December 7, 2016

Here's Something Cool: Gate of Hell

        My schedule this week seems to be one unending parade of meetings, which is not my idea of happiness.  Moreover, what time isn’t spent in meetings is spent in preparing for the Needham Winter Arts Festival this Saturday, so here’s something cool just to tide you over until I have more time for blogging.
        No, it isn’t new news, dating back to 2013, but in case you missed it at the time, archaeologists discovered a classical site in southwest Turkey believed to be a gate to the underworld.  About two thousand years ago the Greek writer Strabo described the entrance to hell, “The space is full of a vapor so misty and dense 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.”  A temple over a lethal cave in which the power of the god of the underworld strikes invisible instant death?  Sounds like a fantasy site, all right.  Apparently people made pilgrimages to the site to offer sacrifices, to witness that animals died but the priests could enter the gate of hell and return unharmed, and to ask questions of the oracles.  And now, lest we’re too eager to dismiss this all as a load of ignorant superstition, it looks like the site has been rediscovered, complete with invisible instant death.
        The cave is full of carbon dioxide from nearby hot springs, and the archaeological site includes the remains of a temple, steps on which pilgrims could sit to watch the spectacle, inscriptions to Pluto, and dead birds - not ancient birds, but modern, forward-thinking birds of today who are attracted by the warmth of the cave and suffocate in the poisonous atmosphere.  As for the oracles, they were presumably hallucinating in not-quite-deadly fumes, and we don’t know for sure how the priests managed to enter the cave and miraculously survive.  I think they must have figured out that the poisonous gas is heavier than air, so they could have used pockets of oxygen to get a safe breath inside.
        Anyway, my point here mostly is just that this is cool.  But also the reminder that much fantasy is rooted in real phenomena.  It isn’t just a way to explain the physical mysteries of the world, but a way to use the physical mysteries to think about the intangible mysteries.  I may not believe in an actual theological hell that can be entered from a ruined temple in Turkey, but I do believe that this whole story tells us some thought-provoking things about how humans encounter the concept of death, how they treat animals, how they use (and take advantage of?) each others’ wonder, how they experiment with (and abuse?) their own minds, and more.
       Here’s a somewhat longer article.

[Picture: Digital reconstruction of the Ploutonium, from Francesco D’Andria (Image from Seeker).]