HELL AND BACK
Welcome to Hell: A History of Portals to the Underworld
Next time you’re advising someone to go to hell, these should be the directions that you provide.
This week, a sinkhole opened up on the North Lawn at the White House, just outside the press briefing room. The cause of the sinkhole was heavy rains the “swamp” climate of Washington, D.C., but the jokes still write themselves. Commentators rush to joke that the sinkhole was part of an escape tunnel for Melania Trump or a secret passage for Jared Kushner.
The most popular remark, however, was that the sinkhole was a hellmouth—a term for the entrance to hell popularized by the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Buffy, it’s imperative to keep the mouth of hell closed, lest the demons inside escape. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is believed to have descended to hell after his crucifixion, wrestled with Satan, and opened the gates of hell to allow the souls of those imprisoned there to escape.
But if extreme tourism no longer cut it and Macchu Picchu was already crossed off the proverbial bucket list, how would you “go to hell?”
In Greek mythology, the original road to hell was a river: the river Styx. But first you have to find it. According to Homer’s Odyssey, the entrance to hell could be found where the Acheron (a real river in northwest Greece) met the Pyriphlegethon and the river Styx. The Roman poet Virgil also mentions the Acheron in his version of the quest-narrative the Aeneid. Once you get to the river Styx and providing you have coins to pay him, the ferryman Charon will transport you, the recently deceased person, across the river into the afterlife.
Virgil was so influential that Dante mentions Charon in the Inferno. According to Dante, those who are “Uncommitted” and fail to decide between good or evil are punished by eternity on the banks of the Acheron. Neither Heaven nor hell would take them, so they stay there in torment in the vestibule.
Virgil might mention Charon, but his version of the journey to underworld takes place in Italy. Aenus, the mythological founder of Rome, descends into underworld through a crater near Cumae. Virgil describes Aeneas’s trip to Acheron, a place of flames, dead birds, and the portal to the “nether king” in the groves of Avernus (Virgil, Aeneid 6.83–330). The name Avernus means “birdless” which is likely connected to the idea that birds who flew over the lake would die from brimstone poisoning.
The ‘entrance to the underworld’ is available to visitors today. A keyhole shaped entrance into the rock leads to the cave of the Sibyl, who acted as Aeneas’ guide. (This was same Sibyl who offered King Tarquin of Rome prophecies about Rome’s destruction, and who also appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). The cave most frequently visited today was uncovered in 1932 but is unlikely to have been contemporaneous with Virgil. There might still be reason to fear the dangers in the Sibylline grotto, however; in 2010 Italian police reported that the caves were being used as a mafia hideout.
If you were looking for a more central portal to hell, you could try the Lacus Curtius, a pit in the Roman Forum in the very heart of Rome. It’s likely that if you were strolling through this popular archeological tourist site, you might walk right by this rather inconspicuous pit.
The Roman historian Livy, however, writes that it was once a broad chasm that suddenly appeared in the middle of the city. According to Livy, a prophesy dictated that the chasm would not close and the Roman Republic would be destroyed unless the city sacrificed the things that had made it strong (as with many oracles it was a pretty vague prediction).
One Marcus Curtius, the likely namesake for the site, had an epiphany that Rome’s power lay both in the courage of her people and her military might. So, dressed in full armor and bearing arms he rode his horse into the pit and down into the underworld. The chasm closed behind him and all was well. Burying people alive as means of securing the safety of the group is something of a theme in Roman history, but this particular legend appears to have generated the idea that you could use the lacus to commune with the dead and, perhaps, even bribe them. The Roman Republic did, eventually end, and during the Imperial period and the reign of Augustus, citizens would through into the pit in order to secure the emperor’s safety. All of which makes it a kind of supernatural version of the Trevi fountain.
The Ploutonian at Hierapolis (aka Pluto’s Gate)
In Roman mythology, Pluto was the god of the underworld, so it is appropriate that one of the religious centers dedicated to him would be considered a literal entrance to hell. Located in the southwestern part of Turkey, in the ancient city of Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale), the small shrine known as Pluto’s gate is unique on this list in the sense that it might actually cause you to die. Ancient pilgrims would lead sacrificial animals to this misty grotto and when they entered its cavernous bowel, the animal would die. The priests who followed would somehow emerge unscathed.
In 2013, archeologists investigating the site revealed its secrets: As you go deeper into the cave, the level of noxious fumes gradually rose to lethal levels. The animals were being suffocated by carbon dioxide. Because the fumes settled lower in the cave the animals were more likely to die than the priests. The ancient geographer Strabo notes that the shrine was filled with a “misty and dense” vapor and that that the priests appeared to “hold their breath.” But in general, the fact that the animals died was taken as proof that it was in fact a place of supernatural power.
One of the ironies here is that the same animals that suffocated the sacrificial victims, also powered the delightful hot springs at Pamukkale. Meghan Henning, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton and author of several works on hell told The Daily Beast, “The most likely place to find a hellmouth in the ancient world then, is adjacent to a natural hot spring or other natural source of sulfuric gases. So today's tourist attraction was antiquity's portal to the netherworld.” In other words, your trip to the underworld can easily double as a spa day.
The Dead Sea
Even apart from Greek myth, other ancient authors were eager to map familiar geographic sites onto spaces of death and judgement. The ancient geographer Strabo describes the Dead Sea as smoky and full of bubbly hot asphalt. He explains that the region of Syria is known to be fiery because this is where the great metropolis of Sodom once stood, before it was destroyed by “earthquakes” and “eruptions of fire and of hot waters containing asphalt and sulphur. (Strabo, 16.42–44.)
The Jewish historian Josephus describes the Dead Sea and “Sodom” in a similar way, connecting the two as places where “divine fire” had struck (Josephus, Jewish War 4.484). As Henning told me “For these ancient authors, as for many in the ancient world, religious cosmology helps them to explain a familiar geographic site, but also imbues that site with meaning in their own time.” This kind of mixing of geography and mythology deeply influenced later Christian and Jewish descriptions of hell as a place that was literally on fire. In an apocryphal text known as the Apocalypse of Zephaniah the tourist of hell sees a fiery sea whose “waves burn sulphur and bitumen.”
The Back Door: Cape Matapan
Like so many places, there is a back entrance to hell. So if you wanted to avoid the toll, prefer to breathe oxygen, and don’t fancy committing suicide in the Roman Forum, the poet Ovid, has an alternative route. In the Metamorphoses Orpheus descends into the netherworld through the gate of Taenarus, in the Peloponnese, in pursuit of his beloved Eurydice.
So next time you’re advising someone to go to hell, these should be the directions that you provide.