While in some belief systems, the afterlife can only be accessed by spiritual means, in others, the underworld could be accessed directly from the Earth. Here are 13 real spots that people have thought (and in a few cases, still do) lead straight to the lands of the dead.
Photo of diorama from Fengdu by Matt Ryall.
Some of these involve the Christian concept of Hell, while others were supposed to lead to other (sometimes not unpleasant) afterlives. And there are plenty of other spots that have hellish names, including Hells Gate in British Columbia, the flaming Door to Hell in Derweze, Turkmenistan, and the southern pit of Erta Ale in Ethiopia, which is called the “gateway to Hell.”
Just a quick note: This piece was inspired by an Atlas Obscura piece about the beautiful Cenote Xkeken. In the course of researching this piece, I realized that Atlas Obscura had recently posted their own piece, “Go to Hell: 11 Ways to Enter the Underworld.” I avoided reading the piece so as to avoid overlap, and while there is some, Atlas Obscura has a few underworld hot spots that aren’t mentioned here—plus, they . I highly recommend checking out their list (with some gorgeous photos) and also following Atlas Obscura in general, because it’s an incredible site.
Photo of burial site in Hierapolis by Esther Lee.
The Ploutonion at Hierapolis: The ancient city of Hierapolis, near modern-day Pamukkale in Turkey was once home to a site considered sacred to Pluto, the god of the dead. Although the site was rediscovered in 1965, it was just this year that archaeologists announced the otherworldly significance of this holy spot. The same gases that heat the famous hot springs of Pamukkale originate from a cave beneath the Ploutonion, and because the vapors are toxic, the people of Hierapolis believed that they had been sent from Pluto himself and the site was treated as a ritual entrance to the underworld. Pilgrims would travel from all over the classical world to make sacrifices to Pluto; animals led into the cave would drop dead from the toxic fumes, while acolytes of Pluto would prove their devotion to the god by entering the cave and emerging alive (perhaps thanks to their knowledge of pockets of breathable air within the cave).
Photo of Ming Shan by Britrob.
Fengdu, China: The 2,000-year-old City of Ghosts, located in Chongqing municipality, has long been thought to be the place the dead stopped on their way to the afterlife, though it seems to have gotten this reputation in a roundabout way. A legend from the Han Dynasty tells of two imperial officials, Wang Fangping and Yin Changsheng, who forsook the court life to practice Taoism in Fengdu and became immortal. Their names combined sounded like “King of Hell,” and so Ming Shan, the hill that overlooks Fengdu, became known as the abode of Tianzi, the King of Hell. The city is filled with Buddhist and Taoist temples, said to be filled with immortal spirits that judge and torment the dead. A freshly dead soul, it was said, must first cross the Bridges of Helplessness to have their virtue judged, then face the Mirror of Retribution at the Ghost Torturing Pass and either become immediately reincarnated or face a series of torments before reaching the Wheel of Rebirth. Living visitors can reach the city by boat (the lower portion was flooded after the construction of the Three Gorges dam along the Yangtze River) and walk the bridges, face the demons who guard the spirit world, view sometimes gruesome dioramas of the afterlife, and gaze upon the 138-meter-high statue of the Ghost King, the largest sculptured carved onto a rock. While Fengdu is centuries old, some its symbolic structures were created rather recently. For example, the Last Glance at Home Tower, the final sight ghosts will see of the living world, was constructed in 1985.
Photo of Masaya crater by Brian Johnson & Dane Kantner.
Masaya Volcano: The Aboriginal people of Masaya in modern-day Nicaragua did not believe that the mouth of their caldera was a gateway to the afterlife, but there was a local tradition that the volcano was a god and that a sorceress lived inside its fiery pit. But it was the Spanish explorers who arrived in the 16th century—and had little familiarity with volcanos—who associated with volcano with diabolic activity. In 1529, Mercedarian Fray Francisco de Bobadilla hauled a cross up the volcano, hoping to exorcise what he believed was the Mouth of Hell. And he wasn’t alone; Friar Toribio Benavente wrote in 1541 that the volcano’s persistent activity must have a supernatural cause and that it must be, “the place from which the condemned are thrown by the demons.” Various religious figures pointed to the volcano as evidence of the horrors that would await sinners in Hell. Not all Spanish friars felt the same way, however. Friar Blas del Castillo led the first Spanish expedition inside the volcanic crater in 1538 to search for gold and silver. And, while debates as to the nature of the volcano raged through the 16th and 17th centuries, Friar Juan de Torquemada published a theological analysis of Masaya and other volcanos in 1615, asserting that it was ridiculous to view any volcano as an entrance to Hell. Among his arguments was that since souls are incorporeal, Hell has no need of physical mouths.
The Seven Gates of Hell: A local legend claims that in the woods off Trout Run Road in Hellam Township, Pennsylvania, sit the Seven Gates of Hell. According to popular fiction, the gates appear near the site of a tragic asylum fire, and if you step through all seven gates, you land straight in Hell. (Of course, that same fiction claims that no one has ever made it past the fifth gate, so how would anyone know?) There are a couple of problems with this story, even aside from the whole going-to-Hell thing. One is that, according to the Hellam Township website, there never was such an asylum on that spot. Also, there’s only one gate, a rather ordinary-looking thing a local doctor installed to keep people off his property. (Weird US explains that the other six gates are supposed to be invisible during the day.) That hasn’t kept curious trespassers from sneaking onto the property, however, in search of a direct route to Hell. Hellam Township isn’t the only place in the US rumored to host a gateway to Hell; urban legends claim that the devil can be found in the Gates of Hell, a collection of drains in Clifton, New Jersey, and in the Stull Cemetery in Stull, Kansas. And some voodoo practitioners claim that the Seven Gates of Guinee, which lead to the afterlife of the voodoo traditions, can be found in various parts of New Orleans. (Read about the Gates of Guinee on Atlas Obscura.)
Photo of Lacus Curtius by MM, Wikimedia Commons.
Lacus Curtius: Today, this pit in the Roman Forum doesn’t look like much, but in a legend told by the Roman historian Livy, it was once a wide chasm. Livy tells the story of Marcus Curtius, who may have given the pit its name. According to Livy’s account, the chasm appeared in the middle of Rome, and nothing could fill it. An oracle prophesied that the chasm would not close and the Roman Republic would be destroyed unless the city sacrificed that which had made it strong. Marcus Curtius realized that Rome’s strength lied in the weapons and bravery of its citizens and so, fully armed and armored, he rode his horse into the chasm and straight into the underworld. The chasm closed and the city was saved. It may well be this legend that classed Lacus Curtius as a mundus, a place where one could easily commune with the underworld. It was also a conduit for buying off the gods of death; during the reign of Augustus, Roman citizens would toss coins into the lacus to pray for the Emperor’s safety.
Photo of Station Island by Egardiner0, Wikimedia Commons.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory: One legend about the Irish Saint Patrick involves Station Island, a speck in Ireland’s Lough Derg. According to the legend, after Patrick had become frustrated with his doubting followers, the Christ appeared to him and guided him to a cave on Station Island. Inside the cave was a pit, which was the gateway to Purgatory, where the souls of the dead must endure punishments for their sins before entering Heaven. While there, Patrick also received visions of the torments of Hell. From the 12th century on, Station Island has attracted Catholic pilgrims looking to sit close to Purgatory. In 1632, the lords justices of Ireland ordered the cave closed and most of the records of pilgrimages prior to that year were destroyed, but we do know that the pilgrims would fast and pray for days before spending a full day shut inside the cave. Despite the cave being shut, the pilgrimages continued unbroken; modern pilgrims can still visit Station Island for three-day pilgrimages, during which they must keep a 24-hour vigil while fasting on the island.
Detail of map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mount Hekla: Iceland’s particularly active volcano developed a reputation as a gateway to Hell in the 12th century, after its 1104 eruption. Benedeit’s 1120 Anglo-Norman poem Voyage of St. Brendan mentions the volcano as the prison of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. That reputation continued with further eruptions; after the 1341 eruption, there was a report that people saw birds flying amidst the fire—birds, some thought, that must really be swarming souls. Even in more recent times, Hekla has maintained its diabolic status, as some superstitious folk have claimed that it’s a spot where witches meet with the devil.
Photo of the Acheron by ale3andro.
Acheron: The Acheron is a real river that flows through northwest Greece, but it also figures prominently in classical mythology. In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe directs Odysseus to the underworld, telling him that he must find the point where the Acheron meets the Pyriphlegethon and of a branch of Styx. The poet Vergil mentions also Acheron in the Aeneid, identifying it as the river from which the Styx and Cocytus rivers flow. The ferryman Charon was supposed to transport newly dead souls across the river into the afterlife, something he even does in the pages of Dante’s Inferno. In Dante’s poem, the souls of the Uncommitted, who chose neither good nor evil, find their eternal home on the banks of the Acheron, not condemned in Hell, but still forever punished for their indecision.
Entrance to the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae by Carole Raddato.
Lake Avernus: While the Acheron is in Greece, in the Aeneid Aeneas enters the underworld through the Avernus crater near Cumae in Italy. The crater lake was sacred to the Cumaean Sibyl, and according to myth, she could lead a living traveler into the underworld. It name offers some hints as to why it might have been deemed such a deadly portal. Avernus comes from the Greek word αϝορνος, meaning “birdless,” which links to the belief that birds flying over the lake would die due to the toxic fumes the lake emitted. It’s unclear how much truth there is to this belief; in modern times, birds are quite happy to fly about the lake.
Cape Matapan: If you don’t want to deal with Charon the ferryman, you could enter the classical underworld of Tartarus through the back door. In Book Ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus enters the underworld not via Acheron, but reached the Styx through the gate of Taenarus, located in Cape Tainaron (also known as Cape Tenaro or Cape Matapan) on the southernmost tip of Greece on the Peloponnese.
Photo of Cenote Xkeken, Yucatán, by Razi Marysol Machay.
The Mayan Cenotes: The Maya certainly had some of the most picturesque entrances to the underworld. These natural underground waterways, located in Mexico and Central America, were thought to be the home of the rain god Chaak and portals to Xibalba, the afterlife. Caves were often seen as gateways to the afterlife in the Mayan worldview, literal passageways between the living world above and the realm below. Archaeologists have found Mayan temples and human remains in the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula, a possible legendary site of Xibalba, while other traditions put entrances in Cobán, Guatemala, or Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize. These days, the cenotes are seen more as tourist destinations than the entrances to the mythical “place of fear.”
Photo of Osore-zan, Honshu, by shirokazan.
Mount Osore: The Europeans were hardly the only folks to believe that volcanos marked the entrance to the underworld. Mount Osore, region filled with volcanic cauldrons located on the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Japan’s Honshu island, is literally named “Fear Mountain.” And with its barren, gray landscape, bubbling waters, and persistent smell of sulfur, it’s easy to see how it got its macabre reputation. Like Acheron and the River Styx, the Sanzu River, which runs through the region is said to be a spot souls must cross to pass into the afterlife.
Photo of Hrad Houska by Janos Korom Dr.
Houska Castle: According to folklore, Houska Castle, located in Blatce, north of Prague in the Czech Republic, is built over a “bottomless” hole that leads to Hell. One legend claims that in the 13th century, King Ottokar II of Bohemia (or else a nobleman of the Dubá clan) offered a pardon to any condemned prisoner who consented to be lowered into the pit and report what he saw. The first prisoner lasted only a few seconds before he began screaming. When he was pulled back up, the story goes, his hair had turned white and it seemed he’d aged 30 years—and he babbled incoherently about half-human creatures who flapped through the darkness of grotesque wings. The castle was built, likely on Ottokar II’s orders, over this supposed hell-hole, without proper fortifications, a water source, or kitchens. The myth asserts that this was because the castle was meant not for human habitation, but to capture demons. (The chapel was supposed to be actual portion of the fortress erected directly over the Gate of Hell.) The fortress was, however, used as an administrative building, has been used as an aristocratic residence at various points in its history, and was renovated and expanded during the Renaissance. The castle’s current owners trade on the building’s hellish reputation, setting it up as a spooky tourist attraction.