facilis descensus Averno

 

Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus c.1798 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus (circa 1798), by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) – image: Tate

 

 

 

MEANING

 

It is easy to slip into evil or immoral ways.

 

 

ORIGIN

 

Lake Avernus (in Italian Lago Averno) is a crater lake in Campania, southern Italy, near Cumae and Puteoli, which were founded by Greek settlers.

The Latin name Avernus (lacus) corresponds to Greek ἄορνος (λίμνη) (= aornos (limne)), interpreted as meaning the birdless (lake), that is to say as composed of the privative prefix ἀ- (a-) and ὄρνις (ornis), bird (cf. the English words ornis, meaning avifauna, the birds of a region collectively, and ornithology, the scientific study of birds).

This gave rise to the legend that the poisonous exhalations from the lake killed the birds flying over it. The myth therefore placed near it the entrance to the infernal regions. The renowned Cumaean Sibyl also dwelt in a grotto near it.

The classical Latin phrase facilis descensus Averno (or Averni) means easy (is) the descent to (or of) Avernus (Averno is the dative, Averni the genitive, of Avernus). This saying is from the Aeneid, the Latin epic poem in twelve books by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19), which relates the travels and experiences of Aeneas after the fall of Troy. When he has landed in Italy, Aeneas wants to visit the underworld in order to consult the ghost of his father, and the sibyl of Cumae tells him:

facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
          translation:
Easy is the descent to Avernus, for the door to the underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above—that’s the task, that’s the toil.

 

The earliest known use of the phrase in an English text is found in Pasquine in a traunce (1566?), “turned but lately out of the Italian into this tongue, by W. P.”, a translation of Pasquillus ecstaticus et Marphorius (1544), a book written by the Italian humanist Celio Secondo Curione (1503-69). Pasquine says to Marforius:

If I haue begon farre otherwise than the olde Authours speake of, I haue so done, to tell thée, the matter as it is, and not to féede thée with fables and lyes, for I must not worke any of those superstitious ceremonies, that thou toldest of, for albeit that all suche as do them, doe finde the waye, (for it is an easie matter to goe to Hell, as euery man knoweth, as Virgil sayth. “Facilis descensus Auerni”,) that I haue then so lightly founde the gate, and sayde that it is great, bicause thou mayest be sure that it is so, hearkē what Christ sayeth. “Enter ye in at the narrowe gate, for wyde is the gate and broade is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many enter in thereat”.

Pasquine refers to the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew:

7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 7:14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (New International Version)

(Also read the straight and narrow)

 

The phrase is sometimes shortened to facilis descensus. For example, The Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany of June 1822 published The Reporter’s Budget, which contains the following:

Breakfast over, Mr F. proposed a visit to their boutique, to which we cordially acceded. We had only to undertake a “facilis descensus” of one flight of steps, the dwelling-house and Museum being contained within the same premises.

 

The name Averne was used in the sense of the infernal regions by the playwright Robert Greene (1558-92), who wrote about “black Pluto king of darke Auerne” in The comicall historie of Alphonsus, King of Aragon, published in 1599 (Pluto, or Hades, was the god of the underworld).

It is from French Averne, thus defined by Randle Cotgrave in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):

Averne: feminine. Hell; or, (as we say) the pit of hell.

One of the verses of an undated French drinking song titled Le vrai buveur (The true drinker), by a certain Maître Adam, is:

Si quelque jour, étant ivre,
La Mort arrêtait mes pas,
Je ne voudrais pas revivre
Pour changer ce doux trépas :
Je m’en irais dans l’Averne
Faire enivrer Alecton*,
Et bâtir une taverne
Dans le manoir de Pluton.
          translation:
If some day, while (I am) drunk,
Death stops my steps,
I would not want to live again
To change that sweet demise:
I would go into the Avern
To make Alecto* drunk,
And build a tavern
In Pluto’s manor.

(* Alecto: one of the Furies, the goddesses who pronounced curses on the guilty and inflicted famines and pestilences.)

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