Though its name may differ from one set of teachings to another, almost every religion that we know of believe that there is a special and horrific place for the souls of those who have been banished for purposes of either penance or perpetual punishment. From the toxic tunnels in Turkey, to the tricky Mayan City of Xibalba, and all the way to the Greco-Roman temples dedicated to Hades, cultures around the world have stories of fire and brimstone that speak of doorways, caves and rivers on Earth leading to hell or the underworld.
These purported entrances to the netherworld are scattered across the globe, and while many of them have already fallen to ruin, they are all still sites of mystery and danger that continue to grab the attention of even the best of us.
And so, without further ado, here are seven actual places on earth people believed were entrances to hell.
1. Cape Matapan Caves (The Mani, Greece)
The cave network in Cape Matapan was one of the several entrances that the Ancient Greeks once ascribed to Hades, the Kingdom of the Shades. When Orpheus headed down to Hades in order to rescue Eurydice, it was believed that he had done so through a cave on Cape Matapan. Hercules, too, allegedly used these caverns when he ventured into the underworld as well.
The Cape Matapan Caves are located on the southernmost tip of the Greek mainland. Also known as Cape Tainaron, or Tenaro, it is situated on the end of the peninsula currently known as the Mani. In modern times, the caves at Cape Matapan can still be entered by visitors. However, they must ride a boat if they want to pass through this particular hellgate.
2. Hekla (Iceland)
This active volcano located in the southern mountains of Iceland has developed its reputation as a gateway to hell sometime in the 12th century, after its historic 1104 eruption. The monk Benedict’s 1120 poem about the voyages of Saint Brendan referred to Hekla as the “eternal prison of Judas.” In 1341, the medieval Icelandic manuscript “Flatey Book Annal” described large birds where were reportedly seen flying inside the volcano’s fiery crater, and these creatures were believed to be the swarming souls of the damned.
There have been more than 20 serious volcanic eruptions of Hekla recorded since 874 AD. Since its activity has remained somewhat peaceful in recent years, most superstitions surrounding Hekla disappeared by the 19th century. However, even in recent times, Hekla has kept its diabolic status, as local folklore claims it to be a place where witches meet with the devil.
3. Lacus Curtius (Rome, Italy)
At present, this pit in the Roman Forum doesn’t look like much, but according to a legend told by the Roman historian Livy, Lacus Curtius was once a wide chasm that appeared in the middle of Rome, and nothing could fill it. According to Livy’s story, an oracle once prophesized that the chasm would not close and that the Roman Republic would fall unless the city sacrificed that which had made it strong. To a man named Marcus Curtius, the strength of Rome lied in its weapons and the bravery of its citizens. And so, fully armored and armed, Marcus Curtius rode his horse, entered the chasm, and supposedly went straight into the underworld. Because of his bravery, the chasm closed and the city was saved.
4. Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, Belize)
Located in Belize, this place is once believed to be the entrance to the Mayan underworld known as Xibalba. The name Actun Tunichil Mukna translates to “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre,” and extensive research has linked the site to ancient Mayan legends that speak of rivers of blood and scorpions and a vast subterranean labyrinth ruled over by the demonic death gods of Xibalba.
The caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal have become a popular destination for explorers since it was rediscovered back in 1989. One of the more notable discoveries in the caves is the skeleton of an 18-year-old-girl who is believed to have been ritualistically sacrificed and murdered for the Death Gods of Xibalba. More than a thousand years since her death, her bones calcified, creating a shimmering crystal effect which earned her skeleton the nickname the “Crystal Maiden.”
5. Ploutonion (Denizli Province, Turkey)
For thousands of years, the Ancient Greek site known as “Ploutonion” or “Pluto’s Gate” was dismissed as nothing more than a work of fiction. That is until the site was rediscovered in 1965 in the ancient city of Hierapolis, which is near modern-day Pamukkale in Turkey. Long believed to have been a gateway to hell, an archaeological dig revealed the remains of an ancient temple, believed to be the sacred Temple of Pluto, which is situated on its thermal spring.
One of the distinctive features of Pluto’s Gate are the toxic fumes which travels from the tunnels beneath. In ancient times, these fumes were often inhaled by the priests of Pluto, which inevitably sent them into hallucinogenic trance states. Even now, the poisonous vapors of the area take the lives of birds that fly too close to the ruins.
6. Fengdu City of Ghosts (Chongqing, China)
The 2,000-year-old City of Ghosts is located in the Chonqing municipality of China, and it has long been believed to be a pitstop of the dead on their way to the afterlife. Founded during the Han Dynasty, which ruled China between 206 BC and 220 AD, the City of Ghosts bases its heritage on the story of two renegade officials who escaped the wrath of the emperor. Their names, Yin and Wang, were later used to create the title for one of the rules of hell – “Qinguang Wang Jiang.”
Fengdu is famous for its traditional architecture and elaborate craftsmanship. Its streets and squares are filled with statues of ghosts and demons, but it’s most striking landmark is arguably “The Ghost King” – a giant, carved face looking down on the city from a rock face. Measuring about 452 feet tall and 712 feet across, it is considered as the largest rock sculpture in the world.
7. Chinoike Jigoku (Beppu City, Japan)
Japan’s Beppu City is the home to a series of nine hot springs, and each one flows in a different color and composition. At the heart of these health spa pools lies the dark legend involving the pool known as Chinoike Jigoku or the “Bloody Hell Pond.” This particular pond gets its name from its rich hellish red color which comes from the natural iron oxide deposits located on the pond bed. The Bloody Hell Pond is presided over by a collection of sculpted demons, some of which were carved into the rocks themselves.
The Chinoike Jigoku has been likened by Buddhists to the bubbling pits of hell, and in olden times, the Bloody Pond – which is very hot at around 78 degrees Celsius – had been used to torture prisoners before they were boiled alive.
Are there really gateways to hell in different parts of the planet? For most of those who believe in some religions, the afterlife can only be reached spiritually. However, it cannot be denied that there are those who believe that there are places on Earth that serve as portals to the underworld. And even if that is not exactly true, these ancient sites still stand as the common link that ties various human cultures and belief systems in different parts of the world together. And perhaps that is more than impressive enough.