The ancient Romans didn’t need TV. They had Virgil:
Book VI:264-294 The Entrance to Hades
You gods, whose is the realm of spirits, and you, dumb shadows,
and Chaos, Phlegethon, wide silent places of the night,
let me tell what I have heard: by your power, let me
reveal things buried in the deep earth, and the darkness.
On they went, hidden in solitary night, through gloom,
through Dis’s empty halls, and insubstantial kingdom,
like a path through a wood, in the faint light
under a wavering moon, when Jupiter has buried the sky
in shadow, and black night has stolen the colour from things.
Right before the entrance, in the very jaws of Orcus,
Grief and vengeful Care have made their beds,
and pallid Sickness lives there, and sad Old Age,
and Fear, and persuasive Hunger, and vile Need,
forms terrible to look on, and Death and Pain:
then Death’s brother Sleep, and Evil Pleasure of the mind,
and, on the threshold opposite, death-dealing War,
and the steel chambers of the Furies, and mad Discord,
her snaky hair entwined with blood-wet ribbons.
In the centre a vast shadowy elm spreads its aged trunks
and branches: the seat, they say, that false Dreams hold,
thronging, clinging beneath every leaf.
And many other monstrous shapes of varied creatures,
are stabled by the doors, Centaurs and bi-formed Scylla,
and hundred-armed Briareus, and the Lernean Hydra,
hissing fiercely, and the Chimaera armed with flame,
Gorgons, and Harpies, and the triple bodied shade, Geryon.
At this, trembling suddenly with terror, Aeneas grasped
his sword, and set the naked blade against their approach:
and, if his knowing companion had not warned him
that these were tenuous bodiless lives flitting about
with a hollow semblance of form, he would have rushed at them,
and hacked at the shadows uselessly with his sword.
— Virgil, in “The Aeneid.”
Modern video of that general location is evocative, too:
Yes, it’s from before, but well worth another visit.
Solfatara Crater, Naples
I say “general location” because online sources report that Virgil, like most Romans, considered Lake Averno to be Hell’s Gate.
While that is a real place, and part of the same volcanic area (Campi Flegrei), videos of it don’t quite fit Virgil’s mood.
But that sizzling fumarole up above — Bocca Grande, in Campi Flegrei’s Solfatara Crater near the Bay of Naples — reportedly did inspire Dante’s description of the Inferno.
And the real-world Solfatara can be deadly.
The world contains many reputed gates to hell.
Not all of them are volcanic, like (in)famous Solfatara and an equally well-known site far to the west of Virgil and Dante’s stomping ground.
Apparently, green parrots are among the damned, but they seem to be taking it well.
That straw-like stuff is lava glass thread, a/k/a Pele’s hair.
- Snippets of “Masaya, the ‘Mouth of Hell,’ Nicaragua: Volcanological interpretation of the myths, legends and anecdotes.” If you live near a college or university, you might be able to read the whole paper on their public computers or in their archives.
- The Global Volcanism Program’s Masaya page.
- Photovolcanica’s Masaya page.
Now, speaking of Pele…
Let’s face it: grief, care, sickness, old age, and the other horrors that Virgil described at Hell’s door are not fun.
Yet Halloween is.
I think that sense of laughing at horror developed down through the centuries in conjunction with the holy day that follows it.
This post is about volcanoes, not comparative religion, so I’ll just share something I recently read while revising the Mauna Loa chapter of my eBook on Decade Volcanoes.
In 1880, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa erupted, with three flows from its Northeast Rift Zone threatening the town of Hilo.
One of them got as close as a mile from Hilo Bay.
Hawaii was a kingdom then, and the king was traveling somewhere. The crisis therefore was handled by princesses Lili’uokalani (Princess Regent and eventually queen) and Ke‘elikōlani.
As I understand the sources listed at chapter’s end, these two royals decided to divert the lava away from Hilo — possibly the first time that this had been attempted in Hawaii.
Supplies for the attempt were ordered but got delayed.
So this actually happened in August 1881:
It is also true that islanders of European descent piled up stone walls to protect their property, and the lava stopped at these flimsy structures, although similar lava flows elsewhere — looking at you, Mount Etna in 1669 — have gone right through heavily reinforced medieval city walls.
What the real reprieve is to me is the way scientists Kauahikaua et al. (2019) described it, with respect for both objectivity and all the faiths involved:
In the King’s absence, his sister Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and key offcials met in Hilo at the beginning of August to plan a government response. This included the first known plan to use barriers and explosives to divert the lava flow in Hawai’i.
Fortunately, the lava flow stopped before the plan was enacted; however, both Christian prayer and traditional Hawaiian chants and gifts to the Hawaiian deity Pele were offered in the last few weeks of lava activity.
Happy Halloween, y’all!
Featured image: Charles Furneaux via National Park Service, public domain.
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. 2019. Volcano Watch — Hilo had a close call from the 1881 Mauna Loa lava flow. https://www.usgs.gov/news/volcano-watch-hilo-had-close-call-1881-mauna-loa-lava-flow Last accessed October 29, 2022.
Kauahikaua, J. P.; Tilling, R. I.; Poland, M. P.; Takahashi, T. J.; and Landowski, C. M. 2014. Natural hazards and risk reduction in Hawai ‘i. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap, 1801: 397-427.
Kauahikaua, J. P.; Gaddis, B.; Kanahele, K.; Hon, K.; and Wasser, V. 2019. The lava flow that came to Hilo—The 1880–81 eruption of Mauna Loa volcano, Island of Hawai ‘i (No. 2019-5129). US Geological Survey. PDF.
National Park Service. 2022. 1880-1881 Eruption of Mauna Loa. https://www.nps.gov/havo/learn/nature/mauna-loa-1880.htm Last accessed October 29, 2022.