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Cumae: The Door to Hell

Welcome to Cumae, the door to hell according to ancient believes. Located 25 km west of Naples, Cumae is ancient city of Magna Graecia on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC, Cumae was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy and the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl, the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae.

The Legend

Once upon a time, when the Earth was flat and it finished right after Gibraltar, the Greeks used to rule it all. It was known as the Greek World. They believed to have only one ocean, called Ocean, they believed that thunders were the anger expression of Zeus and they believed that the Sun was carried by a chariot through the sky. They also believed that there were more than one entrances to the inferno, the kingdoms of the dead. Inferno back then had no bad or good connotation as Catholicism later made us believe, but it was merely the place were the dead As we said before, they had many fascinating believes, but let’s pick what we left last time: Greek Hell. It is possible to find it, dear Reader.Virgil opened his lines regarding Inferno on the Eneid:

“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 Virgil described the Averno cave as home to one of the most famous prophetesses of ancient legend – the Cumaean Sibyl. In fact, our Greek hero Aeneas, after escaping the War of Troy arrived in Italy and and met this mysterious fortune teller, the Sybil, near what is now Naples at the entrance of the Inferno. In this poem, In the poem, the Sibyl will acts as a guide to the underworld, to which Aeneas must descend to seek the advice of his dead father Anchises and fulfill his destiny. Also in the same poem, Aeneas reaches the underworld at Lake Avernus by passing first through the Sibyl’s cave, so following the tunnel you will see shortly as we continue this story 🙂 But first a brief introduction on Hell. Hell, Inferno or the Underworld was located in several places underneath the surface, depending on how good or bad you were there was specific destination for your soul. Ergo, the word Inferno did not originally mean ‘evil’ like Christianism has taught us, but instead it means ‘underworld’, the place were the dead go. Good and bad. If you were good in life you were more likely to end up in the Elysee Fields, a sort of blossomed island where the sun shines 24 hours. If you were particularly glorious then you were more prone to end up in the Asphodel Valley, meant for people that didn’t stand out too much (remember that the Greek World focused mainly on the Hero image of men, so humans were pushed since their births into achieve greatness and recognition in life). And finally there is Tartarus, where the bad ones went. The nasty ones, The murderers, criminals and all those who attempted any sort of severe offense to the gods. And this is the one we are going to explore now, dear Reader 🙂 Tartarus has to be imagined as a place filled with lava and flames, souls were taken on a boat in the Stix river (infernal river) and led to reach the Inferno judges: Minos, Radamar and Eacos. They decided which sentence the condemned soul would have to endure. So if you think about flames, smoke, lava, a place like this could only be found near a volcano. And that’s how Averno became one of the official entries to Tartarus.

Averno as we see it Today

Averno is a lake now and used to be a volcano, the crates fumes prevented any forms of life to survive, not even birds would fly over it.

Avernus was believed to be the entrance to the underworld, and is portrayed as such in the Aeneid of Virgil. The name comes from the Greek word aornos (ἄορνος a- ‘no’ + ornis ‘bird’), meaning “without birds”, because according to tradition, all birds flying over the lake were destined to fall dead. This was likely due to the toxic fumes that mouths of the crater gave off into the atmosphere. In later times, the word was simply an alternate name for the underworld.

This phenomenon led the locals to believe that Tartarus was right underneath. And as believes always included prophecies, a Sybille was to be found there as well.

Who was this Sybil woman and why was she so important? 

As we said before the Greeks firmly believed in oracles and prophecies. When a baby was born it was tradition to take him or her to an oracle to learn about his future and greatness in life. The Sybil was the high priestess of the oracle of Apollo (Greek god of Music and Arts) and Hecate (ancient pre-Hellenic lunar goddess), she presided the oracle located in the cave marking the entry to Tartarus. The cave was known as Sybil Antrum. This Priestess, inspired by the gods, transcribed her predictions in hexameters her predictions using palm leaves, which, at the end of prediction, were mixed by winds coming from the Antrum. The Sybil Antrum was as important as the Delphi oracle, also belonging to Apollo. So my adventure started with a look around this hell of a lake

A panoramic view of Lake Averno

Found the Apollo’s temple


Until I found what I was looking for: the path that leads to the Sybil Antrum!

Secluded, quiet path. I started walking… Sybille path 1 It has mystery all around it, I was thrilled to keep on walking Sybille path 2 Sybille path 3   And I finally I reached the very entrance of the Antrum Sybille gate   I assume that restructure and preservation works added the locket so that nobody could get in. However, the locket didn’t stop me

The locket looked flimsy, rusty and very basic, so I tried any sort of suitable key I could think of as there were no cameras watching over the gate

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Didn’t work, so I tried pulling the flimsy gate  Didn’t make it. But I could have a look of what the Antrum hallway looked likeSearches for the famous cave described by Virgil started in the Middle Ages, the excavations started in 1932. The site is now part of the Cumae Archaeological Site and I will open the gates for you once I go back with a better key or more muscles.


A curious Italian-Chilean travel writer and culture enthusiast who loves to discover the obscure and unusual in everything.

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