Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews     entry June 2010; box added Aug 2019       

1. V
esuvius—etymology (directly below)  2. Mt. Somma

I think my original question was

Daddy, what did the Greeks call Mt. Vesuvius when they got here?
Well, the gas molecules in the air scatter the light from the sun and...
Hey, that's what you said when I asked why the sky was blue!
I know, but that's the only answer I have to silly questions. Now, be quiet and let me drive.

It may be, according to at least some sources, that the Greeks called it Somma, as in "summit"—in other words, "the mountain." It is not uncommon in many languages to call the most important something The Something. Other mountains have names—Harry, Bob—but this one is simply THE MOUNTAIN. It's archetypal and ominous. You can hear it rumbling. Even modern Neapolitan dialect may refer to Vesuvius as la muntagna. Indeed, the complete name of the most famous volcano in the world is the Somma-Vesuvius volcanic complex. It is a composite, really, made up of an older volcano, Monte Somma, the activity of which ended with the great eruption of 79 AD and a summit caldera collapse, producing the more recent cone, Vesuvius, contained within the caldera. Thus, before the great eruption, it was Mt. Somma; yet, there are ample Roman references to "Vesuvius" from before the great eruption. So, did they use both names? Or was there a gradual change from one to the other? Probably both.

One of those "some sources" I am reading is Diario del Monte Vesuvio by Giovanni P. Ricciardi.1 He simply says, "Mt. Somma, Vesuvius to the Romans...." So, it seems straightforward. The Greeks called it "mountain" or "summit" and the Romans came along and called it Vesuvius, so we just have to figure out what Vesuvius means. But wait. A few paragraphs later, Ricciardi cites a fascinating passage from Berossus, the Babylonian historian, a rough contemporary of Alexander the Great. Berossus claims that one of the ancient kings of Assyria (in the year 1894 BC [sic!]) used "Vesuvius" in a reference to the fiery zones of Italy.2

Ricciardi is a nuclear physicist with a passion for volcanoes,  earthquakes, and, no doubt, accuracy. His quotes from Latin references to Vesuvius before the great eruption are fascinating: there are a number of references to Vesuvius as the site of the battle against Spartacus, and there are even a few comments on the morphology of the area to the effect that this thing looks as if it must have been a real volcano at one time or another! But Vesuvius must have been quiet for some time since there are no Latin or earlier Greek references to an eruption. Ironically, even Pliny the Elder, who listed active volcanoes in his Natural History, didn't mention the volcano that ultimately killed him in 79 AD.

I wonder why Ricciardi drops in the Berossus citation at the beginning of an otherwise legitimate list. As a scientist, he surely knows that literary types simply make stuff up. Thus it is with the Beroso Antiquity citation. It's a fake, written in 1498 by Annius of Viterbo, a Dominican friar and one of the great literary con-men of the Italian Renaissance.  There may be some thrice-removed fragments from Beroso in existence, but they are all about the history of Babylonia. If he knew that the Greeks living in Neapolis in 300 BC called the volcano something other than the mountain in 300 BC, whatever he may have written about that has not survived. And any reference to what it was called by Italic tribes in 2000 BC is totally spurious. Not that it's not a good story.

Maybe the simplest answer is the most plausible. Roman writers used Vesuvius as well as Vesevius, Vesvius, and Vesbius. There happen to be Indo-European linguistic roots such as wes- and ves- that have to do with fire, hearth, light, etc. (As in the vestal virgins, guardians of the sacred flame in the temple of Hestia, goddess of the hearth.) So, mountain of fire, perhaps, driven by a religious need to move beyond the ugh-mountain! caveman stage of toponomastics to something a bit more imperial-sounding. There are other plausible derivations from similar roots that suggest "unquenchable" or "hurling violence." But deriving roots from languages that no longer exist is tricky business, and I am happy with ves- and mountain of fire as an early Roman coinage, although it does seem a bit too violent for a mountain that had not erupted in hundreds of years. Maybe it was more on the order of nice peaceful hearth and that's just the way we like it.

There are certainly other, more fanciful etymologies:

—from a Roman mispronunciation of the Greek for "Son of Zeus," referring to Hercules, closely connected to Greek mythology in the Bay of Naples;

—from the Latin expression Vae suis! (roughly: Man, are we in trouble now!). That explanation was current around the time of the great eruption of 1631. It, too, is a good story, like the one with the Assyrian king, but on a scale of one to ten? Minus 6.

(1. Published by the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology of the Vesuvius Observatory, Edizioni scientifiche e artistiche, Naples 2009). 

(2. The complete bibliographic citation is Beroso, Caldeo [Chaldean, i.e. Babylonian] Antichità, da frammenti di Beroso Caldeo e di altri antichi scrittori, cap V. 1823. Naples.)  

2. The green box, below, contains an excerpt from Marius Kociejowki's [MK] upcoming book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples. It is from the last chapter entitled "An Infinitesimal Particle of the Vegetal Universe". For the purposes of this brief excerpt, note that Mt. Somma is the left side of this once single-cone volcano. There are communities that live on or near Mt. Somma. Note also that the most important event in the history of those communities since the great eruption of 79 AD
was the advent of Christianity and especially the veneration of the Blessed Virgin within the Roman Catholic communities (almost everyone). The author tells of his trip to one of those communities on Mt. Somma to witness a ritual (not a reenactment, the real thing!) involving the paranza [brotherhood] d’Ognundo and the ritual to place the pertica (a wooden plank) at the highest part of tree to
"bind together all the elements of the universe and admit the Madonna into our presence," to fuse the community and that which is divine and eternal. With that... The Madonna Tree.

I nicknamed this article "The Madonna Tree." The author does not use that term. My reference index term in the excerpt table below is the same as the author's original in the book. Thus,

An Infintesimal Particle

My journey ends here, as I knew it must, where the ‘hot’ mountain, Vesuvius, and the ‘cold’ mountain, Monte Somma, meet. Originally they were one; a single ancient image of the solitary mountain survives, a fresco from the Casa del Centenario in Pompeii, which now is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples...

...The sun at its zenith, Lucio’s body slackened as he took the pertica in his hand, as if suddenly, exposed and vulnerable and realising the gravity of the task ahead of him, he had for just that instant become the child he once was, the child Sabatino once was, the child Zì Gennaro once was, the children all the elders of this particular tribe once were. Maybe this is what men who are about to be sent into battle are like in the seconds before they drum up courage. Will Lucio ever see himself in these words as I saw him then? Were these eyes of mine faulty?

At the signal of Sabatino’s baton the musicians started, instantaneously, among their number Mimmo, the village simpleton who could only blather, but who was so perfect in his timing on the triccaballacche it might have been his sole purpose in life to play as if this alone would make him noble. And so, to the rhythmic sound of the tammorra, the triccaballacche, the putipù and the scetavajasse, Lucio, all power now restored, strode towards the enormous chestnut tree and climbed a wooden ladder propped against it, a ladder such as peasants have always made -- tapered, beautiful in its simplicity -- a ladder as Jacob might in his dream use to climb to heaven, and up he rose, higher and higher, clambering from branch to branch, so heroic against the noonday sun, and when he got as high as it was possible for him to go he tied the pertica to the uppermost branch of the tree, the process of ritual grafting known as innesto, which binds together all the elements of the universe and admits the Madonna into our presence. A job done, mission accomplished: the pertica was now her. (image, left)
At the end of the pertica fluttered the Italian flag that Zì Gennaro’s wife had sewn. When Lucio climbed down and walked towards the crowd waiting for him at a respectful distance he began to tremble from the release of a whole year’s cares. All that had been exorcised from within him was now on the surface of his face, as if this is what happens when flesh enters another dimension. It used to happen with the first astronauts who went into outer space. The older members of the paranza had tears rolling down their cheeks because they, too, had been waiting for a mighty release.
Lucio and Sabatino, father and son, threw their arms around each other, the beating of the tammorra getting louder and louder, as if to say, Your task is done. We must dance. We must eat. We must drink. We may do as we like because the Madonna is here. The tammurriata began, the watchers forming a circle, just as Marcello Colasurdo described it, inside of which time and space were annulled, annulled because the Madonna loves timelessness and because only then can her people get close to her. They danced as the ancients would have danced, the rhythm very much as it always was, and then they settled at the long tables for a banquet and what a banquet it was, a banquet worthy of Mamma Schiavona with her ruddy cheeks, a no-nonsense girl straight from the farm. Was this a miracle? Yes, of course it was. What is ritual but induced miracle? Whether Christendom alone was responsible for it I’m not entirely sure...
...What were those words, again, about looking into the fire? When earlier I’d asked Lucio Albano whether the fire would tell me things that are going to happen or the things I ought to know, he replied,
‘The things you need to know. It doesn’t predict the future. Whatever you wish to see, you’ll see. Nature will tell you things, but first you have to empty yourself. You have to allow for the creation of a space. Only then will you see them, whether they be in the form of silence or voices or actions. All manifestations of nature ― flowers, trees, fire, water ― you must learn how to read them and then you’ll know what you need to know.’
So much seems to be wrapped up in that single sentence and yet, as with fire, it is hard to pin one’s thoughts to a single place. Something, though, made me stare into the distance, a pale smudge on the horizon, the glimmer that was Naples. All my friends and acquaintances down there, what were they up to now? They, too, are heirs to an infinitesimal part of the vegetal universe. And now, while I sit at my desk in London, old words fly back at me. ‘They want, and deserve, deliverance.’ Sunlight danced over Mariagrazia’s silvered eyelids. A cool breeze in the air, we had to keep shifting our chairs to stay in the sunshine.

Il fuoco parla se lo osservi lui ti dice le cose.
The fire speaks; if you look at it, it tells you things.

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts on Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item from MK (after #15).

Ch.1 - introductionCh.2 - An Octopus in Forcella  Ch.3 - Listening to NaplesCh.4 - Lake Averno -
Ch.5 - Street music - Ch.6 - LeopardiCh.7 - R. di Sangro  - Ch.8 - Old Bones - Ch.9 - The Devil -
Ch.10- Signor Volcano - Ch.10(2) (3)- Ch. 11- Pulcinella - Ch.12 - Boom - Boom (2) - Ch.13 - Two Women -
Ch. 14- The Ghost Palace -  Ch. 15- An Infintesimal Particle (above) -     (extra) R. Carbone, photographer .

                          to science portal                   main entry on Vesuvius                to top of this page 

© 2002 - 2023