“You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas” – Davy Crockett
Your bags are packed. You’ve dog-eared your copy of Dante’s Inferno, pocketed a few of Solomon’s seals, whipped up a nutritious lunch, steeled yourself for dangerous encounters with diabolical minions of Lucifer, and just in case things go badly, reread your copy of James Blish’s Black Easter. You are ready for your trek through hell. But once the work day ends, maybe you want to go somewhere on vacation. Sure, day to day existence as a working stiff can accurately be described as a backstroke in the Lake of Fire, but if you don’t want to be regarded as unnecessarily judgmental, it behooves you to do some comparative studies. Treading upon the standard route to hell generally takes too long for us weary travelers. All that selling of souls, committing mortal sins, and generally being evil enough to guarantee admission usually consumes the better part of a lifetime. And you’re not looking to retire in Hell, just go for a visit, so that when you declare that your boss would make Satan proud, you can do so with some authority on the subject. Now most travel agencies won’t knowingly book you a trip to hell (although they have been known to unexpectedly divert you there), and thus far I’ve been unable to find a matching airport code in Expedia, so you’re going to have to knuckle down and do some research to find a gate to hell. It might be a blessing or a curse, but there do seem to be a lot of them, and there is no reason to believe they all deliver you to the same place. For all we know it’s winter at absolute zero in West Hell, but a balmy 3000 degrees Fahrenheit in East Hell (reputed to be much more touristy and possibly accessible through Clifton, New Jersey). At any rate, you’re probably too busy manufacturing widgets, coding HTML, or being arty to invest inordinate amounts of time in planning a difficult excursion, so I’ll lay out a few of the best known gateways to hell for you, just in case your wanderlust takes an infernal turn.
If you want to feel more cultured and mix in a little bit of classical antiquity with your devilish meanderings, you my friend are in luck, since the Greeks and Romans seemed to have a good handle on where the toniest entrances to hell were. Both Orpheus and Hercules went for a jaunt in the Greco-Roman underworld through Taenarum on the southern tip of the Peloponnese. It turns out there is a quaint set of caverns near an ancient Achaean sanctuary (later a temple to Poseidon) on this southernmost piece of Europe that Strabo noted was “In the bay on the coast is Taenarum, a promontory projecting into the sea. Upon it, in a grove, is the temple of Neptune, and near the temple a cave, through which, according to the fable, Cerberus was brought up by Hercules from Hades” (Strabo, “Geographie”, Book 8, Chapter 5:1). While the state department advises against three-headed pet adoptions while overseas, it does seem you can not only get into hell via Taenarum, but more importantly, you can get out again, which reportedly Orpheus did as well in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his beloved wife Eurydice.
Indeed the happiness of Orpheus and Eurydice was to be but short-lived. For as the new-made bride wandered through the woods with the other nymphs a poisonous serpent stung her heel, and no remedy availed to save her. Orpheus was thrown into most passionate grief at his wife’s death. He could not believe that he had lost her forever, but prayed day and night without ceasing to the gods above to restore her to him. When they would not listen, he resolved to make one last effort to win her back. He would go down to the Lower World and seek her among the dead, and try whether any prayer or persuasion could move Pluto to restore his beloved. Near Taenarum, in Laconia, was a cave among dark and gloomy rocks, through which led one of the entrances to the Lower World. This was the road by which Hercules descended when he went to carry off Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the threshold of Pluto. Undaunted by the terrors of the place, Orpheus passed through this gate and down a dark and dismal road to the kingdom of the dead. Here he came in safety through the crowd of ghosts and phantoms, and stood at last before the throne of Pluto and Proserpina (Zimmern, 1906, p252-253).
Some folks (let’s call them British) like it gloomy, but this is often the price we pay for an impromptu getaway, that is, by most accounts “a dark and dismal road to the Kingdom of the Dead” makes a fair description of a TSA security line. And nobody at Taenarum makes you take off your shoes. If a Roman Holiday is more to your liking, one can visit Hades via Lake Avernus, a charming volcanic crater lake in the Campania region of southern Italy, notable for the fact that classical Romans felt overflying birds would routinely drop dead in mid-air from poisonous volcanic fumes (hence the name avernus, Greek for “birdless”). According to ancient Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C), the Trojan hero Aeneas took a jaunt in hell to visit his dear departed father from a cave at the edge of Lake Avernus in what are now referred to as the Phlegræan Fields. Of course, in Rome proper, one is conveniently said to be able to enter Hell through the Lacus Curtius in the Roman Forum, but this path may now be blocked by the body of Sabine horseman Mettius Curtius, who may or may not have prevented Rome from sinking into the depths of the abyss by throwing himself into the chasm. One need not be so hasty, as there are a plethora of alternatives. Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, established its reputation as a gate to Hell in the Middle Ages. Saint Brendan of Clonfert (484-577 A.D.), in his many voyages recounts happening upon Hekla, which is not only a Gate to Hell, but apparently the permanent prison of Judas Iscariot. But please, no flash photography.
When the saint asked him who he was, for what crime he was sent there, and how he had deserved to suffer so great a punishment, he answered: “I am that most unhappy Judas, the most wicked of all traffickers; not for any deserving of mine, but through the unspeakable mercy of Jesus Christ, am I placed here. I expect no place for repentance; but through the forbearance and mercy of the Redeemer of the world, and in honour of His Resurrection, I have this cooling relief, as it is now the Lord’s Day; while I sit here, I seem to myself to be in a paradise of delights, considering the agony of the torments that are in store for me afterwards; for when I am in my torments, I burn like a mass of molten lead, day and night, in the heart of that mountain you have seen. There Leviathan and his satellites dwell, and there was I when it swallowed down your lost brother, for which all hell exulted, and belched forth great flames, as it always does, when it devours the souls of the reprobate (O’Donoghue , 1895, p163-164).
Incidentally, while you are visiting Hell, you might want to consider a day trip to Purgatory, which can reportedly be reached through a cave on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland per a 5th Century A.D. legend.
For to this lake for the past seven centuries and longer, pilgrims have come, and still come, from every part of the world; during the medieval period it was known and spoken of in every corner of Europe, and was visited by men who performed hazardous and tedious journeys from the ends of the earth for the sake of doing penance and making atonement for their sins. For here lay St. Patrick’s Purgatory, that dread ante-chamber to the unseen world, into which if a man dared to enter, and pass twenty-four hours in the face of unknown and unspeakable horrors, he could (so the belief ran) purge himself at once from the evil deeds of this life, and on his death avoid the purgatorial pains, and enter straight into the bliss of heaven (Seymour, p7).
If you crave a little more eastern flavor, there is a stunningly beautiful gate to hell at the Fengdu Ghost City on Ming Mountain (named sometime in the Eastern Han Dynasty) in China’s Chongqing municipality, complete with cruise boats and escalators. An amalgamation of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist beliefs regarding the underworld, this gate is replete with shrines, monasteries, statuary, and artwork generally designed to remind you that you will eventually be tortured for your sins. Feeling like roughing it or especially adventurous? You might try your hand at the “Door to Hell” in the Karukum Desert of Turkmenistan, a 70 meter crater of fire and burning mud that resulted from Soviet engineers accidentally igniting a natural gas field in 1971. Stay away if you don’t like getting a little messy. Oh, there are also reportedly gates to hell all over the world, from Hellam Township, Pennsylvania to Houska Castle in Prague, and Hell seems to incline towards caves and volcanic activity. Mircea Eliade pointed out that this has a lot to do with the concept of the axis mundi (“Center of the World”), a sacred break in the homogeneity of space. “This break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible (from heaven to earth and vice versa; from earth to the underworld)” (Eliade, 1959, p37). It also helps if there’s some fire or poisonous gasses to emphasize the point.
Touring Hell is not for the faint of heart and requires some preparation. You must also remember to dress appropriately, for as Mark Twain noted, “You go to Heaven for the climate and Hell for the company”. With an abundance of entrances to Hell available, it is a small matter to cross the border, but as Roman poet Virgil observed, “It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air – there’s the rub, the task”. That said, rumor has it that the City of Dis has great luxury shopping at outrageous prices and the Forest of Suicides is beautiful in the autumn when everyone is turning colors and falling from the trees. Just wear sensible shoes.
Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. The Sacred And the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
O’Donoghue, Denis. Brendaniana: St. Brendan the Voyager In Story And Legend. 2nd ed. Dublin: Browne & Nolan, 1895.
Strabo. The Geography of Strabo: Literally Tr., With Notes. London: H. G. Bohn, 1854.
Zimmern, Alice, 1855-1939. Old Tales from Rome. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1906.