Lake Averno, just up the coast from Naples near Pozzuoli, is so bound up with our Western mythology and history that it's difficult to think of it as the focus of a court battle. What is to become of this major arena of Greek mythology, also one of the training lakes for the Roman western fleet and, then, the entrance to the underworld for Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy?
The stench connected with the mythological fires and the very real sulfur fumes in the vicinity shed some popular etymological light on a few items: the name "Averno," itself, may come from "Aorno", from Greek, meaning "without birds" (they avoid the fumes). Thus, "Averno" gives us the related words "inferior," and "infernal" meaning, here, the entrance to the underworld.
After 10 years of litigation, a local court may be on the verge of deciding if and how the entire area is to be protected from encroaching and illegal overbuilding and turned into the protected national treasure it deserves to be.
In the middle of the 1300s, the Angevin rulers of Naples gave the lake to the Monastery of Santa Chiara. Then, in 1798 the Bourbon ruler of Naples, Ferdinand IV, transferred that ownership to Juliano Pollio—a doctor—apparently as a reward for medical services. The lake remained in the Pollio family until 1991, when the legal machinery geared up to expropriate the property as a national treasure. The decision on just how expropriation should take place—in other words, who gets compensated for what?—has turned into a 10-year rigmarole. The final decision is, according to Neapolitan papers, now pending.
2. From Marius Kociejowski's The Serpent Coiled in Naples
My reference subtitle in the excerpts table, below is "Lake Averno."
The original title in The Serpent Coiled in Naples is
The Man Who Watches the Waters.
The ancient Romans believed Avernus was the entrance to Hades. There’s nothing I can do to make that sentence sound revelatory: it’s the first thing one learns after dominoes. Very few volcanoes have not been referred to, at some point or other, as the entrances to, or the eyes of, hell. The Romans would have inherited the Avernus legend from the Greeks just as in all probability the Greeks inherited it from elsewhere. All signs point to an archaic time. There may have been witnesses, maybe Vitali or Itali, to the formation of the lake although there’s no saying for sure. Whoever they were, they had no written language, but this not does preclude the possibility they kept the event alive in their oral tradition, some of which seeped into the writings of later times.
image: Looking across lake Averno to
the nearby Gauro volcanic craterThere are several entrances to hell in the area, worthy candidates all of them, but then surely, says a mischievous voice in me, there are as many entrances as there are people. Strabo, in his encyclopaedic Geographica, wrote: "The people prior to my time were wont to make Avernus the setting of the fabulous story of the Homeric Nekyia [the title the ancients gave to the eleventh book of the Odyssey]; and, what's more, writers tell us that there actually was an oracle of the dead here and that Odysseus visited it." Virgil certainly knew the ancient legends, read widely, and he would have pounced with enthusiasm on such traces as survived in the folk traditions of the time. What he would make of them remains one of the most vital passages in all literature. Facilis descensus Averno. The descent to Avernus is easy, but the journey back, well, that’s the hard bit. We have been making that poetical journey ever since.Hannibal went to Lake Avernus in 214 BC, ostensibly to make a sacrifice to Hecate. The say his real aim was to attack Puteoli, modern Pozzuoli, which may be true, but this does not necessarily preclude religious observance. After all, he was a pious man. Also, he knew his Homer, in Greek, and he would have known here was where Odysseus descended to Hades and met soldiers slain in battle. As one of Hannibal’s biographers, Clifford W. Mills, puts it, "The realm of the dead came nearest to the living here." A memory of this survives into the present day: I’ve been told, although I can’t substantiate the story, that until recently many older farmers in the area would not work in the fields at night because of warrior spirits on the loose. What of the Sibyl who is supposed to have dwelled here? There were ten of them in all, scattered throughout the ancient world, according to Roman antiquarian Marcus Terentius Varro although sadly the book he describes them in is lost. We know it existed for it was cited by other scholars of the time, and we know it was dedicated to Julius Caesar.
These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts on Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item (after #15) from MK.
Ch.1 - introduction - Ch.2 - An Octopus in Forcella - Ch.3 - Listening to Naples - Ch.4 - Lake Averno (this box) -
Ch.5 - Street music - Ch.6 - Leopardi - Ch. 7 - R.di Sangro - Ch.8 - Old Bones - Ch.9 - The Devil - Ch.10- Signor Volcano -
Ch.10 (2) - Ch.11-Pulcinella - Ch.12 - Boom - Boom (2) - Ch.13 - Two Women - Ch.14- The Ghost Palace -
Ch.15- An Infintesimal Particle - (extra) R. Carbone, photographer .