Ploutonium at Hierapolis.
Ploutonium at Hierapolis. Mach/CC BY-SA 2.0

Missing for centuries, a storied gate to hell was recently uncovered, where poisonous air still breathes out of a cavern where priests once worshiped the gods of the underworld.

Known as Pluto’s Gate, or Ploutonion in Greek, the entry to the land of the dead was discovered in southwestern Turkey by a group of Italian archeologists. Its excavation was announced, with remains of its temple, pool, and steps leading down to the ceremonial cave all matching historical stories about the infamous “gate to hell.” Priests in trippy trances from the fumes would stand on these steps and carry out rituals, and sometimes dramatically lead sacrificial bulls inside, only to pull their lifeless bodies out soon after.

Pluto’s Gate was a popular site for ancient tourists, and the temple supported itself by selling birds and other tiny animals so that they could test the lethal properties of the gases that wafted from the underworld portal.

As the Greek geographer, philosopher, and prolific traveler Strabo, who lived from 64/63 BC to 24 AD), so enticingly described it:

This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.

The archeologists found the site after tracing the route of a thermal spring, and discovered that the air is just as venomous now as it was in ancient times. Francesco D’Andria, the archeologist who led the excavation, is quoted in Discovery News, “We could see the cave’s lethal properties during the excavation. Several birds died as they tried to get close to the warm opening, instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes.”

The temple was lost when it was destroyed by Christians in the 6th century and then further damaged during an earthquake, which presumably took it down to the underworld it so revered. Yet now the portal is back, and if the ancient texts on its toxic fumes turned out to be true, who knows if hell itself isn’t accessible somewhere in its noxious air?