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The Etna Volcano

The Bishop of Catania’s Horse

The Bishop of Catania’s Horse

This legend tells the tale of the cruel Swabian Emperor Henry VI, who ruled over Sicily between 1194 and 1197 and who gave power to bishops and dignitaries loyal to him.

The bishop of Catania, was one of the cruel Emperor’s servant. One day, he  gave his most beautiful horse to a squire and to two grooms and ordered them to take the beast for a walk on Etna’s slopes.

On the way, the horse suddenly bolted and started running towards the top of the volcano. Only the squire kept up and the two grooms, tired of the race, preferred to turn back to Catania. This was a fatal mistake for them since, once back in Catania, the Swabian bishop immediately beheaded them.

The squire followed the Bishop’s horse all the way to Etna’s summit; but on the edge of the central crater, the horse jumped and disappeared inside it.

The poor squire began to weep, having lost the beautiful horse. He knew a terrible fate was awaiting for him, if he had returned empty-handed to his merciless lord. Suddenly, he saw an old white-bearded man beside him who said: I know why you’re crying. Come with me and I’ll show you where you can find the Bishop’s horse.

The old man reassured the squire. He took him by the hand and led him to a mysterious passage through the smoke of the volcano, into an enchanting room full of crystal and glittering chandeliers. There King Arthur sat in a golden throne. In fact, according to an old English legend, King Arthur still lives on Etna.

The King told the squire he knew all about him and about the cruel bishop of Catania. He showed him the horse that he the squire had thought dead, and said: Go back to your bishop and tell him that you have been to King Arthur’s court. Tell him also that his cruelty and his arrogance, as a worthy representative of his Emperor Henry VI, have taken their toll in God’s eyes, and that I, King Arthur shall be the one to punish him for his hissins. Tell him that if he ever wants his horse back, he must take it back himself. He must complete the journey to the summit by foot. However, if he doesn’t come within fourteen days, on the fifteenth day he will die.

After having said that, the King  gave the squire a rich cloak and a purse full of money and then dismissed him. Suddenly, the squire found himself again on the edge of the crater. He thought he had dreamt of his encounter with King Arthur, but he quickly realized he still had the cloak draped over his shoulders and the purse full of money in his hands. He made his way back to Catania. When he arrived the cruel bishop did not believe to his words. He even argued that the squire had sold the horse and bought the gifts that King Arthur supposedly gave him himself. But the Bishop was strangely hit by the sincerity of his servant and imprisoned him, instead of beheading him.

For 14 days, the squire was brought to the Bishop for questioning, but he always told the same story, telling him about King Arthur. The bishop did not want to humiliate himself or admit his mistake. Therefore, he frequently sent his knights to scour Etna in search of his horse. But no one found it, nor did they return.

On the dawn of the 15th day, the bishop asked to see the squire. “You’re a wizard”, he accused the squire. Then he told: “You’re mocking me by making not only my horse disappear, but also my knights and my guards. And now, you will pay the price that wizards like you deserve: not the gallows or decapitation, but the stake! Ah, guards, take him and burn him alive!” And saying so he stood up. Sunndenly his eyes bulged, he span around and fell stone dead on the ground.

Arthur’s prophecy had come true, and the Bishop’s torments inflicted on Catania’s people come to and end forever.

Even the ferocious Emperor Henry VI of Swabia was hit by this divine vengeance: he died at just thirty-two years old in Messina on September the 25th, 1197. His body lies in the Cathedral of Palermo, together with that of his wife’s Constance of Hauteville and that of their great son Frederick II of Swabia.