The mysteries of Catania’s Elephant statue
Catania’s Cathedral is located right in front of the city’s symbol: an elephant known in the local dialect as “Liotru” – likely a mispronunciation of the name “Eliodoro”.
Who was Eliodoro? He might have been a Sicilian nobleman who lived in the 8th century, and who according to legend tried to become bishop of the dioceses but failed – so he apostatized and turned into a necromancer and made idols, and was killed on the stake for it.
According to tradition, Eliodoro was the author of the black lava stone elephant statue. Later, architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini restored it between 1735 and 1737 and placed at the center of the square’s fountain, adding an obelisk on the elephant’s back. The obelisk, decorated in Egyptian style, has a few mysteries of its own as it has never been dated with certainty; Vaccarini added a globe and a cross on top of it.
In addition, many have wondered about the reasons why the elephant’s trunk points to the Cathedral of Saint Agatha. Some say it is because locals in the 12th century believed it had magical powers, and could protect the city from Mount Etna’s eruptions.
One thing we know for sure is that whatever led to the strong connection between Catania and the “Liotru” has ancient origins. The statue became an official symbol of the city in 1239, after the people of Catania rallied again and again to have it included in the municipality’s crest; some say its origin goes all the way back to an actual elephant that fought off dangerous wild animals as the city was founded.
“Who built it? And when? Why would a bunch of people go as far as dying just so it would not leave the city? What kind of reward did they expect for their sacrifice? What did the Liotru mean to them? Let’s say it really was one of the last symbols of an ancient worship that went lost in the passage of time. Who brought that belief to Catania? What misfortune did its adepts endure? When did they disappear? Who erased the evidence of their existence, and why? It is hard, if not impossible to answer these questions. The fact that everything about the Liotru escapes any attempt of a definition, and that the only certain traces is has left lie within the exceptional absence of any trace, make it a real ‘monstrum’: something alien, that we can only describe as coming from somewhere else, somewhere completely different. I think this is the core of the matter” (translated from Daniele Zito, “Catania non guarda il mare”, Laterza, Bari-Rome 2018).