In the 3rd century AD at Hierapolis in Western Turkey, it appears that the priests of Apollo were part of an elaborate deception that involved a real death chamber that is still off-limits to visitors today.
The Temple of Apollo was situated on top of a man-made platform attached to a monumental staircase, with an opening into the ground nearby that was known as the Plutonion. This 30-foot wide hole was often surrounded by a thick mist and possibly a fence, making it nearly impossible for curious visitors to the hole to see inside – however, this was for their own safety. Why is that?
It seems that the Temple of Apollo was built along a geological fault line, which elsewhere in the city produced its famed hot springs, a perfect natural feature for the Romans who loved their public baths. Unfortunately, another natural feature of this fault line was that it produced poisonous gases, which had to be released into the air somehow. In this case, the poisonous gases were mainly deadly amounts of carbon dioxide: enough to suffocate a living creature almost instantly. And guess where they were released into the air?
Indeed, the large hole in the ground near the temple was the release point for the gas. Any living creature that entered the hole – both in antiquity and even today – died immediately. Studies of the Plutonion and the Temple of Apollo have revealed a secret correlation between the two sites. It is known from ancient sources that the Plutonion was used for animal sacrifices, which were carried out by the Priests of Cybele – apparently the priests were the only living things that could enter the cavern without being affected by the gases.
These priests were from the nearby Temple of Cybele, a cult associated with the Mother-goddess figure Cybele. Her cult revolved around themes of death and rebirth, and she was often worshiped in caves which were thought to be associated with the Underworld. Thus, the priests of Cybele probably found the death pit to be quite appropriate for their worship, and chose it to carry out their sacrifices. What probably happened was that the priests put four cloth sacks over their heads, creating a pocket of clean air that would last several minutes – allowing them to enter the cave with the sacrifice, wait for the animal to die, and… then what?
Believe it or not, the Plutonion widens as it runs under the ground, leading directly to: the Temple of Apollo. A man-made section of this tunnel also leads to a room about 13 feet wide at the end, which would have given priests from the Temple of Apollo direct access to the death pit. What appears to have happened was that the Cybele priests brought the sacrifices far enough into the pit for the priests from the Temple of Apollo to enter the pit from the other side safely – where the fumes were already dispersed and couldn’t harm them – so that they could retrieve the sacrifices, prepare them in the underground room, and then display them in the upper rooms of the temple. This religious ritual would have seemed like an incredible miracle to visiting worshipers – although it was really just a creative bit of stage magic.
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