Lake Averno has long been seen as the portal to the netherworld, a belief echoed by figures like Dante and Aeneas. This mystical body of water was also, in tales of old, the battlefield where Zeus locked horns with the Titans. Generations of writers and poets have been moved by its enigmatic allure. In ancient maps and tales, Lake Averno was marked as the very doorway to the realm of the dead. Its quiet, mysterious waters were thought to hide the juncture where, as per Roman beliefs, the worlds of the living and the deceased met. Even predating these tales, legend held that this lake was the arena for Zeus’s intense combat against the Titans.
Averno: The Birdless Lake
For both the Greeks and Romans, steeped in their rich mythological tapestry, this lake symbolized a passage to the realm governed by Pluto. Additionally, some legends claim it as the terrestrial dwelling of Lucifer, the fallen angel. As such, the Roman term for the underworld, often equated with the Greek Hades, was also “Averno.” The eerie trees that fringe the lake are believed to mirror the foreboding forest described in Dante’s Inferno.
The esteemed Latin poet, Virgil, provides a detailed portrayal in the Aeneid’s sixth book. Here, Aeneas, seeking wisdom from the Cumaean Sibyl near the Temple of Apollo at Cumae, beseeches her to guide him to the underworld. They believe its entrance is none other than Lake Averno.
By the 19th century, Lake Averno began to gain notoriety for certain natural wonders, particularly the optical illusion called Fata Morgana. From this era, a belief grew that Fata Morgana, a mythical Celtic figure linked to Arthurian legends, had selected this locale as her haven. This legend is bolstered by tales of her residing in phantom castles that float above the lake, seemingly materializing due to this optical illusion.
” A deep cave there was, yawning wide and vast, of jagged rock, and sheltered by dark lake and woodland gloom, over which no flying creatures could safely wing their way; such a vapour from those black jaws was wafted to the vaulted sky whence the Greeks spoke of Avernus, the Birdless Place. ”—The Aeneid, book VI, Virgil
The Mystical Doorway to the Underworld
Many ancient cultures held that Lake Averno was a passage to Hades, the dominion of the departed. This perspective may have stemmed from noting that its sulphurous emissions deterred birds from its vicinity, leading to its name “aornòs,” which translates to “birdless.” Cradled in an extinct volcanic crater, which came into being around 4,000 years ago, it is the Phlegraean Fields‘ second-largest lake, with only Lake Fusaro overshadowing it.
The terrain’s unpredictable nature, combined with the underlying seismic activity, became symbolic of Hades for the ancients. Historical texts indicate that Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, conducted blood rituals at its banks to gain the favor of deities from the depths. While Dante saw it as a prime entrance to the netherworld, poets like Torquato Tasso and Leopardi shared this perspective. Virgil painted a picture of the lake’s surrounding forests as the dominion of the powerful Hecate, a deity overseeing spirits and malevolent entities. It’s in this captivating ambiance that Aeneas fearlessly embarked on his journey to the underworld, seeking his father, Anchises.
The boundary between fact and fable at Lake Averno is intriguingly indistinct, a nexus where reason and myth overlap. Even the genius of Galileo Galilei, fortified by meticulous research and mathematical prowess, theorized that Dante’s infernal entrance lay by this lake. Galilei also opined that the “shadowed woods” Dante penned were, in truth, the dense forests encircling Lake Averno, stretching as far as the Solfatara of Pozzuoli.
The Lost Roman Harbor Beneath Lake Averno
While tales of the supernatural surround Lake Averno, the waterbody also conceals its own slice of Roman history. Its legendary significance traces back to the Phlegraean region’s strategic value in ancient Rome. Amidst the civil strife against Pompey, the region stood as a military stronghold. And by the Augustan period, Lake Averno evolved into one of the most pivotal naval centers of the ancient world.
Beyond its mythical aura, Lake Averno bustled as a thriving Roman harbor during the empire’s zenith. Conceived by Marcus Agrippa, and later christened Portus Julius in homage to Octavian Augustus, this harbor was a key component of a vast naval complex, extending to the Lucrine Lake. These two water bodies were ingeniously linked via a canal and a sophisticated web of subterranean channels, allowing covert troop movements.
Yet, by the 4th century AD, the once-bustling harbor faced decline. The constant seismic activity, known as bradyseism, altered the coastal topography, gradually diminishing the port’s functionality. By the 5th century, as recorded by Roman official Cassiodorus, the once-majestic walls of the port lay in ruins, with most of its materials repurposed in Rome. Thus, beneath the water’s surface, the once-significant harbor was relegated to memory.
That was, however, until 1956, when aerial shots by aviator Raimondo Bucher brought the buried narrative to light. The very waters that had been the backdrop for divine myths and tales of the netherworld now unveiled a neglected epoch of Roman maritime supremacy. These discoveries reposition Lake Averno not just as a tapestry of legends but also as a beacon of ancient naval architecture and strategy. The reflective waters of the lake, apart from narrating myths, also recount the aspirations and architectural prowess of a once-dominant global empire.
Monuments and Points of Interest at Lake Averno
1. The Temple of Apollo: Often referred to as the “gateway to the Underworld”, this landmark was eloquently described by Virgil in the Aeneid. Aeneas, the Trojan hero, chose this path to access the Underworld and reunite with his deceased father. This site comprises a tufa-carved grotto extending approximately 200 meters, leading to the sea. While it’s believed to have been sculpted for necromantic rituals and ceremonies tied to the afterlife, its connections run even deeper. The grotto’s environment, combined with the water seepages, form an underground stream, invoking images of the infernal River Styx and the realms of Acheron.
“The gates of hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: But to return, and view the cheerful skies, In this the task and mighty labor lies… “
—The Aeneid, book VI, Virgil
2. The Cave of the Cumaean Sibyl: This is another significant tufa-carved grotto, extending about 200 meters. Most likely designed to connect the lake to the sea, its environment adds to the place’s mystique. Water infiltrations within the cave create a subterranean brook, reminding visitors of the legendary River Styx and the domains of Acheron.
3. Cocceio’s Grotto: This tunnel, excavated by the Romans, was constructed for military purposes and served as a link between Lake Averno and Cuma. Unfortunately, this once iconic structure has been off-limits to the public due to structural damages sustained during the Second World War, which rendered the cave unstable.
These historical landmarks surrounding Lake Averno echo both the architectural prowess of ancient civilizations and humanity’s timeless fascination with the mysterious and the unknown.
Topics: Lake Averno historical significance, Ancient myths surrounding Lake Averno, Roman architecture at Lake Averno, The story of Aeneas at Lake Averno, The Temple of Apollo and its myths, The significance of the Cumaean Sibyl grotto, The lost Roman link of Cocceio’s Grotto, The military importance of Lake Averno during Roman times, Roman naval history and Lake Averno, The blending of myths and history at Lake Averno
Featured image: View of Lake Averno extending to Baia and Capo Miseno, from the Domitian Way. (French: Vue du Lac d’Averne avec le Temple d’Apollon”, “View of Lake Avernus with the Temple of Apollo”). Engraving by Hass, published by C. T. Muller, source
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