Today Greek mythology tells the story of a dark underworld called Hades, named after its formidable ruler, Hades, the god of death and the dead (Atsma, 2008). According to the surrounding mythology, souls entering Hades had to cross each of five subterranean rivers which flowed through the underworld before facing judgment and being sent to their final resting place. Although the myth of Hades is centuries old, various cultures continue to believe in its premises: the existence of an underworld ruled by an underworld lord.
Belief in an UnderworldMany religions today have their own version of Hades, and according to a 2004 Gallup Poll, 70% of Americans believe in hell (Religion Facts, 2004). The New Testament of the Bible speaks about hell being a place for punishment after the last judgment. Many versions of the Christian religion exist today, and all of them believe in an underworld like Hades as the final resting place for souls to suffer and pay consequences if they have done wrong while living.
Islam is another Abrahamic religion that is practiced today with core beliefs that, if not followed, will place one in its version of the underworld. In the Qur’an, the Islamic version of the Bible, hell is nothing but fire. According to Islam, any disbelief in the Qur’an will cause an afterlife spent in hell; this includes all enemies of Allah. This is a way to keep cultivating piety and humility in all Muslims (Irving, 2002).
These two modern versions of the underworld have many similarities with the Greek version, Hades.
These religions speak of fire and internal imprisonment as well as seeing this as a place of punishment, which is similar to the Hades myth. Some individuals still suggest that Hades is only a myth; simply people from the past making up a place of fear in order keep future citizens from creating chaos. This is a fairly respectable position, considering the lack of physical evidence of Hades or any other underworld. However, the myth of Hades lives on through a religiously dictated belief in an underworld. This belief is generally accepted to be a tool used to control those on earth and to enforce a moral code. Muslims believe the underworld helps keep their culture on the right path by instilling fear of wrongdoing.
This accountability causes Muslims to face a fiery underworld similar to Hades should their actions waiver, and a similar fate awaits Christian wrongdoersBelief in Underworld LordsHades, the lord of the Greek underworld, persists in the same role in other religions and cultures throughout history. As the ruler or guardian, the lord will control the underworld and its residents. Christians believe in Satan or the Devil, Buddhists in Naraka, Chinese in Diyu, Japanese in Yomi, Juuou, and the Greco-Romans in Hades. Not every religion has a single lord, in some cases multiple kings or lords will rule. In other cases, a guardian may control entry into the underworld, such as the case with Kerberos, the three-headed dog that guards the gates to Hades.
The description and belief in these rulers and their domains are as frightful and powerful today as they were many centuries ago. People raised with the desire for a comfortable afterlife, to meet their creator, or to achieve enlightenment, also hold a fear of possibly spending an eternity in the dark alternative. The fear of the afterlife is so prevalent that it affects normal conversation in the form of metaphors used in everyday conversation. Stressful situations that seem miserable, unavoidable, unending, or fraught with chaos are in a sense, “like hell.” It is also common to hear people curse another to meet their maker or exclaim, “To hell with you!” Often, one can pinpoint people in one’s lives that link to the underworld lords through simple relationships such as a nasty teacher, vicious neighbor, or serial killer in the national news. These relationships can lead one to believe that person may be the devil.
In mythology, the role of the lord of the underworld does not merely consist of his reign, but his image as a tempter. One of the most obvious forms of temptation is the story of Adam and Eve from the Old Testament. In the Garden of Eden, Eve is tempted with the forbidden fruit, but has been told by God to leave the fruit alone. However, when Eve succumbed to her temptations, her innocence was lost. This metaphor is carried today with normal wants and desires. It is human to want what one cannot have; this “sin” or temptation is linked back to the ruler of the underworld.
Five Rivers of the UnderworldHades is home to five rivers: Cocytus, the river of lamentation; Acheron, the river of woe; Lethe, the river of forgetfulness; Phlegethon, the river of fire; and Styx, the river of hate (Dawson, 1997). The traits represented by the five rivers, lamentation, woe, forgetfulness, and hate are abhorrent qualities that are associated with sinful behavior in contemporary society and religion. The Cocytus and Acheron rivers invoke visions of the grief and sorrow a sinner will suffer as they spend an eternity in Hades. The five rivers represent an emotional deterrent for sinful behavior.
Of these five rivers, the river Styx is the most well known to people today. The Greek gods used the river Styx to take binding oaths, and if a oath taken on the river Styx was broken; the party who failed to keep his word would drink of the river and lose his voice for 9 years (Dawson, 1997). In modern society some people believe that dishonesty is a sin punishable by eternal damnation; the stories of the river Styx symbolize the importance our society places on truthfulness.
The Hades myths still resonant in today’s society universally demonstrate similar characteristics. The underworld concept includes fire, unpleasantness, and hell; each representing a theme of eternal imprisonment. The belief of the Hades myth inspires obedience in the mortal life as well. When the temptations of the rulers of the underworld interfere with one’s life, the person must make a cognitive choice to avoid or succumb to the temptations. Finally, in terms of the mythical properties of Hades, the underworld includes a purposeful journey, where the embodiment of one’s life leads to judgment followed by eternal rest. One such journey is the crossing of the river Styx, which is paralleled by analogies of trust and honesty. Whether the myth of Hades is true or not, it provides a strong basis for the enforcement of positive moral behavior; something from which all people could benefit.