At the gates to the underworld in ancient Hierapolis: hellhound Kerberos, its poisonous breath and clever priests

Hell’s gate in a modern depiction (between 1824 and 1829) by German painter Ludwig Mack (detail): right the ferryman Charon at the bank of the river Styx, next to him the three-headed hellhound Kerberos, left weeping shadows awaiting the judgment of the dead. Source: Wikimedia Commons

International scientists revealed that geogenic carbon dioxide was the cause of an old myth around the Mediterranean

One gateway to hell is in Hierapolis, more precisely: under Pluto’s temple people of antiquity believed. Because when birds or pets were brought into a grotto at the foundations, they fell dead within a few moments – the priests on the other hand, who had brought the animals as sacrifices, came out unscathed.

What killed the animals could only be the poisonous breath of hellhound Kerberos. It woke at the entrance to hell and with its 3 heads devoured everything that got in its way.

Strabo and Platon have described the phenomenon, and the site near today’s Pamukkale in Turkey attracted lots of tourists in antiquity. They came to enjoy horror and paid well for it.

Now, a team of scientists from Italy, Germany, and Turkey has investigated the site with modern gas analyzer systems – still the stay in the grotto is perilous.

Their explanation is related to the Babadag fracture zone in the region and its still active seismic structures. There, carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted from the ground. The odorless and colorless gas is heavier than air and accumulates, for example, in the grotto under the former temple consegrated to Pluto, the God of the underworld.

Obviously, the ancient priests also knew about another peculiarity of carbon dioxide: during daytime, it is dissolved by sun’s infrared light, but in the evening its concentration rises again to reach a peak in the morning.

The priests were clever: They knew how the deadly breath worked: In the morning, about 40 cm above the ground there was no danger. If they wanted to demonstrate their supernatural powers, they stood on stones around the sacrificial animals. The animals, however being in the middle of the CO2 haze, became dizzy, their heads sank down, where they inhaled the deadly dose. The priests, on the other hand, could endure about 20 to 40 minutes in their position.

The results were published in the magazine „Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences“. DOI: 10.1007/s12520-018-0599-5