The Underworld and back
Yesterday I suggested to a friend an old book that was one of the most fun, intelligent reads I chanced upon back in… ah, must have been 1991 or 1992.
Turns out the book is still available and quite cheap on Amazon – it’s called Journeys to the Underworld and was written by British poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley.
It also happens to be somewhat on topic here on Karavansara, being both a travel book and a book about ancient magic in the Mediterranean basin.
Journeys to the Underworld chronicles Pitt-Kethley’s journeys in Southern Italy, somewhere in the ’80s, as she tried to trace the gateways to the underworld according to classical literature and mythology.
Along the way the author, a self-styled libertine, offers some keen observation about the Italian male and his attitude towards liberated, intelligent British women.
One of the highlights of the book is, in my opinion, the long, vitriolic chapter about San Gennaro and his blood – in a yearly ceremony, a glass containing the blood of the patron saint of Naples is carried in a procession, and it liquefies in a “miracle” that is supposed to bring omens for the incoming year.
This was the topic of discussion with my friend, as an Italian politician considered expedient to get his shot while he kisses the blood vessel of the saint, in a classic example of medieval propaganda.
Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s book includes a whole chapter about the miracle, and the analyses on what passes for “blood”, that were apparently suppressed by the Naples bishop’s office.
But this is just one of the many funny bits in a highly intelligent and literate book, what I think posh reviewers would call a “romp” through the south of my home country. And to me, in my early ’20s, it was really intriguing to get a British woman’s insight on matters sexual and…ehm, social.
It was an eye-opener.
So, Aeneas’ gateway to the underworld, Circe and the Cumaean Sybill, Pompeii and the Greek colonies in Southern Italy, is all in here. Lots of classics, lots of quotes from great books, lots of intelligent observations and a rather unusual tour of Pompeii.
Racy, smart, elegant.
And as I was saying, cheap on Amazon.
ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention that I have a good selection of Pitt-Kethley’s books on my shelf (or in some box or other), including some poetry (fun) and The Literary Companion to Sex that she edited. Another indispensable read.