What Were the Elysian Fields in Greek Mythology?

The description of Elysium changed over time.

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The ancient Greeks had their own version of the afterlife: an Underworld ruled by Hades. There, according to the works of Homer, Virgil, and Hesiod bad people are punished while the good and heroic are rewarded. Those who deserve happiness after death find themselves in Elysium or the Elysium Fields; descriptions of this idyllic place changed over time but were always pleasant and pastoral.

The Elysian Fields According to Hesiod

Hesiod lived at about the same time as Homer (8th or 7th century BCE).

In his Works and Days, he wrote of the deserving dead that: "father Zeus the son of Kronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of the earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed along the shore of deep swirling Okeanos (Oceanus), happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honor and glory."

The Elysian Fields According to Homer

According to Homer in his epic poems written around the 8th century BCE, Elysian Fields or Elysium refers to a beautiful meadow in the Underworld where the favored of Zeus enjoy perfect happiness. This was the ultimate paradise a hero could achieve: basically an ancient Greek Heaven. In the Odyssey, Homer tells us that, in Elysium, "men lead an easier life than anywhere else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Oceanus [the giant body of water surrounding the entire world] breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men."

Elysium According to Virgil

By the time of the Roman master poet Vergil (also known as Virgil, born in 70 BCE), the Elysian Fields became more than just a pretty meadow. They were now part of the Underworld as the home of the dead who were judged worthy of divine favor.  In the Aeneid, those blessed dead compose poetry, sing, dance, and tend to their chariots.

As the Sibyl, a prophetess, remarks to the Trojan hero Aeneas in the epic Aeneid when giving him a verbal map of the Underworld, "There to the right, as it runs under the walls of great Dis [a god of the Underworld], is our way to Elysium. Aeneas talks to his father, Anchises, in the Elysian Fields in Book VI of the Aeneid. Anchises, who is enjoying the good retired life of Elysium, says, "Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields."

Vergil wasn't alone in his assessment of Elysium. In his Thebaid, the Roman poet Statius claims that it's the pious who earn the favor of the gods and get to Elysium, while Seneca states that it's only in death that the tragic Trojan King Priam achieved peace, for "now in the peaceful shades of Elysium’s grove he wanders, and happy midst pious souls he seeks for his [murdered son] Hector."