Digital illustration courtesy Francesco D'Andria
Published April 14, 2013
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.
These stories are very interesting and make me realize how far the human species has come mentally and intellectually.. I just wonder what will be said of our current civilizations in 3 or 4 thousand years?
Has anyone ever recalled a story that "Hades" in Greek means a landfill or garbage dump..used by a city and was constantly burning and smelled foul with the burning of rotted refuge, and dead human and animal flesh...I heard this many years ago from a religious group that claimed to study the origins of the King James version of the Bible...Greek, Hebrew and Latin text...just wondering?
@Kathy Olson The Greek word for Hell is Hades, the Hebrew word is Sheol.. both are translated as ... "The common grave of all mankind... " So , this being,,, seems to be understood as grave... Just like when Jesus died,, he then was in the grave, ( meaning sleeping in death) until He was resurrected, by His father, God on the 3rd day as recorded in the Bible...Seems srange to believe that such a perfect human being, could possibly be in a fiery torment.....
@Kathy Olson Maybe an exposed lava vent of molten rock was a good place to incinerate garbage [and other things?]
@Kathy OlsonActually, this is true. The Greek name for Hell (Gehenna) comes from the Hebrew name for what is today called the Hinnom Valley. The Hinnom Valley is just outside of Jerusalem and before the Babylonian Exile, the Israelites who had left the worship of Yahweh used to sacrifice their children in that valley to the god, Molech (e.g. 2 Chronicles 28:3). By the time of Jesus, the Jews had abandoned idolatry, and the Hinnom Valley was transformed into a place where people burned their garbage. Thus, it served as a picture of Hell, the place outside of God's presence. But, contrary to the next poster, first-century Jews did not regard Hell as a metaphor, though Gehenna certainly provided a picture of what they thought it was like.
@Kathy Olson Yes, I have heard that as well but I don't believe that there is a literal lake of fire or that hell is down there as if to prescribe a location for it. It's all metaphorical to me.
It really confused me that the majority of this article was written as if there could be a real, earthen entrance into some kind of physical hell.
@mckenzie graham you could say it was real.. for the ancient people believe in it.. isn't it true that even in our society today, what majority of people believe, then it is real in the essence of it being true even if not knowing thoroughly...
@mckenzie graham Yeah, how people thought then , is fascinating. they did not have our modern knowledge . So whatever they did not understand was explained by conclusions of the elders and scholars of the day . Good point to raise.
We have several entrances to the underworld called the Department of Motor Vehicles which you are certain to meet one of Hades many minions. Interesting enough that on some days, admittance could take several hours through the use of a number-ticketing system.
@Darius Lee We will soon have a new entrance to Hades and the line will be longer and the death panels will review your chart before you are admitted Aging adults stand no chance and you will have the wonderful benefit of actually paying exceptionally high prices for this service. Exactly like the DMV but this will be the health care fiasco and the minion will be Obamaminions. That said the bottom 47 % will refer to it as free health care! It is going to make the DMV look glorious!
@Richard Gray Are you a real person?
did you just go from a story on Greek history to Obamaminions in like 5 comments?
If you are a real person, embarrassing
If you are some kind of internet comment posting robot, programmed to read Hades, Print Death panels, read joke about DMV, print health care fiasco. Whoever told you to do this is a coward.
I'm a real person. And so this last bit is just my own personal feeling. Uplifting your neighbor uplifts yourself. don't be so selfish, makes you sound like a child, and that is embarrassing.
@Matt Buettner You seriously need to lighten up a bit. Sometimes the only thing a person can do in the grip of chaos and destruction is to be merry and laugh. Too many people are supposedly "put off" by others voicing a little humor. Stop being so scared of everything - it won't matter.
Sites for the Greek and Roman gods are also known for easy ways to make a living by and for the living. They were also a way to political power of varying degrees.
Just like today. We don't talk much about preachers and priests who are confidants of Presidents and other politically powerful politicians, nor do we rail about those religious leaders who somehow become rich in the service of their church and 'faith'.
Because it is ancient, should we assume that all faith-based structures are any more -- or any less -- authentically faith based than they are today?
@jim adams There can be no comparison here. Those civilazations acted and believed because of knowledge or lack of it. They were so ignorant of daily life as we have believe it due to knowledge. Faith is never a question of what someone else believes, but only what you believe. You should never "have faith" because someone else has it. It is a very personal thing.
The amount of ancient ruins and historical sites in Turkey is amazing. My brother lived in a small village named Cirali back in the 1980's. It was a tiny village on the beach just about a kilometer from the ruins of Olimpos which was covered in shrubbery overgrowth. This was due to the fact that there were so many historical sites like it, that the Turkish government simply could not restore all of them. He and his son used to crawl around in the bushes there and would come across the remains of buildings with tile murals and marble pillared gates. The country of Turkey is a destination that a visitor could spend months and months exploring and never come close to seeing all the history it contains. Much of what Strabo chronicled in his writings happened in this delightful country and it is well worth a visit. I lived there for 4 years and was only able to see a fraction of it's historical valueables...
I cannot understand that the underworld gate. Is there anything like that. If so, where we are from this gate? Also, is there any threaten from us, or benefits.
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