Stories from the Italian sea: 5 timeless legends

Nymphs transformed into horrible monsters, deceitful, unscrupulous fairies, and lovers separated forever by the ferocious sea: here are some of the most fascinating legends of the Italian seas.

Italy’s coastlines and seas are the setting of a large number of ancient stories, legends and myths. With tragic tales of love, revenge inflicted by capricious gods and miraculous intervention by saints, Italian popular culture has inherited and embraced many legends that come directly from ancient Greece, ancient Rome and the time of the barbarian invasions. These stories and myths have remained alive in the hearts of the people because they are linked to places that have remained virtually unchanged over time, feeding the imagination and memory of these amazing and captivating events. From the Strait of Messina to Calabria, through Tuscany and the Sorrento coast, here are five of the most marvellous legends related to the Italian seas.



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The myth of Scylla and Charybdis, which is linked to the Strait of Messina, comes from Greek mythology (the Odyssey in particular). Scylla was a beautiful blue-eyed nymph who lived in Sicily (or according to other versions in southern Calabria). One evening, close to the beach of Zancle, where she often used to go, she saw Glaucus, the son of the god Poseidon, appear among the waves. Scylla fled, terrified by the god who was half man, half fish. Glauco then went to the sorceress Circe and asked for a magic potion that could make Scylla fall in love with him. But Circe was jealous, and instead prepared a different potion which she poured in the waters of Zancle.

When Scylla returned to her favourite beach and plunged into the water Circe’s evil potion turned her into a hideous monster that was huge and repellent, with six dog heads and long snake tentacles. Disgusted with herself, Scylla jumped into the sea and went to live in the hollow of a rock near the cave home to Charybdis, another monstrous being, the transfiguration of the daughter of Poseidon and Gea, who had been transformed into a monster by Zeus for stealing oxen from Heracles. Over the centuries the stories of travellers and sailors were animated by this myth and attempts to stay away from these two formidable presences in the Strait of Messina.




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Another myth related to the Straits of Messina. In optics, the Fatamorgana is a form of mirage that is created within a narrow band above the horizon. The Italian name is also known abroad, because it is a phenomenon observed frequently in the Strait of Messina, and refers to the fairy Morgana of Celtic mythology who is said to have induced visions of fantastic castles in the air or on the ground among sailors to attract them and then lead them to death.

Several legends are linked to this phenomenon, and one of them takes us back to the period of the barbarian invasions when a barbarian king arrived in Reggio Calabria. Seeing Sicily on the horizon but not knowing how to get there, he found help in a beautiful and seductive woman (the fairy herself) who made the island appear very close to the king, who immediately threw himself into the sea and drowned.




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The name of the tip of the Sorrento peninsula overlooking the Island of Capri is linked to a legend from Campana. During the Saracen invasion of the Sorrento peninsula, the church of S. Antonio Abate (patron saint of Sorrento) was sacked, and one of the many things taken was a bronze bell.

When the Saracen fleet arrived near the Punta it was hampered by an invisible force and in order to move past it was forced to throw the bell overboard. The story goes that when the bell was cast into the sea, a strong and sudden wind blew, allowing the pirate ship a few moments to go beyond the headland. Legend has it that every 14 February, on the feast of St. Anthony, the legendary bell is heard ringing from the sea (or according to other stories, in the water).



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An ancient legend tells of the creation of the islands of the Tuscan archipelago (Gorgona, Capraia, Elba, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri) and pearls falling overboard from a necklace belonging to Aphrodite, the Roman goddess of beauty and love. According to the myth, Aphrodite emerged from the waters and walked toward the beach where Eros, god of love and sexuality, was waiting.

As she prepared herself for the encounter, the jewellery around her neck broke. The goddess managed to retain almost all the pearls, but seven of them fell into the water. According to the story the pearls remained afloat and began to be populated by plants and animals, creating the seven gems (or pearls) of the Tuscan archipelago, an enchanting area of central Italy.




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Long ago, near Acquappesa, according to legend, there lived a king and queen. They loved each other very much, but perhaps because of a spell, the king was never satisfied with his victories in battle or his successes, and so constant unrest plagued him day and night. Consequently, the queen, who was a sensitive and refined woman, suffered from her husband’s moods and felt responsible for his unhappiness. One day the king left for one of his many expeditions in pursuit of conquest and told his wife that a red light on the horizon would announce his return.

Many days, weeks and months passed. The queen, now tormented by anguish, could not look away from the horizon, and waited and waited for the light she so yearned to see. One day, in order to be able to look a little further afar, the poor queen climbed on top of a large rock, but then lost her balance and fell into the waves, disappearing into the depths. Even today, when the sun turns the horizon red, people say that the spirits of the king and queen have finally reunited near the fatal rock.




Source: Swide, by: Jonathan Bazzi