In mythology, the Greek underworld is an otherworld where souls go after death. The original Greek idea of afterlife is that, at the moment of death, the soul is separated from the corpse, taking on the shape of the former person, and is transported to the entrance of the underworld. The underworld itself—sometimes known as Hades, after its patron god—is described as being either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or ends of the earth. It is considered the dark counterpart to the brightness of Mount Olympus with the kingdom of the dead corresponding to the kingdom of the gods. Hades is a realm invisible to the living, made solely for the dead.
There are six main rivers that are visible both in the living world and the underworld. Their names were meant to reflect the emotions associated with death.
- The Styx is generally considered to be one of the most prominent and central rivers of the underworld and is also the most widely known out of all the rivers. It’s known as the river of hatred and is named after the goddess Styx. This river circles the underworld seven times.
- The Acheron is the river of pain. It’s the one that Charon, also known as the Ferryman, rows the dead over according to many mythological accounts, though sometimes it is the river Styx or both.
- The Lethe is the river of forgetfulness. It is associated with the goddess Lethe, the goddess of forgetfulness and oblivion. In later accounts, a poplar branch dripping with water of the Lethe became the symbol of Hypnos, the god of sleep.
- The Phlegethon is the river of fire. According to Plato, this river leads to the depths of Tartarus.
- The Cocytus is the river of wailing.
- Oceanus is the river that encircles the world, and it marks the east edge of the underworld, as Erebos is west of the mortal world.
Entrance of the underworld
In front of the entrance to the underworld live Grief (Penthos), Anxiety (Curae), Diseases (Nosoi), and Old Age (Geras). Fear (Phobos), Hunger (Limos), Need (Aporia), Death (Thanatos), Agony (Algea), and Sleep (Hypnos) also live in front of the entrance, together with Guilty Joys (Gaudia). On the opposite threshold is War (Polemos), the Erinyes, and Discord (Eris). Close to the doors are many beasts, including Centaurs, Scylla, Briareus, Gorgons, the Lernaean Hydra, Geryon, the Chimera, and Harpies. In the midst of all this, an Elm can be seen where false Dreams (Oneiroi) cling under every leaf.
The souls that enter the underworld carry a coin under their tongue to pay Charon to take them across the river. Charon may make exceptions or allowances for those visitors carrying a certain Golden Bough. Charon is appallingly filthy, with eyes like jets of fire, a bush of unkempt beard upon his chin, and a dirty cloak hanging from his shoulders. Although Charon embarks now one group now another, some souls he grimly turns away. These are the unburied which can’t be taken across from bank to bank until they receive a proper burial.
Across the river, guarding the gates of the underworld is Cerberus. There is also an area where the Judges of the underworld decide where to send the souls of the person — to Elysium, the Fields of Asphodel, or Tartarus.
While Tartarus is not considered to be directly a part of the underworld, it is described as being as far beneath the underworld as the earth is beneath the sky. It is so dark that the “night is poured around it in three rows like a collar round the neck, while above it grows the roots of the earth and of the unharvested sea.” Tartarus is the place that Zeus cast the Titans along with his father Cronus after defeating them. Homer wrote that Cronus then became the king of Tartarus. While Odysseus does not see them himself, he mentions some of the people within the underworld who are experiencing punishment for their sins.
The Asphodel Meadows was a place for ordinary or indifferent souls who did not commit any significant crimes, but who also did not achieve any greatness or recognition that would warrant them being admitted to the Elysian Fields. It was where mortals who did not belong anywhere else in the underworld were sent.
In the Aeneid, the Mourning Fields (Lugentes Campi) was a section of the underworld reserved for souls who wasted their lives on unrequited love. Those mentioned as residents of this place are Dido, Phaedra, Procris, Eriphyle, Pasiphaë, Evadne, Laodamia, and Caeneus.
Elysium was a place for the especially distinguished. It was ruled over by Rhadamanthus, and the souls that dwelled there had an easy afterlife and had no labors. Usually, those who had proximity to the gods were granted admission, rather than those who were especially righteous or had ethical merit. Most accepted to Elysium were demigods or heroes. Heroes such as Cadmus, Peleus, and Achilles also were transported here after their deaths. Normal people who lived righteous and virtuous lives could also gain entrance such as Socrates who proved his worth sufficiently through philosophy.
Isles of the Blessed
The Fortunate Isles or Isles of the Blessed were islands in the realm of Elysium. When a soul achieved Elysium, they had a choice to either stay in Elysium or to be reborn. If a soul was reborn three times and achieved Elysium all three times, then they were sent to the Isles of the Blessed to live in eternal paradise.
Hades (Aides, Aidoneus, or Haidês), the eldest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea; brother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia, is the Greek god of the underworld. When the three brothers divided the world between themselves, Zeus received the heavens, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld; the earth itself was divided between the three. Therefore, while Hades’ responsibility was in the underworld, he was allowed to have power on earth as well. However, Hades himself is rarely seen outside his domain, and to those on earth his intentions and personality are a mystery. In art and literature Hades is depicted as stern and dignified, but not as a fierce torturer or devil-like. However, Hades was considered the enemy to all life and was hated by both the gods and men; sacrifices and prayers did not appease him so mortals rarely tried. He was also not a tormenter of the dead, and sometimes considered the “Zeus of the dead” because he was hospitable to them. Due to his role as lord of the underworld and ruler of the dead, he was also known as Zeus Khthonios (“the infernal Zeus” or “Zeus of the lower world”). Those who received punishment in Tartarus were assigned by the other gods seeking vengeance. In Greek society, many viewed Hades as the least liked god and many gods even had an aversion towards him, and when people would sacrifice to Hades, it would be if they wanted revenge on an enemy or something terrible to happen to them.
Hades was sometimes referred to as Pluto and was represented in a lighter way – here, he was considered the giver of wealth, since the crops and the blessing of the harvest come from below the earth.
Persephone could then only leave the underworld when the earth was blooming, or every season except the winter. The Homeric Hymns describes the abduction of Persephone by Hades:
I sing now of the great Demeter
Of the beautiful hair,
And of her daughter Persephone
Of the lovely feet,
Whom Zeus let Hades tear away
From her mother’s harvests
And friends and flowers—
Especially the Narcissus,
Grown by Gaia to entice the girl
As a favor to Hades, the gloomy one.
This was the flower that
Left all amazed,
Whose hundred buds made
The sky itself smile.
When the maiden reached out
To pluck such beauty,
The earth opened up
And out burst Hades …
The son of Kronos,
Who took her by force
On his chariot of gold,
To the place where so many
Long not to go.
She called to her father,
All-powerful and high, …
But Zeus had allowed this.
He sat in a temple
Hearing nothing at all,
Receiving the sacrifices of
Persephone herself is considered a fitting other half to Hades because of the meaning of her name which bears the Greek root for “killing” and the –phone in her name means “putting to death”.
They were particularly concerned with crimes done by children against their parents such as matricide, patricide, and unfilial conduct. They would inflict madness upon the living murderer, or if a nation was harboring such a criminal, the Erinyes would cause starvation and disease to the nation. The Erinyes were dreaded by the living since they embodied the vengeance of the person who was wronged against the wrongdoer. Often the Greeks made “soothing libations” to the Erinyes to appease them so as to not invoke the wrath of Erinyes, and overall the Erinyes received many more libations and sacrifices than other gods of the underworld. The Erinyes were depicted as ugly and winged women with their bodies intertwined with serpents.
Judges of the underworld
Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus are the judges of the dead. They judged the deeds of the deceased and created the laws that governed the underworld. However, none of the laws provided a true justice to the souls of the dead, and the dead did not receive rewards for following them or punishment for wicked actions.
Aeacus was the guardian of the Keys of the underworld and the judge of the men of Europe. Rhadamanthys was Lord of Elysium and judge of the men of Asia. Minos was the judge of the final vote.
Charon is the ferryman who, after receiving a soul from Hermes, would guide them across the rivers Styx and/or Acheron to the underworld. At funerals, the deceased traditionally had an obol placed over their eye or under their tongue, so they could pay Charon to take them across. To the Etruscans, Charon was considered a fearsome being – he wielded a hammer and was hook-nosed, bearded, and had animalistic ears with teeth. In other early Greek depictions, Charon was considered merely an ugly bearded man with a conical hat and tunic. Later on, in more modern Greek folklore, he was considered more angelic, like the Archangel Michael. Nevertheless, Charon was considered a terrifying being since his duty was to bring these souls to the underworld and no one would persuade him to do otherwise.
Heracles once borrowed Cerberus as the final part of the Labours of Heracles. Orpheus once soothed it to sleep with his music.
Thanatos is the personification of death. He guards the Doors of Death.
Melinoe is a chthonic nymph, daughter of Persephone, invoked in one of the Orphic Hymns and propitiated as a bringer of nightmares and madness. She may also be the figure named in a few inscriptions from Anatolia, and she appears on a bronze tablet in association with Persephone. The hymns, of uncertain date but probably composed in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, are liturgical texts for the mystery religion known as Orphism. In the hymn, Melinoë has characteristics that seem similar to Hecate and the Erinyes, and the name is sometimes thought to be an epithet of Hecate. The terms in which Melinoë is described are typical of moon goddesses in Greek poetry.
Nyx is the goddess of the Night.
A deep abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked and as the prison for the Titans, Tartarus was also considered to be a primordial deity.
Achlys is the personification of misery and sadness, sometimes represented as a daughter of Nyx, sometimes as an ancient being even older than Chaos himself.
Styx is the goddess of the river with the same name. Not much is known about her, but she is an ally of Zeus and lives in the underworld.
Eurynomos is one of the daemons of the underworld, who eats off all the flesh of the corpses, leaving only their bones.
In the Greek underworld, the souls of the dead still existed but they are insubstantial and they flitted around the underworld with no sense of purpose. The dead within the Homeric underworld lack menos, or strength, and therefore they cannot influence those on earth. They also lack phrenes, or wit, and are heedless of what goes on around them and on the earth above them. Their lives in the underworld were very neutral, so all social statuses and political positions were eliminated and no one was able to use their previous lives to their advantage in the underworld.
The idea of progress did not exist in the Greek underworld – at the moment of death, the psyche was frozen, in experience and appearance. The souls in the underworld did not age or really change in any sense. They did not lead any sort of active life in the underworld – they were exactly the same as they were in life. Therefore, those who had died in battle were eternally blood-spattered in the underworld and those who had died peacefully were able to remain that way.
Overall the Greek dead were considered to be irritable and unpleasant, but not dangerous or malevolent. They grew angry if they felt a hostile presence near their graves and drink offerings were given in order to appease them so as not to anger the dead. Mostly blood offerings were given due to the fact that they needed the essence of life to become communicative and conscious again. This is shown in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus had to give blood in order for the souls to interact with him. While in the underworld, the dead passed the time through simple pastimes such as playing games, as shown from objects found in tombs such as dice and game-boards. Grave gifts such as clothing, jewelry, and food were left by the living for use in the underworld as well since many viewed these gifts to carry over into the underworld. There was not a general consensus as to whether the dead were able to consume food or not. Homer depicted the dead as unable to eat or drink unless they had been summoned; however, some reliefs portray the underworld as having many elaborate feasts. While not completely clear, it is implied that the dead could still have sexual intimacy with another, although no children were produced. The Greeks also showed belief in the possibility of marriage in the underworld, which in a sense describes the Greek underworld having no difference than from their current life.
Lucian described the people of the underworld as simple skeletons. They are indistinguishable from each other, and it is impossible to tell who was wealthy or important in the living world. However, this view of the underworld was not universal – Homer depicts the dead keeping their familiar faces.
Hades itself was free from the concept of time. The dead are aware of both the past and the future, and in poems describing Greek heroes, the dead helped move the plot of the story by prophesying and telling truths unknown to the hero. The only way for humans to communicate with the dead was to suspend time and their normal life to reach Hades, the place beyond immediate perception and human time.
The Greeks had a definite belief that there was a journey to the afterlife or another world. They believed that death was not a complete end to life or human existence. The Greeks accepted the existence of the soul after death, but saw this afterlife as meaningless. In the underworld, the identity of a dead person still existed, but it had no strength or true influence. Rather, the continuation of the existence of the soul in the underworld was considered a remembrance of the fact that the dead person had existed, yet while the soul still existed, it was inactive. However, the price of death was considered a great one. Homer believed that the best possible existence for humans was to never be born at all, or die soon after birth, because the greatness of life could never balance the price of death. The Greek gods only rewarded heroes who were still living; heroes that died were ignored in the afterlife. However, it was considered very important to the Greeks to honor the dead and was seen as a type of piety. Those who did not respect the dead opened themselves to the punishment of the gods – for example, Odysseus ensured Ajax’s burial, or the gods would be angered.
Myths and stories
Orpheus, a poet and musician that had almost supernatural abilities to move anyone to his music, descended to the underworld as a living mortal to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice after she was bitten by a poisonous snake on their wedding day. With his lyre-playing skills, he was able to put a spell on the guardians of the underworld and move them with his music. With his beautiful voice he was able to convince Hades and Persephone to allow him and his wife to return to the living. The rulers of the underworld agreed, but under one condition – Eurydice would have to follow behind Orpheus and he could not turn around to look at her. Once Orpheus reached the entrance, he turned around, longing to look at his beautiful wife, only to watch as his wife faded back into the underworld. He was forbidden to return to the underworld a second time and he spent his life playing his music to the birds and the mountains.
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