The "Portal to Hell" In Hawaii
This image may look like it was taken on the set of a Hollywood movie about demons from the underworld. You can almost—but not quite—make out the shapes of twisted, tormented souls who were trying to escape the fiery pits of a cruel afterlife. But this is no movie set; it's a real place. Found in Hawaii, this lava portal to Hell serves as a reminder to the locals that nature is weird and eternity is terrifying.
Legends of Hell
For people living in ancient times, Hell was a very real, physical place. Hidden entryways into the frightening and forbidden underworld could be found at various points on Earth—in caves, canyons, pits, and naturally, volcanoes. These entryways, according to myths and legends, could also serve as escape routes. In some stories, brave heroes like Orpheus, Odysseus, Hercules, and Aeneas entered the portal to Hell to rescue a beloved or confront Hades, the god of the underworld, and escaped from Hell through the same portal. Others were not so lucky. Stories abound about desperate, tormented souls who perished while trying to free themselves.
Hell and Volcanoes
The biblical description of Hell happens to sound an awful lot like a volcano. There is fire, smoke, and ash, but there is also sulfur and brimstone. Liquid pools of molten lava are just like the lake of fire we read about in Sunday school. It's easy to see why the people of ancient times connected volcanoes with their images of Hell as a repository for evil people punished with eternal damnation.
The West Kamokuna Skylight
The now-iconic photograph of the lava portal to Hell was taken in 1996 by Laszlo Kestay, the current director of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an expert on volcanic activity and lava. Fortunately, he has a less ominous explanation for the foreboding structure. In scientific terms, what this photograph is showing is what volcanologists call a skylight.
What is a Skylight?
Obviously, it's a window in the ceiling that gives you a soothing view of pretty stars, but what volcanologists call a skylight is a lot like its namesake architectural feature. It's an opening at the top of a lava tube that provides onlookers a view of the flowing lava underneath. Skylights form when the outer layers of lava cool and harden into volcanic rock. It's a hard, outer shell encasing liquid lava, kind of like a dangerously inedible M&M. Unlike the candy, however, this stuff melts without any human interference whatsoever. The shell becomes thin and fragile, causing sections to collapse and form openings in the lava tube that allows a view inside. Over time, the lava stops flowing, and the area cools and hardens. The skylights then appear as deep pits in the volcanic landscape and into the netherworld.
What is a Lava Tube?
As the name implies, lava tubes are pipe-like channels through which liquid lava flows. A natural conduit, lava tubes direct the lava away from the volcano during an eruption by flowing downhill. When the lava ceases the flow, the tube solidifies into a long and winding cave or pipe. These lava tubes can come in all sizes. Some are large enough to drive a truck through, and some can barely fit a golf ball.
Explaining the Portal to Hell
What we are seeing in this image of the lava portal to Hell is a combination of a skylight feature and lava tubes. The original opening is a skylight that opened up in a larger lava tube, after which the lava level apparently rose until the lava flowed above the skylight, drizzling back down into itself. As it cooled, the lava tubes formed the eerie shapes that resemble writhing figures. At least, that's the scientific explanation. Maybe don't do any blasphemies nearby, just in case.
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