Greek Legends of Sicily | The Story of Aci and Galatea
The legend of Aci and Galatea is a tragic love story that tells the tale of a young shepherd boy and a beautiful sea nymph. Galatea was the daughter of the sea gods Dorides and Nereus, and lived in the sea below Mount Etna. The young and handsome Aci would take his flock of sheep to the seaside where he played music while they grazed, and this is how the two met and fell in love. Sounds like the perfect setting for a beautiful love story, right?
Unfortunately, like most Greek Myths, this particular love story does not have a happy ending. Polyphemus, one of the Cyclops who lived on the volcano, fell in love with the beautiful Galatea, but she did not return his feelings. I can’t really blame her, I think I would go for a flute playing shepherd boy over a cyclops any day. But this is where the story turns tragic. The evil Cyclops decided to kill poor Aci as revenge for Galatea’s refusal; the classic murder plot of “if I can’t have her then no one can”.
One day, while Aci and Galatea were in their usual romantic spot near the sea, Polyphemus threw a huge boulder of lava stone at Aci, killing him as he lay in Galatea’s arms! Galatea was no doubt heartbroken, and cried endless tears for the loss of her love. In true Greek fashion, the gods took pity on the pair of lovers and transformed the blood of Aci into a river that flowed to the sea, with Aci emerging as a river god so that Galatea, being a sea nymph, could remain with her beloved forever.
This beautiful but tragic story is how how the river Aci originally got its name. Derived from the Greek word “Akis”, the river has its source on Etna and flows down into the Ionian sea, where the two lovers met and where Aci met his demise. According to legend, the river rises up from underneath a large lava rock, which would symbolize the blood that flowed from underneath the rock that killed our tragic hero Aci. In ancient Sicilian language, the river was even called “U sangu di Jaci” (the blood of Aci), and was sometimes referred to only by the name Jaci. Due to the clay composition of the soil on this side of Etna, the river even has a reddish color in some areas! Many of the rivers in this area have dried up due to lack of rain, or changed course over time due to volcanic activity. I’ve searched for the current location of the river and have not been able to find it. I’m not sure what this means for our two star crossed lovers; if the river dries up, does their story end?
This story has particular interest for me because I live near the city of Acireale, which sits just below Mount Etna on a cliff overlooking the sea. Along the coast here, just north of Catania, there are a total of nine towns that bear the word “Aci” in their names. I was fascinated by this and made it my mission to find out why. In addition to Acireale, there are also the towns of Aci Castello, Aci Trezza, Aci Bonaccorsi, Aci Catena, Aci Sant’Antonio, Aci San Filippo, Aci Santa Lucia and Aci Platani.
Of particular beauty are those that sit along the coast. With stunning views of the Ionian Sea, popular beaches, ancient history, baroque architecture, and fresh seafood, any (or all) of these would be well worth a visit! I will mention three of them here.
This small village sitting on the water’s edge is most known for the Isole dei Ciclopi (the Cyclopian Isles), a rocky archipelago made up of large rock formations. This is a popular place during warmer weather for people to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, paddle board, and kayak. In our story, the rocky islands are boulders that were thrown from Etna by Polyphemus in his attempt to kill Aci. If you want to get technical, they are basaltic columns that resulted from intense volcanic activity, and are thought to have been attached to the island at one point. I think the rock hurling cyclops explanation is more fun, but it’s up to you.
Aci Trezza is also well known in the area for its amazing seafood. This is not surprising, as its history is rooted in the fishing industry. Its name is most likely derived from the Italian word treccia (braid), having to do with the braided cords used by fisherman in the area. There are a multitude of restaurants along the small harbor in town that each offer incredible views of the sea, as well as unique and tasty dishes!
Named for the castle that sits precariously on a rock outcropping, Aci Castello is as picturesque as any seaside Italian village you can imagine. The Norman castle this town is most known for was once an Arab fort, built on an island just off the coast. Over time, the island was connected to the mainland by lava flow and now creates a dramatic and imposing centerpiece to the piazza at the harbor.
Locals and tourists alike gather here whenever the weather is warm: walking along the lava stone promenade, meeting for coffee or cocktails, or just enjoying the views! The castle offers tours and has a museum where you can learn all about the history of the area. This charming seaside town isn’t specifically connected to our story, but it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area!
Acireale, with ancient Greek roots dating back to the 6th century, is thought to have been the first town in the area named after the characters in our tragic love story. Sitting on a plateau perched above the Ionian Sea, Acireale came to be a military stronghold for the various civilizations that settled here over the centuries: the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish, and Arabs to name a few. Its location between Mount Etna and the sea made it an ideal and beautiful location, and thus was the target for invasions as well. For this reason many groups of people left the city and formed smaller communities in the surrounding area, often taking the name “Aci” with them.
Acireale on its own is an architectural gem. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its baroque architecture, there are a number of palaces and churches here to satisfy your romantic cravings. A walk down Corso Umberto from Villa Belvedere to the Piazza Duomo is a feast for the eyes, culminating in a beautiful open square with an inlaid lava stone design, and bordered by the Acireale Cathedral, Basilica of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and the City Palace.
In the cathedral, you can climb up to the bell tower for a bird's eye view of the piazza and incredible views of the city. For those brave enough to tackle these treacherous steps, you will not be disappointed!
Speaking of views, Villa Belvedere, a city park with gardens and walking trails, offers panoramic views of the Sicilian coastline that leave no questions as to why this location was chosen so many centuries ago. As you walk through the gardens you will find marble statues of influential men from the history of the city, as well as a fountain that beautifully portrays the story of our doomed lovers Aci and Galatea.
Just below Acireale is a nature reserve called La Timpa. If you are up for some serious cardio, you can take steps through the nature reserve all the way down to the coast, where you will find the charming town of Santa Maria La Scala. For a more relaxing route to the coast, hop in the car, roll the windows down, and follow the switchback road that hugs the cliffs and offers breathtaking views at every turn. Once at the bottom, you can choose from a number of picturesque towns to spend lazy summer days lounging on rocky beaches, swimming in the crystal clear water, or enjoying a coffee and granita at a seaside cafe.
If you ever find yourself in Catania and are looking for a day trip with a cool story, head out to the Acis; but make sure you watch out for flying lava rocks!
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, please check out my other stories from Sicily!
Graniti Sicily | A Small Sicilian Town Big on Charm
Mount Etna Hikes | Schiena dell'Asino
Caltagirone Sicily | Italian Ceramics Hunting
Godfather Tour of Filming Locations in Sicily
Living in Sicily: First Impressions