In ancient Greece and Rome, gods were part of daily life—so much so, in fact, that they could steal your daughter or lover, help you win a war, or cure your illness. Some legendary heroes even visited the realm of the god of the underworld, who was called Hades by the Greeks and Pluto by the Romans.
But where could you go to enter the underworld? Mount Olympus was a real mountain on the Greek mainland; presumably you could visit the home of the gods if you hiked up high enough. And if you went far enough the other way, amid the active geology of the Mediterranean and its many volcanoes, a few sulfurous openings in the Earth promised access to the underworld.
Now Italian archaeologists working at the Greco-Roman site of ancient Hierapolis (modern-day Pamukkale) in Turkey have uncovered that city's gate to the underworld. Pilgrims from around the classical world came to Hierapolis to bathe in its hot springs and worship at the Ploutonion—a temple precinct built over a cave and underground thermal area.
By tracing the path of the hot springs through the ancient site, the team from the University of Salento, led by Francesco D'Andria, uncovered the entrance to the cave. An engraved dedication to Pluto above the entrance has confirmed the identification of the gate.
The ancient Greek geographer Strabo, who recorded tales of his travels in Asia Minor in the final years B.C., mentions the "singular properties" of the Ploutonion, saying "it is an opening of sufficient size to admit a man, but there is a descent to a great depth ... [The] space is filled with a cloudy and dark vapor, so dense that the bottom can scarcely be discerned ... Animals which enter ... die instantly. Even bulls, when brought within it, fall down and are taken out dead. We have ourselves thrown in sparrows, which immediately fell down lifeless."
The eunuch priests of Pluto would prove their power by entering the gassy cleft and coming out alive (presumably by holding their breath and taking advantage of known pockets of safe air within the cave), while birds that flew too close were often felled by the poison. During the modern excavations, dead birds at the site helped convince the archaeological team they'd found the Ploutonion's actual "gate to hell."
Future excavations will focus on the upper precinct, where they expect to find a massive temple to Pluto.
Different Kind of Hell
The ancients had a very different concept of hell than does Christianity—it wasn't just a place bad people went when they died. Instead, it was a land where everybody, good and bad alike, ended up. Different cultures around the world held different theories: In ancient Egypt, the underworld could be a lovely place, resplendent with fields of reeds and a large river similar to the Nile. As long as a dead person had been properly prepared for the afterlife (reunited with the different parts of the soul, and with an "opened" mouth for eating properly in the underworld), death wouldn't be that bad. For the unprepared, though, it was a dark and dreary place full of obstacles, particularly for those who weren't good while alive.
A visit to the underworld appears in some of the first writing ever. A Sumerian legend written in cuneiform on clay tablets before 1900 B.C. tells of the goddess Inanna, also known as Ishtar, and her visit to the land of death. Journeys to or through the underworld marked the change of seasons among the Greeks, the rhythms of night and day among the Egyptians, and the origins of the world among the Maya.
Other cultures have their own "gates to hell." Here's a sampling:
Greece and Turkey. Other Ploutonions were found around the Greek eastern Mediterranean, often in places where underground gases escaped, including one at Eleusis. The Acheron River in northwest Greece was also linked to the underworld (Charon was the ferryman of the dead).
Italy. In Sicily, near Enna, lies the cleft through which Hades himself is rumored to have brought Persephone to the underworld, where she ate six pomegranate seeds, thus dooming the Earth to six months of winter every year. The Roman hero Aeneas is said to have entered the underworld through or near Lake Avernus in the volcanic landscape near Naples; a different legend of Odysseus names the same spot for his descent.
Israel. The Twins Cave in the Judean hills outside Jerusalem has revealed evidence of pagan rituals linked to the underworld and may have been thought to be an access point for Persephone's journey to the underworld.
Mesoamerica. Nicaragua's Masaya Volcano was dubbed the "Mouth of Hell" by the Spaniards, who came across it in the 16th century. (Volcanoes throughout the world have had a special relation to hell, for obvious reasons.) The Yucatan's many limestone caves and cavern networks enchanted the Maya, and they ritually deposited valuables and sacrificed humans to the gods of the watery cave underworld. The Maya creation myth recounts the tale of the hero twins who vanquished the evil gods of the underworld, Xibalba, and freed the lesser gods there to surface and start our living world above.
Is there an entrance to the underworld near you? If so, let us know in the comments below.