A Missed Opportunity

The BBC reports the discovery (or reclassification) of a huge underwater volcano off the south coast of Sicily, which scientists have named Empedocles. They explain the name in their last paragraph:

The volcano was named Empedocles after the Greek philosopher who hypothesised that all matter consisted of four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

This is inadequate. They ought to have mentioned that Empedocles was from Acragas (now Agrigento), on the south coast of Italy, though further east than his eponymous volcano. He was a local boy, and that surely influenced the naming of the volcano. They ought also to have mentioned that Empedocles had a closer connection to volcanos than any other ancient writer, even the Elder Pliny, since he was said to have died by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna. The legend was once so well-known that Matthew Arnold could title a poem about a dying woman “Empedocles on Etna” with no further explanation (text here). Other notable bits of nachleben are Hölderlin’s play Der Tod des Empedokles (I haven’t read it, but assume a volcano is involved), the postscript to the suicide note of Ryonosuke Akutagawa (author of Rashomon), and the last page of Horace’s Ars Poetica (463-66):

                                        Siculique poetae
narrabo interitum. deus immortalis haberi
dum cupit Empedocles, ardentem frigidus Aetnam

I will tell you the end of the Sicilian poet. Empedocles, eager to be thought an immortal god, coldly leapt into burning Etna.

In researching this post, I ran across Peitho’s Web, which includes a Greek text of the fragments of Empedocles, interleaved with Leonard’s 1898 translation.

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