Ancient Greek Ideas about Death, the Afterlife, Hades and the Soul

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According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The ancient Greek conception of the afterlife and the ceremonies associated with burial were already well established by the sixth century B.C. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the Underworld, deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the "shades" of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld (Odyssey, 11.489–91).” [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003,]

The Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. On the Greek notion of the psyche, or what survives after the death of the human body, John Adams of CSUN wrote: “ The Greeks do NOT agree as to its essence or its 'theology'. Some believe it is immortal, others not. All appear to believe that it is physical, not immaterial. Some believe it is a 'divine spark', others merely a constituent part of life ('breath of life'). Some believe in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), others that the psyche evaporates or dissipates shortly after death.” [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

Gods associated with death and afterlife include: 1) Hermes Psychopompos, a manifestation of Hermes, and his caduceus; and 2) Thanatos, offspring of Night (Nyx, Nox), brother of Hypnos (Sleep). But he is sometimes replaced by the Furies (Erinyes), who were produced from the blood of Ouranos falling upon Ge. The Furies specialize in pursuing murderers, especially patricides and matricides (see Aeschylus' play, The Eumenides). Thanatos is a character in Euripides' play Alcestis, where he wrestles with Heracles at the grave for the soul of Alcestis. ++

Around the six century B.C. the Orphic Greeks developed the mythology of the judgment which had been popular among the ancient Egyptians centuries before. Their Hades was governed by Pluto and Prosperpin and presided over by the judges Minos, Aeacus and Rhamadmanthis, the executioners and the Erineyes (See Below). Tartarus was a high-walled prison.

The early Jewish concept of Sheol and the later Christian concept of Heaven and Hell were partly based on the Greco-Roman belief of Hades. In the 4th century B.C., the Greeks thought the Blessed went to paradise-like Elysian Field. One of the first people to suggest the after death the soul was freed from the flesh and there was a judgement in which the Blessed were selected for the Elysian Fields was Plato.

The concept of Hades is closely associated with the myth of Orpheus. See Orpheus and Eurydice and Demeter and Persephone Under Myths.

Books: Jan Bremmer, “The Early Greek Concept of the Soul” (Princeton 1983); D. Kurtz & J. Boardman, “Greek Burial Customs” (Cornell 1978); Robert Garland, “The Greek Way of Death” (Cornell 1985).

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Ancient Greek Ideas About the Afterlife and the Soul

The Greek concept of the soul changed over time. In the early days there were several souls, each with a different name and function, often residing in a particular part of the body. Thymos, for example resided in the chest and encompassed emotions, courage, fear and grief. Noos was associated with the mind and intellectual activity. It too was located in the chest.

The most important soul was the psyche. It was a breathy nebulous, spiritual soul that left the body when a person died. The word “psyche” comes from the Greek word meaning “to breath.” The Greek believed that the psyche of everyone went to Hades after they died. In the early days the psyche was portrayed as a kind of weak, moribund ghost. Later on vases it was depicted as a small winged figure.

Some myths such as Persephone and Demeter describe a kind of reincarnation. Some of the philosophers, notably the Pythagoreans, talked about the transmigration of souls (See Pythagoreans Under Philosophy). Other philosophers saw the psyche as a kind of supreme force that was connected to forces that ruled the universe.

Plato developed the concept of an immortal soul that would shape concepts of death and afterlife in Western philosophy. His concept of the soul was connected with his view of higher order of reality beyond that in the perceived world. His concept of death was similar to that of reincarnation. After death, a soul enriched by knowledge and notions of good, beauty and justice, Plato theorized, rose to higher planes in the universe. For most mortals though there was a judgment, some rewards and punishments, and then rebirth centuries later on earth.

In “ Phaedrus” , Plato wrote: for “the soul of a sincere lover of wisdom, or of one who has made philosophy his favorite...these, in the third period of a thousand years, if they have chosen this [philosopher’s] life thrice in succession, they thereupon depart, with their wings restored in the three thousandth year. Others are tried, some are sentenced to places of punishment beneath the Earth...others to some region in the thousandth year they choose their next life.”

By the A.D. 3rd, century the neo-Platonist, like early Christians, believed the soul was a "fiery breath" that tended or rise towards heaven but became damp and heavy in the Earth’s atmosphere and was further weighted down by passions until it was brought down to earth. Many ordinary people believed in idea of the Islands of the Blest, a heaven with plentiful supplies of food and wine.

Hades, the Ancient Greek Underworld

Perserpone with Hades
Hades was both the name of the Greek Underworld and the god that presided over it. After usurping the throne Zeus repelled attacks by giants and conspiracies by other gods. After the dethronement of the Titans a lottery with himself and his brothers Poseidon and Hades was held to decided who would occupy the heavens, the sea and the Underworld . Zeus won. He chose the heavens while Poseidon and Hades were awarded the sea and the Underworld respectively. The word “Hades” came from the Greek “ term a des” , meaning “the unseen” or concealed. It inhabitants were known as ‘shades.”

As a place Hades was a depressing Underworld where people went after they died. It wasn’t hell. It wasn’t a place of punishment for the wicked. It was more like purgatory. It was a place everyone went. No one received extreme forms of punishments other than famous mythological figures like Tantalus, Ixion and Tityos. Tantalus was a friend of Zeus who betrayed him and was condemned to the Underworld, where he sat for eternity next to a pool of water and fruit trees but was unable to drink or eat.

House of Hades was the official name for the Ancient Greek underworld and for the Palace of Hades. The Palace of Hades is where Hades, Persephone, the Furies, and others live. It was visited by Heracles, Orpheus, Theseus and Perithoos while they were alive during their heroic adventures. It is the goal of the Orphic initiate. The entrances to the 'House of Hades' were: 1) Taenarum at the southern tip of the Peloponnesus, in Spartan territory, used by Hercules and Orpheus; 2) Alcyonian Lake, near Lerna in Argos; cf the Hydra of Lerna; and 3) Lake Avernus, in Italy, near Pozzuoli on the north shore of the Bay of Naples, [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

Rivers of the Underworld: 1) Styx: daughter of Oceanus and Tethys; married to Titan Pallas; children: Zelus (‘Zeal'), Nike (‘Victory'), Kratos (‘Strength'), Bia (‘Force') The inviolable oaths which the gods take are sworn by the River Styx (punishment for violation: one year in a coma, nine years in exile) 2) Lethe: (‘Forgetfulness') is very important in Pythagorean doctrines, which believes in the transmigration of souls; drinking the water must be avoided by Orphics, lest they forget their real divine nature and the secret words by which they can reach Persephone. 3) Phlegethon: (‘River of Flames'). 4) Cocytus (‘Wailing'). Charon, the Ferryman, was stationed at the River Styx. Each spirit had to pay him a coin for transportation across the river to the shores of the Fields of Asphodel. The unburied were not allowed to cross.++

Gates of Hades: 1) Entry gates: open to all, but guarded by a descendant of Poseidon, three-headed dog Cerberus, who keeps souls from trying to leave. (b) Exit gates; only believed in by some (Homer and Vergil) The Gates of Ivory and Horn, through which false (but pretty) dreams and true dreams can ascend to the land of the living.

Homer on the House of Hades

Odysseus in the Underworld
Homer wrote in the Iliad XXIII, 61-81, 99-108: “Nay if even in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear comrade...You sleep, Achilleus; you have forgotten me; but you were not careless of me when I lived, but only in death. Bury me as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades. The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance, and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them, but I wander as I am by Hades’ house of the -wide gates.

“And I call upon you in sorrow, give me your hand; no longer shall I come back from death, once you give me my rite of burning. No longer shall you and I, alive, sit apart from our other beloved companions to make our plans, since the bitter destiny that was given me when I was born has opened its jaws to take me. And you, Achilleus like the gods, have your own destiny; to be killed under the wall of the prospering Trojans.

“So he spoke, and with his own arms reached for him, but could not take him, but the spirit went underground, like vapour, with a thin cry, and Achilleus started awake, staring, and drove his hands together, and spoke, and his words were sorrowful: ‘Oh, wonder! Even in the house of Hades there is left something, a soul and an image, but there is no real heart of life in it. For all night long the phantom of unhappy Patroklos stood over me in lamentation and mourning, and the likeness to him was wonderful, and it told me each thing I should do.”

Plato and Empedocles On the Transmigration of the Soul

On transmigration in the Myth of Er, Plato wrote in “Republic” X, 614: “Let me tell you,” said I, “the tale to Alcinous told that I shall unfold, but the tale of a warrior bold, Er, the son of Armenius, by race a Pamphylian. He once upon a time was slain in battle, and when the corpses were taken up on the tenth day already decayed, was found intact, and having been brought home, at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day as he lay upon the pyre, revived, and after coming to life related what, he said, he had seen in the world beyond.[Source: Plato. Republic, “Plato in Twelve Volumes,” Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969]

“He said that when his soul went forth from his body he journeyed with a great company and that they came to a mysterious region where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and above and over against them in the heaven two others, and that judges were sitting between these, and that after every judgement they bade the righteous journey to the right and upwards through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgement passed upon them, and the unjust to take the road to the left and downward, they too wearing behind signs of all that had befallen them, and that when he himself drew near they told him that he must be the messenger to mankind to tell them of that other world, and they charged him to give ear and to observe everything in the place.

“And so he said that here he saw, by each opening of heaven and earth, the souls departing after judgement had been passed upon them, while, by the other pair of openings, there came up from the one in the earth souls full of squalor and dust, and from the second there came down from heaven a second procession of souls clean and pure and that those which arrived from time to time appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another, and those which came from the earth questioned the others about conditions up yonder, and those from heaven asked how it fared with those others.

Doomed souls

“And they told their stories to one another, the one lamenting and wailing as they recalled how many and how dreadful things they had suffered and seen in their journey beneath the earth1—it lasted a thousand years—while those from heaven related their delights and visions of a beauty beyond words. To tell it all, Glaucon, would take all our time, but the sum, he said, was this. For all the wrongs they had ever done to anyone and all whom they had severally wronged they had paid the penalty in turn tenfold for each, and the measure of this was by periods of a hundred years each, so that on the assumption that this was the length of human life the punishment might be ten times the crime; as for example that if anyone had been the cause of many deaths or had betrayed cities and armies and reduced them to slavery, or had been participant in any other iniquity, they might receive in requital pains tenfold for each of these wrongs, and again if any had done deeds of kindness and been just and holy men they might receive their due reward in the same measure; and other things not worthy of record he said of those who had just been born and lived but a short time; and he had still greater requitals to tell of piety and impiety towards the gods and parents and of self-slaughter. For he said that he stood by when one was questioned by another ‘Where is Ardiaeus the Great?’ Now this Ardiaeos had been tyrant in a certain city of Pamphylia just a thousand years before that time and had put to death his old father and his elder brother, and had done many other unholy deeds, as was the report. So he said that the one questioned replied, ‘He has not come,’ said he, ‘nor will he be likely to come here.

On the transmigration of the soul, Empedocles (c. 490- 430 B.C.) wrote: “I wept and wailed when I saw the unfamiliar place. (Fragment 118)...For already have I once been a boy and a girl, a fish and a bird and a dumb sea fish. (Fragment 117)....There is an oracle of Necessity, ancient decree of the gods, eternal and sealed with broad oaths: whenever one of those demi-gods, whose lot is long-lasting life, has sinfully defiled his dear limbs ' with bloodshed, or following strife has sworn a false oath, thrice ten thousand seasons does he wander far from the blessed, being born throughout that time in the forms of all manner of mortal things and changing one baleful path of life for another. The might of the air pursues him into the sea, the sea spews him forth on to the dry land, the earth casts him into the rays of the burning sun, and the sun into the eddies of air. one takes him from the other, but all alike abhor him. Of these I too am now one, a fugitive from the gods and a wanderer, who put my trust in raving strife. (Fragment 115). [Source: Empedodes texts in “The Presocratic Philosophers”, translated by G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, Cambridge, Eng., 1957]

Plato On the Immortality of the Soul

Plato wrote in “Meno” 81: Socrates: ...I have heard from wise men and women who told of things divine...They were certain priests and priestesses who have studied so as to be able to give a reasoned account of their ministry; and Pindar also and many another poet of heavenly gifts. As to their words, they are these: mark now, if you judge them to be true. They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. [Source: Plato, “Meno,” “Plato in Twelve Volumes,” Vol. 3 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967]

Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld

“Consequently one ought to live all one's life in the utmost holiness.“For from whomsoever Persephone shall accept requital for ancient wrong,1 the souls of these she restores in the ninth year to the upper sun again; from them arise” “glorious kings and men of splendid might and surpassing wisdom, and for all remaining time are they called holy heroes amongst mankind.” Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things.

“For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection. So we must not hearken to that captious argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic [81e] and inquiring. Putting my trust in its truth, I am ready to inquire with you into the nature of virtue.

Journey to Hades and the Dead

The Greeks believed that the soul was weak and lifeless and needed help to get to Hades. For a long time Hermes performed this duty. Sometimes on the journey the souls were harassed by the Furies. There are also stories about the Erinyes---old hags with snakes for hair, dog heads, black bodies, bat wings and bloodshot eyes---attacking people who had committed particularly nasty crimes such as killing their mother or knocking the sun off course. Once in the Underworld the soul was only a memory of itself

The first thing the Dead had to do when they arrived in the Underworld was cross the river Styx. Greeks traditionally put a coin in the mouth of the dead so they could pay the ferryman to get across the river. After making the crossing the good and the bad walked to the Nether World court where their fate was decided in a "Judgement Day" kind of arrangement by all-knowing judges. The bad sent to the left across the river of fire to the torture chambers of Tartarus and the good were taken to the right towards the blissful Elysian fields. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]


Describing Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in Hades in the Odyssey , Home wrote: “I tried to find some way of embracing my poor mother’s ghost. Thrice I sprung towards her and tried to grasp her in my arms, but each time she flitted from my embrace as it were a dream or phantom.” When Odysseus asked his mother why she didn’t try to embrace him she explained: “All the people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together, these perish in the in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flirts away as though it were a dream.”

Only later did the idea of a happy afterlife evolve. At first this was only reserved for great heros like Achilles, Menelaus and Diomedes. And later than this it became a place that members of cults who had special rites could go and later than this, ordinary people if they were good.

Judgment Hall and River of Forgetfulness

The "Judgment Hall' is somewhere near the entry gates. All humans go there but its not specified what is judged and there is no reward or punishment! Some scholars believed to the concept is borrowed from some cult. It is part of Plato's view of the Underworld, and may be based on his Pythagorean experiences in Southern Italy. If that is case, Judgment was NOT part of the average Greek's view of the Underworld, and is a late addition to the mythical tradition. The Judges of the Dead were: 1) Minos (ex-king of Knossos on Crete, father of Phaedra and Ariadne); 2) Aeacus, his brother; and 3) Rhadamanthys, his brother. Judging must have started late in the Age of Heroes, since Minos knew the young Theseus, who belonged to the generation before the Trojan War generation, the generation of Jason and the Argonauts. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

River Lethe (River of 'Forgetfulness'): Spirits were required to drink from this river in order to lose their memories of the world of the living. Spirits in this Alzheimer's-disease-like state can not remember what has been said moments or seconds earlier. The souls live entirely in the ‘present', with no thought of past or future. The image of ‘forgetfulness' in the Orphic Cult is that of ‘a spring on the left of the Halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing'. Here, after memory is erased the deceased become “the Child of Ge and of starry Ouranos...a god instead of a mortal...who noble Persephone, that she may be kind and send me to the seats of the Pure.” ++

Plato on Judgement in the Underworld

Plato wrote in “Republic” X, 617-620: And the spindle turned on the knees of Necessity, and up above on each of the rims of the circles a Siren stood, borne around in its revolution and uttering one sound, one note, and from all the eight there was the concord of a single harmony. And there were another three who sat round about at equal intervals, each one on her throne, the Fates, daughters of Necessity, clad in white vestments with filleted heads, Lachesis, and Clotho, and Atropos, who sang in unison with the music of the Sirens, Lachesis singing the things that were, Clotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be. And Clotho with the touch of her right hand helped to turn the outer circumference of the spindle, pausing from time to time. Atropos with her left hand in like manner helped to turn the inner circles, and Lachesis alternately with either hand lent a hand to each. [Source: Plato. Republic, “Plato in Twelve Volumes,” Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969]

“Now when they arrived they were straight-way bidden to go before Lachesis, and then a certain prophet first marshalled them in orderly intervals, and thereupon took from the lap of Lachesis lots and patterns of lives and went up to a lofty platform and spoke, ‘This is the word of Lachesis, the maiden daughter of Necessity, “Souls that live for a day, 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. 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. “’ So saying, the prophet flung the lots out among them all, and each took up the lot that fell by his side, except himself; him they did not permit.

“And whoever took up a lot saw plainly what number he had drawn. And after this again the prophet placed the patterns of lives before them on the ground, far more numerous than the assembly. They were of every variety, for there were lives of all kinds of animals and all sorts of human lives, for there were tyrannies among them, some uninterrupted till the end and others destroyed midway and issuing in penuries and exiles and beggaries; and there were lives of men of repute for their forms and beauty and bodily strength otherwise and prowess and the high birth and the virtues of their ancestors, and others of ill repute in the same things, and similarly of women. But there was no determination of the quality of soul, because the choice of a different life inevitably determined a different character. But all other things were commingled with one another and with wealth and poverty and sickness and health and the intermediate conditions. —And there, dear Glaucon, it appears, is the supreme hazard for a man.

“And this is the chief reason why it should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after and study this thing —if in any way he may be able to learn of and discover the man who will give him the ability and the knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad, and always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow, and, taking into account all the things of which we have spoken and estimating the effect on the goodness of his life of their conjunction or their severance, to know how beauty commingled with poverty or wealth and combined with what habit of soul operates for good or for evil, and what are the effects of high and low birth and private station and office and strength and weakness and quickness of apprehension and dullness and all similar natural and acquired habits of the soul, when blended and combined with one another, so that with consideration of all these things he will be able to make a reasoned choice between the better and the worse life, with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just. But all other considerations he will dismiss, for we have seen that this is the best choice, both for life and death. And a man must take with him to the house of death an adamantine faith in this, that even there he may be undazzled by riches and similar trumpery, and may not precipitate himself into tyrannies and similar doings and so work many evils past cure and suffer still greater himself, but may know how always to choose in such things the life that is seated in the mean and shun the excess in either direction, both in this world so far as may be and in all the life to come; for this is the greatest happiness for man.

“And at that time also the messenger from that other world reported that the prophet spoke thus: ‘Even for him who comes forward last, if he make his choice wisely and live strenuously, there is reserved an acceptable life, no evil one. Let not the foremost in the choice be heedless nor the last be discouraged.’ When the prophet had thus spoken he said that the drawer of the first lot at once sprang to seize the greatest tyranny, and that in his folly and greed he chose it without sufficient examination, and failed to observe that it involved the fate of eating his own children, and other horrors, and that when he inspected it at leisure he beat his breast and bewailed his choice, not abiding by the forewarning of the prophet. For he did not blame himself for his woes, but fortune and the gods and anything except himself. He was one of those who had come down from heaven, a man who had lived in a well-ordered polity in his former existence, participating in virtue by habit and not by philosophy; and one may perhaps say that a majority of those who were thus caught were of the company that had come from heaven, inasmuch as they were unexercised in suffering. But the most of those who came up from the earth, since they had themselves suffered and seen the sufferings of others, did not make their choice precipitately. For which reason also there was an interchange of good and evil for most of the souls, as well as because of the chances of the lot. Yet if at each return to the life of this world a man loved wisdom sanely, and the lot of his choice did not fall out among the last, we may venture to affirm, from what was reported thence, that not only will he be happy here but that the path of his journey thither and the return to this world will not be underground and rough but smooth and through the heavens. For he said that it was a sight worth seeing to observe how the several souls selected their lives. He said it was a strange, pitiful, and ridiculous spectacle, as the choice was determined for the most part by the habits of their former lives.”

Elysian Fields and Fields of Asphodel

The Fields of Asphodel were a murky gloomy plain, covered with gray plants which produce dead-white or pale yellow flowers with no dramatic scent. Virtually all the dead go to the Fields of Asphodel. The exceptions are heroes, who: 1) very occasionally go to OLYMPUS (Herakles, Asklepios, Ganymede); 2) occasionally (according to Hesiod and Homer) go to the Isles of the Blessed, where the Hesperides guard the golden Apples of Immortality; or 3) are specially assigned to a punishment in Tartarus. In most cases, however, they are sent to the Elysian Fields. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

One view of the Elysian Fields

The Elysian Fields were like “an exclusive suburb” of the Underworld, presided over by Hades and Persephone, but reserved for the Hesiodic “Fourth Generation.” such as the Heroes (offspring of a god and a human). Even so, it was no heaven. It was a gloomy place. Achilles (in Homer's Odyssey, Book 11) said he would rather to be a slave of the poorest dirt farmer in Boeotia than be King of the Underworld. In the Elysian Fields there are athletic contests and heroic banquets, one way it is different from the Fields of Asphodel. ++

Homer: The Mead of Asphodel, Where the Spirits Dwell

Homer wrote in Odyssey XXIV, 1-18: “Meanwhile Cyllenian Hermes called forth the spirits of the wooers. He held in his hands his wand, a fair wand of gold, wherewith he lulls to sleep the eyes of whom he will, while others again he wakens even out of slumber; with this he roused and led the spirits, and they followed gibbering. And as in the innermost recess of a wondrous cave bats flit about gibbering, when one has fallen from off the rock from the chain in which they cling to one another, so these went with him gibbering, and Hermes, the Helper, led them down the dank ways. Past the streams of Oceanus they went, past the rock Leucas, past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, and quickly came to the mead of asphodel, where the spirits dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils. [Source: Homer. “The Odyssey” translated by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.

“Here they found the spirit of Achilles, son of Peleus, and those of Patroclus, of peerless Antilochus, and of Aias, who in comeliness and form was the goodliest of all the Danaans after the peerless son of Peleus. So these were thronging about Achilles, and near to them drew the spirit of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, sorrowing; and round about him others were gathered, the spirits of all those who were slain with him in the house of Aegisthus, and met their fate. And the spirit of the son of Peleus was first to address him, saying: “Son of Atreus, we deemed that thou above all other heroes wast all thy days dear to Zeus, who hurls the thunderbolt, because thou wast lord over many mighty men in the land of the Trojans, where we Achaeans suffered woes. But verily on thee too was deadly doom to come all too early, the doom that not one avoids of those who are born. Ah, would that in the pride of that honor of which thou wast master thou hadst met death and fate in the land of the Trojans. Then would the whole host of the Achaeans have made thee a tomb, and for thy son too wouldst thou have won great glory in days to come; but now, as it seems, it has been decreed that thou shouldst be cut off by a most piteous death.”

“Then the spirit of the son of Atreus answered him: “Fortunate son of Peleus, godlike Achilles, that wast slain in the land of Troy far from Argos, and about thee others fell, the best of the sons of the Trojans and Achaeans, fighting for thy body; and thou in the whirl of dust didst lie mighty in thy mightiness, forgetful of thy horsemanship. We on our part strove the whole day long, nor should we ever have stayed from the fight, had not Zeus stayed us with a storm. But after we had borne thee to the ships from out the fight, we laid thee on a bier, and cleansed thy fair flesh with warm water and with ointment, and many hot tears did the Danaans shed around thee, and they shore their hair.

Another view of the Elysian Fields

"And thy mother came forth from the sea with the immortal sea-nymphs, when she heard the tidings, and a wondrous cry arose over the deep, and thereat trembling laid hold of all the Achaeans. Then would they all have sprung up and rushed to the hollow ships, had not a man, wise in the wisdom of old, stayed them, even Nestor, whose counsel had before appeared the best. He with good intent addressed their assembly, and said: “‘Hold, ye Argives; flee not, Achaean youths. 'Tis his mother who comes here forth from the sea with the immortal sea-nymphs to look upon the face of her dead son.’ “So he spoke, and the great-hearted Achaeans ceased from their flight. Then around thee stood the daughters of the old man of the sea wailing piteously, and they clothed thee about with immortal raiment.

“And the Muses, nine in all, replying to one another with sweet voices, led the dirge. There couldst thou not have seen an Argive but was in tears, so deeply did the clear-toned Muse move their hearts. Thus for seventeen days alike by night and day did we bewail thee, immortal gods and mortal men, and on the eighteenth we gave thee to the fire, and many well-fatted sheep we slew around thee and sleek kine. So thou wast burned in the raiment of the gods and in abundance of unguents and sweet honey; and many Achaean warriors moved in their armour about the pyre, when thou wast burning, both footmen and charioteers, and a great din arose.

"But when the flame of Hephaestus had made an end of thee, in the morning we gathered thy white bones, Achilles, and laid them in unmixed wine and unguents. Thy mother had given a two-handled, golden urn, and said that it was the gift of Dionysus, and the handiwork of famed Hephaestus. In this lie thy white bones, glorious Achilles, and mingled with them the bones of the dead Patroclus, son of Menoetius, but apart lie those of Antilochus, whom thou didst honor above all the rest of thy comrades after the dead Patroclus. And over them we heaped up a great and goodly tomb, we the mighty host of Argive spearmen, on a projecting headland by the broad Hellespont, that it might be seen from far over the sea both by men that now are and that shall be born hereafter.”


Tartarus in the Underworld was a hell-like place but only certain gods, not mortals, were sent there. Greece was so filled with wicked people that philosophers wondered whether the Underworld was large enough to accommodate all the ones who died since the beginning of time. This gave rise to the belief that maybe Tartarus was is in the southern hemisphere not underground, which in turn discouraged explorers from heading south. The Roman historian Pliny pointed out that it was also strange that even though the route to Hades was well-mapped no miners ever came across it. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]


Tartarus: was a prison area below the ‘House of Hades', presided over by Kronos (Zeus' father and predecessor) who is as much a prisoner there as anyone else (In some myths, Kronos is released and returned to Olympos, like Prometheus). The place is guarded by the Hundred-Handed Giants. Humans who are guilty of special crimes against the gods and their code are sent here for eternal punishment. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

Among those condemned to Tartarus were: 1) Tityus: sent at Apollo's request for having molested his mother Leto and stretched out like Prometheus(over nine acres of land; 2) Tantalus: (Odyssey 11. 582-92, son of Zeus and Plouto (a female), king of Sipylus in Lydia, and father of Pelops and Niobe, who was sentenced for cannibalism, stealing secrets of the gods and betraying trust of Zeus; 3) Phlegyas, king of Orchomenos, father of Ixion and Coronis (Apollo's girl-friend), who set fire to a temple of Apollo!; 4) Ixion, who visited Olympus, tried to rape Hera and murdered a guest-friend, Dioneus at his home a (violation of hospitality); 5) Sisyphus: king of Corinth, son of Aeolus (son of Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha), who attacked travellers and betrayed the secrets of the gods. ++

Plato on Tartarus and Traveling Through the Underworld

Plato wrote in “Republic” X, 615-617: “‘For indeed this was one of the dreadful sights we beheld; when we were near the mouth and about to issue forth and all our other sufferings were ended, we suddenly caught sight of him and of others, the most of them, I may say, tyrants. But there were some of private station, of those who had committed great crimes. And when these supposed that at last they were about to go up and out, the mouth would not receive them, but it bellowed when anyone of the incurably wicked or of those who had not completed their punishment tried to come up. And thereupon,’ he said, ‘savage men of fiery aspect who stood by and took note of the voice laid hold on them and bore them away. But Ardiaeus and others they bound hand and foot and head and flung down and flayed them and dragged them by the wayside, carding them on thorns and signifying to those who from time to time passed by for what cause they were borne away, and that they were to be hurled into Tartarus. [Source: Plato. Republic, “Plato in Twelve Volumes,” Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969]

Tartarus's mouth

“And then, though many and manifold dread things had befallen them, this fear exceeded all—lest each one should hear the voice when he tried to go up, and each went up most gladly when it had kept silence. And the judgements and penalties were somewhat after this manner, and the blessings were their counterparts. But when seven days had elapsed for each group in the meadow, they were required to rise up on the eighth and journey on, and they came in four days to a spot whence they discerned, extended from above throughout the heaven and the earth, a straight light like a pillar, most nearly resembling the rainbow, but brighter and purer. To this they came after going forward a day's journey, and they saw there at the middle of the light the extremities of its fastenings stretched from heaven; for this light was the girdle of the heavens like the undergirders of triremes, holding together in like manner the entire revolving vault. And from the extremities was stretched the spindle of Necessity, through which all the orbits turned. Its staff and its hook were made of adamant, and the whorl of these and other kinds was commingled.

And the nature of the whorl was this: Its shape was that of those in our world, but from his description we must conceive it to be as if in one great whorl, hollow and scooped out, there lay enclosed, right through, another like it but smaller, fitting into it as boxes that fit into one another, and in like manner another, a third, and a fourth, and four others, for there were eight of the whorls in all, lying within one another, showing their rims as circles from above and forming the continuous back of a single whorl about the shaft, which was driven home through the middle of the eighth. Now the first and outmost whorl had the broadest circular rim, that of the sixth was second, and third was that of the fourth, and fourth was that of the eighth, fifth that of the seventh, sixth that of the fifth, seventh that of the third, eighth that of the second; and that of the greatest was spangled, that of the seventh brightest, that of the eighth took its color from the seventh, which shone upon it. The colors of the second and fifth were like one another and more yellow than the two former. The third had the whitest color, and the fourth was of a slightly ruddy hue; the sixth was second in whiteness. The staff turned as a whole in a circle with the same movement, but within the whole as it revolved the seven inner circles revolved gently in the opposite direction to the whole, and of these seven the eighth moved most swiftly, and next and together with one another the seventh, sixth and fifth; and third in swiftness, as it appeared to them, moved the fourth with returns upon itself, and fourth the third and fifth the second.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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