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Cape Matapan Caves: The Original Gateway To The Underworld

Mentioned in the tales of Heracles and Orpheus, the entrance to the underworld is still there today.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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A photo of the remains of the temple of Poseidon on top of the cliffs where the entrance to the underworld lurks below..

Remains of the temple of Poseidon sit atop a cliff on the Mani Peninsula and effectively mark the entrance to caves at the base of the cliff that were, according to the Ancient Greeks, an entrance to the underworld.

Image credit: Karl Allen Lugmayer/Shutterstock.com

To the Ancient Greeks, the underworld was a physical place that could be accessed by intrepid people if only they knew where to look. From Homer’s epic tales to the travel writers, classical stories are filled with references to such entrances where heroic individuals ventured into the subterranean world of the dead. Today, one of these "gateways to Hell" is still accessible to the living and is located at the tip of the Greek mainland. 

The caves at Cape Matapan, also known as Tenaro or Cape Tainaron, lie at the end of the Mani peninsula in Greece. The entrance to the cave is located at sea level and leads into chambers under the cliff face; the exact location seems to be marked by the ruins of a Spartan temple on top of the cliff. Although the Ancient Greeks believed in several different entrances to the underworld, which they called “Hades” after the chthonic god, this is the most famous. 

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According to Classical mythology, the souls of the dead (at least those who received a correct burial) were transported to the House of Hades by Charon, an otherworldly ferryman who traveled along the river Styx. 

In Homer’s epic poetry, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the underworld was a dark shadowy expanse where the dead – peasants, nobles, heroes, and kings alike – existed as pathetic flittering and squawking shades in a state of what can only be described as perpetual boredom. In later accounts, descriptions of the ancient underworld become more detailed and involved the souls of the dead, once they arrived in the House of Hades, being judged and sent to either Tartarus or, in rare instances, the paradise of Elysium. 

In Greek mythology, when Orpheus, the legendary hero with superhuman musical talent, traveled to Hades to rescue his beloved Eurydice, it is said he passed through the caves at Cape Matapan. Tragically, Orpheus was close to retrieving his wife from the land of the dead with permission from Hades and Persephone, but, despite their warnings, he turned to look at her before they had reached the upper world, which caused her to disappear forever. 

Similarly, Heracles (Hercules), the demigod son of Zeus, is said to have traveled through these caves to fetch Cerberus, the multiheaded guard dog, as one of his 12 labors. These trials were set for him as a rite of atonement for killing his wife and children while in a state of madness generated by Hera (they left that part out of the Disney movie). 

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In the second century CE, the travel writer and geographer Pausanias wrote

“In the bend of the seaboard one comes, first, to a headland that projects into the sea, Taenarum, with its temple of Poseidon situated in a grove; and secondly, near by, to the cavern through which, according to the myth-writers, Cerberus was brought up from Hades by Heracles.”

The area surrounding the peninsula is also significant in its own right, without mention of the portal to Hell resting below its cliffs. To the Spartans, it was a highly significant place for worship. They erected temples to various gods along the headland, including a famous temple dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea.

According to Pausanias, the poet Arion was kidnapped by pirates while traveling from Italy to Greece. In an attempt to escape captivity, Arion threw himself into the sea and sung a song to Apollo, the god of poetry, who sent a pod of dolphins to save him. They carried him to shore where he ended up at Cape Matapan and the sanctuary of Poseidon.

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The site is still used for religious services today, but it has long been converted for Christian worship. Visitors to the area can see a large bronze statue in the likeness of Arion and, if they are brave enough (and in possession of a boat), they can access the Hell Gate below. 


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