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Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld

By: Salomon Kroonenberg(Author)

352 pages, 40 colour & 100 b/w illustrations

Reaktion Books

Hardback | Oct 2012 | #199891 | ISBN-13: 9781780230450
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £24.99 $33/€28 approx

About this book

We know almost everything about the exterior of the earth, but for most people its interior is completely unknown. Beneath us, stretching for a distance comparable to that between Paris and New York, lies an underground realm associated with darkness and death. It has inspired writers and artists since time immemorial; when trying to imagine hell, they have usually located it under the ground.

In Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur, geologist Salomon Kroonenberg uses subterranean mythology as his point of departure. Starting with Dante's Inferno, he takes the reader on a journey in the footsteps of Homer, Virgil, Leonardo, Descartes and Jules Verne. Along the way he turns a scientific spotlight on the background to myths of the underworld. At a small lake near Naples he searches for the gates of hell, as described in Virgil's Aeneid. Describing the multi-layered nature of the inside of the earth, exposing colours, gasses, liquids and metals as well as underground rivers and lakes, Kroonenberg sees the earth beneath our feet as a source of information about this unimaginably ancient planet. We have never penetrated beyond a depth of 7.5 miles, but beneath us is a unique archive, a living ecosystem whose riches we can still barely guess at.

Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur is a fascinating search for the geological foundations of hell and also an appeal to find ways to ensure that mankind's thirst for natural resources does not exhaust the earth.

"Kroonenberg searches literature and the ground beneath us to explore the realities, mysteries, and allegories of our many-layered Earth; en route, he discovers real-life geological features that rival the powerful imagery of Dante's Inferno – from lakes of bubbling tar to mud volcanoes, poisonous caves, enormous sinkholes, and modern coal mines in China that epitomize hell on earth. Interwoven with the voices of poets and philosophers from Homer to Herodotus is a history of the science of geology, accompanied by abundant diagrams and photos. Kroonenberg deftly 'balances [...] on the edge between science and myth,' inserting lyric beauty into a topic many consider monumentally lifeless. Traveling to the center of the Earth and back with him makes one appreciate the wonder of the underworld."
Publishers Weekly

"It is the work of someone who knows not only his subject but the history and sources of his own mind. This might be called full intellectual maturity, a ripening; the quality is rare."
Inside Higher Ed

"A worthwhile addition to serious collections of either classical mythology and science fiction or geology."
Library Journal

"Kroonenberg provides a guided tour of in his newly translated Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur, a survey of both the literary and geological makeup of hell [...] Heaven on Earth, it's fair to say, will always lie out in the farthest east, just beyond the horizons of the real, but hell is never far away. It's right underfoot."
Boston Globe

"Kroonenberg interleaves science, history and autobiography with a light touch, blending lively accounts of classical scholarship with superb descriptions of Earth's interior and how geologists have come to know it. Virgil may no longer be available to accompany us through Hell, but Salomon Kroonenberg proves a witty and erudite guide for the twenty-first century."
– Andrew H. Knoll, Times Literary Supplement


1. The Gobstopper
2. Jerusalem
3. The Wanderings of Odysseus
4. The Entrance to Hell
5. The Vestibule
6. Charon’s Ferry
7. Limbo
8. The City of Dis
9. Avarice
10. The Conflagration
11. The Monster Geryon
12. The River of Tar
13. Collapses
14. The Lead Cloak
15. To the Centre of the Earth
16. With Lucifer in the Ice
17. The Way Back

Photo Acknowledgements

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Salomon Kroonenberg is Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Delft. He is the author of The Human Scale, which was awarded the Eureka Prize in 2007 for best non-specialist scientific literature.

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