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Travel

Exploring the world's gateways to hell

@SamWKemp

For as long as humanity has dreamt of heaven, it has dreamt of hell. While the specific nature of the underworld changes from culture to culture, religion to religion, generally speaking, these underworlds are usually described in locational terms: they are lands, realms, plains, that one doesn’t simply arrive in but travels to. Why else would the Greeks have dreamt up Chiron, the ferryman charged with taking the souls of the dead across the river Styx? The land of the dead is distinct from the world of the living, but always nearby, just as the devil himself- in the Chrisitan tradition at least – is always lurking somewhere around the corner, just out of sight.

Often, underworlds are subterranean. In Judeo-Chrisitan texts, Hell, Gehenna—where the kings of Judah were said to sacrifice children by fire—and Sheol, are dark cavernous places defined by an absence of light, life, and goodness. In these realms, a selection of gruesome punishments awaits those who have sinned in life. This image of hell is the one we find in Dante’s Inferno, in which the protagonist – joined by Virgil – descends the seven circles of hell, each more blood-stained than the last. The Mayan realm of the death gods is similarly cavernous but perhaps even gorier than the Judeo-Christian underworld; there are a load more scorpions too.

In the Greek tradition, however, hell is not a deep cavernous realm but an oceanic shore that is frequently toured by boat. Take Odysseus for example, who embarks on a journey through the distant shores of Hades on his way home to Ithaca in The Odyssey. The differing natures of these underworlds are reflected in their mythological entry points. As you will see below, every hellish gateway is different, but all reveal something about the culture from which they sprouted – not all of it good. So, without further ado, I hope you’ll join us as we step inside the world’s gateways to hell.

The world’s gateways to hell:

Cave of The Sybil, Italy

Location: Via Licola Cuma, 3, 80070 Pozzuoli NA, Italy

Our first portal to Hades was originally described by Virgil over 2,000 years ago in his classical epic The Aeneid, in which he tells of a vast cave network with hundreds of entrances that leads deep into the heart of the underworld. However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that searches for the famous cave would commence in earnest.

While you will find sites all over Italy claiming to be “sibylline grottos”, the actual site Virgil described is thought to be The Antro della Sibilla, which now forms part of the Cumae Archaeological Site just outside Naples. Uncovered by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri in 1932, it is here that Virgil’s Trojan hero Aeneas encounters The Cumaean Sibyl, an oracle and priestess who guides him through the descending caves and into the mouth of hell. “The gates of hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent, and easy is the way…”

(Credit: Wiimedia Commons)

The seven gates of Hell, USA

Location: Trout Run Rd York, Pennsylvania, USA.

Far Out’s own Jamie Kahn bought this next gateway to our attention. In the leafy city of York, Pennsylvania, you will find a small hamlet known as the Hellam Township. Here, in the heart of a deep woodland speckled with crumbling manor houses and gnarled, century-old oaks, you will find the seven gates of hell.

The legend sprouted from the forest floor many decades ago. Since then, the tale of the seven gates has changed hands countless times, with each teller embellishing it with some new and sinister detail. One story maintains that the seven gates are attached to an insane asylum that burnt down in the early 19th century. The criminally insane inmates fled the smoking wreck, only to be trapped by the gates around the property and beaten to death by local police. Others believe that the gates were designed by an eccentric doctor with a penchant for satanism. Apparently, if you pass through the gates on his land, you’ll be sent straight to the underworld.

(Credit: Wikimedia)

The Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan

Location: 7C3R+G3Q, Derweze, Turkmenistan

If you happen to find yourself in Turkmenistan, drive three miles north of Ashgabat. Once you’re out of the gold-paved capital of one of the world’s most insulated dictatorships, you’ll soon find yourself trundling through the empty desert. At night, the sky becomes a thick blanket of indigo, speckled with constellations of flickering milk-white stars. But just ahead, a greater fire burns down on earth: the Darvaza gas crater, a deep chasm of orange flames more commonly known as ‘The Gates of Hell’.

The fires in this inferno have been burning unaided since the 1970s – and some say even earlier. The question of how the fire started in the first place has never really been answered, which is of course what makes this hellish inferno so alluring. The most commonly held belief is that the crater formed in 1971 after a soviet gas driller searching for natural gas in the Karakum desert hit on a cave, leading to the formation of a huge crater. Toxic methane started leaking into the atmosphere, so, for the sake of the environment and neighbouring settlements, geologists decided to set fire to the pit, hoping that the gas would burn out within a few days. 50 years later, however, the fires are still burning.

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize

Location: 4485+XRV, Seven Miles El Progresso, Belize

This cave network in modern-day Belize was once believed to be the entrance to the Mayan underworld: Xibalba. According to Mayan folklore, Actun Tunichil Muknal, or “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre” leads to a subterranean realm crisscrossed with rivers of blood, infested with scorpions, and ruled over by a pantheon of terrifying death gods known as the Lords of Xibalba.

When the caves were discovered in 1989, archaeologists found fragments of pottery and bones alongside the full skeleton of an 18-year-old girl thought to have been ritually sacrificed to the Death Gods. Known as the ‘Crystal Maiden’, her bones have calcified to such an extent that she seems to shimmer in the light. The other human remains are believed to have been sacrificed to Chac, the Mayan god of rain, while others are believed to have belonged to villagers suspected of witchcraft. Either way, it’s clear that the victims were sealed within the cave, probably to ensure their spirits never returned to the realm of the living.

(Credit: Flickr)

The Gates of Hades, Greece

Location: Cape Matapan, Laconia, Greece

Located where the southern tip of the Greek mainland meets the Mediterannean, Cape Matapan – sometimes referred to as Tenaro, Cape Tianaron or The Gates of Hades – is a cave system that sits on the needlepoint of the Mani peninsula. The caves, which are etched into a cliff face below the headland, are located just below sea level, mirroring the ruins of the ancient Spartan Temple located above. Those ancient inhabitants believed that this site was one of the entrances to Hades, the Greek realm of the dead.

It is said that Cape Matapan was where Orpheus descended into the underworld to rescue Eurydice, only to look over his shoulder and lose her forever. Likewise, Hercules is said to have used these caves to make his way to Hades, where, the ancient geographer Pausanias says, he managed to slay Cerberus (the three-headed hell hound) and bring him up to the world of the living.

(Credit: Alamy)

The Gates of Guinee, USA

Location: 127 Elk Place, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70112, United States

In Vodoo folklore, it is said that the recently deceased must first travel to an area of purgatory before being sent to the Guinee, the spirit realm sometimes referred to as the “deep waters”. There are countless stories of Voodoo practitioners going to sites like The Gates of Guinee to salvage the lost souls that occupy this purgatory, thus saving them from Hoodoo magicians, who might reanimate them as zombies.

Many followers of Voodoo regard the seven gates to Guinee as little more than a metaphor; others hold the view that the gateways are physical, visitable places that must be unlocked in the correct order to enter Guinee. Some of these gateways are based in New Orleans, and can be identified by the presence of a ‘veve’ – the summoning sigil of the god Baron Samedi, who rules over Guinee

(Credit: NOLA)