A chapel was built on top of a chasm filled with half-human monsters to keep them in
Several places on Earth are thought to be entry portals to hell. A foul-smelling and gas-spewing crack in a sandstone hill some 47 kilometers north of Prague caused so much concern among people in the middle of the 13th century that they built a chapel to cover the chasm, and then put a castle around the chapel to protect it.
The location has had checkered history since then, but the chapel still stands at Houska Castle, guarding the earth from whatever lies beneath. Demons and other evil spirits can’t cross holy ground, so whatever was down in the smoking chasm has been trapped for eight centuries.
The earliest written reference to the castle says that it keeps “something that must not be named” from escaping into the outside world. Other early references cite the presence of a gate to hell or a pit full of demons.
The early Gothic castle is thought to have existed as early as the reign of King Wenceslas I in the first half of the 1200s. The area may have been populated even in pagan times, which may have led to the growth of the legends.
The tiny castle is not located near a source of water and the hill itself is not strategic, and there is no trade route nearby. Rain water from the roof had to be collected in a stone vat in the center of the courtyard, which was not very practical.
Odder still, the castle has almost no fortifications facing the outside. It was never intended to face an attack, except from within. The thick woods and rocky hill were already virtually impenetrable.
It seems the castle was not even occupied until long after it was built. The original design didn’t even have a kitchen.
While it is still small, the current appearance is actually due to a later expansion and a Renaissance makeover that added enough amenities for people to live there.
The alterations removed a moat and a watchtower, and removed some of the sandstone outcrops that were left inside the castle walls and interiors. Defenses facing inward were removed, but decorative depictions of archers’ loopholes can still be seen in the interior courtyard.
What actually happened before the chapel was built is hard to say for certain. The stories paint a dark picture of a nightmare world that challenges our perceptions of reality.
The legend is that demonic chimeras — creatures neither fully human nor fully animal — would crawl up out of the pit at night and drag down any people they could capture. Winged hellbeasts also were supposed to fly up, propelled by the pit’s foul vapors, to terrorize the local cattle and destroy the crops.
The local authorities, before the castle was built, wanted to find out what was in the pit and where it led to.
Prisoners were given a choice of serving their sentence of bleak confinement and torture, or being lowered on a rope to explore the pit and report back. One prisoner accepted the challenge and after just a few moments below the surface, began to scream in fright.
When he was pulled up he was babbling incoherently. He seemed to age decades in just a few moments; his hair had turned white and his eyes had a crazed look. He never regained his senses and died soon after of unknown causes.
After that, prisoners chose a life of torture instead of a trip down into the smoking pit.
King Wenceslas I, hearing of the affair, ordered the foul pit to be covered over with the chapel, and that is the last that was seen of the demons. But for centuries people claimed they could still be heard, yowling at night under the stone floor.
The famous poet Karel Hynek Mácha spent the night there once in 1836 and wrote a letter outlining his strange visions including a peculiar funeral.
Even into the 20th century, people claimed that car batteries would mysteriously lose power when parked near the castle and other unexplained phenomena would occur.
The chapel is dedicated to the St Michael the Archangel, who in the Book of Revelation leads the fight against Satan. Faded Gothic frescoes on the wall depict Archangel Michael battling a dragon and another of him with a small devil tied up on the end of a pole.
The other figures are saints such as Andrew and Christopher, save for a curious depiction of a left-handed female centaur.
Left-handedness was often associated with evil, and the centaur is a half-human beast. Why she is female and an archer is not explained. But the figure has no links to Christian iconography. Its roots are pagan.
The castle has a checkered history, and often attracted people interested in the occult. During the Thirty Years’ War in the early part of the 1600s, a Swedish officer named Oronto lived there and practiced the dark arts, hoping to achieve immortality. His experiments involved a black hen.
He was shot through a window by local hunters, as his activities had caused some suspicion in the area, and the invading Swedish army was not very popular anyway. His ghost is supposed to still haunt the castle.
For a while in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the castle had a quiet period and was used as a hunting lodge, and a collection of trophies can still be seen there. Some are considered quite valuable.
During World War II, the castle fell into the hands of the occupying Nazis, and records concerning it from 1938 to 1945 were destroyed at the end of the war, perhaps as a cover up. Local people say it was used by the SS for the Lebensborn project to create a master race.
Others say it was used for occult purposes, as there was a faction of the SS that tried to harness mystical dark power as a weapon, and searched the conquered lands for magical trophies and places with mystical energies.
The castle fell into disrepair in the communist era, and was used for storage and as a bleak sanatorium.
One highlight in the castle’s history is that it was used as an improvised recording studio in 1974 to make the first record by the underground dissident group The Plastic People of the Universe. The band was arrested in 1976 and convicted of disturbing the peace.
This led fellow dissident Václav Havel to write Charter 77, a human rights manifesto that put him at the forefront of the dissident movement and helped catapult him to the presidency after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
The castle opened to the public in 1999, and is slowly being renovated. It is possible to see the chapel, rooms with hunting trophies, some armor and weapons, walls with more frescoes including an early depiction of the castle itself, and a basement room decorated as a dungeon. A side building has a display of whimsical dark-themed wooden puppets. More spaces are slowly being opened.
Some sandstone basement rooms are occupied by bats, and, since they are protected by law, those rooms can’t be disturbed.
The castle has been used for meetings by UFO enthusiasts and other modern fans of the paranormal and esoteric arts.
Houska, in the Czech language, means a braided bread roll. Why that is the castle’s name is a mystery, but a stone sculpture of such a roll is on the banister of one of the staircases.
The castle is in a very small town, also called Houska, and is very difficult to reach by a public bus. And the trip by bike is a bit far, so driving is the best option from Prague.
Currently, it is not possible to stay overnight at the castle.
This is not the only gate to hell in Bohemia. Another can be found near Prague Castle, marked by a stone circle on the street. It marks where demons came up to drag the last pagan princess, Drahomira, down to hell for her sins.