The Three Legs of Sicily

I love traveling with my kids. They see the world differently; there is always something to wonder about. It reminds me to keep wondering. There are things I don’t notice anymore because I’ve seen them before. And then there are things I don’t notice because I wasn’t paying attention.

During our travels this summer, we spent two wonderful days in Sicily, Italy, a place I’d never been to before. Two days are not enough. It’s a fascinating island—the references to Sicily in Greek Mythology are numerous, there is a lot of history, good food and of course, the Mediterranean Sea. Besides that, when in Sicily, you can’t fail to notice a few things. One, the number of churches. Two, the references to The Godfather. And three, their flag. The depiction on it is everywhere—T-shirts, bibs, you name it.

The Sicilian flag is not your usual stripe/triangle/star equivalent—instead it has three, dare I say, rather shapely legs, and a winged head in the middle. Which begs the question; why three legs? And who’s the head? I was asked these questions many times by my inquisitive ones, but I had no good answer. And I couldn’t call a friend, as I was overseas and did not have cell service. Google was painfully out of reach.

Curious, I looked it up when we were back in the USA. The three legs are a triskelion, which is an ancient symbol. I am not sure why there are human legs involved in the shape, but it definitely catches the eye. There are Greek coins from Sicily dating back as far as 300 B.C. with this three-legged symbol. The triskelion apparently represents the three “points,” or the triangular shape, of Sicily.

The head—shockingly—is Medusa. I can honestly say it would never have occurred to me. I remember reading about Medusa, and she wasn’t that friendly. Adorned with snakes for hair, a set of boar tusks and wings, she was not considered very “pleasing”. So unpleasing in fact, that beholding her appearance would turn anyone into stone.

I was surprised to find that her image was actually used frequently throughout ancient history. It was used to keep evil away or plainly served as a warning, implying the Goddess Athena’s protection. In Sicily’s case, Athena was the patron goddess of the island.

Even in modern times Medusa continues to fascinate us. For instance, she is displayed on the symbol of Versace, but instead the image shows her from before when she was turned into a snake-haired, evil monster and is still a beautiful young maiden: a symbol of beauty, that everyone falls in love with.

Of course, now the cat was out of the bag, and my kids wanted to know who Medusa was. Good grief. Greek mythology is a bit brutal, meaning, I always have to tweak stories here and there (a lot). The challenge is censoring enough but not too much—and shielding my iPhone from my son who desperately tries to read over my shoulder as I go along.

I admit I censored—heavily. Apart from the brutality, the last message I want to convey to my (young) kids is how a woman gets molested (by Poseidon), and then gets punished for it by an angry Athena, who turns her into a hideous monster. So much for justice, female solidarity, or just speaking out in general.

Anyway, that’s just the beginning of the story. Perseus (one of Zeus’ sons) is ordered by King Polydectes, who’s a jerk, to cut off Medusa’s head and bring it to him. The Gods help Perseus by giving him a helmet of invisibility (Hades), winged sandals (Hermes), a sword from Hephaestus and a mirrored shield from Athena. The reflection of his shield allows him not to look at Medusa directly, which is how he gets the job done. After Medusa is defeated, the winged horse Pegasus springs from her body—her child with Poseidon.

Medusa’s head, as it turns out, comes in handy. Persues uses it on his travels to change Atlas into a mountain (the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa) and, when he finally returns home, King Polydectes into a statue. He then gives the head to back-stabbing Athena, who puts it on her shield, so she can turn her own enemies into stone. Which is why the image of Medusa is probably more of a reflection of Athena’s protection than of Medusa herself.

There are different versions of the myth apparently, but this was the one I came across. It’s hard not to feel for the poor woman.

My daughter asked me if Medusa ever lived in Sicily. Good question. I told her I didn’t think so and anyways, I reassured her, she’s dead. I explained that she most likely never existed in the first place, but my daughter believes in fairies and magic (she really liked the Pegasus part, after all, it’s almost like My Little Pony), so I’m not sure I convinced her. I promised her nothing in Sicily would turn her into stone.

My daughter wasn’t so sure. She pointed out how we’d seen Sicily’s volcano, Mt. Etna, and the scars of lava covering the landscape, as evidence of the most recent eruptions.

True enough.

But lava is not all bad. It brings fertile soil. And on the flag, Medusa’s head is surrounded by three ears of wheat—signifying the fertility of the land.

Isn’t it amazing, the stories one flag can tell…

Don’t Wake the Bear

It’s that time of year again. Schools are out and summer has started. I am all for long holidays—since I love traveling—I just wish adults would get the same amount of time off as the kids…

Summer holidays are a great time to get away, but here I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. You see, Michigan is so pretty in summer that I don’t want to go anywhere. This time of year, the weather is finally gorgeous, everything is green, flowers are blooming and Lake Michigan and its beaches are beckoning. Why leave?

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One of my favorite spots in Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We have been there a number of times, because, well, it is beautiful. Lakes, nature, small towns, islands…and of course, the dunes. The dunes are an impressive sight, sitting on top of glacial moraines, they tower 400 feet over Lake Michigan. A sign on top of one of the dunes warns you that, if you feel bold enough to bound, roll or slide down to the lake, you had better be able to make it back up.

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Down, down, down…Those tiny specks on the far left near the water, those are people…

I love to tell my kids the origin of the name “Sleeping Bear Dune”—after all, I do like a good story with a bear in it. Sleeping Bear Dune is named after a legend from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), a Native American tribe that lived in this area. “Michigan” comes from the Chippewa word Mishigamaa—which means “large water.”

The legend goes as follows:

Across Lake Michigan, on the Wisconsin shore, a raging wildfire broke out, trapping a mother bear and her two cubs. To escape, they plunged into the water and started swimming east. They swam and swam, until finally, they could see the Michigan shore. The cubs were getting tired and started lagging behind. The mother bear made it to the beach and walked up a high bluff to look out for her cubs. In sight of the shoreline, the exhaustion on the cubs took its toll. One cub drowned, and soon after, the other as well. Grieving, the mother bear lay down, refusing to leave, waiting for her cubs to return. The Great Spirit Manitou, who witnessed the cubs’ courage, commemorated them by raising an island on the location where each one went under. Then, he placed a slumber over the waiting mother bear and covered her with sand.

The islands from the legend are North and South Manitou Island, which you can see from the shore. Apparently, Sleeping Bear Dune used to have a vegetation-covered knoll on top, that resembled a sleeping bear. It has much eroded since. A beautiful version of the legend, with wonderful illustrations, has been published by Kathy-jo Wargin. It’s called The Legend of Sleeping Bear Dune and was named The Official Children’s Book of Michigan.

This legend has been retold over many generations, preserving the story and the landmarks, even though the actual “bear” may not be recognizable anymore. Hopefully, parks like these will endure as well, and continue to amaze our future generations.

If you find yourself in Michigan this summer, do visit this beautiful area. It’s worth it.