Monday, June 3, 2013

A Journey to the Real Dante's Inferno: The Phlegraean Fields

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, Virgil (70–19 BCE) 

It's not trick videography. Lake Avernus really is black. That and the sulfurous fumes emitted from the lake were certainly the inspiration for its name. Avernus - from the Greek for "No Birds" - takes its moniker from the widely-held ancient belief that birds flying over the lake would drop dead out of the sky from the fumes. The video above proves the existence of fowl, but the lake is still - well, foul.

Lake Avernus is just one noteworthy feature of Campania's Phlegraean Fields - or, as I like to refer to them, the Phlegm Fields. This lesser-visited area outside of Naples, Italy, is perhaps one of the more interesting sites for those seeking myth and macabre off the beaten path.

It is widely known that Dante Alighieri was from Florence. But it is hypothesized that his idea for the Inferno came from this area. In addition to the black Lake Avernus, the Phlegraean Fields feature Sybil's Grotto - thought to be the gateway to the underworld - an area of natural steam geysers known as Sulfatara, and belching, sulfurous, boiling lakes of mud. The geothermal activity in the area is, of course, attributed to Mount Vesuvius, and serves as a constant reminder that the volcano can erupt again at any time.

The second video is long, but some of the features of the Phlegm Fields are shown in the first five minutes. At 0.58, we see pockets of steam emerging from within the earth, and we are surprised that the word "dormant" is used to describe the Solfatara crater. From about 2:42 forward, we are introduced to the multiple pockets of mud; 3:02 shows that some of them are actually boiling. Facial, anyone?


This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

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