black mountain with flowing lava at nighttime

Mount Etna, located in eastern Sicily in the province of Catania, is the tallest mountain in Italy south of the Alps, the most active volcano in Europe, and one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

UNESCO inscribed Mount Etna as a natural World Heritage Site in 2013.

Mount Etna in History

Scientists believe Mount Etna, a stratovolcano, to be approximately 500,000 years old. Its iconic cone shape is probably owed to rising sea levels over millennia. There are radiocarbon samples that date back to 6,190 B.C.

Etna has the longest recorded history of any volcano in the world, dating back to 1,500 B.C. Diodorus Siculus wrote about the 396 B.C. eruption:

But since there had recently been a fiery eruption from Mt. Aetnê as far as the sea, it was no longer possible for the land forces to advance in the company of the ships as they sailed beside them; for the regions along the sea were laid waste by the lava, as it is called, so that the land army had to take it was way around the peak of Aetnê.

Diodorus Siculus, World History 14.59.3
This map from 1634 is believed to be one of the most ancient maps of an erupting Mount Etna. The map is in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma Source

The name Etna is thought to come from a Greek word that means “I burn.” But, according to British toponymist Adrian Room, it may have come from the Phoenician word attuna meaning “furnace” or “chimney.”

There are also many other names for Mount Etna. Mungibeddu is Sicilian dialect for Mongibello (from the Latin word mons for mountain and the Arabic word gebel for mountain — basically “mountain mountain”). Montebello (“beautiful mountain,” which sounds like Mongibello) and Muntagna (Sicilian for mountain) are also used. Another endearing term for the ever-present cone-shaped volcano is “Mamma Etna.”

Why Does Mount Etna Erupt So Often?

City of Randazzo with Etna erupting in background. Photo from 2018 by Alfio Cariola

“Nearly every kind of eruption has appeared at Etna over the millennia,” explains LiveScience. Scientists believe that Etna’s pattern of continual eruptions is caused by “volcanic gases build up inside Etna’s underground plumbing.”

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has many details about Etna, including its eruptive history. The European Catalogue of Volcanoes also has a searchable database of information about Etna’s eruptions.

Paroxysm at the southwest crater of Mount Etna on 18 February 2021

As of this writing, in February 2021, Mount Etna is still going through an eruptive episode that began in 2013. The video below shows a paroxysm, a volcanic spasm “in which the eruption slowly increases, only to end in a strong eruption, whose peak phase lasts only a short time and ends very quickly.”

How to Visit Mount Etna

Despite the dangers of Mount Etna, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in southern Italy.

The Parco dell’Etna, a 59,000-hectare national park, is popular for its nature trails and ski slopes.

The Ferrovia Circumetnea is a regional train line of Catania that almost completely encircles Etna. The 110-kilometer path passes through small villages and towns that sit in the shadow of the cone-shaped mountain, and provides multiple viewpoints of the landscape — from pastures to mountain to sea.

people walking on mountain during daytime

Thousands of years of volcanic activity have also affected the soil around Mount Etna, making it ideal for the cultivation of grapes. Vineyard tours in this area are a must for wine lovers. Consider booking a tour with Etna Wine Lab or Etna Wine School.