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A modern depiction of the hellhound Cerberus.

Gate to Hell Guardians Were Used to Ward People Off Deadly Cave

The Gate to Hell, also known as Pluto’s Gate, was the Greco-Roman entrance to the Underworld. When archaeologists found an example of this sacred site in Turkey they also discovered two guardians who were meant to ward people off from the deadly cave - in the form of remarkable marble statues .

Statue of Cerberus found at Hierapolis, Turkey.

Statue of Cerberus found at Hierapolis, Turkey. ( Francesco D'Andria/ Antiquity Now )

The Gate to Hell in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis has been recognized as a deadly location. Ancient documentation about the cave at the site by Greek geographer Strabo claim it “is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” Strabo wrote, “I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

Francesco D'Andria, professor of classic archaeology and lead researcher at the Gate to Hell in Hierapolis, claims the descriptions were accurate. The lethal mephitic vapors mentioned in the accounts truly existed. With that in mind, it isn’t surprising guardians were placed in front of the cave to ward off potential visitors from an untimely death.

The guardian statues found at the site are representations of mythological creatures. D’Andria said “One depicts a snake, a clear symbol of the underworld, the other shows Kerberos, or Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of hell in the Greek mythology.”

The statue of a snake rolled on itself – a symbol of the Underworld.

The statue of a snake rolled on itself – a symbol of the Underworld. (Francesco D’Andria/ It’s a Strange World )

Archaeologists have unearthed the ruins of a temple, pool, and steps above the cave at the site. These features match ancient descriptions of the Gate to Hell. Dozens of lamps were also found in front of the cave opening, showing that the location was once popular with pilgrims. These people would have witnessed sacred rituals from the steps at the cave opening. The ceremonies would have involved priests sacrificing bulls to the god of the Underworld, Pluto. The animals were led into the cave and then pulled out when they had died.

The ruins of the Ploutonion at Hierapolis.

The ruins of the Ploutonion at Hierapolis. (Ömerulusoy/ CC BY 3.0 )

D’Andria says that pilgrims slept near the Gate to Hell to experience visions or prophecies - in a similar way to what took place with the oracle of Delphi. Most likely this was due to the fumes arising from the cave causing hallucinations.

One of the elements we can take from these explorations is the fact that so-called myths of the ancients were not necessarily all fiction. The stories were often based on true experiences and real-world sites being explained through language and past worldviews.

Top image: A modern depiction of the hellhound Cerberus. Source: CC BY SA

By April Holloway

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