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Greek underworld

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Hermes Psykhopompos Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2797 n2

Hermes Psykhopompos: sitting on a rock, the god is preparing to lead a dead soul to the Underworld, Attic white-ground lekythos, ca. 450 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 2797).

The Greek underworld was made up of various realms believed to lie beneath the earth or at its farthest reaches.

These include:

  • The great pit of Tartarus, originally the exclusive prison of the old Titan gods, it later came to be the dungeon home of damned souls.
  • The land of the dead ruled by the god Hades, which is variously called the house or domain of Hades (δόμος Ἄϊδος, domos Aïdos),[1] Hades, Erebus, the Asphodel Meadows (where the neutral souls are sent), Stygia and Acheron.
  • The Isles of the Blessed or Elysian Fields ruled by Cronus (According to Pindar in his descriptions), where the great heroes of myth resided after death.
  • The Elysian Fields ruled by Rhadamanthys, where the virtuous dead and initiates in the ancient Mysteries were sent to dwell.

The five rivers of Hades are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) and Styx (the river of hate), which forms the boundary between upper and lower worlds.

The ancient Greek concept of the underworld evolved considerably over time.

The Homeric underworld

The oldest descriptions of the underworld can be found in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The other poets of old epics such as Hesiod describe it similarly. In the Odyssey, the underworld is located beyond the Western horizon. Odysseus, instructed by sorceress Circe to cross the Ocean[2] and assisted by the North Wind, reaches the underworld by ship from Circe's island.[3] Later on, the ghosts of the suitors who have died are herded there by Hermes Psychopompus, the guide of the dead. He herds them through the hollows of the earth, beyond the earth-encircling river Oceanus and the gates of the (setting) Sun to their final resting place in Hades.

The Ferryman

The deceased entered the underworld by crossing the River Acheron or Styx ferried across by Charon (kair'-on), who charged a drachma, a small coin, as a fee. Charon's obol was placed in the mouth of the dead person, a custom described in Greek and Roman literature and confirmed by archaeology, although only a relatively small number of Greek burials contain the coin. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades.

Myths featuring the underworld

Nekyia Staatliche Antikensammlungen 1494

Nekyia: Ajax, Persephone and Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 1494)

The twelfth and last task of Heracles was to retrieve Cerberus from his post and bring him to Eurystheus.

The Argonaut Orpheus, a wonderful musician, lost his soon-to-be wife Eurydice after she was bitten by a snake. He descended to the Underworld and managed to pass Cerberus and Charon by charming them with his kithara (a musical instrument similar to a lyre) to plead Hades and Persephone. Hades felt sorry for him, so he was allowed to have her back, if he reached the living world again without looking over his shoulder. At the last minute because he was unable to hear his wife's footsteps, he turned back. In doing so, he caught his last glimpse of his wife's ghost as she faded back into the Underworld.

In another myth Hades kidnaps Persephone after falling in love with her. She ate seven (among different versions of the myth, the number of pomegranate seeds she ate varies) red pomegranate seeds and was forced to stay in the underworld for the same number of months as the number of seeds eaten.

See also


  1. As at Iliad 3.322, for example.
  2. Homer's Odyssey 10.503
  3. Homer. the Iliad.Trans. Lombardo, Stanley. Indianapolis, USA: Hackett, 2000.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Greek underworld. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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