Absu – “Descent to Acheron (Evolving into the Progression of Woe”

The Roman epic poet Vergil, in the sixth book of the Aeneid, placed these words in the mouth of the Cumaean Sibyl, an aged prophetess who guides the Trojan hero Aeneas into the Underworld:

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

Which may be translated as “easy is the descent from Avernus: night and day the door of black Dis lies open. But tracing back one’s steps and making one’s way out to the climes above, that is the real task, that the labor.”

Aeneas arrives in Cumae in southern Italy to consult the prophetess about his destiny, about what labors lie ahead for him in his quest to found a new beginning for his people, refugees from burning Troy. While the Sibyl predicts herself that he must wage a bloody war to claim a new land for the Trojans in Italy, Aeneas still requires a clearer picture of what the future has in store for his descendants, and to obtain that vision Aeneas must descend into the Underworld to consult the shade of his father Anchises. There he will see the glorious heroes of the future Romans waiting to be born. Assured of this coming glory, Aeneas is made resolute in his determination to fulfill his destiny and win his Italian war.

The Sibyl’s remarks can be variously interpreted. Aeneas is undertaking a katabasis, a Hadean descent previously performed by classical heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus. Not all of them were successful in their reascension. A katabasis may be symbolic of a hero’s death and rebirth to become their true self. The Underworld, finally, is simply symbolic of death itself. Easy it is to die, as we all must. But escaping death is more difficult. The descent may refer also to spiritual death. Easy is it to fall into an abyss of depression or substance abuse. Recovery is the true Herculean labor.

Back in their early days playing old school death metal, the American band Absu quote these lines of Vergil in a song on their 1993 debut album “Barathrum V.I.T.R.I.O.L.” The lyrics begin with the injunction to “pour water on thyself” much as the Sibyl commanded Aeneas to purify himself before making the descent. When drummer and vocalist Proscriptor recites these lines in the song, he is accompanied by operatic female vocals, standing in for the Sibyl herself. However, the quotation undergoes a couple modifications:

Facillis descensus Acherni
Noctes atque dies patet
Atri ianua Charnus
Sed revocare gradun sperasque
Evadere ad aurus,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.

“Averno” is replaced with “Acherni” and thus instead of Lake Avernus, where lies the entrance to Hades, the descent is to Acheron, one of the rivers of Hades and a frequent synecdoche for Hades at large. Acheron, specifically, is the “river of woe” along with Styx (“hatred”), Cocytus (“wailing”) and Phlegethon (“fire”). Also, “Ditis” is replaced with “Charnus.” Dis is Roman name for Hades, the god of the Underworld, and Absu here replace him with (my guess here) Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, both referenced elsewhere in the song.

Vergil’s account of the Underworld would highly influence Dante’s version of the Inferno, which in turn informs conceptions of Hell in metal lyrics. Some bands, like Absu here, pay homage to the Vergilian source of metal’s infernal visions.

“Pour water on thyself
Thus shalt thou be
A creator of the sun
Charon will inhibit his entrance
The fields and dwellings of relapsing ruins
Find thou thyself in every star
Achieve thou every possibility
Listen! Heed not the siren-voice of thought
The fable of river #5
Deliver me athwart the earth
Forsaken loam of wondrous slumbers
Thee spiritual and thee fertile
A spawn of full equilibrium
But whose availeth is in this,
For hereby there comenth impair

Facillis descensus Acherni
Noctes atque dies patet
Atri ianua Charnus
Sed revocare gradun sperasque
Evadere ad aurus,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.

There was not a formal sepulcher
Not one sector for the interment
Throth with thee empire of hope
All effects are welcome to Styx”

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