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Illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy: The Inscription over Hell-Gate

Toxicity at Gateway to Hell Explains ‘Miracle’ in Ancient City of Hierapolis


“Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” said William Shakespeare, and now, new scientific findings tells us how the devils got here! And it was through a “gateway to the underworld” located in the ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis, in modern-day Turkey.

Two millennia ago, visitors to “Pluto's Gate” sent small birds or other animals into this mysterious dark cavern to “test the toxic air” and high priests “hallucinating on the fumes” stood on the steps to the “opening to hell” and would sometimes lead sacrificial bulls inside, “later pulling out their dead bodies in front of an awed crowd,” according to article. Further illustrating the deadly qualities of this place, the ancient Greek geographer, philosopher, and prolific traveler Strabo, who lived from 64/63 B.C. to 24 A.D., said “a thick vapor that would overtake the gate” and during religious ceremonies “castrated priests who entered would come out alive” while bulls and birds died.”

Pluto’s Gate at Hierapolis, Turkey (Orientalizing / flickr)

Miracle Explained

Everything becomes less hellish when we consider the findings presented in a new scientific paper published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Revealing that the natural gases concentrated around the gate to hell include “up to 91 percent carbon dioxide, “with lower amounts the higher you get from the ground," thus certainly accounts for why birds died around the gate. But what of the “castrated priests” and the ‘miracle’ of walking out alive, while the bulls died? How on Earth did they survive the toxic fumes at the gateway to hell?

The research paper tells that the gate is located in the Babadag fracture zone, a highly active seismic area with deep openings through which carbon dioxide escapes the Earth. And clue was offered to scientists testing the gates deathly powers in the work of historian Strabo, who noted “priests bent down, held their breath, and only went in so far.” Volcanologist Hardy Pfanz, who led the recent study, believes the priests “knew certain times of day were better to go down” and they knew “the deadly breath of Kerberos”, the mythical hellhound who guarded the gates to hell “only reached a certain maximum height,” Pfanz told Science Magazine. Even today scientists say the vapors released at the gate to hell “is still enough to kill insects, birds and mammals.”

Statue of Cerberus, the mythical hellhound guardian, found at Hierapolis, Turkey.

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

Noxious Fumes at the ‘Gateway to Heaven’

However, this wasn’t the first time the Greco-Roman empire used natural gasses to enhance their perceived connections with divine realms. While Hierapolis holds the "gateway to hell”, the ancient Greek “gateway to heaven” was located 112 miles from Athens at Delphi, and it was arguably the most sacred site in ancient Greece between 1400 BC to 400 AD. People from all walks of life pilgrimaged to Delphi to seek advice from the famed Oracle (The Pythia) who entered a trance by “inhaling sweet-smelling noxious fumes” coming from cracks in the earth underneath the temple, according to the ancient historian Plutarch. Then, when sufficiently high, the Oracle channeled advice from the god Apollo.

In 2001, geologist Jelle Z. de Boer blamed “ethylene escaping from an intersection of faults beneath the temple” as the gaseous culprit of the Oracle’s visions, but then in 2006, professor Giuseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome announced that “a simple cocktail of carbon dioxide mixed with methane could have induced the psychic trances that the Pythia used to channel the gods.” Etiope believed it was possible that the “toxicity problems [were] due just to a deficit of oxygen in the Temple room, where air ventilation was weak and the gas release from the soil was strong,”

The oracle was probably high on noxious fumes when she had her visions. “Priestess of Delphi”, by John Collier

The oracle was probably high on noxious fumes when she had her visions. “Priestess of Delphi”, by John Collier (public domain).

Methane was found in spring waters around Delphi by Etiope and his team and he told LiveScience “This environment is prone to methane formation...the only plausible explanation is that in the past there was a bigger methane emission (with a small amount of carbon dioxide)” And accounting for the “sweet odor” the Pythia was said to have inhaled, “it many have come from traces of benzene, another toxic hydrocarbon found in the area,” said Etiope. However, scientist de Boer contests Etiope’s claim saying “Benzene is a dangerous substance and after a number of sessions the Pythias would have become sick and possibly died”. And, “Frequent deaths of Pythias have not been reported by any of the classical writers. On the contrary, they seem to have lived a long and healthy life.” 

Whether professor Etiope or de Boer is proven right as to the specific gasses inhaled by the Oracle, only time will tell. However, what these new “toxic finds” at the gateway to hell affirm is that ancient priesthood’s would go to any lengths to amass profits. What do I mean by this? Didn’t I mention that visitors had to “buy” small birds and animals to kill in the “gateway to hell.” And, never was a prediction made by the Oracle until she had been paid.

Top image: Illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy: The Inscription over Hell-Gate (public domain)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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