Why Hell Stinks Of Sulfur: Mythology And Geology Of The Underworld
by Salomon Kroonenberg
A retired professor of geology at the Netherlands’ University of Delft, Kroonenberg seems to be having the time of his life in this beguiling mix of travelogue and geological exposition. There can’t be many geologists who can write with such easy erudition on both halves of his subtitle: Kroonenberg clearly had a fine classical education. In the metaphorical footsteps of Dante and his guide, Virgil, the Dutchman meanders about, answering the mock-outraged question he asks to begin his book: “Why do astronomers get to study heaven and we geologists hell?” Because the Earth is not transparent, most human cultures have always believed it to be the home of the dead, he responds, and have much preferred to speculate rather than investigate. So would-be spacefarers can dream of visiting Mars while what is beneath our feet remains “the most unknown part of our planet, despite the fact that the centre of the Earth is no further away than London is from Chicago.”
So Kroonenberg goes to Jerusalem, which Christians once believed was located over the epicentre of hell—a small fraction, only 1,000 km in diameter, of the literal underworld—and to a place on the northern shore of the Black Sea, once identified as the spot where Odysseus entered the netherworld. The geologist visits the honeycombed ground beneath China’s coalfields and Naples, equally hollow underneath because the subsurface was hewn empty of the soft yellow tuff stone with which the city itself was built.
He gapes in wonder at what’s naturally present and at what human activity has wrought. In the caverns under Naples lie the bones of at least 40,000 people from across the city’s 2,500-year history, all dead from calamities (plague, Vesuvius eruptions) that overwhelmed normal burial procedures or simply too poor for decent interment. Everywhere he goes, he smoothly blends ancient poetic fancy and modern scientific knowledge. By the time Kroonenberg, having fully channelled his inner Dante, claims to be travelling from the Earth’s very centre up to the surface, excitedly describing everything he sees, the reader is perfectly happy to go along for the ride.