In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools, Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.
In the Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 700 BC, Tartarus was the third of the primordial deities, following after Chaos and Gaia (Earth), and preceding Eros, and was the father, by Gaia, of the monster Typhon. According to Hyginus, Tartarus was the offspring of Aether and Gaia.
As for the place, Hesiod asserts that a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall nine days before it reached the earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus. In the Iliad (c. 700 BC), Zeus asserts that Tartarus is “as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth.” Similarly the mythographer Apollodorus, describes Tartarus as “a gloomy place in Hades as far distant from earth as earth is distant from the sky.”
While according to Greek mythology the realm of Hades is the place of the dead, Tartarus also has a number of inhabitants. When Cronus came to power as the King of the Titans, he imprisoned the one-eyed Cyclopes and the hundred-armed Hecatonchires in Tartarus and set the monster Campe as its guard. Zeus killed Campe and released these imprisoned giants to aid in his conflict with the Titans. The gods of Olympus eventually triumphed. Cronus and many of the other Titans were banished to Tartarus, though Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Metis were spared (according to Pindar, Cronus somehow later earned Zeus’ forgiveness and was released from Tartarus to become ruler of Elysium). Another Titan, Atlas, was sentenced to hold the sky on his shoulders to prevent it from resuming its primordial embrace with the Earth. Other gods could be sentenced to Tartarus as well. Apollo is a prime example, although Zeus freed him. The Hecatonchires became guards of Tartarus’ prisoners. Later, when Zeus overcame the monster Typhon, he threw him into “wide Tartarus”.
Originally, Tartarus was used only to confine dangers to the gods of Olympus. In later mythologies, Tartarus became a space dedicated to the imprisonment and torment of mortals who had sinned against the gods, and each punishment was unique to the condemned. For example:
- King Sisyphus was sent to Tartarus for killing guests and travelers to his castle in violation to his hospitality, seducing his niece, and reporting one of Zeus’ sexual conquests by telling the river god Asopus of the whereabouts of his daughter Aegina (who had been taken away by Zeus). But regardless of the impropriety of Zeus’ frequent conquests, Sisyphus overstepped his bounds by considering himself a peer of the gods who could rightfully report their indiscretions. When Zeus ordered Thanatos to chain up Sisyphus in Tartarus, Sisyphus tricked Thanatos by asking him how the chains worked and ended up chaining Thanatos; as a result there was no more death. This caused Ares to free Thanatos and turn Sisyphus over to him. Sometime later, Sisyphus had Persephone send him back to the surface to scold his wife for not burying him properly. Sisyphus was forcefully dragged back to Tartarus by Hermes when he refused to go back to the Underworld after that. In Tartarus, Sisyphus was forced to roll a large boulder up a mountainside which when he almost reached the crest, rolled away from Sisyphus and rolled back down repeatedly. This represented the punishment of Sisyphus claiming that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus, causing the god to make the boulder roll away from Sisyphus, binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration.
- King Tantalus also ended up in Tartarus after he cut up his son Pelops, boiled him, and served him as food when he was invited to dine with the gods. He also stole the ambrosia from the Gods and told his people its secrets. Another story mentioned that he held onto a golden dog forged by Hephaestus and stolen by Tantalus’ friend Pandareus. Tantalus held onto the golden dog for safekeeping and later denied to Pandareus that he had it. Tantalus’ punishment for his actions (now a proverbial term for “temptation without satisfaction”) was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any. Over his head towered a threatening stone like that of Sisyphus.
- Ixion was the king of the Lapiths, the most ancient tribe of Thessaly. Ixion grew to hate his father-in-law and ended up pushing him onto a bed of coal and woods committing the first kin-related murder. The princes of other lands ordered that Ixion be denied of any sin-cleansing. Zeus took pity on Ixion and invited him to a meal on Olympus. But when Ixion saw Hera, he fell in love with her and did some under-the-table caressing until Zeus signaled him to stop. After finding a place for Ixion to sleep, Zeus created a cloud-clone of Hera named Nephele to test him to see how far he would go to seduce Hera. Ixion made love to her, which resulted in the birth of Centaurus, who mated with some Magnesian mares on Mount Pelion and thus engendered the race of Centaurs (who are called the Ixionidae from their descent). Zeus drove Ixion from Mount Olympus and then struck him with a thunderbolt. He was punished by being tied to a winged flaming wheel that was always spinning: first in the sky and then in Tartarus. Only when Orpheus came down to the Underworld to rescue Eurydice did it stop spinning because of the music Orpheus was playing. Ixion being strapped to the flaming wheel represented his burning lust.
- In some versions, the Danaides murdered their husbands and were punished in Tartarus by being forced to carry water in a jug to fill a bath which would thereby wash off their sins. But the tub was filled with cracks, so the water always leaked out.
- The giant Tityos attempted to rape Leto on Hera’s orders, but was slain by Apollo and Artemis. As punishment, Tityos was stretched out in Tartarus and tortured by two vultures who fed on his liver. This punishment is extremely similar to that of the Titan Prometheus.
- King Salmoneus was also mentioned to have been imprisoned in Tartarus after passing himself off as Zeus, causing the real Zeus to smite him with a thunderbolt.
According to Plato (c. 427 BC), Rhadamanthus, Aeacus and Minos were the judges of the dead and chose who went to Tartarus. Rhadamanthus judged Asian souls, Aeacus judged European souls and Minos was the deciding vote and judge of the Greek.
Plato also proposes the concept that sinners were cast under the ground to be punished in accordance with their sins in the Myth of Er.
There were a number of entrances to Tartarus in Greek mythology. One was in Aornum.
In Roman mythology, Tartarus is the place where sinners are sent. Virgil describes it in the Aeneid as a gigantic place, surrounded by the flaming river Phlegethon and triple walls to prevent sinners from escaping from it. It is guarded by a hydra with fifty black gaping jaws, which sits at a screeching gate protected by columns of solid adamantine, a substance akin to diamond – so hard that nothing will cut through it. Inside, there is a castle with wide walls, and a tall iron turret. Tisiphone, one of the Erinyes who represents revenge, stands guard sleepless at the top of this turret lashing a whip. There is a pit inside which is said to extend down into the earth twice as far as the distance from the lands of the living to Olympus. At the bottom of this pit lie the Titans, the twin sons of Aloeus, and many other sinners. Still more sinners are contained inside Tartarus, with punishments similar to those of Greek myth.
Tartarus occurs in the Septuagint of Job, and in Hellenistic Jewish literature from the Greek text of 1 Enoch, dated to 400–200 BC. This states that God placed the archangel Uriel “in charge of the world and of Tartarus” (20:2). Tartarus is generally understood to be the place where 200 fallen Watchers (angels) are imprisoned.
In Hypostasis of the Archons (also translated ‘Reality of the Rulers’), an apocryphal gnostic treatise dated before 350 AD, Tartarus makes a brief appearance when Zōē (life), the daughter of Sophia (wisdom) casts Ialdabaōth (demiurge) down to the bottom of the abyss of Tartarus. 
Tartarus also appears in sections of the Jewish Sibylline Oracles. E.g. Sib. Or. 4:186.
In the New Testament, the noun Tartarus does not occur but tartaroo (ταρταρόω, “throw to Tartarus”), a shortened form of the classical Greek verb kata-tartaroo (“throw down to Tartarus”), does appear in 2 Peter 2:4. Liddell–Scott provides other sources for the shortened form of this verb, including Acusilaus (5th century BC), Joannes Laurentius Lydus (4th century AD) and the Scholiast on Aeschylus’ Eumenides, who cites Pindar relating how the earth tried to tartaro “cast down” Apollo after he overcame the Python. In classical texts, the longer form kata-tartaroo is often related to the throwing of the Titans down to Tartarus.
The ESV is one of several English versions that gives the Greek reading Tartarus as a footnote:
Adam Clarke reasoned that Peter’s use of language relating to the Titans was an indication that the ancient Greeks had heard of a Biblical punishment of fallen angels. Some Evangelical Christian commentaries distinguish Tartarus as a place for wicked angels and Gehenna as a place for wicked humans on the basis of this verse. Other Evangelical commentaries, in reconciling that some fallen angels are chained in Tartarus, yet some not, attempt to distinguish between one type of fallen angel and another.
- The word is of uncertain origin (“Tartarus”. Online Etymological Dictionary).
- Hesiod. Theogony, 116–119
- Hesiod. Theogony,820–822
- Hyginus. Fabulae,Preface
- Hesiod. Theogony,720–725
- Homer. Iliad, 8.17
- Apollodorus, 1.1.2.
- Hesiod. Theogony,868
- Hamilton, Edith. “Brief Myths.” Mythology.
- “Ancient Greeks: Is death necessary and can death actually harm us?”. Mlahanas.de. Archived from the original on 2014-07-02. Retrieved 2014-02-19.
- Homer. Odyssey,11.593–600
- Pindar. Olympian Odes, 1.24–38
- Pindar. Olympian Odes, 1.60 ff
- Homer. Odyssey,11.582-92; Tantalus’ transgressions are not mentioned; they must already have been well known to Homer’s late-8th-century hearers.
- The Danish government’s third world aid agency’s name was changed from DANAID to DANIDA in the last minute when this unfortunate connotation was discovered.
- Virgil. Aeneid,6.585-594
- The Greek Myths (Volume 1) by Robert Graves (1990), page 112: “… He used the passage which opens at Aornum in Thesprotis and, on his arrival, not only charmed the ferryman Charon…”
- Kelley Coblentz Bautch A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17–19: “no One Has Seen what I Have Seen” p134
- Bentley Layton The Gnostic Scriptures: “Reality of the Rulers” 95:5 p.74
- A. cast into Tartarus or hell, Acus.8 J., 2 Ep.Pet.2.4, Lyd.Mens.4.158 (Pass.), Sch.T Il.14.296. Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.
- Apollodorus of Athens, in Didymus’ Scholia on Homer; PlutarchConcerning rivers
- Clarke Commentary “The ancient Greeks appear to have received, by tradition, an account of the punishment of the ‘fallen angels,’ and of bad men after death; and their poets did, in conformity I presume with that account, make Tartarus the place where the giants who rebelled against Jupiter, and the souls of the wicked, were confined. ‘Here,’ saith Hesiod, Theogon., lin. 720, 1, ‘the rebellious Titans were bound in penal chains.'”
- Paul V. Harrison, Robert E. Picirilli James, 1, 2 Peter, Jude Randall House Commentaries 1992 p267 “We do not need to say, then, that Peter was reflecting or approving the Book of Enoch (20:2) when it names Tartarus as a place for wicked angels in distinction from Gehenna as the place for wicked humans.”
- Vince Garcia The Resurrection Life Study Bible 2007 p412 “If so, we have a problem: Satan and his angels are not locked up in Tartarus! Satan and his angels were alive and active in the time of Christ, and still are today! Yet Peter specifically (2 Peter 2:4) states that at least one group of angelic beings have literally been cast down to Tartarus and bound in chains until the Last Judgment. So if Satan and his angels are not currently bound in Tartarus—who is? The answer goes back~again~to the angels who interbred with humans. So then— is it impossible that Azazel is somehow another name for Satan? There may be a chance he is, but there is no way of knowing for sure. …”
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