Getting to Sicily

Ovid clearly knew what he was doing when he made the stories in his Metamorphoses pass through Sicily en route from the mythical origins of the world to Rome of his own day. He begins his work with a claim: his mind induces him to speak of new things, of forms changed into new bodies. The countless myths woven into the poem indeed tell of people whose forms change, but who also retain something of their original identity. Likewise, the Metamorphoses itself is a thoroughly Roman poem, whose sources in Greek literature show through. For a long time I did not understand the extent to which Sicily, too, is replete with things whose old forms can still be detected in the new.

Until recently, in fact, Greece and mainland Italy were my favorite travel destinations as well as the focus of my scholarly interests. Although its archaeological remains surpass those of Greece, Sicily's draw on me was weaker, I suspect, because its ancient cities left behind so few words to re-animate them and allow insights into what their people thought.  Only fragments survive of works by ancient Sicilian authors like Epicharmus, Empedocles, and Gorgias. And yet they were once as well known as Aeschylus and Plato.

In retrospect, at least, this is my excuse for having taken so long to get to Sicily. And even my first trip there was partly a product of chance. By chance I mean that one of my closest friends in junior and senior high school happened to be Italian. To be more precise, her father’s family came from northern Italy, while her mother’s family was from Sicily. She and I have remained friends for more than forty years, staying in contact now mostly by means of emails and an occasional phone call. That pattern changed in 2012. When I learned that an upcoming leave would overlap with the dates of one of her vacations, I proposed a short trip to Italy. She agreed, as long as we went to Sicily.
At the Greek theater, Siracusa, 2012 

Inspired by the prospect of the trip, I read as much as I could about the island. As I probed its complex and rich history, stretching far beyond the Greek and Roman periods, I began both to sense the allure of Sicily and to understand the challenges that this island, planted smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, has faced. It was my experience in Sicily itself, however, which made me a Sicilianophile of sorts. The gentle pace of life there, the hospitality of proprietors of small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, and the generosity of my friend’s relatives in Comiso, all strengthened my resolve to return and to continue to study the island.

Such, at least, is my part of the story of the origins of “Sicily: Crossroads of the Mediterranean,” taught this spring at MHC for the first time. On my own I would not have undertaken the course, covering as it does almost three thousand years of things Sicilian, from prehistory up to the twenty-first century. Chance, however, played its part once again. I was fortunate enough to have an Italian colleague in my own department who also wanted to offer a course on Sicily and who was equally enthusiastic about introducing students to the island. 

So here we are. Next stop: Palermo.

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