The Entry to Hell and the Cult of Mephitis

It is the place that Virgil described more than 2,000 years ago when he wrote, “Est locus Italiae medio sub montibus altis, nobilis et fame multis memoratus in oris, Amsancti valles” or, in English, “There is a place in the middle of Italy beneath high mountains, noble and celebrated for fame in many places, the Ansanto Valley.” (Verses 563-565, VII book, The Aeneid)

While many readers of The Aeneid might bypass these lines today in the hopes of discovering the hero’s fate, it is precisely this part of the epic poem that gives us a glimpse into the Irpinia of the past as Virgil later describes the Ansanto Valley as where a mysterious area arises, giving way to a passage between the earth and the underworld.

This “Entry to Hell” of the Ansanto Valley is now known as “Mefite,” a sulphurous lake valley located near Rocca San Felice, Villamaina, and Torella dei Lombardi. Mefite was named for the ancient Italic goddess Mefitis (also spelled “Mephitis”), who was venerated by the Hirpini people. Mefitis was originally considered to be a kind goddess, but became an evil spirit because of the lethal fumes that came from the lands surrounding the sanctuary that once stood there in her name.

The lake of Mefite is formed by a tiny pool of water about 2 meters/ 7 feet deep, that boils as a result of underground carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid emissions. Because of these poisonous emissions, the area surrounding Mefite is free of animals and vegetation. In addition to Virgil, there are other testimonies of Latin authors who underline the infernal atmosphere of the place, such as Cicero, according to whom the area is synonymous with death.

Face of the goddess Mefitis, bronze fragment stored in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale della Basilicata (National Archaeological Museum of Basilicata), Potenza. Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, in the days when the Via Appia was used between Rome and Brindisi, the Ancient Romans would rest near Mefite during their travels and pay homage to Mefitis by performing animal sacrifices using the lake’s deadly gases to suffocate their victims. 

The cult of Mefite lasted about a thousand years, from the sixth century. B.C. to the fourth century B.C., until St. Felix of Nola arrived and replaced the temple of Mefitis with a small church dedicated to St. Felicity (Felicitas) and her seven sons. The belief is still widespread in Irpinia that, near Mefite, devils with horrendous appearances roam the hills, dragging unfortunate victims into the mouth of hell, while they scream and beg for mercy.

Today, it is possible to visit Mefite but particular attention needs to be paid to gas inhalations, as they can be deadly. A sign stating “Pericolo di Morte” or “Danger of Death” stands near the lake, urging visitors to be cautious. If you are allergic to sulphur, it is suggested to stay as far from the fumes as possible, as they can provoke an allergic reaction on the skin.

Mefitis’s memory is also present in the English language, where the word “mephitic” is derived from the goddess’s name, meaning “offensive in odour”; “noxious”; and “poisonous.”

Those living near Mefite use carefully sourced water from Mefite as a compress for sore joints. These waters can also be found nearby at a mineral spring called “vascone rotondo” and the nearby S. Teodoro spa of Villamaina uses this water in its baths.

An up-close view of Mefite, showing the waters bubbling just above the surface.

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