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Hell on Earth

The Bay of Naples was seen as Hell on Earth, an entrance into the Underworld, but also the site of one of the most famous oracles: that of Cumae, a mystery that is still surrendering – slowly – some of its mysteries.

Philip Coppens


The Bay of Naples and Vesuvius were originally not seen as an idyllic holiday destination, though the tradition started at the time of the Roman emperors who raised splendid villas, making the area famous for its thermal stations. Bur originally, this area was famous for its volcanic landscape, known as the Phlegr(a)ean Fields. According to mythology, it was here that Hercules and the gods defeated the Titans who were eager to seize Olympus. The Vulcano Solfatara was seen as the mythical entrance to the Ancient Romans’ Hell. For the Greeks, it was the dwelling place of Ephestus, the god of fire. Actually, it is a dormant volcanic crater that has been emitting sulphuric vapours for about the last 4,000 years. In medieval times, the Solfatara was among the most famous thermal spas of the Phlegrean Fields, known for cures employing mud, sulphuric waters and steam baths. Two stufe, one known as Purgatory and the other as Hell, were used as natural saunas for the inhalation of these sulphurous vapours, which were considered to be specifically beneficial for respiratory illnesses.

Today, the Solfatara is a well managed tourist attraction with a camping ground and cafeteria. But two or three millennia ago, it was a savage place, rightfully seen as Hell on Earth, with the fumes of the Underworld drifting over this and the surrounding landscape. The Underworld, of course, had its attractions; it was an important part of mythology and seen as the route that was required to be taken for those trying to gain access to Heaven. The main centre – and the oldest – was established at Cumae, right next to the Phlegrean Fields, but also on the coastline, and thus on the borders of the fields and easily reachable by boat. Though it is located in Italy, in at least 730 BC, it was a Greek, Euboean colony. The Greeks had recently washed up on Ischia and people from Euboea set up a trading station near what is now Lake Ameno, though they soon left for Cumae on the mainland. The Greeks soon made Cumae the area’s most powerful city, then spread down the coast, founding Parthenope in ca. 680 BC, Dikaiarchia (Pozzuoli) in ca. 530 BC and Neapolis – Naples, the “New Town” – in 470 BC. As the Etruscans grew in power, battles where fought at Cumae in 524 and 474 BC, both of which were won by the Greeks. Cumae eventually fell in 421 BC and became “Italian”.

Cumae is a conical hill that sits right on the edge of the sea and is in shape very similar to Berwick Law in Scotland, another conical hill that sits along the coastline in an otherwise flat landscape – though the “acropolis of Cumae” sits right on the coastline. It is notorious as it is the scene from Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas comes to Cumae to meet with the Sibyl. This prophetess (of Apollo) was renowned for entering a trance, during which she was able to predict the future. In Virgil’s account, she predicted the glorious future of Rome and showed Aeneas how his Trojan trials and tribulations were but the necessary preparation for a man who would be seen as the first herald of Rome’s future splendour.

The story of the Sibyl of Cumae was well-known. Dante wrote about it and Michelangelo painted her on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Virgil said that Cumae had been the site where Daedalus had come to when fleeing from the kingdom of Minos. “He dared to trust his life to the sky, floating off on swiftly driving wings towards the cold stars of the north, the Greater and Lesser Bears, by a route no man had ever gone before, until at last he was hovering lightly in the air above the citadel of Chalcidian Cumae. Here he first returned to earth, dedicating to Phoebus Apollo the wings that had oared him through the sky, and founding a huge temple. On its doors were depicted the death of Androgeos, son of Minos, and then the Athenians, the descendants of Cecrops, ordered to pay a cruel penalty and yield up each year the living bodies of seven of their sons.”
In ancient times, Virgil was not the only one to write about the Sibyl and the site; this is what Strabo had to say about it: “Near Kume [Cumae] is Cape Misenom, and between them is Lake Akherousia, a kind of shoal-water estuary of the sea … also Gulf Aornos [Avernus] … The pole prior to my time were wont to make Aornos the setting of the fabulous story of the Homeric Nykeia [Odysseus' journey to the Underworld]; and, what is more, writers tell us that there actually was an Oracle of the Dead [of the gods Hades and Persephone] here and that Odysseus visited it … […] People used to suppose that this too was a Ploutonion [of Hades] place and that the Kimmerioi [Cimmericans] had actually been there. At any rate, only those who had sacrificed beforehand and propitiated the Daimones Katakhthonioi [Underworld Gods] could sail into Aornos, and priests who held the locality on lease were there to give directions in all such matters; and there is a fountain of potable water at this place, on the sea, but people used to abstain from it because they regarded it as the water of the Styx [the River of the Dead]; and the Oracle, too, is situated somewhere near it; and further, the hot springs near by and Lake Akherousia betokened the River Pyriphlegethon [the fiery river of Hades]. Again Ephoros, in the passage where he claims the locality in question for the Kimmerioi, says: ‘They live in underground houses, which they call ‘argillai’, and it is through tunnels that they visit one another, back and forth, and also admit strangers to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth; and they live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the Oracle, and from the king of the country, who has appointed to them fixed allowances; and those who live about the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caverns only during the night; and it is for this reason that the poet speaks of them as follows: ‘And never does the shining sun look upon them’; but later the Kimmerioi were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the Oracle did not turn out in his favour; the seat of the Oracle, however, still endures, although it has been removed to another place. Such, then, are the stories the people before my time used to tell [about Avernus].”

But for many years, the story of Virgil and the Sibyl of Cumae were seen as nothing but a legend. Her famous oracular site seemed not to exist. Excavations had discovered two important temples on the site. On top of the conical hill sits the Temple of Jupiter, the God of the Skies – Master and Commander of the pantheon and the Roman equivalent of Zeus. A sacred road descends from his sanctuary towards approximately half-way down the hill, where there is a plateau on its inland-facing side. Here was a Temple of Apollo, the god of prophecy, the god who was said to have driven the Sibyl mad, the god who possessed her, so that she could predict the future. Was it here that the Sibyl sat, perhaps in an underground cavity, like her counterpart – the Pythia – at Delphi? There was no physical evidence of such a cavity and hence no confirmation of Virgil’s story.
The foot of the acropolis is, today, a very impressive entrance to the site; the area is known as the Crypta Romana, as most of the work here was carried out by the Romans. Though most of it is off-limits to the visitors, you can see how the Romans dug extensive chambers and tunnels into the mountain flank. Further inland is the so-called Grotta di Cocceio (closed to the public), near the Arco Felice (built in 95 BC and an arch where some visitors to the site, depending from which direction they approach, may have driven through), built by Agrippa, which passes under Monte Grillo, en route to Lake Averno, several kilometres away. It shows the extensity of the underground complex. But nothing that compared to Virgil’s description of the tunnel with a thousand “mouths” – the Antrum of the Sibyl – was found. That changed in 1932, when a local pizza oven was found to mask the opening to the antrum! Almost overnight, Virgil was no longer seen as an inventor of tall tales, but as a man who had accurately written down as to what could be seen at Cumae: the Antrum of the Sibyl.
It is quite amazing that no-one discovered this Antrum before. Though quarried from the rock, it is neither deep nor difficult to find. It is a rather horizontal tunnel that starts to the left (when entering) from the Crypta Romana, over a distance of ca. 100 metres, but only four or five metres deep into the rock – in fact, today, a visitor sees the numerous exists and windows from the side chambers of the tunnel and can enter and leave the tunnel almost at leisure. With approximately five entrances clearly visible, it is remarkable that it took until 1932 before the site was discovered. But then the magic spell of the pizza over Naples’ citizens does indeed seem to cause short-sightedness.

The Antrum of the Sibyl is a long, straight tunnel, with side chambers. At the end, there is a cave on the left hand side, where the Sibyl made her prophecies. It was apparently here that Apollo took possession of her, resulting in her ranting and raving, but equally able to see the future. Virgil worded it as such: “the Sibyl sang her fearful riddling prophecies, her voice booming in the cave as she wrapped the truth in darkness, while Apollo shook the reins upon her in her frenzy and dug the spurs into her flanks. The madness passed.”
The Sibyl of Cumae had a complex relationship by Apollo, by whom she had been charmed. She asked to live for as long as there were grains of sand in a heap in front of her. It turned out that this meant she would live for one thousand years. After some centuries, she was asked how her life was developing. She said that it was miserable, for she had forgotten to ask for eternal youth too.
Apart from Virgil’s visit, to which we will return shortly, there was a famous “incident” when the Sibyl offered to sell to Rome’s king Tarquinius Superbus (535-510 BC) nine books of Sibylline Prophecy. He refused, as both she and the god Apollo were hardly known to him. Hence, she threw three of the books in the fire, but the king still refused to buy. Then she destroyed another, with the same result. The final three were bought (apparently for the prize she demanded for all nine works) and they were afterwards stored on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, to be consulted in hours of need.

Temple of Apollo

Cumae represents all three levels of the world: heaven, earth and the underworld. Today, we approach Cumae from the ticket office and see the “Antrum of the Sibyl” on our left. Then we climb, on top of the antrum, towards the “acropolis” and onwards to Temple of Apollo. Like Delphi, the Temple of Apollo and the Rock of the Sibyl are two distinct entities. From the Temple of Apollo, the Sacred Way climbs quite steeply up the hill, which is crowned by the Temple of Jupiter. Here we have the three-fold division of the Earth: Jupiter for the Heavens; Apollo for our Earth, and the Antrum representing the Underworld. The latter was held sacred to the King and Queen of the Underworld: Hades and Persephone. The Temple of Jupiter is a relatively recent addition, dating from the 3rd century BC. But it may have replaced an earlier sanctuary, or the threefold representation may only date from that period.

So, in 1932, Virgil and co. were vindicated. But Virgil’s account also spoke of another location, nearby. This was a cave, out of which fumes rose. Virgil wrote: “There was a huge, deep cave with jagged and pebbles underfoot and a gaping mouth guarded by dark woods and the black waters of the lake. No bird could wing its flight over this cave and live, so deadly was the breath that streamed out of the black throat and up into the vault of heaven. Hence the Greek name, ‘Aornos’, ‘the place without birds’.”
It was here that Virgil was about to enter the Underworld, guided by the Sibyl, in an attempt to meet his dead father. The Sibyl warned him that “it is easy to go down to the underworld. The door of black Dis stands open night and day. But to retrace your steps and escape to the upper air, that is the task, that is the labour.”
Descending into the Underworld, he sees his pilot Palinarus, who was believed to be drowned during the crossing to Cumae, but is found to have made it to shore, only to be killed in a fight. He also sees his old lover Dido, as well as Trojans and Greeks who died during the siege of Troy. Aeneas faces his memories, his subconscious, which in ancient cultures was often seen as the female part of the brain, linked with the Mother Goddess and the dark underworld – hence the comparison of a cave’s entrance with the female vulva. It is therefore “logical” (the male, conscious part of the brain) that he was guided by the Sybil down “memory lane”.
Virgil gives a detailed account of the twists and turns that Aeneas and the Sibyl make; the various crossings, the offerings they have to make to appease the gods, before they exit through the Gate of Ivory. The Underworld had two exists, the Gate of Horns and the Gate of Ivory, with the latter being considered as the “false entrance”, the exit of “false dreams”. As such, the story bears several similarities with a 15th century “novel”, the Song of Poliphili, in which a man equally goes in search of his dead lover, only to find out at the end that it has been “but” a dream – Virgil too only explains at the very end of Book 6 that it has been but a dream.

Both Virgil and Strabo make a clear distinction between the site of the Oracle (the Antrum at Cumae) and the Aornos cave, where Aeneas and the Sibyl – and no doubt others – entered the Underworld. Aornos is known to be elsewhere, but not too distant, near a lake. With the Antrum located in 1932, in the 1950s, two colleagues working for the NATO base in Naples, Robert Paget and Keith Jones, began searching for the Aornos cave. They began their search near Cumae, then Lake Avernus. They discovered dozens of man-made, enhanced or natural caves, but none fitted the description. They finally ended up in Baia, where Paget lived, where the director of excavations of the Roman Baths told them that there was a tunnel under one of the temples that no-one had yet explored. The archaeologists believed that the passage was unsafe, emanating poisonous fumes that did not allow further investigation.
Paget went boldly where few – and none in the last 2000 years – had gone before. What he found, was spectacular: he found another antrum, labelled the Antrum of Initiation, or the Great Antrum, which is a complex of artificial tunnels excavated into the volcanic rock. The Roman Baths are notorious for a famous dome, which is larger than the Roman Pantheon. But on the other side of the complex, high upon the steep hill, which sits on the coastline of the Bay of Naples and some miles southeast of Cumae, a small, virtually impossible to see narrow tunnel leads into one of the most archaeological sites on this planet.
Since its rediscovery in the early 1960s, the Antrum of Initiation has remained closed to the public. Only in recent years has the author Robert Temple been allowed access to it, though the Antrum still does not feature on any of the explanatory panels on the site. Furthermore, scientific controversy continues to surround the site, with some archaeologists arguing that it was only used as a mechanism through which to bring hot air towards the pools – a theory that completely disintegrates when one reads Paget’s excavation report, reads Temple’s account or watches the documentary that he filmed there.

Volcana Solfatara

The Antrum's entrance is a descending tunnel slightly more than half a metre wide and what Paget describes as “walking height”, although the original height was 2.5 metres. This tunnel begins in a complex of temples and ancillary structures and thus bears some resemblance to the underground chamber of the Pythia in Delphi, which also sat underneath a temple. The entrance tunnel continues on an orientation of 270° from north for almost 125 metres and is aligned to solar phenomena. There are niches for lamps cut into the walls on alternate sides every 2.5 metres. At the end of the entrance tunnel there is a fork with a pivoting door, which allowed the visitor to make a circuit, seemingly entering one way, but leaving through a different “Gate”. Paget named the branching point of the tunnel “The Dividing of the Ways”. The left passage continues on the same orientation as the entrance tunnel. The right passage has an orientation of 290° and becomes stairs leading down. After 46 metres, the tunnel reorients to 300° and is flooded with water, which Paget interpreted as a representation of the River Styx. This flooding did not present a problem for Paget, who continued further.
From the edge of the water in the right hand fork, as well as the underwater route, there is another opening to a passage that rises sharply, to end in a chamber. From this chamber, there is another descending passage which led to the opposite side of the flooded passage. The flooded passage was found to be fed by a pair of springs. How the people that build this complex – when and whom remains unknown – knew that there was a river about two hundred metres deep in the cliff-side will probably never be known.
The left-hand branch at the Parting of the Ways divides into two passages which run parallel to each other but at different levels, to also meet at this central chamber. It is here that Paget believed that there was another oracular centre, where the visitors were granted an encounter with the Sibyl or another priestess; the chamber represented the Palace of the King and Queen of the Underworld, Hades and Persephone.

Robert Paget and Robert Temple are convinced that the Antrum at Baia is the Aornos into which the Sibyl led Aeneas. I am not totally convinced. The Antrum is not on the side of a lake, as it says in Virgil’s account; instead, it sits right at the edge of the sea. Though the Antrum is – without any doubt – extremely important, whether it is indeed the Aornos remains a question mark. It was definitely a representation of the Underworld, it definitely shows several parallels with Aeneas’ voyage in the Underworld and it is clearly a “typical” representation of the voyage in the Underworld. But it is equally possible that the Phlegrean Fields, famous for being Hell on Earth and an entrance into the Underworld, may have had more than one oracle of the dead; Baia could be Aornos, but it is possible that somewhere, the “real” Aornos remains yet to be discovered. If the Sibyl was still alive, we could seek her advice and listen to her prophecies whether or not we are right or wrong, and what else this area will reveal to us in the future.