Greek Underworld

And Hades

Hermes and Charon
Hermes and Charon. Clipart.com

What happens after you die? If you were an ancient Greek, but not too deep-thinking a philosopher, the chances are you would have thought you went to Hades or the Greek Underworld.

The Afterlife or Hereafter in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome takes place in an area often referred to as the Underworld or Hades (although sometimes the location is described as a distant portion of the earth):

  • the Underworld, because it is in the sunless regions under the earth, or
  • Hades' realm (or Hades) because the Underworld was Hades' third of the cosmos, just as the sea was the god Poseidon's (Neptune, to the Romans) and the sky, the god Zeus' (Jupiter, to the Romans). Hades is sometimes referred to euphemistically as Pluto, which refers to his wealth, but the Lord of the Underworld had little in the way of a following.

Underworld Myths

Perhaps the most familiar story about the Underworld is that of Hades' taking an unwilling young goddess Persephone below the earth to live with him as his queen. While Persephone was allowed back to the land of the living, because she had eaten (pomegranate seeds) while with Hades, she had to return to Hades every year. Other stories include Theseus' being trapped on a throne in the Underworld and various heroic voyages to rescue people down below.

Nekuia

Several myths involve a voyage to the Underworld (nekuia*) to obtain information. These voyages are made by a living hero, usually, the son of a god, but in one case a fully mortal woman. Because of the details of these trips, even at such a great remove both in time and space, we know some details of ancient Greek visions of Hades' realm.

For instance, access to the Underworld is somewhere in the west. We also have a literary idea of whom one might meet at the end of one's life, should this particular vision of the after-death happen to be valid.

"Life" in the Underworld - A Shadowy Existence

Not Really Heaven or Hell

The Underworld is not entirely unlike Heaven/Hell, but it's not the same, either. The Underworld has the glorious area known as the Elysian Fields, which is similar to Heaven. Some Romans tried to make the area around the burial site of prominent wealthy citizens resemble the Elysian Fields ["Burial Customs of the Romans," by John L. Heller; The Classical Weekly (1932), pp.193-197].

The Underworld has the dark or murky, torturous area known as Tartarus, a pit beneath the earth, corresponding with Hell and also the home of Night (Nyx), according to Hesiod. The Underworld has special areas for various types of deaths and contains the Plain of Asphodel, which is the joyless realm of ghosts.

This last is the main area for the souls of the dead in the Underworld -- neither torturous nor pleasant, but worse than life.

Like the Christian Judgment Day and the ancient Egyptian system, which uses scales to weigh the soul to judge one's fate, which could be an afterlife better than the earthly one or an eternal end in the jaws of Ammit, the ancient Greek Underworld employs 3 (formerly mortal) judges.

House of Hades and Hades' Realm Helpers

Hades, who is not the god of death, but of the dead, is Lord of the Underworld. He doesn't manage the limitless Underworld denizens on his own but has many helpers. Some led their earthly lives as mortals -- specifically, those selected as judges; others are gods.

  • Hades sits on the Underworld throne, in his own "House of Hades", beside his wife, the queen of Hades' realm, Persephone.
  • Near them is Persephone's assistant, a powerful goddess in her own right, Hecate.
  • One of the attributes of the messenger and commerce god Hermes -- that of Hermes Psychopomp -- puts Hermes in contact with the Underworld on a regular basis.
  • Personifications of various sorts reside in the Underworld and some of the creatures of death and the Afterlife appear to be on the periphery.
  • Thus the boatman, Charon, who ferries the souls of the deceased across, might not actually be described as inhabiting the Underworld, but the area around it.
  • I mention this because people argue over similar matters -- like whether Hercules went all the way to the Underworld when he rescued Alcestis from Death (Thanatos). For non-academic purposes, whatever the shady area in which Thanatos looms may be considered part of the Underworld complex.

Next: Read about the 10 Main Gods and Goddesses of the Greek Underworld.

*You may see the word katabasis instead of nekuia. Katabasis refers to a descent and can refer to the walk down to the Underworld.

Which Is Your Favorite Underworld Myth?

Hades is Lord of the Underworld, but he doesn't manage the Underworld's limitless denizens on his own. Hades has many helpers. Here are 10 of the most important gods and goddesses of the Underworld:

  1. Hades
    - Lord of the Underworld. Combined with Plutus (Pluto) lord of wealth. Although there is another god who is official god of death, sometimes Hades is considered to be Death.

    Parents: Cronus and Rhea

  1. Persephone
    - (Kore) Wife of Hades and queen of the Underworld.

    Parents: Zeus and Demeter or Zeus and Styx

  2. Hecate
    - A mysterious nature goddess associated with sorcery and witchcraft, who went with Demeter to the Underworld to fetch Persephone, but then stayed to assist Persephone.

    Parents: Perses (and Asteria) or Zeus and Asteria (a second-generation Titan) or Nyx (Night) or Aristaios or Demeter (see Theoi Hecate)

  3. Erinyes
    - (Furies) The Erinyes are goddesses of vengeance who pursue their victims even after death. Euripides lists 3. These are Allecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera.

    Parents: Gaia and the blood from the castrated Uranus or Nyx (Night) or Darkness or Hades (and Persephone) or Poine (see Theoi Erinyes)

  4. Charon
    - The son of Erebus (also a region of the Underworld in which both the Elysian Fields and the Plain of Asphodel are found) and the Styx, Charon is the ferryman of the dead who takes an obol from the mouth of each dead person for each soul he ferries over to the Underworld.

    Parents: Erebus and Nyx

    Also note the Etruscan god Charun

  1. Thanatos
    - 'Death' [Latin: Mors]. A son of Night, Thanatos is the brother of Sleep (Somnus or Hypnos) who along with the gods of dreams seem to inhabit the Underworld.

    Parents: Erebus (and Nyx)

  2. Hermes
    - A conductor of dreams and a chthonian god, Hermes Psychopompous herds the dead towards the Underworld. He is shown in art conveying the dead to Charon.

    Parents: Zeus (and Maia) or Dionysus and Aphrodite

  1. Judges - Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus.
    Rhadamanthus and Minos were brothers. Both Rhadamanthus and Aeacus were renowned for their justice. Minos gave laws to Crete. They were rewarded for their endeavors with the position of judge in the Underworld. Aeacus holds the keys to Hades.

    Parents: Aeacus: Zeus and Aegina; Rhadamanthus and Minos: Zeus and Europa

  2. Styx
    - Styx lives at the entrance to Hades. Styx is also the river that flows around the Underworld. Her name is taken only for the most solemn oaths.

    Parents: Oceanus (and Tethys) or Erebus and Nyx

  3. Cerberus
    - I hesitate to include him because he is, after all, a dog, and not a humanoid creature of the Underworld, but his parentage is similar to others listed here. Cerberus was the serpent-tailed 3- or 50-headed hell-hound Hercules was told to bring up to the land of the living as part of his labors. The task of Cerberus was to guard the gates of Hades' realm to make sure no ghosts escaped.

    Parents: Typhon and Echidna

Which Is Your Favorite Underworld Myth?

 

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Gill, N.S. "Greek Underworld." ThoughtCo, Jun. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-ancient-greek-underworld-118692. Gill, N.S. (2017, June 16). Greek Underworld. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ancient-greek-underworld-118692 Gill, N.S. "Greek Underworld." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ancient-greek-underworld-118692 (accessed September 26, 2017).