The History of Sicily

Myths in Greek Sicily

Sicily was so integrated into Magna Graecia (the Greek homeland and its colonies) that several classical Greek myths have a Sicilian setting. Among the most significant are two that appear in Homer’s Odyssey and the myth of Persephone.

Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla was a sea monster who made her home under a rock on the Calabrian side of the Straits of Messina between Sicily and Italy. On the Sicilian side lay Charybdis, another sea monster. In Book XII of Homer’s epic, Odysseus is advised to navigate closer to Scylla, for Charybdis would surely suck his ship into its giant whirlpool. Having almost navigated the Straits, the Greek sailors were distracted for just a moment, allowing Scylla to pounce and devour six of them.

Polyphemus (The Cyclops)

Polyphemus was a Cyclops, a race of one-eyed monsters, whom Odysseus encountered when he landed in Sicily. The Greeks found Polyphemus’s cave and began to ransack it for provisions, but the Cyclops caught them in the act and imprisoned them in his lair. Eating two of them right away, he promised to feast on the rest as left overs. However, the wily Odysseus managed to get the monster drunk and, while he was asleep, the Greeks blinded him by sticking him in the eye with a sharpened log whose tip they had charred in a fire. When Polyphemus left the cave in the morning as he led his sheep to pasture, the Greeks escaped by holding on to the wooly underbellies of the animals. This episode provides only one example of Odysseus’s cleverness.


The Greek name for this goddess is Kore (the maiden), but she is known more commonly by her Roman name. While frolicking in a Sicilian meadow, she was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld and brother of Zeus. Hearing that Persephone was kidnapped, Demeter, her mother, appealed to Zeus for her daughter’s release. Demeter (her Roman name is Ceres, from which we get the word “cereal”) was the goddess of the harvest, and she threatened to make the earth barren unless her daughter was returned. Demeter was also the sister of Zeus and Hades, so the king of the gods was on the horns of a dilemma. As a compromise, Zeus permitted Persephone to return from the underworld in the spring, thereby allowing the earth to be fruitful for at least half a year. She was to spend the second half of the year with Hades. The myth explains the changing of the seasons.


Figures of Persephone, Museo, Archaeologico, Agrigento