Cultures around the world have stories of doorways, caves, and rivers leading to the underworld. Whether its Greco-Roman temples dedicated to Hades, the tricky Mayan city of Xibalba, or American legends of voodoo gates in New Orleans, fire and brimstone are never far. In general, these sites have and continue to serve as access points for the spirits of the deceased, allowing us the comfort of communicating with our lost loved ones. However, they remain sites of mystery and danger that continue to grab our imagination, even when they have fallen to ruin.
The Gateway to Hades
The Ploutonion or Pluto’s Gate was founded around 190 BC at the ancient city of Hierapolis, which today lies in Southern Turkey. Archaeologists discovered this long-running religious site in 1965 and quickly recognized the presence of suffocating carbon dioxide. The temple complex had been build atop a cavern that was believed to be a doorway to the land of the dead because of the toxic gases that it emitted. Historical accounts describe the strangeness of birds flying into the fumes and falling dead. Many also detail their experiences with animal sacrifices at a small cavern inside the temple complex whose stairs lead into the caves below. The Ploutonion temple was supported by fees that visitors paid to test the site’s gases on animals or to ask questions of Pluto’s oracle who received mystical visions. Although it was destroyed by earthquakes and Christian pillaging, the site remains a bizarre wonder to behold.
The Caves to Xibalba
In Mayan mythology, the land of the dead is a large, vibrant city called Xibalba that full of tests and traps, such that even the roads speak to travelers to confuse them. Ancient Mayans believed caves and sinkholes were entrances to this “Place of Fear”, so many saw the vast cavern system below Belize as one such entryway. Over the ages, underground rivers carved miles of caverns in the bedrock beneath this city, and its residents have long tossed offerings into their openings to appease the gods, from gold to food and even human sacrifices. Much like Xibalba, it is quite easy to get lost in the caverns, especially as many remain unmapped. However, other gateways to this city of the dead exist, including both physical ones like a recently discovered underground pyramid complex in the Yucatan peninsula and metaphorical ones like the Milky Way itself.
The Mountain of Fear
In the remote Shimokita Peninsula of central Japan, a caldera volcano called Yake-yama or burning mountain is surrounded by stories of entryways to the underworld. With a charred, volcanic landscape of blasted rock, bubbling pits, and sulfuric fumes, it is no wonder that people also call this mountain Mount Fear. Yet, the area has also long been considered a sacred space, with a nearby brook flowing into Lake Usori considered one of the four Sanzu Rivers in Japan. These are related to the River of Three Crossings that allow the spirits of the dead to enter the afterlife in Buddhist belief. Accordingly, you will likely see statues to the bodhisattva of Hell and guardian of children, Jizo, on the riverbanks with offerings of toys, clothes, and stones to help the dead move on to their new lives.
The Gates of Guinee
In Voodoo, the souls of the dead reside in Guinee, a portion of the underworld where they wait before reuniting with their loved ones in the afterlife. It is ruled by Baron Samedi, a deity related to death and rebirth who guards the crossroads for moving between worlds. A common legend tells of seven gates through which one must pass to enter Guinee, including the following rhyme: “Seven nights, seven moons, seven gates, seven tombs.” Many see this as a metaphor for the week after death, when the soul passes through the gateways to the land of the dead. Others see it as a guide to a physical gateway in New Orleans that can be found by mapping Samedi’s crucifix sigil onto the French Quarter’s streets and graveyards. When opened in the correct order and with proper appeasement of each loa that guards them, you can enter Guinee, although the dangers include both the guardians’ wraith and being pulled into the underworld yourself.
The Gates of New Jersey
In Passaic County, a semi-abandoned storm drain for Weasel Brook is supposedly the gateway to Hell. This old tunnel system with high arched stone ceilings is filled with graffiti, litter, and myriad stories of eerie happenings. Locals and paranormal enthusiasts alike report unexpected chills, strange objects, disturbing knocking sounds, decaying carcasses, upside down crosses, and a human figure running at inhuman speeds called Red Eye Mike. Accordingly to legend, seven dark, water-filled tunnels lead into a labyrinthine series of passages that draws closer and closer to the devil. There are also stories of a diabolical room that can only be accessed by lifting impossibly heavy axes that block the door and of a KKK chapter meeting in these strange caverns. More practically, the Weasel Brook drain floods rapidly during heavy rain, and several teens have drowned while trying to find the way to the afterlife.
From noxious fumes to otherworldly volcanic landscapes, these doorways to the unknown all share in the inexplicable. As a result, each of these entryways to the underworld sparks the imagination; perhaps that is why they live on long after the belief systems behind them have fallen out of favor. When seeking them out, be prepared for more questions than answers since, and enjoy your journey to the other side.
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