Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, Chapter 7:

The first change I experienced was rather agreeable. It was very near the turning point from which began the descent of Avernus.

On Wikipedia it says Avernus is an ancient name for a crater in Italy, but that doesn't seem to fit exactly. I looked it up on Google Ngrams too:

Google Ngram Viewer result for "Avernus" in the range 1800–2000

The word was very common in the 19th century. Does anyone know what it means?

  • 2
    For those of us who aren't familiar with the book, why doesn't the common ordinary meaning "descent of Avernus" = "descent into hell" seem to fit exactly?
    – user14111
    Mar 1 '18 at 8:13
  • 1
    @user14111 For those of us who aren't familiar with the phrase, I guess "descent into Avernus" = "descent into hell" answers this question perfectly :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 1 '18 at 10:42
  • The same, short, Wikipedia article says "Avernus was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. ... In later times, the word was simply an alternate name for the underworld."
    – muru
    Mar 1 '18 at 11:58
  • 1
    @Randal'Thor Facilis descensus averno. "Avernus" is a headword in The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.
    – user14111
    Mar 1 '18 at 15:31

The crater Avernus, outside Cumae, was thought by the Romans to be an entrance to the underworld where souls spent the afterlife. Aeneas visits it in Virgil's The Aeneid:

Till, coming where Avernus, dark as night,
Gapes, with rank vapours from its depths uprolled.
The Aeneid, Book Six, XXVIII Translation E. Fairfax Taylor

Thus, "descent of Avernus" means a descent into the afterlife. In later, Christian contexts, the Roman afterlife was thought of as a version of Hell (not that strange; the word "hell" is the same as one of the places the Norse dead dwelt. Remember also that Virgil is Dante's guide through Hell in Divina Commedia). So, "descent of Avernus" is here equivalent to "road to Hell".


TL;DR: "Descent of Avernus" is an allusion to Virgil's Aeneid. In context in Carmilla, where the narrator Laura is describing her slide into a mysterious illness or ‘fascination’, it has the implication that it will be easy for her to succumb to the malady and difficult for her to escape.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary says:

Avernus, a deep volcanic crater, now a lake, near Puteoli. Its appearance inspired the belief that it led to the Underworld.

In book VI of Virgil's Aeneid, the Trojan prince Aeneas visits the Underworld to speak with his dead father Anchises. The Cumaean Sybil had previously warned him that the Underworld is easy to enter but hard to leave:

Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averni;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.


Trojan, son of Anchises, the descent of Avernus is easy;
Night and day the dismal doors of Dis stand open;
But to reclimb the stair and escape to the breezes above,
That is toil, that is labour.

(Some manuscripts of the Aeneid have descensus Averno, the descent into Avernus.)

This is one of the most well-known passages in the Aeneid, and the descent of Avernus is widely used to mean that it is easy to slide into evil or into disaster, and hard to get out again.

The decline in frequency of "Avernus" in the Google Ngram results is just a consequence of the general decline of classical reference. In the 19th century, the Greek and Latin classics were a pillar of the education of the middle and upper classes, hence a natural source of allusions and quotations. Not so much now.

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