Classic Literature | 1 June 2016Hades: The Afterlife in Greek Mythology Share article facebook twitter google pinterest When you think of Greek mythology, what comes to mind? Is it Zeus, sitting in his palace, hurling lightning bolts from Mount Olympus? Or heroes like Odysseus or Heracles, carving their legend into history through incredible deeds? Maybe it’s fantastic creatures like Pegasus, the cyclops, Medusa, or the Minotaur? But behind all the gods and heroes and monsters lies an intricate weave of stories and myths that the ancient Greeks used to explain and understand the world around them, and many today take the finer details for granted. Take, for example, Hades, the god of the dead and lord of the underworld. While things like the River Styx and Cerberus are well known aspects of his story, there is so much more found in the dark depths of Erebus. In Mythology: Who’s Who in Greek and Roman Mythology author and scholar E. M. Berens gives us a closer look at life after death for the Greeks. Hades, God of the Dead Hades, or Aïdes, was the son of Cronus and Rhea, and the youngest brother of Zeus and Poseidon. He was the ruler of that subterranean region called Erebus, which was inhabited by the shades or spirits of the dead, and also by those dethroned and exiled deities who had been vanquished by Zeus and his allies. Hades, the grim and gloomy monarch of this lower world, was the successor of Erebus, a similar ancient, primeval divinity after whom these realms were called. In many accounts, the underworld was renamed Hades after its newer ruler. The early Greeks regarded Hades as their greatest foe, and Homer tells us that of all the gods, he was the most detested, being the grim robber who stole from people their nearest and dearest, and eventually depriving each of them of their share in terrestrial existence. His name was so feared that it was never mentioned by mortals, who, when they invoked him, struck the earth with their hands, and in sacrificing to him turned away their faces. His sacrifices, which took place at night, consisted of black sheep, and the blood, instead of being sprinkled on the altars or received in vessels, as at other sacrifices, was permitted to run down into a trench, dug for this purpose. The officiating priests wore black robes, and were crowned with cypress. In later times, in consequence of extended intercourse with foreign nations, new ideas became gradually introduced, and Egyptian theories with regard to an afterlife started taking root in Greece. It was then that the poets and philosophers, and more especially the teachers of the Eleusinian Mysteries, begin to inculcate the doctrine of the future reward and punishment of good and bad deeds. Hades, who had hitherto been regarded as the dread enemy of mankind, who delighted in his grim office, and kept the shades imprisoned in his dominions after withdrawing them from the joys of existence, now started receiving them with hospitality and friendship, and Hermes replaced him as the god who transported the shades to Erebus. The god Hades is usually represented as a man of mature years and stern majestic mien, bearing a striking resemblance to his brother Zeus; but the gloomy and inexorable expression on his face contrasts forcibly with that peculiar benignity that so characterizes the countenance of the mighty God of Heaven. He is seated on a throne of ebony, with his queen, the grave and sad Persephone, beside him; and wears a full beard, and long flowing black hair, which hangs straight down over his forehead; in his hand he either bears a two-pronged fork or the keys of the lower world; and at his feet sits Cerberus, his guard dog. Hades is sometimes seen in a chariot of gold, drawn by four black horses, and wearing on his head a helmet made for him by the Cyclops, which rendered the wearer invisible. This helmet he frequently lent to mortals and immortals. The Shades of the Lower World The belief of the people with regard to a future state was, in the Homeric age, a sad and cheerless one. It was believed that when a mortal ceased to exist, his spirit tenanted the shadowy outline of the human form it had quitted. These shadows, or shades as they were called, were driven by Hades into his dominions, where they passed their time, some in brooding over the vicissitudes of fortune that they had experienced on Earth, others in regretting the lost pleasures they had enjoyed in life, but all in a condition of semiconsciousness, from which the intellect could only be roused to full activity by drinking the blood of the sacrifices offered to their shades by living friends, which, for a time, endowed them with their former mental vigor. The only beings supposed to enjoy any happiness in a future state were the heroes, whose acts of daring and deeds of prowess had, during their life, reflected honor on the land of their birth; and even these, according to Homer, pined after their career of earthly activity. He tells us that when Odysseus visited the lower world at the command of Circe, and held communion with the shades of the heroes of the Trojan War, Achilles assured him that he would rather be the poorest day-laborer on Earth than reign supreme over Erebus. The early Greek poets offer but scanty allusions to realms of the shades. Homer appears purposely to envelop them in vagueness and mystery, in order, probably, to heighten the sensation of awe inseparably connected with the lower world. In the Odyssey, he describes the entrance to Erebus as being beyond the furthermost edge of Oceanus, in the far west, where the Cimmerians dwelt, enveloped in eternal mists and darkness. However, the later poets mention various entrances to Erebus, which were for the most part caves and fissures. There was one in the mountain of Taenarum, another in Thesprotia, and a third, the most celebrated of all, in Italy, near the pestiferous Lake Avernus, over which it is said no bird could fly, so noxious were its exhalations. The River Styx In the dominions of Erebus there were four great rivers, three of which had to be crossed by all the shades. These three were Acheron (sorrow), Cocytus (lamentation), and Styx (intense darkness), the sacred stream that flowed nine times round these realms. The shades were ferried over the Styx by the grim, unshaven old boatman Charon, who only took those whose bodies had received funereal rites on Earth, and who had brought with them his indispensable toll, which was usually a small coin, placed under the tongue of a dead person for this purpose. If these conditions had not been fulfilled, the unhappy shades were left behind to wander up and down the banks for a hundred years as restless spirits. On the opposite bank of the Styx was the tribunal of Minos, the supreme judge, before whom all shades had to appear. It was guarded by the terrible dog Cerberus, a monster with three heads, out of whose awful jaws dripped poison. The hair on his heads and back was formed of venomous snakes, and his body terminated in the tail of a dragon. Cereberus lay at full length on the ground—a formidable sentinel who permitted all shades to enter, but none to return. Minos, after hearing full confession of each shade’s actions whilst on Earth, pronounced the sentence of happiness or misery to which their deeds had entitled them. The Elysian Fields If happiness was declared by Minos, shades would be allowed into the Elysian Fields, where the warrior found his horses and arms, the musician his lyre, and the hunter his quiver and bow. After having passed through the court of Minos, these souls proceeded to the golden palace where Hades and Persephone held their royal court, from whom they received a kindly greeting, ere they set out for the Elysian Fields that lay beyond. This blissful region was replete with all that could charm the senses or please the imagination. The air was balmy and fragrant; rippling brooks flowed peacefully through the smiling meadows, which glowed with the varied hues of a thousand flowers; whilst the groves resounded with the joyous songs of birds. The occupations and amusements of these happy shades were of the same nature as those that they had delighted in whilst on Earth. But in a secluded vale of Elysium there flowed a gentle, silent stream, called Lethe (oblivion), whose waters had the effect of dispelling care, and producing utter forgetfulness of former events. According to the Pythagorean doctrine of the transmigration of souls, after the shades had inhabited Elysium for a thousand years, they were destined to animate other bodies on Earth, and before leaving Elysium they drank of the river Lethe, in order that they might enter upon their new career without any remembrance of the past. Tartarus The guilty souls, after leaving the presence of Minos, were conducted to the great judgment-hall of Erebus,2 whose massive walls of made from the legendary rock called adamant were surrounded by the river Phlegethon, the waves of which rolled flames of fire, and lit up, with their lurid glare, these awful realms. In the interior sat the dread judge Rhadamanthus, who declared to each comer the precise torments that awaited him in Tartarus, the land beyond. The wretched sinners were then seized by the Furies, who scourged them with their whips, and dragged them along to the great gate that closed the opening to Tartarus, into whose awful depths they were hurled, to suffer endless torture. Tartarus was a vast and gloomy expanse, as far below Hades as the earth is distant from the skies. There the Titans, fallen from their high estate, dragged out a dreary and monotonous existence. There also were Otus and Ephialtes, the Giant sons of Poseidon, who, with impious hands, had attempted to scale Olympus and dethrone its mighty ruler. Also suffering in Tartarus were Sisyphus, a tyrant who killed travelers with rocks and was condemned to roll incessantly a huge block of stone up a steep hill, that, as soon as it reached the summit, always rolled back again to the plain below; Tityus, an Earth-born Giant who had insulted Hera and was doomed to have two vultures perpetually gnawing his liver; Tantalus, who killed his own son, Pelops, and served him up at one of the banquets to the gods, in order to test their omniscience, and was tortured with an ever-burning thirst that could never be satiated; Ixion, bound to an ever-revolving wheel after making advances on Hera; and the Danaïdes, the fifty daughters of King Danaus of Argos, doomed to fill water vessels full of holes (a never-ending and pointless task) in punishment for killing their husbands. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Explore classic stories of the great Greek and Roman heroes, gods, and monsters. Who’s Who in Classical Mythology is an indispensable guide to all the Greek and Roman mythological characters, from major deities such as Athena and Bacchus, to the lesser-known wood nymphs and centaurs. Also included, of course, are the heroic mortals, figures such as Jason, Aeneas, Helen, Achilles, and Odysseus, all brought to life in a fascinating series of portraits drawn from a wide variety of ancient literary sources. Each entry offers a small window into a timeless mythological world, one filled with epic battles, bizarre metamorphoses, and all sorts of hideous and fantastic monsters. The perfect book for casual browsers and folklore enthusiasts alike, Who’s Who in Classical Mythology offers a rich and readable guide to some of the greatest stories ever told. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.