The Mountain," as it is called by those living on its blackened, scarred slopes, has a mind of its own.

After 52 days of eruption Mount Etna in Sicily--Europe's largest volcano--continues to spew forth pulsating, steaming rivers of flaming red, molten lava that pushes relentlessly downhill, burning and crushing everything in its path and leaving in its inexorable wake masses of barren, black lava stone.

An unprecedented attempt on May 14 by a team of Italian and foreign technicians to deviate the flow of lava appears to have been only partially successful.

The lava, which moves slower than flood waters and without the violence of earthquakes, has been searing the Sicilian night with jagged streaks of fire since the new crater opened March 28.

In time, as can be seen from the blackened deposits left by scores of eruptions over the centuries, feisty yellow, fuchsia and blood-red flowers will poke through the scarred surface to bring some memory of life to the dark, cold moonscape.

Although there has been no human injury, the latest eruption has caused extensive damage to homes, resorts, forests and orchards, prompting Italy's civil protection minister, Socialist Loris Fortuna, to approve the controversial $5 million project to divert the lava's journey down the slopes of the 11,000-foot-high, snow-capped mountain.

While the project has drawn hot debate from vulcanologists in Italy and elsewhere, opposition from conservationists, and mixed feelings from nearby residents, for the time being, an age-old war is once again being waged between man and nature.

Working in gusting wintry winds at about 7,000 feet above sea level, a team of vulcanologists, explosives experts and engineers detonated 900 pounds of dynamite in the attempt to change the lava's course.

The explosion forced portions of lava to branch out in new directions, sending scores of Sicilians with property on the mountain's slopes out with their shovels to construct makeshift barriers, hoping to divert the burning lava.

Almost two months after the start of Etna's ninth major eruption this century, the smoldering magma has oozed about four miles downhill, coming within a mile of the tiny village of Ragalna and three miles of the larger town of Nicolosi.

Five days after the blast, scientists on the spot said that the lava front appeared to have been halted. But the May 14 explosion failed to completely divert the lava flow into a painstakingly built canal. The lava overflowed from the original, natural channel and is now pouring into the artificial ditch at a point farther down the mountain.

Vulcanologist Franco Barberi, who headed the team, defended the blast experiment at a May 18 press conference in Rome. Further action would be taken only if the lava front were to start moving farther downhill, he said.

The French, Swedish and Italian experts involved in the project insisted from the start that the explosives, placed in rock-embedded water-cooled pipes, were too near the surface to further excite the volcano. But on May 15, when ferocious puffs from the mountain's principal crater blanketed scores of mountainside villages with sand and ashes there was some consternation.

"The old girl just won't be bossed around," said a traffic policeman in the town of Pedana with a mixture of irritation and pride. The fact is that years of coexistence with a volcano the ancients believed was the forge of Vulcan, the god of fire, or the lair of the Cyclops, local residents are both eager for control and concerned about its consequences.

"Who knows, really, what they're up to up there," says Providenza Barbagallo, an elderly woman grocer from the small town of Zafferana, who first witnessed an eruption at the age of 4. "We are all in danger."

"These experiments are really worth trying," insists Diego Mazzaglia, 53, from Belpasso, who last month lost his mountainside home, farm and planned tourist campsite to the lava.

"It's extremely important for the future," agrees Nuccio Pappalardo, a registry official from Nicolosi. "If it works then we'll know that in the future there's no need to be so helpless," he added.

So far this century, the closest Etna's lava has come to Nicolosi was in 1971 when it stopped within 600 feet. In the past, however, the town was not as fortunate. On May 31, 1886, the lava came so close that Nicolosi was evacuated although shortly thereafter--some say thanks to a procession carrying icons of three local saints--the eruption ceased and everyone returned home.

In 1669--the year of an eruption so massive that the fiery molten rock reached the sea 18 miles away, destroying a good part of Catania--Nicolosi was completely buried in volcanic ash and was ordered abandoned.

"But the people kept sneaking back, and authorities later had to accept it," said Alfio di Guardio, Nicolosi's civil protection officer. Of about a dozen people questioned, all said they would rebuild in the same spot if lava were to destroy their houses. "This is our home. Where would we go?" asked Barbagallo.

Despite the frequent and sometimes lengthy eruptions--one in 1950 lasted for more than a year--tens of thousands of people still live on the mountain's lower slopes. "We're used to it," in much the same way as "a circus-trainer gets used to his lion," says Nuccio Pappalardo.

One reason for the surprising calm is that despite the vast destruction of property, Etna's eruptions have rarely caused human deaths. A crater explosion in 1979 that killed nine tourists is considered a fluke and to find lava-related deaths one must go back to the 1500s, said a Nicolosi official.