4 Major Greek Underworld Myths

Artist depiction of crossing the River Styx, color painting.

Joachim Patinir  (circa 1480 –1524) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

How well do you know the major Greek Underworld myths? Various heroes and one heroine (Psyche) help lay claim to their heroic stature by making trips to the land of the dead. The stories from Vergil's "Aeneid" and the Homeric voyage of Odysseus to the Underworld (nekuia) are not the focus of their epics, but episodes in larger works. The heroes meet characters in the Greek Underworld familiar from other myths.

Persephone in the Underworld

Perhaps the most famous Greek Underworld myth is the tale of Hades' abduction of Demeter's young daughter, Persephone. While Persephone was frolicking among the flowers, the Greek Underworld god Hades and his chariot suddenly broke through a fissure and seized the maiden. Back in the Underworld, Hades tried to win Persephone's affections while her mother ranted, raved, and started a famine.

Orpheus

The story of Orpheus may be even more familiar than the story of Persephone in the Underworld. Orpheus was a wonderful minstrel who dearly loved his wife — so much that he attempted to win her back from the Underworld.

Hercules Visits More Than Once

As one of his labors for King Eurystheus, Hercules had to bring Hades' watchdog Cerberus back from the Underworld. Since the dog was only being borrowed, Hades was sometimes portrayed as willing to lend Cerberus — so long as Hercules used no weapon to capture the fearsome beast.

Because of a gift from Apollo worthy of a tricky genie, King Admetus allowed his wife, Alcestis, to take his place in the Greek Underworld. It wasn't Alcestis' time to die but no one else was willing to lay down his or her life for the king, so the dutiful wife had made the offer and it was accepted.

When Hercules came to visit his friend, King Admetus, he found the house in mourning, but his friend assured him the death was for no one in his family, so Hercules behaved in his wonted, drunken way until the staff couldn't take the behavior any longer.

Hercules made amends by going to the Underworld on Alcestis' behalf.

After seducing a young Helen of Troy, Theseus decided to go with Perithous to take the wife of Hades, Persephone. Hades tricked the two mortals into taking seats of forgetfulness. Hercules had to help.

Punishment in Tartarus

The Underworld was a dangerous, unknown place. There were bright spots, dull spots, and areas of torture. Certain mortals and Titans suffered pretty much eternal damnation in the Greek Underworld. Odysseus had a chance to see some of them during his nekuia.

Tantalus's punishment for serving his son to the gods as meat led to the word "tantalize."

Sisyphus also suffered in Tartarus, although his crime is less clear. His brother Autolycus also suffered there.

Ixion was strapped to a flaming wheel for all eternity for lusting after Hera. The Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus. The spouse-killing Danaides also suffered there.