Myth Man's Greek Mythology


Underworld, the kingdom of the dead, was the realm of Hades and his queen, Persephone. Hades was very disinclined to let his subjects leave and - with very few exceptions - the only creatures who were allowed to freely go in and out were the Erinyes, also known as the Furies. The Underworld is separated from the world above by five rivers:

Acheron - the river of woe

Cocytus - the river of lamentation

Phlegethon - the river of fire

Styx - the river of unbreakable oath by which the gods swear

Lethe - the river of forgetfulness.

According to the Iliad, written by the ancient poet Homer, the Underworld is located beneath the secret places of the earth; in the Odyssey (also written by Homer) the way down there lies over the edge of the world across Ocean. In later poems there are various entrances to it through caves and beside deep lakes.

According to the ancient poet Homer the Underworld is a shadowy place where nothing is real, but rather a soul’s existence there is like a miserable dream. Later poets describe it more and more vividly and it becomes a place where the evil are punished and the good rewarded. Of all the poets, the Roman Virgil tells of the geography of the underworld in greatest detail. Hermes leads the souls down the path to the underworld, to where Acheron pours into Cocytus. There the ancient boatman, Charon, ferries the souls across. Charon only ferries those who can pay for his service, with the money placed on their lips during their funeral. Those who cannot pay are trapped between two worlds and must wait a hundred years before Charon ferries them for free.

Once on the other bank the souls face Cerberus, a three-headed dog with snake and dragon heads for its tail. His job is to guard the gates to the underworld. Cerberus will allow all to go in, but none to leave. Upon its arrival, each soul is brought before three judges: Rhadamanthus, Minos and Aeacus who pass sentence and either send them to eternal torment in a part of the Underworld named after its master, Hades, or to a place of blessedness, the Elysian Fields, sometimes said to not even be located in the Underworld.

Somewhere in the Underworld lies the great palace of Hades (Pluto). Other than saying that it is many-gated and crowded with guests, no writer describes it. Around it are wide wastes, wan and cold, and meadows of asphodel, presumably strange, pallid, ghostly flowers.



Excerpts from Carlos Parada's
Genaeological Guide to Greek Mythology
(Everything you always wanted to know about the Underworld)

After death there is no annihilation in Greek Mythology. The dead are dead because they have a flavorless and unhappy existence in the Underworld. Those who are practically dead but exist and dwell in all happiness in the Isles of the Blest or Elysium, are called Immortals. So life and death are qualities of existence, not lack of it.

Oceanus and Styx.

Between the world of the living and that of the dead there are, it is said, great rivers and dread streams. First, greatest and outermost is Oceanus, which winds about the earth and the sea with nine rings, but is also a subterranean river. The river Styx (river of Hate), which is a primordial figure too (daughter of Oceanus), is a branch of Oceanus and a tenth part of his water is allotted to her. So Styx, which flows out from a rock, is the tenth ring, though some say that Styx itself corrals the souls in the Underworld with nine rings.

The Oath of the Gods.

Styx, daughter of Oceanus, was the first to come to Olympus and, together with her children, supported the gods in their war against the TITANS. For this reason Zeus caused oaths to be sworn by the water of Styx. If any of the gods pours a libation of her water and is forsworn, he/she lies breathless for a year, never tastes Ambrosia and Nectar and lies down spiritless and voiceless. After spending thus one year in sickness he/she is cut off for nine years from the god's councils and feasts and cannot return until the tenth year. Such is the oath of Styx, which could be expressed thus:

"Now let my witness be Earth, and the wide Heaven above, and the down-flowing waters of Styx, which is the greatest and most dread oath for the blessed gods, and your own sacred head, and our own bridal couch, by which I would never dare to forswear myself - that not by my will is Poseidon doing Hector and the Trojans harm and helping their enemies." [Hera to Zeus]

or thus:

"Now let Earth be my witness, with the broad Heaven above, and the down-flowing waters of Styx -the greatest and most solemn oath the blessed gods can take- that I harbor no secret plans to hurt you." [Calypso 3 to Odysseus]

or thus:

"Now hear this, Earth and wide Heaven above, and dropping water of Styx (this is the strongest and most awful oath for the blessed gods), surely Apollo shall have here his fragrant altar and precinct, and you he shall honor above all." [Leto to Delos, the island]

or thus:

"...For -be witness the oath of the gods, the relentless water of Styx- I would have made your son deathless and unaging all his days...but now he can in no way escape death..." [Demeter to Metanira]

or thus:

"And may that Stygian pool whereby gods swear, but which my eyes have never seen, be witness of my promise." [Helius to Phaethon 3]

Other Rivers.

Styx is sometimes considered to be the river the souls must cross to enter the realm of the dead, though at other times it appears that the souls may cross the river Acheron (river of Woe), or embarking here in vessels and navigating its stream, come to the Acherusian Lake. Some say that it is in this lake that the ferryman Charon takes the two obols for the fare. According to some into Acheron flow Pyriphlegethon (river of Fire) and Cocytus (river of Wailing), which is a branch of the Styx. But others say that the river Acheron, turbid with mud, pours all its sand into the stream of Cocytus and the place where all these rivers meet is known as the Stygian marsh.

Still others say that these rivers have no bottom or foundation and that they, coming in and out from Tartarus, oscillate and wave up and down from one side of the earth to the other. The river Acheron, which flows through various desert places, is said to come to the Acherusian Lake, where the souls of most of the dead remain, some for a longer time, some for a shorter, until they are reborn. The river Pyriphlegethon, which is a stream of lava rolling in its torrent clashing rocks, also builds a large lake boiling with water and mud. Pyriphlegethon comes to the edge of the Acherusian lake, but does not mingle with its water and neither does the Styx, which coming close to the Acherusian Lake, passes round in a circle and falls back into Tartarus under the name of Cocytus.

Tartarus, Cosmic Place.

Tartarus is the lowest abyss beneath the earth where all waters originate; all rivers flow into the chasm of Tartarus and flow out of it again. Tartarus is, they say, a gloomy place as far distant from earth as earth is from the sky. For, it is said, a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth: and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth. Still others say that Tartarus yawns deep under the shades, extending down twice as far as the view upward to Heaven. Tartarus and the Underworld are the realm of Erebus, which is pure Darkness.

Tartarus, Place of Punishment.

Tartarus is also a place of punishment. Round it runs a fence of bronze, and night spreads in triple line all about it. Some say that the gates are of iron and the threshold of bronze, and others that there is a threefold wall around it. Around this triple wall flows Pyriphlegethon with its flames and its clashing rocks. The entrance, in which there is an enormous portal has pillars of solid adamant that not even the gods could break. At the top of its tower of Iron sits the Erinye Tisiphone 1, with her bloody robe, and sleepless day and night, guards the entrance.

Tartarus, the Being.

Tartarus is, at the same time, a being capable of intercourse. Tartarus is the father of such monsters as Echidna and Typhon [for the fight of Typhon against heaven see Zeus]. Erebus, the Darkness of the Underworld, possibly existing from the beginning together with Chaos, Nyx (Night) and Tartarus, gave birth, according to some, to the MOERAE, the HESPERIDES, Hypnos, Geras (Old Age), Thanatos (Death) and Styx.

Arrival to Hades.

As men and women die Hermes leads their souls to the Underworld, past the streams of Oceanus, past the White Rock (Leucas), past the Gates of the Sun and the Land of Dreams, until they reach the Asphodel Fields, where the spirits dwell living the flavourless existence of a shadow or phantom. This is not a place of punishment, but there is no pleasure and the mind is confused and oblivious (with the exception of Tiresias).

In the Entrance.

Before the entrance to Hades live Grief and Anxiety, along with Diseases and Old Age (Geras). Also Fear and Hunger and Death and Agony and Hypnos (Sleep), brother of Death, dwell in this place together with Guilty Joys. On an opposite threshold is War, the ERINYES and Eris (Discord). Close to the doors many other beasts dwell: CENTAURS, GORGONS, the Hydra from Lerna, the Chimera, the HARPIES, and others. In the midst of all this an Elm can be seen and False Dreams cling under every leaf.


The dead seem to know the location of Hades less than the living, as several entrances to Hades were known from all times (one of them is in Taenarum, another in Cumae; Odysseus arrived to Hades navigating the stream of Oceanus). The souls descending to Hades carry a coin under the tongue in order to pay Charon, the ferryman who ferries them across the river. Charon may make exceptions or allowances for those visitors carrying a certain Golden Bough. Otherwise is this Charon appallingly filthy, with eyes like jets of fire, a bush of unkempt beard upon his chin, and a dirty cloak hanging from his shoulders. However, although Charon embarks now one group now another, some souls he keeps at distance. These are the unburied: none may be taken across from bank to bank if he had not
received burial.

On the other bank.

Across the river or, as some say guarding the gates of Hades, is Cerberus, the bronze-voiced hound, who eats raw flesh and has fifty heads. Others say that this hound has three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. Cerberus 1 was once caught by Heracles. On another occasion someone eluded his guarding instinct throwing him a cake of honey and wheat infused with sedative drugs. Then several categories of souls appear in this neutral zone or Limbo, which could be the same as the Asphodel Fields. Children are by themselves, and so are those who have been condemned to death on a false charge and those who killed themselves. Next comes the Vale of Mourning where those who were consumed by unhappy love dwell, and in the farthest fields, before the dividing road, are those who were famous in war.

The Dividing Road and the Judges of the Dead.

Some say that the soul receives judgment in the meadow (the Plain of Judgment) at the dividing of the road, whence are the two ways leading, one to the Isles of the Blest (or Elysium), and the other to Tartarus.

Those who pass judgment are Aeacus, former King of Aegina, Minos 2, former King of Crete, and Rhadamanthys, brother of Minos 2. Aeacus, who keeps the keys of Hades, judges those who come from Europe and Rhadamanthys the Asians, but Minos 2 has the privilege of the final decision. However those who suffer a punishment in the Underworld have been condemned by the gods.

Well known characters punished in Tartarus.

Rhadamanthys, who rules in Tartarus, is sometimes said to be the one that, with severe rule, tries and chastises wrongdoers and forces confessions; then Tisiphone 1, who guards the entrance wrapped in a bloodstained robe, pounces upon the guilty and lashes and threatens them holding angry snakes in her left hand. There receive punishment the TITANS, the ALOADS, Salmoneus who mimicked the thunder and lightning of Zeus, Tityus who tried to rape Leto, Ixion and Pirithous who tried to carry off Persephone. Many of these are prevented by the ERINYES to stretch out their hands for the food they see before them. The ERINYES (Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone) are detectors and avengers of crime and wickedness, avenging spirits, goddesses of vengeance, ready to stab fear into the hearts of mortals.

The CYCLOPES and the HECATONCHEIRES were hurled down to Tartarus by both Uranus and Cronos. And when Zeus overcame the TITANS he shut them up there. Campe was in Tartarus the jaileress of the CYCLOPES and the HECATONCHEIRES. Double-shaped, she appeared a woman to the middle of her body, with clusters of poisonous serpents for hair. Her giant form, from the chest to the parting-point of the thighs, was covered with sea-monster's scales. The claws of her hands were curved like a crook-talon sickle and over her shoulders a scorpion coiled upon itself. Campe is no longer in the Underworld because she was destroyed by Zeus. But Eurynomus 3, a demon who eats off all the flesh of the corpses, leaving only the bones, is probably still there.

Crimes punished in Tartarus.

Among those punished in Tartarus are also those who in life hated their own brothers, those who struck their parents, those who loving fraud entangled their clients, those who kept their wealth for themselves without ever sharing (these are the majority), those who killed for adultery, those engaged in treason, those who corrupted the laws and became dictators, those who entered the beds of their daughters, and others who committed numerous crimes which would never cease to fill an unending catalogue; but equally unending are the punishments and retributions inflicted here: rolling huge rocks, whirling round, sitting in the Chair of Oblivion are just a few examples.

Other punishments for the wicked.

The most wicked and the worst criminals are cast into Tartarus, whence they never emerge. Others, who have committed great wrongs but who nevertheless are curable, are thrown into Tartarus where they remain for some time until the waves, either of Cocytus or of Pyriphlegethon cast them out again. They then are carried by the currents to the Acherusian Lake, where they beg to those whom they have wronged to be gracious and let them come out into the lake. If they prevail and their prayers are heard by those who had been outraged by them, they may come out and their ills cease, but if not they return to Tartarus starting all over again until they prevail upon those whom they have wronged. This penalty is imposed upon them by the Judges.

Elysium (Elysian Fields).

There is then a spot where the way forks in two directions, the right-hand leading, under the Palace of Hades, to Elysium, and the left-hand taking down to Tartarus. Elysium is a happy place which has a sun and stars of its own. The souls in Elysium cannot be grasped and are like phantoms and in this they do not differ from those dwelling in the Asphodel Fields. Those who dwell in Elysium exercise upon grassy playing-fields or wrestle friendly on yellow sands; some dance and others sing or chant poems. Orpheus is here and Musaeus, who wrote songs and poems and uttered oracles. Some say several members of the Trojan Royal House dwell here. All these live in groves and make their beds on river-banks and may wander in luminous plains and green valleys.

Reincarnation from Elysium.

According to some in Elysium, which is considered to be ruled by Cronos, live also those who are not yet born. These souls swarm along the banks of the river Lethe (Oblivion). Some say that:

"They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense, drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things." The souls who are destined for reincarnation drink from Lethe's stream and quench their troubles in forgetfulness so that they may return to corporeal existence on earth. This strange desire (some say perverse) for earthly existence appears to be a part of the laws governing the universe. For, according to some, all that exists, heaven as well as earth, the plains as the sea, the moon and the sun and the stars are all sustained by a spirit within, an immanent Mind. And this spirit flows through the whole of the material world making it work and producing all creatures including mankind. Their life-force is celestial fire but they are made out of clay, and thus encased in their dark prison they fail to see the heavenly light and are the victims of fear, depending on stupid desires and grief as well as joy. They grow so accustomed to their bodies and its evils that not even death makes them relinquish those ills that the body is heir to. That is why they are disciplined in the Underworld paying the penalty of old evil, each one finding his own level and suffering his own spirit. Some of them however stay in Elysium, not needing to reincarnate in order to regain original purity, but the majority return to earth with their memories deleted after having drunk from the waters of Lethe.

The account of Er, Messenger from the Afterlife.

According to Er, the son of Armenius, who was killed in battle but woke up when he was laying upon the funeral pyre about to be cremated, he came to the world beyond while he was dead and was allowed to return so that he could be the messenger to mankind to tell them of the Underworld. He speaks about four mouths through which the souls pass, some to damnation and some to salvation, according to their deeds. For each wrong they have done they pay the penalty tenfold for each, measured by periods of a hundred years each, and the same applies for those that are rewarded. And before receiving judgment the souls wait in a meadow, where acquaintances greet and tell their stories to one another, some lamenting and others relating their visions of beauty, depending on the world they had just experienced. After several days, when another cycle is about to begin, each soul selects a new life. Says the Moerae Lachesis (Alotter), attendant of Ananke (Necessity):

"Now is the beginning of another cycle of mortal generation where birth is the beacon of death. No divinity shall cast lots for you, but you shall choose your own deity [daemon, genius]. Let him to whom falls the first lot first select a life to which he shall cleave of necessity. But Virtue has no master over her, and each shall have more or less of her as he honors her or does her despite. The blame is his who chooses: God is blameless.

Some who went there and returned.

Besides the already mentioned Er, Odysseus, Aeneas, Heracles 1, Theseus are among those who descended to Hades while they were still living. None of them was especially pleased with what they witnessed. In particular Achilles, whom Odysseus met in Hades (although some believe that Achilles dwells in the Isles of the Blest), said:

"Do not speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose to serve as the hireling of another, rather than to be lord over the dead that have perished."

More Tartarus:

Tartarus was spawned from the primordial chaos. It was at once both a place deep beneath even the underworld and a personification of the place. So dark and sunless was Tartarus that its gloom had its own personification - Erebus.

It was said that to reach Tartarus an anvil dropped from the surface would fall for nine days. Tartarus was the ultimate place of imprisonment, it was surrounded by a bronze fence with gates of iron; the Hecatoncheires (100-handed ones) were its guards. When Gaea gave birth to several horrible monsters, including the Hecatoncheires and the Cyclopes, Uranus imprisoned them there. When Zeus and his followers defeated the Titans, Zeus also banished most of the Titans to Tartarus.



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