During the coming weeks, people around the world will celebrate the supernatural and pay respects to the spirit world on holidays such as Halloween, El Dia de los Muertos, the Obon Festival and the Teng Chieh festival. While holidays arose for different reasons, they each have a connection to the “other side” where the spirits of those who have gone before still dwell. And now, almost as if on cue, a group of Italian archaeologists has announced an exciting discovery at the ancient “Gate to Hell,” reminding us that our fascination with the afterlife is nothing new.
In March of this year, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Francesco D’Andria excavated a cave that is now believed to be the mythical “Gate to Hell” from Greek and Roman antiquity. The cave lies in the ancient city of Hierapolis in classical Phrygia and was said to be the portal to the underworld. Called Ploutonion or Pluto’s Gate, it was visited and written about by the philosopher Cicero who said, ”Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. Bulls that are led into it fall and are dragged out dead; and I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”
Once considered sacred to Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, the cave emits poisonous vapors that today are known to be carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, several birds were killed when they wandered too close to the entrance during D’Andria’s excavation. If this weren’t enough to give the cave an eerie, other-worldly feeling, D’Andria and his team have now made what he calls a “one-of-a-kind discovery”: two statues guarding the “Gate to Hell.” The first is a 1.5-metre-high marble statue of Cerberus, the Greek mythological three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades. And joining Cerberus is a marble statue of an enormous serpent, another mythical guardian of the Kingdom of the Dead. These two imposing figures would have reminded visitors that entering the cave would be their last act in this world. It was believed that only the castrated Priests of Cybele, called Galli, could safely enter the cave. Strabo, the Greek geographer, wrote,
“…the Galli,who are eunuchs, pass inside with such impunity that they even approach the opening, bend over it, and descend into it to a certain depth, though they hold their breath as much as they can (for I could see in their countenances an indication of a kind of suffocating attack, as it were)—whether this immunity belongs to all who are maimed in this way or only to those round the temple, or whether it is because of divine providence, as would be likely in the case of divine obsessions, or whether it is the result of certain physical powers that are antidotes against the vapor.”
Though the priests were the only men to actually go inside the cave according to D’Andria, the site was much like a modern-day tourist attraction with pilgrims being given small birds to test out the fatal nature of the fumes.
As archaeologists continue to cautiously and carefully excavate the cave and the surrounding site, one can only imagine the surprises they may find inside the “Gate to Hell.” The cave’s existence, along with its two imposing guardians, reminds us that the search for a connection to the afterlife is ancient. Each civilization has pondered the question of what happens after we die and we continue to celebrate this question on holidays like Halloween, El Dia de los Muertos and many more around the world.
To learn more about the celebration of Halloween and related holidays around the world visit: http://www.rd.com/culture/halloween-around-the-world/.
For pictures—scary, whimsical and downright ingenious—of people celebrating around the world visit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/halloween-around-the-world_n_2057695.html
3. Strabo Geography13.4.14. translation: Horace Leonard Jones, Perseus Digital Library