Outside magazine, May 1999
To Hell with Me
Looking for answers in "a place of unquenchable fire," where the blind seer is open for business but the gift shop closes at half past two
By Mark Jenkins
It was raining when I set off through the mountains in a rental Fiat little bigger than a go-cart. The windows fogged up immediately. I swabbed the glass with my sleeve. The road corkscrewed along cliffs and beneath overhangs like all semipaved, one-lane roads in the backlands of Greece. For some reason--hope perhaps, fear, curiosity--I was driven by a sense of
urgency. The wheels of my matchbox car were so tiny and treadless I almost skidded off a misty, precipitous hairpin turn before realizing I shouldn't be in any hurry to get where I was going.
Through the drizzle, I noticed that at almost every airy turn there was a metal box with a cross welded on top. At first I thought they might be mailboxes for gnarled farmers or taciturn shepherds, but they were too big, too ominous. I finally pulled over to examine one. It was two feet square, painted a faded sky blue, with a plate glass window on one side. The box
contained an unlighted candle in a bronze dish, a box of matches, a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of wine, a framed picture of the bloodied, beatific Jesus, and a photo of a man with a drink in his hand, grinning wildly, toasting some unknown occasion.
Back behind the wheel, I slowed down to peer into each shrine as I passed by. In a few the candle was burning. Others contained personal effects: a pocket watch, a necklace, or a book. In three hours of mountain driving I passed more than 30 reliquaries. Where the road dropped down onto the plain of Ach‰ron, I pulled off beside one of these small monuments to
lost life, reached across to the passenger seat, took up my college copy of the Odyssey, and read Circe's words to Odysseus: "You must go to the house of Hades and awful Persephoneia, to ask directions from Teiresias the blind Theban seer."
TRAVEL LONG AND FAR ENOUGH, PHYSICALLY OR METAPHYSICALLY, and you'll eventually lose your bearings. It can't be helped. When it happens, no matter where you are or what you're doing, all you really want to do is go home.
It happened to me in Switzerland. I had come to climb the north face of the Matterhorn, but the day I arrived in Zermatt it started snowing, and it dumped nonstop for almost a week. Every morning I went trudging into the mountains hoping against hope, and every night I slunk down to the North Wall Bar, played chess with the local climbers, and did pull-ups on the
door frame to win free pints of lager and pans of pizza. Then I'd stumble back to the Bahnhof Hotel and read Homer.
On the sixth day, the day I flew out, it was still snowing. But I didn't fly home. I could have--should have, perhaps--but Homer had gotten to me.
Most people pitch Homer five seconds after taking the final exam. I did. At a certain age, however, you start thinking you might have learned something when you were young if you hadn't already been so smart. I was rereading the Odyssey because it is arguably the world's first novel, the original thriller, composed 700 years before the
birth of Christ. It's also the seminal adventure book, chronicling the surreal travels and travails of an alpha adventurer, the hubristic yet humble Odysseus, who sails away from Ithaca to fight the good fight, sneaks into Troy and dismembers his enemies, blinds the Cyclops with a burning pole, has all-night sex with Calypso. But his most daring adventure is a visit to
Hades. Why did he go there? For answers only the underworld could provide, and for directions home. After years of sailing beyond the edge of the known world, Odysseus had lost his bearings.
Days of unconsummated mountain climbing are not unlike windless days at sea. You eventually grow weary and frustrated, and you also come up against questions that experience can't answer. On the fifth day of snow in Zermatt I bought a map of Greece. Odysseus got answers when he visited the underworld. I thought the place might be worth a visit.
Homer, like all learned Greeks, freely mixed geography and cosmology. Hence he was quite specific about the location of hell on Earth: It could be found at the confluence of the Ach‰ron, "river of pain," the Pyriphlegethon, "blazing with fire," and the Cocytos, "resounding with lamentation, which is a branch of the hateful water of the Styx." Where the three
rivers merged there was a great stone, and beneath the stone, a cave--the entrance to the underworld.
I found the Ach‰ron on the map. Almost 3,000 years later and it was still right there, doglegging through the Pindus Mountains just south of the Albanian border.
Odysseus sailed to Hades; I flew. Nonetheless, my journey began as any proper trip to hell should. The plane sat on the tarmac for over an hour, with jet fuel fumes seeping into the cabin and passengers starting to faint. There was a heart attack on board somewhere over the Alps and the flight was diverted to Milan. We arrived in Athens a half-day late. Naturally I
missed my connection north, and naturally my rucksack was sent to baggage purgatory--somewhere in eastern Slovakia. I hiked around Athens in the polluted heat for three days before giving up on my bags and flying up to Ioßnnina with just the shirt on my back and enough cash to get a rental car.
In a village where the old men wear black berets, sit at an outdoor caf‰, smoke, play cards, and stare disapprovingly at slow-moving vehicles, I drove right up to a half-hidden blue sign with an arrow and the word "Nekromanteio." Turned right, chugged up a steep cobblestone path lined with whitewashed cottages, passed into a sparse wood, and parked behind two
European tour buses disgorging crowds of frumpy bluehairs and bony-kneed husbands of all nations. I should have known. It figured that hell would be just one more stop on a package tour.
I paid the entrance fee at the iron gate, bought the color brochure, and began wandering around the ancient ruins and taking snapshots in the rain with all the other camera-clicking idiots. The site itself lies atop a small knoll surrounded by scarred poplars. Fanning out in all directions is the floodplain of the three dark rivers I'd read about. The ruins consist
of the shell of an eighteenth-century Greek Orthodox monastery defiantly built right atop hell. Beneath the monastery is a labyrinthine passageway that leads to a hole in the stone floor. Below is a crypt--a chamber purported to be the cave that Homer described in the Odyssey as the entrance to Hades.
I circled through the wet ruins and the labyrinth and got in line, ready to descend into the mouth of hell, when a nasal Texas drawl screeched up from the hole: "Lemme out. Lemme OUT! It smells down 'n here." Then another voice, blas‰ and male: "Aw, honey, go ta hell." A roar of cackling.
Suddenly I realized this wasn't right. This wasn't the way to visit Hades, the sacred Land of the Dead--in broad daylight with tour guides wearing too much makeup shouting at their bespectacled sheep. It was heretical. Blasphemous. I turned around and left, noting on my way out that hell closes every day at 2:30 p.m.
I drove back into the village, parked at the caf‰ of old men, ordered a bottle of retsina and a plate of yemista, and began studying the brochure. It was written by an archaeologist and included an account of Odysseus's visit, as well as photographs and intricate diagrams. I committed the floor plans to memory.
On the second bottle of retsina I remembered the first time someone told me I was going to hell. It was three decades ago in Sunday school class with the medieval Mrs. Teuful. I was having problems with this idea of a merciful God in a world full of suffering. If God was so merciful, why didn't he just help us out?
"Young man!" Mrs. Teuful admonished. "You'll go to hell for asking such questions."
Some years later, as should happen to every young man, I was told to go to hell moments before receiving a stinging, Hollywood-worthy slap. More years later, as should happen to every young writer, I was told to go to hell by someone who read what I had written about him and believed I should be punished.
That's what hell is for most modern-day Christians: a netherworld where the skeptical and the wicked are punished. It hath been such since the time of the Apostles. St. Peter described hell as a place of "unquenchable fire" where there was a "great gnashing of teeth among the children" and sinners were "hung up by their tongues" or "by their loins" and tormented by
worms and venomous beasts. Charles the Fat, Holy Roman emperor in the late 800s, described hell as a place of "inextricable punishments" where infidels suffer in "boiling rivers and...liquid metal." The clergy of the Dark Ages loved this stuff. So did Hieronymus Bosch.
But the Hades of Homer was less vengeful. There were those who were punished--Sisyphus forever shouldering the great stone uphill, Tantalus chin-deep in water and dying of thirst, Tityos with his liver repeatedly torn out by vultures--but most were there only because they were dead. For the Greeks, Hades was simply where the soul went when the body expired. And
these souls, no longer bound by the shackles of time, had one tremendous gift: They could see into the future. Hades was a realm of oracles. Odysseus went there not only to find his way home, but to discover his destiny.
I RETURNED TO THE NEKROMANTEIO AT dusk. The rain had stopped and a purple shroud hung over the valley as I came up behind the ruins through the trees and encountered a stone wall. I had expected a fence of some kind, but this section of the ruins was set upon a high rampart. Since there probably was a night watchman at the front
entrance, my only choice was to scale the wall.
It was near dark as I began climbing. The stones were covered in moss and dripping with phlegmlike liquid. I moved as quickly as possible. Near the top I lost my footing and only by the luck of a desperate lunge managed to clutch a stanchion above my head. Adrenaline poured into my blood as I pulled myself up and surreptitiously flipped over a spiked fence.
I had to feel my way along the broken walls to find the opening to the labyrinth. I could see nothing. With my arms stretched out before me, I glided along the twisting path--as if by coming here at night I had become a phantom myself. I found an iron rail and traced it. I knew I was standing above the crypt when I felt and smelled a dank, almost putrid air exhaling
upward from the orifice. My feet found stairs dropping steeply into the abyss.
At the bottom of the stairs I stopped and stared sightlessly into nothingness. A damp chill touched my face. The stench of wet dirt filled my nostrils. I tried stepping forward but the ground was slick, as if still wet with the blood of ancient sacrifice.
When Odysseus was here he saw the ghost of his mother and spoke with her. He met the fathers of his fellow warriors and told them of their sons' adventures and great deeds in battle. He spoke to Achilles, the doomed hero of the Iliad.
I waited in blackness. It had all seemed like a lark, really, until that moment. Then something strange began. A primeval desire welled up inside me, and as I stood blind and silent above the bowels of the Earth I realized I honestly did want what Odysseus had wanted--answers. I wished with all my heart for those I'd lost to return, to speak with me, to share their
cosmic secrets, for the light of their faces to illuminate this inky pit. But no one came to see me. Not the too-many dead friends and lovers with whom I'd drunk and slept and struggled and whom I could not save from falling in the wars of life; nor my dead relatives, men and women who carried me upon their shoulders or in their hearts or in their stories. I strained
with my eyes wide open in hopes of making out kith or kin in the impenetrable, eternal midnight--but nothing.
I don't know how long I waited in darkness, but no mysteries were revealed to me. Odysseus was more fortunate. His mother told him that his wife, Penelope, was still faithful, and that his son, Telemachos, had become a brave prince. Teiresias instructed him how to find and fight his way back home, and assured him that he would complete his journey and live a long,
contented life. "Death ever so peaceful shall take you off when comfortable old age shall be your only burden," the blind seer said, "and your people shall be happy round you."
Odysseus was the luckiest of great travelers, perhaps because he was also the most courageous, but more likely because he believed. He had faith. For me, one of the multitudinous modern-day agnostics, it would have been asking too much to be given answers to the mysteries of life. The faithless are forever searching.
I retraced my steps back up out of the crypt, back through the labyrinth, and out into the night of ruins in the valley of the Styx.
IF GOING TO HELL WAS EASIER THAN I had expected--which is what I should have expected--getting out turned into a nightmare.
Some days later I dropped off the rental car in Ioßnnina to fly back to Athens. The plane, of course, was late. One hour, two hours, four. Eventually a woman behind the ticket counter announced that the plane was not coming. The waiting room exploded. Huge Greek men with bellies hanging over their pants began bellowing, women began screaming, little children
In the pandemonium I bumped into a Canadian surgical-supplies salesman named Terry and his Greek partner, Marina. They specialized in replacement parts for hearts. Terry and Marina had decided to hire a taxi and drive the length of Greece in one night. Why not?
It was raining again, but the taxi was a Mercedes and the driver inexplicably cautious. We ate at a roadside caf‰ at one in the morning and pushed on to the Gulf of Patras, where we changed taxis and drivers and took a ferry across the dark waters to the Peloponnesian peninsula. As soon as we docked, our taxi shot out of the ferry like a bat out of hell. The
new driver had demonic eyes, a torturer's smile, and a death wish. The road was slick as black ice, and he loved it. Curves posted at 50 miles per hour he took at no less than 80. I kept involuntarily grabbing the dashboard. At one point, in desperation, I glanced up at the license strapped to the visor, but the photo was a chiaroscuro blur, and the letters of his name
were smudged. C-H-A-R-O-something...
Back on a straightaway, he gunned the engine, and we were soon going so fast that the rain flew straight over the windshield without getting it wet. As we went flying around the next black bend, starting to hydroplane--obviously about to smash through the guardrail, sail off the cliff, and be dashed upon the jagged rocks stabbing up out of the ocean--the headlights
caught, for the briefest possible moment, the ghostly image of a dripping metal box with a cross on top and a dim, guttering candle within.
Mark Jenkins is the author of To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger. Tim Cahill, who is on assignment, will return to the Out There column next month.