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Some Great Greeks

Some Great Greeks

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The Athenian writer of tragedy, AESCHYLUS, went to live in Sicily in later life.
The story goes that he died (at Gela, in 456 BC) when an eagle mistook his bald head for a convenient stone on which to smash the shell of a tortoise that it was carrying.


(born between 500 and 475 BC), one of the early philosophers and scientists, he came from the city of Akragas.
He stated that everything is made of different combinations of four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

He thought that there were two basic forces, Love and Strife (attraction and repulsion), and was  influenced by Pythagoras of Croton, in South Italy, who believed in the transmigration of souls, and it was said that he died by leaping into the crater of Mt Etna.


(writer, about 270 BC) invented PASTORAL poetry and the European pastoral tradition of the Renaissance.

ARCHIMEDES of Syracuse

(c.287 – 212 BC) was one of the greatest mathematicians and inventors in physics and mechanics.
He probably studied at Alexandria in his youth. He wrote essays on statics and hydrostatics, relating to  the circle, the sphere and the cylinder.
He invented the compound pulley and the Archimedes’ screw, used in irrigation. He famously shouted HYPHKA!(Eureka).

 He discovered the principle of water displacement which helped him work out whether the craftsman who made a crown for King Hieron II had stolen any of the gold and replaced it with base metal. He managed to prevent the Romans from capturing Syracuse for two years by inventing new devices – look for the statue in the Palermo Museum that proves this.
The story goes that when the Roman leader Marcellus finally captured the city, and the soldiers came storming through, Archimedes absent-mindedly told them not to step on his diagrams in the sand as he was in the middle of a complicated geometry problem, – and one of the soldiers promptly killed him.

Sicily in Greek Myth

In the days before maps and scientific measurements, and before the Greeks knew much about Sicily, they thought that the lands in the western Mediterranean were dangerous and full of monsters. Homer’s story of the hero Odysseus’s travels after the Trojan War describes his adventures when he is blown off course with his ships into unknown land, to the west of Greece.
There he meets the King of the Winds, Aeolus, who lives on the island of Aeloia, and later called  the Cyclopes (one-eyed, man-eating giants).

After that he comes to another island where a witch-goddess Circe lives: she turns men into pigs and other animals. On his way home he has to pass Scylla, who lurks in a cave on one side of a narrow strait of the sea, and snatches men from passing ships to eat: but if ships go too far to the other side of the channel, Charybdis (a whirlpool) will suck the whole ship down.

This is the choice between Scylla and Charybdis (a bad choice or a worse one), also called" being between the devil and the deep blue sea", or (in the translation of Homer by Chapman in the Renaissance), being between a rock and a hard place.
The Romans liked to think their lands had a place in famous Greek stories, and they imagined that the Cyclopes lived off the coast of Sicily (there were stories of giants being imprisoned by Zeus/Jupiter under mountains after they tried to revolt against his rule, and Cyclopes were supposed to act as assistants to the god of smiths (Hephaistos/Vulcan) when he forged metal to make equipment in his workshop beneath mountains – both stories helped to explain volcanic eruptions: along the southern part of Italy there is a fault line resulting in volcanoes and earthquakes.

The Romans also named the islands to the north of Sicily the isles of Aeolia, and set the Circe adventure in South Italy too.
Daedalus lived long before the Trojan War, according to Greek tradition. He was the most skillful of all craftsmen – nowadays we would call him an engineer. He came from Athens and built the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, as a home for the Minotaur, but because he knew the secret of the Labyrinth, King Minos wouldn't let Daedalus go home. Daedalus invented human flight, escaping in the one way that Minos could not have anticipated. He used wax and bird’s feathers to make wings for himself and his son, Icarus, and warned his son not to fly too high, in case the sun melted the wax on his wings, but Icarus enjoyed flying so much that he forgot his father’s words, flew too high and plunged to his death in the sea which was named after him, the Icarian Sea (the part of the Mediterranean near Crete).
In his attempt to escape from Minos, Daedalus came to Sicily, and was given shelter by a tribal chief called Kokalos. Minos pursued Daedalus to Sicily. He suspected that Kokalos was giving him shelter, so he set him an apparently impossible challenge – to find a way to thread a convoluted shell, but Kokalos came back the next day to show Minos that he had achieved the impossible, and that is how Minos knew that Daedalus really was in his house – only Daedalus could have been so ingenious (the answer involves ants!) Some versions of the myth say that the daughters of Kokalos Killed Minos. Daedalus escaped (of course).

The land to the west is the land where the sun sets – so it can be thought of as the land of the dead. Perhaps this is one reason why Sicily was for the Greeks the place where Hades (Pluto), God of the Underworld, snatched the Goddess Persephone as she was picking flowers, and carried her off to be his reluctant queen. She was the daughter of Demeter, who gave mankind the grain they needed to survive, and when Demeter searched for her daughter and could not find her, she grieved and refused to let the crops grow, until her daughter was restored to her. In this way she forced Zeus to persuade Hades to let Persephone go – but since Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds in the Land of the Dead, she had to return there for several months in the year, which explains the summer and winter seasons.

The Greeks found a strong cult of gods of the world of the dead (chthonic deities) in Sicily when they started their own settlements, so they showed their respect for these gods in Greek form – Demeter and Persephone (or Kore – the Maiden).

The nymph Arethusa was a follower of Artemis (Diana), and of course a virgin like the goddess. The river god, Alpheus, in the area near Elis (the Olympia district in western Greece) fell in love with her when she bathed in the water of his river, and he tried to rape her. She fled to escape from him, all the way to Ortygia at the edge of Syracuse, where Artemis saved her by turning her into the fountain that you can still see today: a fresh water spring gushing up near the sea.
The Alpheus was thought to have flowed under the sea to emerge at this point and claim her lover in watery form, if he could not love her in her original shape. Perhaps the story appealed to Greek settlers from western Greece, who wanted to have a link with their homeland.

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