‘”But when in thy ship thou hast now crossed the stream of Oceanus, where is a level shore and the groves of Persephone – tall poplars, and willows that shed their fruit—there do thou beach thy ship by the deep eddying Oceanus, but go thyself to the dank house of Hades. There into Acheron flow Periphlegethon and Cocytus, which is a branch of the water of the Styx; and there is a rock, and the meeting place of the two roaring rivers.”   Odyssey 10.506ff. (online text: Eng., Grk.)
[here and below quotes are selective; follow links for complete passages]

Book 11 of the Odyssey seems to describe a necromancy (the summoning of shades of the dead) that evolves into a catabasis (a heroic journey to the underworld by a mortal, featured in myth of Heracles and Theseus). There were four major locations (among many) for an oracle of the dead (nekuomanteion): the River Acheron in Thesprotia, west Greece; Lake Avernus (Lago d’Averno) near Naples; Cape Tainaron (or Matapas/ Matapan); and Heraclea Pontica (Karadeniz Eregil), a Greek colony on the south coast of the Black Sea. The first two are most relevant to localization of the journey of Odysseus. Arguably the Homeric underworld episode attests to the localization of the underworld (or rather oracle/entrance) in Thesprotia; Greek colonists then transferred the localization to Lake Avernus (so Ogden 2001:xxiv-xxv, 43, 61-62, convincingly).

The localization of the “Cimmerians” who live near the Odyssey’s underworld is a further complication (Gimmerians/Cimmerians were a historical nomadic people associated with the Black Sea area and Asia Minor). The same is true for Homeric underworld topography such as Leukas (“White”) Rock, though it would seem somehow linked to Thesprotia, for a northern Ionian island with famous cliffs is named Leukas (Lefkas).

Lake Avernus eventually became associated with the catabasis of Aeneas. Lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus may have localized Odysseus’ underworld at Avernus. Other Greek sources localized the Homeric underworld at Avernus; including the 4th c. Ephorus certainly did in his lost history. Cape Tainaron was sometimes said to be the place where Heracles brought Cerberus up from Hades (see Fermor 1958:129-32 for a different, modern localization of the underworld in this area; Fermor also briefly discusses other mythological entrances, like Thesprotian Acheron, Avernus, and Enna). Enna, Sicily featured a temple dedicated to Demeter, whose daughter Persephone was sometimes thought to have been abducted by Hades in the nearby plains, particularly by Lake Pergusa, though he enters the underworld through the pool of Cyane near Siracuse.

Ancient Localization

Lycophron, Alexandra 694ff.

“And passing the tomb of Baius, his steersman, and the dwellings of the Cimmerians and the Acherusian waters swelling with heaving surge… and the Fiery Stream…and the lake Aornus [Avernus] rounded with a noose and the waters of Cocytus wild and dark, stream of black Styx…”
(online text: Eng., Grk.)

Cicero, Against Verres 2.4.107

“Near it [Enna] is a cave turned towards the north, of unfathomable depth, where they say that Father Pluto suddenly rose out of the earth in his chariot, and carried the virgin off from that spot, and that on a sudden, at no great distance from Syracuse, he went down beneath the earth..”
(online text: Eng.Lat.),

Strabo, Geography 1.2.9,  5.4.5

1.2.9: “[Homer] Being aware that the Cimmerians dwelt on the Cimmerian Bosphorus, a dark northern country, he felicitously locates them in a gloomy region close by Hades, a fit theatre for the scene in the wanderings of Ulysses. That he was acquainted with these people we may satisfy ourselves from the chroniclers, who report an incursion made by the Cimmerians either during his life-time or just before.”
(online text: Eng., Grk.)

5.4.5: “Former writers, mingling fable with history, have applied to Avernus the expressions of Homer in his Invocation of Departed Spirits, and relate that here formerly was an oracle of the dead, and that it was to this place that Ulysses came. ”
(online text: Eng.Grk.)

Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.101ff.

“After Aeneas had passed by all those/and seen to his right hand the distant walls/guarding the city of Parthenope,/he passed on his left hand a mound,/grave of the tuneful son of Aeolus./Landing on Cumae’s marshy shore, he reached/a cavern, home of the long lived Sibylla.”
(online text: Eng., Lat.)

Pliny, Natural History 3.9

“…Cumæ, a Chalcidian colony, Misenum, the port of Baiæ, Bauli, the Lucrine Lake, and Lake Avernus, near which there stood formerly a town54 of the Cimmerians.”
(online text: Eng.Lat.)

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.17.5, 5.14.2, 3.25.5

1.17.5: “Among the sights of Thesprotia are a sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona and an oak sacred to the god. Near Cichyrus is a lake called Acherusia, and a river called Acheron. There is also Cocytus, a most unlovely stream. I believe it was because Homer had seen these places that he made bold to describe in his poems the regions of Hades, and gave to the rivers there the names of those in Thesprotia.”
(online text: Eng.Grk.)

3.25.5: “Some of the Greek poets state that Heracles brought up the hound of Hades here [Taenarum], though there is no road that leads underground through the cave, and it is not easy to believe that the gods possess any underground dwelling where the souls collect. But Hecataeus of Miletus gave a plausible explanation, stating that a terrible serpent lived on Taenarum, and was called the hound of Hades, because any one bitten was bound to die of the poison at once, and it was this snake, he said, that was brought by Heracles to Eurystheus.”
(online text: Eng.Grk.)

5.14.2: “Heracles found the white poplar growing on the banks of the Acheron, the river in Thesprotia, and for this reason Homer calls it ‘Acherois.’ ”
online text: Eng.Grk.)

Cassius Dio, Roman History 48.50.4

“While the men were working, a statue overlooking Avernus, either of Calypso, to whom this place, whither they say Ulysses also sailed, is dedicated, or of some other heroine, was covered with sweat like a human body.”
(online text: Eng., Grk.)



(click to enlarge)

Lake Avernus