. It is about three times higher, rising to nearly eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea, and it has a circuit of about eighty- seven miles at its base.

Etna has been a volcano from time immemorial; but of its more ancient eruptions only vague traditions have survived. The Greek poet Pindar is the earliest writer who makes mention of its activity. He refers to it in his first Pythian Ode, Strophe B, 1. 1. The passage is thus rendered by Carey--

"From whose caverned depths aspire, In purest folds upwreathing, tost Fountains of approachless fire-- by day a flood of smouldering smoke With sullen gleam the torrents pour"

[Illustration: Mount Etna.]

The ode in which this allusion occurs is said to have been written about B.C. 470; and the eruption to which it refers probably took place shortly before that date.

Virgil also describes the mountain very forcibly in the AEneid, lib. iii. 570. Dryden renders the passage thus:--

"The port capacious, and secure from wind, Is to the foot of thund'ring Etna joined. By turns a pitchy cloud she rolls on high: By turns hot embers from her entrails fly, And flakes of mounting flames, that lick the sky. Oft from her bowels massy rocks are thrown, And shivered by the force come piece-meal down. Oft liquid lakes of burning sulphur flow, Fed from the fiery springs that boil below."

Since the one to which Pindar alludes, there have been recorded about sixty eruptions; but in the present century Etna has been less frequently active than Vesuvius.

Owing to the great height of Mount Etna, the lava seldom rises so far as to flow from the summit. It more frequently bursts forth from the flanks of the mountain; and in this manner there have been formed numerous smaller cones, of which several have craters of their own. Hence Etna is rather a group of volcanoes than a single cone; but all these subordinate volcanic hills cluster round the flanks of the great central summit. Etna may thus be regarded as a fertile mother of mountains, with all her children around her. Some of these hills, her offspring, are covered with forests and rich vegetation--such having enjoyed a lasting repose. Others are still arid and bare, having been more recently formed. Owing to this peculiarity in its structure, Etna does not present that conical aspect which characterizes most other volcanoes. Strange as it may seem, there are, on the sides of the mountain, caverns which the Sicilians use for storing ice. Some of these caverns are of vast extent. One called Fossa della Palomba measures, at its entrance, 625 feet in circumference, and has a depth of about 78 feet. This great cavity, however, forms merely the vestibule to a series of others, which are perfectly dark.

Another striking feature of Mount Etna is the Val del Bove. It is a deep valley, presenting, when viewed from above, somewhat of the appearance of an amphitheatre, It stretches from near the summit down to the upper limit of the wooded region of the mountain, and has a remarkably desolate aspect--presenting a vast expanse of bare and rugged lava.

Of the numerous eruptions of Etna, one of the most memorable was that of 1669, when on the flank of the mountain above Nicolosi, about half way between Catania and the top of the great crater, there was formed an immense rent about twelve miles long, from which a vast torrent of lava descended. After flowing for several miles, and destroying a part of Catania in its course, it entered the sea, and formed a small promontory, which has since proved very useful as a breakwater. But besides this stream, there were at the same time thrown up such immense quantities of ashes, cinders, stones, and other matters, that they formed two conical hills, more than three hundred feet in height above the slope of the mountain from which they rose, and measuring nearly two miles in circumference at their base. These hills were named Monti Rossi.

Mount Etna was in activity as lately as 1865; but a previous eruption in 1852 was of greater violence. It began, as usual, with hollow underground rumblings, and the ascent of dense columns of vapour, mingled with dust and ashes, high into the air. These were speedily whirled into enormous eddies by fierce whirlwinds. Two new mouths were formed on the side of the mountain, and these vomited forth immense streams of lava, which rushed with the vehemence of a torrent down the steep. The violence of the commotion increasing, the two mouths were, by the crumbling of the intervening rocks, blended into one, and then huge fragments of the broken rock were hurled to a great height, along with vast quantities of hot stones, cinders, and black sand. Increasing quantities of lava were now poured from the greatly enlarged opening, and these formed on the plains below a great river of liquid fire, nearly two miles in breadth, and between seven and eight feet in depth, which advanced at the rate of upwards of a hundred feet in an hour, carrying before it devastation and ruin. Its course being through a highly cultivated country, the damage it inflicted was immense. This eruption continued for several months, with only short intervals of rest.

[Illustration: Crater of Etna.]

It has more than once happened, that the lava-streams of Etna, in their descent from the crater of eruption, have come to a precipitous wall of rock, over which they have plunged in a cascade similar to that formed by the lava of Vesuvius in 1855, but on a less magnificent scale, as respects the height of the fall. One of these occasions was during the eruption of 1771, and another during that of 1819.

The principal cone of Mount Etna was ascended in 1834 by Messrs. Elie de Beaumont and Leopold von Buch. The former describes what they saw in the following terms:--"It was to us a moment of surprise difficult to describe, when we found ourselves unexpectedly on the margin--not, indeed, of the great crater--but of an almost circular gulf, nearly three hundred feet in diameter, which does not touch the great crater save at a small part of its circumference. We peered eagerly into this nearly cylindrical funnel; but vain was our search into the secret of its volcanic action. From the almost horizontal tops of the nearly vertical steeps, nothing can be descried but the upper cone. On trying to reckon those one below another, vision becomes gradually lost in the perfect darkness beneath. No sound issues from this darkness. There are only exhaled slightly sulphurous white vapours, chiefly steam. The dismal aspect of this black and silent gulf, in which our view was lost--its dark moist sides, along which crept, in a languid and monotonous manner, long flakes of vapour of a sombre gray--the great crater to which this narrow gulf is attached, with its confused heap of diverse substances, coloured yellow, gray, red, like the image of chaos--all presented around us an aspect quite funereal and sepulchral."

The French geologist, in having escaped from his visit to the crater with nothing worse than a fit of the vapours, came off better than Empedocles, the Sicilian philosopher, in the days of old: for, as the story goes, this inquisitive sage, being very anxious to have a peep into the crater, and venturing too near, toppled in altogether, and nothing more was seen of him, except one of his sandals, which was vomited up by the volcano--thus conveying to his friends an intimation of the manner of his death.

Some incredulous persons allege that this story has no better foundation than the fable of the poets, that the giant Enceladus, son of Titan and Terra, having offended Jupiter, the infuriated god first felled him with a thunderbolt, and then put Mount Etna as a sort of extinguisher on the top of him--his restlessness underneath fully accounting for all the commotions of the mountain.

Soon after the eruption which took place towards the end of January


Wonders of Creation - 6/15

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