Maybe there is some crazy logic to the idea of a geologist examining the question of Hell as a real place. With the widespread belief that another world exists below the surface, it certainly falls into the realm of spooky geology and geomythology. So, I’m going to go there, so to speak. Not literally, of course, though some have tried to enter Hell on purpose. They had their reasons. Here, my reason for exploring the intersection of geology and ideas about hell is to contrast supernatural beliefs with natural science. Through time, humans have discarded supernatural ideas about the world as we gained increased understanding through scientific processes. But even in the 21st century, there are still many who think Hell is an accessible and real place.
Where is “hell”?
In the past and even today, some believe that you can get to Hell via a portal or entrance from earth. There are countless tales of trips to the underworld made by mythical persons. There continue to be legends about gates to hell around the world that we might access today. They often draw tourists.
The idea of “Hell” in modern culture often has a strong Christian connotation even though most non-Christian cultures hold their own ideas of an underworld as a realm of the dead, even a place for judgment for one’s life choices. This judgment idea was very useful in converting people to religious values. But there is very little in the canonical Bible teaching that tells Christians about Hell. Ideas about Satan’s kingdom come more from art and literature. These have been incorporated and repeated so often that it feels genuine. Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) told of a hole to hell formed from the fall of Lucifer from Heaven. The opposite side of the earth from the crater was a displaced elevated mountain called Purgatory. Hell was at the center of the earth, as far away from Heaven as could be.
Imaginative creators like Bosch and Milton (Paradise Lost) so colored the public’s version of Hell that people eventually came to accept it as religiously sanctioned. The depiction of hell as a terrible place within reach was good for church business.
There is no reasonable claim regarding an entrance to Hell and no basis for this to be a geological question: God and Satan are supernatural entities, they do not obey the laws of nature. Hell, it would follow, is a supernatural location as well. But, let’s have some spooky fun and examine some places around the world that are said to be gateways to Hell.
Gates and Hell mouths
The prevalence of caves in Greece, in particular, influenced the idea that the underworld (Hades) could be reached via a passage from the surface. These passages contained amazing features and perhaps even a flowing stream. It was a reasonable assumption to these observers to say that the earth could be full of huge voids. It could be, they hypothesized, that the winds and vapors of the earth rushing through these voids caused earthquakes and volcanoes.
Some caves seemed to go on forever, perhaps they led all the way to the world of the dead. It’s not easy to keep track of all the locations where Greek/Roman heroes entered the netherworld with some set purpose – Aeneas, Heracles, Odysseus, Orpheus. Many of these stories have been extrapolated to modern times by those looking for the physical location where these epic tales took place. There are also additional areas that have been labeled Gates to Hades. Kroonenberg (2011) remarks that Hades looks like a rabbit warren with all these secret entrances. Some caves were natural but others were constructed, or at least physically enhanced, to represent a passage to the underworld for visitors, or as a temple to Pluto or Hades.
The Mayans believed that the cenotes (water-filled cave-opening) of the Yucatan peninsula were portals to the underworld, Xibalba. Like the legends of Greece, the Mayans also had fantastical stories of trips into Xibalba.
A natural cave in Hieropolis, Turkey carried a reputation as one of the most famous “gates to hell” – a link to the world of the dead – because of the emission of toxic gases (mostly carbon dioxide) that killed animals in proximity. The Gate of Pluto (Plutonium or Ploutonion) was built at the area, which is above a fracture that emits the gases. The vapor was said to be Hadean’s breath and/or the breath of the hellhound Kerberos (Cerberus) that guards the entrance to hell. Priests learned to hold their breath while entering the cave in order to demonstrate they could survive. The sacrificial animals (often bulls) did not survive. Pluto’s gate remains a dangerous area. Carbon dioxide is still found to be at deadly concentrations that will kill insects, birds, and mammals that venture nearby. The concentrations of carbon dioxide escaping from the mouth of the grotto are still in the range of 4–53% depending on the height above ground level. The levels rise at night to concentrations that could kill a person within a minute.
Lake Avernus (Lago Averno)
A crater lake in Cumae, Italy (near Naples), Avernus means “birdless” because birds supposedly dropped dead out of the sky if they flew over it. The legend of Aeneas has him descending into the Underworld here. Greek geographer and historian Strabo described the location and told of the toxic vapor that kills the birds. Like Pluto’s gate, there was likely emission of carbon dioxide that caused suffocation. No bubbles of gas are apparently in the lake now. On the shore of the lake is the Cave of the Sibyl as described in Virgil’s Aeneid and also nearby is a cave of Baiae which also represented a location of an oracle of the dead. These “navels of the earth” were places where one could access the underworld and commune with the dead.
An excavated area near the Acheron River was the location of a temple to Hades, the god of the underworld, and the oracle of the dead. The Acheron was also a legendary entrance to Hades, being one of the five rivers that flowed through the underworld. Kroonenberg describes that this area around the Acheron has since silted up and doesn’t look like it was described over a thousand years ago. Long ago, in spring, locals could hear a deep lowing coming from below the ground in the Acherusian swamps as though a bull had been locked in a dungeon. The roar was made by waters traveling through the subterranean openings, but it was not heard after the swamps were drained. The sound supposedly led people to believe that Hades was close by underground.
Seven Gates of Hell
Many additional surface “portals” to hell show up in modern legends. The myth of the “Seven Gates of Hell” has been cobbled together organically by mashing up ideas about ancient Mesopotamian gates of hell, seven as a magic number, and places where you can open an entrance to hell via some occult ritual. Several mundane locations have accrued a spooky reputation in this way. In the Internet age, they became prime places to go “legend tripping” – a way for young people to test the limits of courage. None of these places have genuine supernatural “energies” but the power of storytelling is very strong.
In Stull, Kansas, a private cemetery became associated with a hidden stairway to hell, much to the dismay of the local townspeople.
Similarly, the concocted legend of the gates to hell in Hellam Township, Pennsylvania continues to annoy residents. The idea of a strange and creepy-looking physical gate spawned a fictional story of hidden gates appearing at the site of an asylum that burned down. If you stepped through each gate, you would go straight to hell. The name of the township might also have been a catalyst for the story but Hellam Township was not named after hell. There was never an asylum or a fire here. It’s a very silly story without any basis in reality, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to find it.
Some other so-called “gates to hell” are even sillier. Local kids, it seems, gave the name to drainage tunnels in Clifton, New York, and Columbus, OH. The Devil’s gate in Los Angeles County, California is also the location of a drainage tunnel but at least this location comes with a more interesting story about American physicist and occultist Jack Parsons attempting to open a portal to hell. And, more impressively, the nearby rock face formed a mimetolith that looked like the characteristic profile of Satan.
Fengdu, China has become a well-known city of the dead based on the beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The dead must pass tests before entering the afterlife. The area now represents the cultural expression of the journey of the dead, depicting ghosts, or demons that torture people for their sins.
Pits and Holes
Around the world, we can find countless places that namecheck Hell or the Devil. I previously explored the ideas of bottomless pits on earth including Houska castle, supposedly built to cover a pit to hell. It’s possible this was a karst geology feature that eventually morphed into a more colorful story. Some other legendary pits associated with entering hell are less impressive.
Lacus Curtius, Rome
A pit of uncertain origins, now filled and marked with rock slabs. Popular rumor is that it used to be considered a door to hell within the Roman Forum that opened to accept a sacrifice of a brave soldier and his horse.
St Patrick’s purgatory
A small cave or pit on Station Island, Ireland dated from the 5th century. According to legend, Christ himself revealed the place to Patrick as a special location where people would get a glimpse of hell and change their ways (i.e., become Christian converts). By witnessing Purgatory, the people would finally know the reality of the joys of Heaven and the torments of Hell. It is now a pilgrimage site.
More impressive is a natural feature of Batagaika, a continually growing Siberian permafrost slump crater that locals suitably call the Hellmouth because it threatens to consume their land and villages.
Kola borehole/Well to Hell
Two man-made gates to hell continue to grow as legends that are ever further removed from their true origin. The Kola borehole is the world’s longest human-made borehole. The story of the project, which was designed for the scientific study of the deep crust, inspired a totally manufactured story by Christian fundamentalists claiming that scientists had drilled a well so deep, they inadvertently reached hell itself. The temperatures were searing and they could hear the screaming voices of the damned.
On a flat plain in Turkmenistan, a pit burns continuously. The location has developed a supernatural aura suited to its dramatic appearance and this overshadows its more prosaic and embarrassing origins as a place where a natural gas exploration site collapsed and was deliberately set on fire.
The most dramatic places associated with gates to hell are in volcanic areas. In Japan, volcanic features (Jigaku) were connected with the idea of underground prisons and a world where souls suffer. For example, Chinoike Jigoku is modernly known as the Bloody Hell Pond, a hot spring that is disturbingly red due to iron oxide. At one time, the hot waters may have been used for torture. Now, it’s a tourist attraction.
Mt. Osore in Japan, translated as “Dread Mountain” is the gateway to Hell, where souls pause on their way to the underworld. A barren volcanic wasteland of howling winds and bubbling yellow to red caldrons, this is similar to the Phlegraean Fields (Campi Flegrei) of Italy – a “hellscape” in an active volcanic caldera area stinking of sulfurous steam with fumaroles and mud pots, with small cones and multiple craters. Solfatara crater is the mythological home of the Roman god of fire, Vulcan. Roman thinkers had many creative natural ideas about the formation of Etna and Vesuvius, the great mountains in this regionally volcanic area that rumbled and occasionally unleashed destruction.
In ancient Greece, the underworld of Hades was known to be hot. Hades was viewed as a vast opening underground. This does make sense because of the active volcanic regions of Greece and Italy. Ancient natural philosophers assumed there was space inside the earth as evidenced by caves and underground rivers. In Medieval Europe, ideas about Hades easily transitioned into that of the Christian’s Old Testament Sheol (Hell). They were alike in description. As mentioned in the Bible’s book of Revelation, hell was a place of fire and brimstone (volcanic sulfur).
Because religious texts told of the miraculous formation of the earth, the study of earth processes was set back due to these entrenched dogmatic ideas. Volcanoes were seen as the “chimneys of hell”, existing solely to remind people of a punishing fate in the subterranean fires of eternal torment. It was difficult to convince people that volcanic places were not deliberately made by an agent of destruction. Many people believed their local volcano was inhabited by demons or the devil himself.
On the volcanic island of Iceland, people didn’t believe in a single location of “the afterlife”. By the Middle Ages, Icelanders accepted the view that Hekla, in particular, was a gateway for condemned souls to enter an area of torment. Hekla was the dominant erupting area that influenced travelers that saw it and who took back the stories to Europe. Observers thought the noises from escaping gases were the sounds of the wretched souls. Hekla’s reputation as a hellish abyss dwarfed the more familiar Mount Etna in Italy that people called “Hell’s Chimney”.
The example of the Nicaraguan volcano Masaya illustrates the orthodox Roman Catholic thinking about hell mouths. When the Spaniards entered the country, they didn’t have much experience with volcanic areas and referred to the active volcano as “The Mouth of Hell”. The locals considered the volcano a deity but the Christian invaders attributed the belief in false gods to the Devil’s work. In 1529, Francisco de Bobadilla climbed the volcano and erected a cross in an attempt to exorcise the evil entities. Other religious men who visited Masaya assumed the volcano was a vent for which the fires of hell escaped. Hell, they believed, was at the center of the earth. For the fire to burn without obvious fuel, it must be supernaturally stoked. However, Friar Juan de Torquemada in 1615 rejected volcanoes as Hellfire because “Hell is the prison made by God for those who are condemned, therefore the fire of Hell should only harm nor hurt those who by His just judgment have been sentenced to torments and pain.” Since volcanoes destroyed indiscriminately, they were not related to hell. And, interestingly, there was no need for Hell to have a mouth.
Literal ideas of hell faded away
In the late 16th century, natural philosophical thought was returning. Learned men started to doubt the supernatural idea of Hell and again explored creative scientific explanations. By the Enlightenment, belief in a literal hell in philosophical circles was ridiculed. Descarte was an early proponent that the earth had a core, not including any void space for Hell. The earth’s core was demonstrated in 1906 but that didn’t stop the proliferation of belief in a hollow earth or of a literal place called Hell.
The threat of hell as a place of real punishment is on the wane worldwide with some religious figures using it only in a metaphoric sense. But in the US, survey questions regarding belief in Hell still garner very high percentages among Christians. Do they think Hell is a literal void of fire and torture at the center of the earth? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if they say they do. It’s a simple and powerful idea even though it is scientifically preposterous.
Kroonenberg, S. (2011). Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld.
Sigurdsson, H. (1999). Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions.
Viramonte, J.G. and Incer-Barquero, J. (2008). “Masaya, the “Mouth of Hell”, Nicaragua: Volcanological interpretation of the myths, legends and anecdotes.” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. 176:419–426. https://pages.mtu.edu/~raman/papers2/ViramonteMasayaJVGR08.pdf