The Sicilian Language (continued)


So many things about ancient Sicily are shrouded in mystery. One of those mysteries is the origin of the name Trinacria. Where did it come from and does it have a meaning.

From the field of archeology we know that humans occupied the caves of the Grotta dell'Uzzo in north western Sicily about 10,000 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating. Archeologists have also found implements similar to those found in the Cala dei Genovese grotto on the island of Lťvanzo. (Spoto, 21) Traces of humans were found in the Addaura Caves on Monte Pellegrino near present day Palermo that date from around 7,000 B.C. Sicans appear on the island around 6,000 B.C. Sikels around 1400 followed by Elymians around 1200 and Phoenicians around 1000 B.C. The Trojan War is thought to have occured during this period and Homer's Odyssey is about the adventures of Odysseus on his way home to Ithaca after the war. Everything up to and perhaps including the Trojan War is prehistory. With Homer's epic poems, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, we bridge from prehistory to history.

In 814 B.C. the Phoenicians established the city of Carthage on the coast of what is now Tunisia and in 735 B.C. the first Greek colony is founded at Naxos on the eastern shore of Thrinakiei. These colonists were very familiar with Homer's Odyssey.

The Perseus tool yielded the following Greek texts that use the name ThrinakiÍi. Column 1 of the Greek text is a transliteration to english text, column 2 is the original ancient Greek, and column 3 is the English translation.

1. Homer, Odyssey book 11 lines 104-109
all' eti men ke kai hŰs kaka per paskhontes hikoisthe,
ai k' ethelÍis son thumon erukakeein kai hetairŰn,
hoppote ke prŰton pelasÍis euergea nÍa
ThrinakiÍi nÍsŰi, prophugŰn ioeidea ponton,
boskomenas d' heurÍte boas kai iphia mÍla
 eliou, hos pant' ephorai kai pant' epakouei.

1. Homer, Odyssey book 11 lines 104-109
1. Homer, Odyssey book 11 lines 104-109
But even so, though you suffer evils, you may still reach home,
if you're willing to restrain your heart and your comrades',
when you first put in your well-built ship
at the island of Thrinacia, and flee the violent sea,
and find the grazing cattle and plump sheep
of Helios, who sees all and hears all.

2. Homer, Odyssey book 12 lines 125-130
mÍtera tÍs SkullÍs, hÍ min teke pÍma brotoisin:
hÍ min epeit' apopausei es husteron hormÍthÍnai.
"ThrinakiÍn d' es nÍson aphixeai: entha de pollai
boskont'  elioio boes kai iphia mÍla,
hepta boŰn agelai, tosa d' oiŰn pŰea kala,
pentÍkonta d' hekasta.

2. Homer, Odyssey book 12 lines 125-130
2. Homer, Odyssey book 12 lines 125-130
the mother of Scylla, who bore her for a bane to mortals.
Then will she keep her from darting forth again.
"'And thou wilt come to the isle Thrinacia. There in
great numbers feed the kine of Helios and his
goodly flocks, seven herds of kine and as many fair
flocks of sheep, and fifty in each.

3. Homer, Odyssey book 19 lines 273-275
atar eriÍras hetairous
Űlese kai nÍa glaphurÍn eni oinopi pontŰi,
ThrinakiÍs apo nÍsou iŰn:

3. Homer, Odyssey book 19 lines 273-275
3. Homer, Odyssey book 19 lines 273-275
But he lost his trusty comrades
and hollow ship upon the wine-dark sea,
on his way from Thrinacia:

4. Pausanias, Description of Greece book 5, ch. 7, sec. 3
OrtugiÍ tis keitai en Íeroeidei pontŰi,
ThrinakiÍs kathuperthen, hin' Alpheiou stoma bluzei.

4. Pausanias, Description of Greece book 5, ch. 7, sec. 3
4. Pausanias, Description of Greece book 5, ch. 7, sec. 3
An isle, Ortygia, lies on the misty ocean
Over against Trinacria, where the mouth of Alpheius bubbles

5. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica book 4, line 964
Űka d' ameibon ThrinakiÍs leimŰna, boŰn trophon

5. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica book 4, line 964
5. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica book 4, line 964
and swiftly they passed the mead of Thrinacia,
where the kine of Helios fed.

6. Strabo, Geography book 6, chapter 2, section 1
esti d' hÍ Sikelia trigŰnos tŰi skhÍmati, kai dia touto
Trinakria men proteron, Thrinakia d' husteron
prosÍgoreuthÍ metonomastheisa euphŰnoteron.

6. Strabo, Geography book 6, chapter 2, section 1
6. Strabo, Geography book 6, chapter 2, section 1
Sicily is triangular in shape; and for this reason it was at first called "Thrinacis," though later the name was changed to the more euphonious "Trinacria."

7. Dante, La Divina Commedia, Paradiso, Canto VIII, lines 67-75
   E la bella Trinacria, che caliga
tra Pachino e Peloro, sopra 'l golfo
che riceve da Euro maggior briga,
   non per Tifeo ma per nascente solfo,
attesi avrebbe li suoi regi ancora,
nati per me di Carlo e di Ridolfo,
   se mala segnoria, che sempre accora
li popoli suggetti, non avesse
mosso Palermo a gridar: 'Mora, mora!'.

7. Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradise, Canto VIII, lines 67-75
And fair Trinacria, that's blackened o'er
Not by Typhoeus, but by sulphurous smoke
Twixt Pachynus and Pelorus, on that gulf,
Which most receives the brunt of Eurus' blasts,
Would even now be waiting for its kings,
Sprung in descent from me through Charles and Rudolf,
If evil rule--that scourge of all who live
Beneath its tyranny--had not enraged
Palermo's mob to cry: 'Death to the French!'.
   Translation into English blank verse by Lawrence Grant White

Homer's Odyssey is the earliest text that names the island. The name is also used by Pausanias in his Description of Greece, Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica, and by Strabo in his Geography. These writers span about a thousand years of history.

Now we know the origin of the name, and we learn that it means the island of the three points or capes. The following hard copy definitions came from the scanned online English to Attic Greek dictionary of S.C. Woodhouse, M.A.

Triangle is TRIGONON
Three-cornered is TRIGONOS
Cape is AKRA
Promontory is AKRA
Heights is AKRA
Shore is AKTE


By the time of Strabo (c 58 B.C.-c 24 A.D) the name, Trinacria, is in common use. The cape or point north of Messina, is called Cape Peloro, the one in the southeast, south of Siracusa, is called Cape Passaro. It used to be called Cape Pachino and the nearby town of Pachino still retains that name. The western point, by the city of Marsala, is called Cape Lilibeo.

map of Sicily

The map was scanned from page 32 of the Hammond World Atlas of 1988. On the left you can see the tip of Tunisia which is about 95 miles southwest of Sicily. On the right you see the Strait of Messina that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. Scylla is on the Sicilian side and Charybdis is on the Italian side.

Given the Greek mythology, I can imagine their joy the first time Greek sailors successfully navigated the straits of Scylla and Charybdis in their boats. Even today with our motorized ships it's an impressive stretch of water with a fast current. As lush as Sicily is today, imagine how it must have looked to those first sailors who saw it when all the forest watersheds were full and all the rivers ran deep.

Odysseus has to pass Sicily on his way back to Ithaca and he is cautioned by the god Circe not to molest the cattle and sheep of Helios that are pastured on the island of Thrinakie. Unfortunately his men do steal some of the cattle and as a result the ship and all his men are destroyed by a thunderbolt. Only Odysseus survives.

Of course the cattle and sheep of Helios, the Sun, were pastured on Sicily. Why wouldn't the Sun have picked the choicest place to pasture his herds? Those of us who are fortunate enough to have visited Trinacria understand.

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Last updated 8/20/11