Archive for March, 2022


March 26, 2022
Cimmerian Sibyl, by Giambattista della Porta

“Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,

To the Kimmerian lands…”

There is a curious passage in Book V of Strabo’s Geography:

Ephorus, in the passage where he claims the locality in question for the Cimmerians, says: They live in underground houses, which they call “argillae,”​ 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 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 on the Cimmerians 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.

What are we to make of this? Ephorus and Strabo knew very well the Cimmerians – whether or not, two thousands years ago, “Cimmeria” referred to the Crimean peninsula – were a people of the Pontic-Caspian steppe along the Black Sea. Strabo says as much elsewhere in the Geography. So what’s this business of them digging into the volcanic landscape of Campi Flegrei to establish a troglodytic oracular complex either at Avernus (in a geomorphological – and archaeological, alas – regime that was subsequently overwritten by the 1538 eruption of Monte Nuovo) or else within the nearby Monte Gauro crater complex (from the slopes of which, 15th c Neapolitan historian Scipione Mazzella claimed in his Sito et antichità della città di Pozzuoli, Christ descended to enter hell for his Easter harrowing through the portal at Lake Avernus). And did the destruction of this Cimmerium by some prehistoric king cause the Sibylline oracle to be re-founded at Cumae?*

While there certainly is archaeological evidence of Iron, and even Bronze, Age inhabitations of the Campi Flegrei that preceded Euboean colonization (given tombs near Paestum dating back to 2800 BC, it’s hardly inconceivable that the Guado culture might have extended as far north as Cumae), a.) I’m not aware of any that decisively points to the influx of a Crimean migrant/refugee population and b.) Lake Avernus fills the crater of a volcano that erupted approximately four thousand years ago, which is something to consider when testing Marija Gimbutas-like hypotheses of prehistoric migration. But if that is what happened – or even if that’s just what supposedly happened – it would help explain certain details in Book VI of the Aeneid (to do with Hekate Trivia [the og trinity], etc.) and weld the geography of Homer’s Necyia to that of the katabasis of Aeneas in a way that should matter to Danteists. Except for the fact that, prior to 38 BC, the slopes of the Avernus crater “were thickly covered with a wild and untrodden forest of large trees” (i.e., a ‘forest dark’) that Agrippa had cleared so his contractor Lucius Cocceius Auctus could build logistics tunnels and canals more easily, I’ll say no more.

*God speaks in hydrocarbons. In a region as volcanically active as the Campi Flegrei it’s not totally surprising that multiple Sibyls would spring up like fruiting bodies from the same fault rhizome. More so, I think, if they had operated contemporaneously; less if one Sibyl was forced to shutter – for whatever reason (e.g., a ruler homicidally displeased with an unfavorable oracle; or ongoing seismicity shutting off the pneuma in one spot and venting it elsewhere nearby) – before another hung her shingle.


March 21, 2022

It’s the sun’s birthday today, and my own. I’m thinking about my forty-nine solar orbits (as with the Talmud, so with memory), and the day of my death, passing by uncelebrated each year for lack of prior knowledge, and the shape of the Eternal Return in spacetime, and how Vico’s vision of history isn’t circular but helical; how, from above, it might look like waves propagating in a pond you lob a rock into, or tree rings, but followed down, or up, it’s actually Dantean…


March 18, 2022

Below its acropolis, Monte di Cuma – an igneous blister on the western perimeter of the Phlegraean volcanological complex – is a trypophobe’s nightmare, riddled with pore-like cavelets interconnected into small, stratigraphically stacked systems within the hill (“quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum,” perhaps) that the Cumaeans, Greco-Romans, Paleochristian squatters, and Italophilic Germanic tribes all used and extended for their various re-purposes.

On Monday, the painter Eric Sweet and I scrambled about halfway up the mountain into a set of Nazi-renovated cave mouths that we and our high school friends used to drink in occasionally. They were full of poignant graffiti from people we knew as adolescents, some recently dead. Like entering a personal Chauvet, long after its use but before the deep future discovers it and wonders what all the huge carved penises were supposed to mean.

Inside those caves, we knew, there is one passage unlike the others: narrower, much higher-angle, with steps carved into the stone. My archaeologist kid sister remembers it being called the “Stairway to Heaven”. Kids.

Thirty-odd years after last using that stairway, I found it. It’s now mostly covered in chunks of ceiling and sidewall breakdown and unconsolidated, perilously slippery dirt, but it still zigs and zags until it reaches a small natural fissure at the bottom of a larger, fenced-off rock declivity within the oracular complex of the Cumaean Sibyl. It was broad daylight above and people might have been about, so I didn’t pop all the way out of the hole. I had, moreover, to hang onto cracks in the walls so as to not tumble backward down the steep slope. Hence, no great photos of that final view. But it was heart-thumping.

Baia sperduta

March 10, 2022

Bradyseism has drowned the ancient town of Baiae. Hence the irretrievable play on Baia/bay in the Italian version of a poem by Joseph Brodsky I recollected yesterday while walking back from Capo Miseno – from which Pliny the Elder rowed out to mount his fateful rescue operation at Stabiae while his nephew stayed home, claiming he had too much homework – toward the crater of the newest mountain in Europe – imaginatively named Monte Nuovo – on the shore of Avernus, the classical entrance to hell.


Baia sperduta: non più di venti barche a vela.
Reti, parenti dei lenzuoli, stese ad asciugare.
Tramonto. I vecchi guardano la partita al bar.
La cala azzurra prova a farsi turchina.
Un gabbiano artiglia l’orizzonte prima
che si rapprenda. Dopo le otto è deserto
il lungomare. Il blu irrompe nel confine
oltre il quale prende fuoco la stella

I don’t know if there’s already an English translation, but this is, more or less, what I hear in my head when I read those lines:


Lost Baia/bay: no more than twenty ships at sail.
Nets, related to sheets, hang to dry.
Sunset. Old guys watch the match at the bar.
The blue cove tries for darker blue.
A seagull claws the horizon
before it coagulates. After eight,
the seafront is deserted. Blue breaks the confine
beyond which a star catches fire.

I’d plumb forgotten that I stole Brodsky’s seagull for a postcard poem of my own twenty-(very)-odd years ago, written at Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island in the wake of a terrible automobile accident. Not that it matters, except as evidence that memory too is subject to Bradyseism.

A harbor where the dryads dwell
among the roots of an enormous Tour Eiffel
of oak. A pristine,
upturned palm of aquamarine
upon which ships unfurl their sails and reverse a
course toward home, reflecting clouds, and vice versa.
At or around eight,
an aeroplane, or seagull, pierces the horizon—whose failure to coagulate,
as one’s shadow is cast like a net,
crimsons the surf at his feet and produces a sunset.

Pitfall – Part 1

March 3, 2022

For Greeks of a certain vintage, Tartarus was both a god and a hole in the ground. A primordial being who emerged just after Chaos and Gaia did, and right before Eros. And also, ever, a subsurface pit – “as far beneath Hades as Earth is beneath Heaven,” according to Homer. Hesiod gets even more specific: a bronze anvil, dropped from heaven, would fall for nine days before it hit the earth, then another nine before it struck the bottom of Tartarus.

It’s this latter conception, of Tartarus as an awesomely deep vertical shaft within the earth, that Virgil and, by way of him, Dante appropriated for their matryoshka variations on, and enlargements of, the νέκυια depicted in the Odyssey, Book XI. These textual recapitulations, with the intent of re-contextualizing the Homeric underworld – thereby asserting primacy over successive poetical forebears while claiming their accumulated inheritance – exemplify, in some sense, the logic of Tartarus itself. For it isn’t just a pit. It’s a prison, whose prisoners are occasionally released – or, more precisely, jailbroken – to help topple a prevailing order. By “order” I mean the supersessions of Space by Time by Electromagnetism (ahem, I mean Ouranos by Kronos by Zeus), yes, but also of Greece by Rome by Christianized Europe, and many other sorts of pseudo-replacement – up to and including that of Neanderthals by modern humans.

Tartarus is a pressurized wellspring of such successions, of welling ups to overturn – some of which succeeded; others, were merely attempted. At bottom, it’s always the worst – Lucifer, most recently: a distribution of offenders that corresponds to gravitational differentiation during planetary formation. Weightier sins sink toward the center. Treason against god, in such schemata, being the basest metal. All the rest – despite their various rebellions having occurred sequentially, historically – remain, in cross-section, present, simultaneous, atemporal.

As with myth, so with metaphysics (and geology). Tartarus is as much a principle as it is a pit. A principle of under-the-groundness – of absence-of-groundness, even – with all the obvious ontological and geological implications thus imbricated. Its fundamental association with convective successions of orders of gods, from Kronos to Christ, combined with this under-the-groundness, makes it look a teensy bit, squinted at through the wrong end of hindsight’s telescope, like an intuition of stratigraphy: a logic of stone embedded in a mythographic matrix.

And of much else, perhaps. Remember: the prisoners of Tartarus are – or were, initially – the children of Gaia (i.e., of Earth), sired by Tartarus itself – that is, by an underness or absence of ground; or else by Ouranos – by cosmos, by withoutness. And what are these children of Earth? Giants. Seething, smoking, smashing, snake-furred, colossal boulder-hurling beings – be they Titans or Typhons, Cyclopes, Hecatoncheires, or whatever else. They’re down there in the pit, monstrous, enraged, awaiting their turn to vomit forth and war against the prevailing order. They are magma chambers. They are seismic swarms. Fumeroles, ripped in their dam’s flesh, stink of sulphur from their thunderbolt wounds.

My point being: these agitated subterranean earth-bodies are enchained at the bottom of an enormous tube that reaches the shallow subsurface. Age after age, their matter, as materiel, is brought up through this plumbing to combat an order which, once defeated, gets cast down into the depths of the earth while a new order is established at the surface and atmospherically.

In this sense, we aren’t just dealing with a theory of history or epistemology (although it is also those), but of tectonism: an ancient intuition of at least some of what James Hutton would articulate twenty-five hundred years later in his 1788 Theory of the Earth.