In Greek mythology, Tartarus is a deep, dark abyss located beneath the underworld. It is both a deity and a place of punishment for the wicked.
According to the myths, Tartarus is viewed as a vast, gloomy pit surrounded by impenetrable walls and guarded by the titan Cronos (Kronos) and his offspring, the Hekatonkheires.
Tartarus is the place where the most dangerous and notorious beings in Greek mythology are imprisoned, including the Titans who fought against and were defeated by the Olympian gods. After a Zeus-led Olympians defeated the Titans (i.e. the old gods), the latter were cast into the deepest part of the Earth (Gaia), i.e. Tartarus. The myth goes on to say that the likes of Cronos and his his Titan friends and monsters were condemned to spend eternity in Tartarus.
Greek goddess and queen of the Underworld Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attic black-figure amphora, c. 530 BC
It is said to be a realm of torment and suffering, where divine punishments are administered. Some of the famous figures condemned to Tartarus include Sisyphus, who is forced to roll a boulder uphill for eternity, and Ixion, who is bound to a fiery wheel.
Read More: The 12 Titans in Greek Mythology
The punishment in Tartarus is believed to be everlasting and unrelenting, symbolizing the consequences of one’s actions and defiance against the gods. It serves as a deterrent and a reminder of the divine justice in Greek mythology.
Image: Family tree of the Titans in Greek mythology
Read More: Most Famous Residents of Tartarus in Greek Mythology
The emergence of Tartarus
In some accounts of the myth, Tartarus is a primordial being, almost comparable to primordial deities like Nyx (Night), Chaos, Gaia (Earth), Erebus (darkness), Uranus (Sky), and Pontus (a primordial sea-god).
For example, in ancient Greek poet Hesiod’s work “Theogony”, Tartarus is considered a primordial force who emerged after the emergence of Chaos and Gaia. However, Tartarus preceded Eros (the personification of love). Hesiod goes on to say that Tartarus and Gaia brought forth the fierce monster Typhon. However, in a different account the monster was the sole offspring of Hera, the queen of the Olympians.
According to Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus, popularly known as Hyginus, Tartarus was the offspring of the primordial deities Gaia and Aether. The latter is the personification of the bright upper sky in Greek mythology.
Difference between Tartarus and Hades
Tartarus is distinct from the realm of Hades, which is the general term for the underworld where the souls of the dead reside. While Hades encompasses various sections, including the Elysian Fields for the righteous, Tartarus is specifically reserved for the punishment of the wicked.
The purpose of Tartarus
The Fall of the Titans (1596–1598) by Dutch golden age painter Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562-1638)
Tartarus is a dungeon to eternally torment deities and figures that offended the Greek Olympians. It serves as the eternal home of the defeated Greek Titans who were defeated by the Olympians during the Titanomachy (i.e. the Olympian-Titan War).
According to ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his dialogue “Gorgias”, Tartarus is a place where the wicked souls go to after they have been judged.
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A place for the unjust souls
According to Plato, the decision as to which soul gets to be sent to Tartarus is made by a panel of three judges – Rhadamanthus, Aeacus and Minos. Those three determine which soul should be cast into Tartarus and eternal damnation. Minos was responsible for judging the souls from Greece, Rhadamanthus was responsible for Asian souls, and Aeacus passed judgment on souls from Europe.
Plato further states in his dialogue “Gorgias” that the souls of tyrants were almost always sentenced to Tartarus because they committed huge crimes in the land of the living, including temple raiding and murder.
Virgil’s description of Tartarus
In Virgil’s famous the Aeneid, the Latin author states that Tartarus is a very expansive region that is surrounded by three perimeter walls. Virgil claims that beyond those walls lay a river called the Phlegethon, which is one five rivers in the regions of the underworld. The other four rivers are Styx, Lethe, Cocytus, and Acheron.
And within the compound of Tartarus lies a massive castle with a tall pillars and iron turret. According to Virgil, Tisiphone, one of the Erinyes in Greek mythology, stands guard at the iron turret.
How Zeus threw the monster Typhon into Tartarus
Another notable figure that was cast into Tartarus was the monster Typhon. In Greek mythology, Typhon was a monstrous and fearsome creature. He was the offspring of Gaia, the Earth, and Tartarus, the underworld.
Typhon was described as a giant with a hundred serpent heads instead of a human head, fire-breathing nostrils, and wings. He had a body covered in scales and his lower half was composed of coiled snakes.
The monster was known for his immense strength and his ability to cause catastrophic storms and earthquakes. He challenged the authority of the gods and waged a fierce battle against Zeus, the king of the gods.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, despite his power, Typhon was ultimately defeated by Zeus and was cast into the depths of Tartarus, where he remained imprisoned.
Typhon in Greek mythology represents chaos and the untamed forces of nature in Greek mythology.
Tartarus and the one-eyed Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires
According to some accounts of the myths, the Cyclopes were the first to suffer when Cronos came to throne. The ruler of the Titans is said to have cast the Cyclopes into a dark abyss called Tartarus. Cronos also imprisoned the hundred-armed Hecatonchires in Tartarus.
In Greek mythology, the Cyclopes were one-eyed giants known for their strength and craftsmanship. The most famous were Brontes, Steropes, and Arges, who forged weapons for the gods. Zeus freed them from Tartarus to fight the Titans. However, they could also be portrayed as savage and uncivilized, as seen with Polyphemus in the Odyssey. With their towering stature and single eye, the Cyclopes left an indelible mark on Greek mythology, symbolizing power, skill, and the duality of their nature as both revered craftsmen and formidable creatures.
Also known as the Hundred-Handed Ones, the Hecatonchires were monstrous beings with a hundred arms and fifty heads each. They were the children of Uranus (the sky) and Gaia (the earth). The Hecatonchires—named Briareus, Cottus, and Gyges—were known for their incredible strength and ferocity.
Campe – the female monster who stands guard at Tartarus
After Cronos imprisoned the Hecatonchires and the one-eyed Cyclopes, he placed a fierce monster to stand guard at the entrance of Tartarus. The monster was called Campe, also known as Kampe.
Upon receiving the prophecy that he and his band of Olympians would emerge victorious against the Titans, Zeus killed Campe and freed the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes. Zeus hoped to use those former prisoners of Tartarus to help him defeat the Titans.
After the Titans were defeated by the Olympians, Zeus placed the Hecatonchires as guards of Tartarus.
The bronze anvil that fell from heaven to Tartarus
In Hesiod’s Theogony, a mighty bronze anvil fell straight from heaven down to earth. According to the myth, it took nine days for the anvil to reach earth. It then took the anvil another nine days for the anvil to fall from earth to Tartarus. This, according to Hesiod, shows just how deep Tartarus is from the earth and the sky.
The above notion is slightly confirmed by ancient Greek poet Homer. In Homer’s Iliad, the poet claims that Zeus found out that Tartarus is “as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth.
Questions and Answers
Fall of the Titans – Oil on canvas by Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens, 1638.
Who were some of the Titans that were spared imprisonment in Tartarus?
According to the myths, Zeus and his Olympians gods did not cast all the Greek Titans into the abyss of Tartarus. The likes of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Metis were spared. Those three Titans in particular supported the Olympians during their clash with the Titans.
Also the Titan Atlas, who served as Cronos’ second-in-command during the Titanomachy, was sparred from the damning fate of Tartarus. Instead Zeus and the Olympians condemned Atlas to carry the entire heavens on his shoulders. So there he was, standing at the western edge of Gaia (the world/Earth), bound to hold the heavens forever.
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How is Tartarus like?
According to the ancient mythographer Apollodorus, Tartarus is a very “gloomy place in Hades”. In the account, the distance between Tartarus and the earth is the same as the distance between the earth the sky.
Was there any Olympian imprisoned in Tartarus?
In one account of the myth, Apollo, the Greek god of light, music and medicine, was sent to Tartarus. However, Apollo was fortunate not to spend an eternity there as he was freed by his father, Zeus.
What were some of the entrances to Tartarus?
In ancient Greece, it was believed that Tartarus had a number of entrances, including one at the Aornum, the oracle in Thesprotia (a place part of the Epirus region).
The concept of Tartarus has influenced various literary works and continues to be referenced in popular culture as a symbol of deep suffering and punishment.