Since the days when man lived in caves and struggled to survive, wondering about the world that surrounds him. What makes the sun rise and set? Why are there seasons? Where do things go when they die? To the ancient Greeks, there were simple explanations to all these questions – it was the gods! Things that seemed unexplainable could suddenly make sense when there were gods and goddesses involved. And these stories of the gods that the Greeks created to help make sense of the universe have survived the years to become a treasured and integral part of the history of the Western world.
The Greek underworld, in mythology, was a place where souls went after death and was the Greek idea of afterlife. At the moment of death the soul was separated from the corpse, taking on the shape of the former person, and was transported to the entrance of Hades. Hades’ realm itself was described as being either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or ends of the earth. It was considered the dark counterpart to the brightness of Mount Olympus, and was the kingdom of the dead that corresponded to the kingdom of the gods. Hades was a realm invisible to the living and it was made solely for the dead.
The Underworld, better known as Hades after the god who ruled it, was a dark and dreary place where the shades, or souls, of those who died lived. A persons whole life was planned and plotted by the Fates. The Fates were the three goddesses who controlled the destiny of everyone from the time they were born to the time they died. They were: Clotho, the spinner, who spun the thread of a person’s life, Lachesis, the apporitioner, who decided how much times was to be allowed each person, and Atropos, the inevitable, who cut the thread when you were supposed to die.
When Atropos cut your thread you were dead and then you made your journey to Hades. Upon death, the shade is led by Hermes to the entrance of the Underworld and to the banks of the Acheron. There were five rivers that made up the Underworld. They were the Acheron (the river of woe), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (river of fire), Lethe (river of forgetfulness), and the Styx (river of hate). This poem, written by an anonymous writer, was written about the rivers in the Underworld.
“Abhorred Styx, the flood of deadly hate, Sad Acheron of sorrow black and deep; Cocytus named of lamentation loud Heard on the rueful stream; fierce Phlegethon Whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage. Far off from these a slow and silent stream, Lethe, the river of oblivion, rolls Her watery labyrinth, whereof who drinks Forthwith his former state and being forgets, Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain. “
Hades (Aides, Aidoneus, or Haides), the son of Kronos and brother of Zeus and Poseidon, was the Greek god of the underworld. When the world was divided between the sons of Cronos, Zeus received the heavens, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld; the earth itself was divded 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 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. 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 (also known as Kore) was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and Zeus. Persephone was abducted by Hades, whom desired a wife.
When Persephone was gathering flowers, she was entranced by a narcissus flower planted by Gaia (to lure her to the Underworld as a favor to Hades), and when she picked it the earth suddenly opened up. Hades, appearing in a golden chariot, seduced and carried Persephone into the underworld. When Demeter found out that Zeus had given Hades permission to abduct Persephone and take her as a wife, Demeter became enraged at Zeus and stopped growing harvests for the earth. To soothe her, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to take Persephone back to her mother.
However, Hades made her eat a pomegranate seed so that she was forever tied to the underworld, since the pomegranate seed was sacred to the underworld. When one would die, the family would place one obol, or a coin, under the deceased’s tongue. This coin would pay as fare to Charon who would ferry the dead over the Acheron River. Charon is the ferryman who is often depicted as an old sulky man, or as a winged demon carrying a double hammer. Those who cannot afford to pay Charon were doomed to wonder the banks of the Acheron River for one hundred years.
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, and 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.
Guarding the Underworld was the three-headed dog Cerberus. He permitted new spirits to enter, but never one to leave. When you arrived at the Underworld, three judges determined your sentence. They were Rhadamanthus, Minos the first, and Aeacus. Rhadamanthus, the son of Zeus and Europa, was rewarded to be judge because of the justice he showed on Earth. Minos the First, the son of Zeus and Europa, was another judge who, before he died, was the ruler of Crete, and most know him from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
The third judge is Aeacus, the son of Zeus and the nymph Aegina, assisted Poseidon and Apollo build the walls of the city Troy. After his death Zeus rewarded him the position of judge. You could go to three different places in the Underworld, depending on your life on Earth and what you had done. Most shades went to the Asphodel Fields, but before any entered, drinking from the Lethe River was a must, causing one to forget everything that had happened in a past life. Asphodel was an ugly , gray, ghostly weed that covered the Fields.
This place was for the normal, everyday person, who did nothing special in his or her life. The second place they could go was the Elysian Fields or Elysium. Elysium was reserved for the heroes, or people the gods favored. Regular feasts, banquets, and hunts were held there. The third and final place you could go to was the lowest region of the world, called Tartarus. It was surrounded by a wall of bronze and beyond that three-fold layer of night. Tartarus, presided over by Kronos, was where the souls went who had defied the gods in some way.
The Hundred-headed Giants guarded it. Around Tartarus is Phlegethon, with its flames and clashing rocks. One of the Furies, Tisiphone, sits upon the iron tower, with her bloody robe, and sleepless day and night, guards the entrance. Few people dwell in the Underworld, because of its gloominess and darkness. Hades, the King of the Dead, rules over the entire Underworld. The god was a dread figure to the living, who were quite careful how they swore oaths to his name. To many people, to utter his name was frightening, so they used another word in its place.
Since all precious minerals came from under the earth, the people thought of Hades as very wealthy. He was was sometimes referred to as Ploutos, meaning wealth. This accounts for the name given him by the Romans, who called him Pluto. Hades sits on a throne of ebony and carries a scepter. He also has a helmet that makes him invisible, given to him by the Cyclopes( I would love to barrow that sometime). Persephone, Hades’s wife, also lives with him in his palace. Along with Charon, the ferryman, the Furies live down there also. The furies are the three daughters of Mother Earth, conceived from the blood of Uranus.
They were powerful goddesses that personified conscience and punish people for their crimes. They were Megaera (jealousy), Tisiphone (blood avenger), and Alecto (unceasing in pursuit). They were usually depicted as winged women with serpent hair. When called upon they would hound their victims till they died in a rage of madness or suicide. 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 after she was bitten by a poisonous rattlesnake on their wedding day Eurydice.
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 he 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, however, 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. “Greek civilization is alive; it moves in every breath of mind that we breathe; so much of it remains that none of us in one lifetime could absorb it all. ” Ancient Greeks are known to be one of the greatest and most advanced people and have left behind a legacy that helped define the Western civilization. Cultural diffusion helped spread Greek culture all over the world, and its effects can still be felt today in almost every aspect.
Greek culture has greatly affected different parts of my daily life including architecture, food, government, inventions, music, religion, and education. Modern day architecture in America is greatly influenced by ancient Greek architectural styles, which include columns and decorative elements such as sculptures. The Parthenon is an excellent example of the surviving Greek architecture, and it has inspired buildings such as The Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, and White House, all of which are located in Washington DC.
Some of the food one wouldconsume daily has origins from the Greek cuisine. The Underworld is what the Greeks and Romans believed you went after you died. It was where everything horrible, evil, and sad lived. If you weren’t a hero or a favorite of the gods you were sent to that horrible place. What a dreadful thing to look forward to after your life was completed on Earth. I hope you enjoyed learning about the Underworld and the beliefs of the Greek and Roman peoples afterlife.
Courtney from Study Moose
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