Everything You Need To Know About the Underworld in Greek Mythology
Where do we go after death? A deeply religious ancient Greek’s response to that question would most likely have been: to Hades or the Underworld. What did the Underworld in ancient Greece mean?
Worldhistoryedu.com examines the fascinating origin story, meaning and myths about the ancient Greek Underworld, a place where all dead go.
Origin Story and appearance
The Underworld in ancient Greece referred to a dark and gloomy place anyone who died went to. It was considered an Afterlife or Hereafter by the ancient Greeks. Some named it “Hades”, a reference to the ancient Greek god Hades. The Olympian god Hades, a dark and morbid individual, was revered (perhaps feared) as the lord of the Underworld realm. He was seen as the collector of souls. Hence it was commonly believed that after one dies he or she goes to Hades, i.e. the Underworld.
The Underworld in Greek mythology had an appearance of pitch black or sunless realm. Many versions of the myth stated that the underworld laid beneath the earth, hence its dark appearance.
The realm of the Underworld was solely associated with Hades because it was one of three realms that three major Olympian gods – Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades – shared amongst themselves after defeating the titans. Those realms (cosmos) were the air/sky, water/ocean and the underworld (hell).
It is unclear how the brothers decided to split the cosmos among themselves. According to some myths, the brothers drew straws, and Hades ended up drawing the Underworld realm. Other ancient Greek myths claim that Hades was in fact tricked by Zeus and Poseidon into choosing the Underworld. Regardless, Hades, the oldest of the three brothers, ended up becoming the lord of the Underworld. Zeus and Poseidon became lords of the sky and the sea respectively.
Over the centuries, the Underworld picked up a bad reputation because of it association with death. However, upon critical look, the place was far from being a gloomy place full of torment. The ancient Greeks believed that the Underworld possessed the largest amount of valuable riches in comparison to the two other realms – sky and oceans. For example, some myths noted that Hades’ palaces in the Underworld were far more spectacular than the ones on Mount Olympus (the heavenly abode of the Olympians).
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Was the Underworld hell?
In the eyes of the ancient Greeks, the Underworld was not the equivalent of hell in Judo-Christianity. It was neither a heaven-like place. It was more or less like a blend between hell and heaven.
The peaceful and serene places in the Underworld were called the Elysian Fields (Elysium in Roman mythology), perhaps this is what comes close to the Judo-Christian Heaven. However, there was a place in the Underworld that had fire, chaos and torment. That place was called Tartarus – a pitch black, burning pit. Tartarus was the place where the Olympians (led by Zeus) chained the Titans to spend eternity. Tarturus is also the place many ancient Greeks believed housed those who inflicted pain and suffering on others while alive. Therefore, from this angle one could say that Tarturus would be the equivalent of hell in Judo-Christian beliefs.
Another interesting way to look at the Underworld is from the perspective of where the sun went to in the night. According to ancient Greek myths, the Underworld was the “Home of the Night”. This notion or belief of the sun (or sun deity) spending the night in the Underworld appears in other ancient religions as well. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the sun god Re (Ra/Amun) drove his sun barge through the Underworld every night, only to emerge from the realm and brighten up the whole world.
Read more about Ra, the Egyptian sun deity and creator god.
Some ancient Greek myths state that the Underworld had several other realms, in addition to Tarturus and the Elysian Fields. For example, there was a place called the “joyless realm of ghosts”. The realm was found in between Tarturus and Heaven. The best way to describe it will be like purgatory, a place neither painful nor happy, i.e. a mysterious place of confusion.
Journey to the Greek Underworld
The Greeks believed that the souls of the dead first made contact with a the god Hermes. The god was one of the few people that had the ability to move to and from Underworld. Shortly after receiving the soul, Hermes handed the soul to Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld. And if one could pay the fee for the boat ride, Charon would ferry the soul across the River Acheron. This is why the Greeks always placed a coin upon the deceased person’s eye or in between their lips.
Across the River Acheron lay the three-headed guard dog of Hades – Cerberus – who allowed only the dead enter the gates of the Underworld. The souls would then approach the hall of the Three Judges of the Underworld for judgement to be pronounced. The hall was sometimes called the Palace of Hades.
The Three judges in the Underworld
Basically, the three realms in the ancient Greek Underworld were the Elysian Fields (heaven), Tarturus (hell) and the joyless realm of ghosts. So where did one go after death? The simple answer is: it depends. It depends on the verdict that is pronounced by the three judges in the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus.
The three judges were mortals that had been elevated to the status of demigods. In some myths, it was believed that they were the sons of the god Zeus. The trio established law and order while living, and so when they died, they were elevated to serve as the three judges in the Underworld.
Aecus, the judge of shades from Europe, was the guardian of Hades. Rhadamanthys – the judge of shades from Asia – guarded the realm of Elysium. Finally, Minos was seen as the chief judge, he had the final say on which realm the souls of the dead go to.
If the judges deem a soul righteous, they sent it to the Elysian Fields. However, an unrighteous soul was sent to depths of Tartarus.
Persephone in the Underworld
Among the most famous myths about the Underworld was the story about how Hades abducted the beautiful and young goddess Persephone. Persephone was the daughter of the goddess Demeter (goddess of the grain and earth) and Zeus.
In the myth about Hades and his kidnapped bride (i.e. queen of the Underworld), Persephone, Demeter (Persephone’s mother) typically suffers from severe depression and sadness whenever her daughter Persephone was away. As a result, Demeter the goddess of the grain and earth neglected her duties and wandered the world in search of her daughter. The Greeks believed that whenever that happens, the world got plunged into a severe famine and hunger, crops and grains stopped growing.
The famine endured until Persephone returned to her mother Demeter. It was believed that only Demeter had the knowledge of agriculture. Thus, with the exclusion of Demeter, no one else could make the grains grow.
Fearing that the entire race of mankind could starve to death, the king of the gods Zeus decided to act. He dispatched the messenger of the gods, Hermes to the Underworld to bring back Persephone. The Olympians struck a deal with Hades. For three whole months Persephone will be bound to Hades in the Underworld. And the three months that follow after the first three, Persephone was allowed to spend it on earth with her mother Demeter.
The first three months that Persephone spends with Hades became the winter period, a time when every plant wilted and nothing grew. The other three months she spent in the land of the living with Demeter came to be known as spring – a time when everything grew and blossomed.
Other Interesting Myths about the Underworld in Greek Mythology
- Hades, the lord of the Underworld, was also called “The Invisible”. The name is in reference to the hidden nature of the Underworld. Ancient Greeks believed that the Underworld was a place hidden from human beings, and that only the dead could get there.
- The Underworld was also a place of no return. Very few gods (if any at all) could enter the Underworld and make it back to the land of the living. The two known names to have accomplished that feat were the god Hermes and the demigod Heracles (i.e. Hercules).
- Owing to the fact that he was the boss of the Underworld, Hades had the ability to summon any human to Underworld. Additionally, only Hades could let them leave.
- Aside from Hades and Persephone, the Underworld sometimes served as the home of Greek deities and characters such as Hecate (goddess of sorcery and witchcraft), Thanatos (the god of death), Charon (the ferryman of the Underworld), Cerberus (the three-headed hound of Hades), and Styx (the goddess of the river around Hades).