Hades and Persephone myths and the mysterious river Styx are the usual suspects that come to mind when delving into the Greek Underworld. Alas, there is a large cast of characters including mythical beasts, heaven, hell, and more rivers. According to whichever version one is familiar with, that of; Homer, Plato or Vergil, there are some commonalities in the cast of characters, scenery, and themes. However, Vergil was Roman and this is about the older Greek version, so Homer and Plato will no doubt win out in this introduction.
To begin the introduction we must set the correct tone. The Greek underworld is not the same as Hades. It is often spoken of as Hell. Hades is the top gun, the ultimate ruler, the supreme boss of the underworld. He is the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and to his sisters, Hestia, Hera, and Demeter. They all have their own myths and they all descend from Cronus and Rhea. Zeus and his mates are the most known for their children - the 12 Olympians, like Athena.
Persephone is Hades wife. She was abducted by Hades (from his brother Zeus) to hang out in the earth as the underworld was known. She has quite a moving story herself for those interested in pursuing the tangled Greek Gods romances.
Credit: Jan Brueghel (I) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So, the king (Hades) and his queen (Persephone) are the established underworld rulers. As you can imagine, the underworld is a vast arena with rivers, islands, dead people, and pets. The main pet is Cerberus. The 3 headed vicious looking watchdog who guards the entrance to the underworld. Word has it that a nicely sung lullaby will put him to sleep. I do believe he was ripped off and used in one of the Harry Potter films with a few slight discrepancies. I mention that in case you are having trouble picturing Cerberus.
Of course the underworld is a place for the dead so once you are dead, the trusted herald of Hades, Hermes, who was known above the earth as the Olympian fleet footed messenger, will transport your soul to the inner earth.
There are a few stories about getting to the river Styx and traveling upon it. Well, the Styx means the river of "hate" in the underworld. There are 4 more rivers; the Acheron (of woe), the Lethe (of forgetfulness), the Cocytus (of wailing), and the Phlegethon (of fire). For this introduction we are mainly mentioning the river Styx. It is possible to stop at the overlook before hopping aboard the ferry on the river to take a final oath. Be careful though because vows taken in the name of Styx can never be broken. One travels the river per a ferry steered by Charon, the successful transporter of souls to Hades in the underworld. Needless to say, it is a one way trip, and for those live travelers, a bribe is usually necessary.
Credit: James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Once one has arrived he/she is directed to one of 3 judges - Minos, Rhadamanthys, or Aeacus. Although they are reported to have various duties, they mainly pronounce judgments for the dead. They are all brothers. Minos and Rhadamanthys get more important tasks than Aeacus who gets some menial tasks. Why? I'm not sure. Remember, everyone lies, in stories, myths, legends, and everyday survival.
Plato's version has the the Fates (Moirai), the daughters of Necessity who deal with the newly arrived dead souls, rather than the judges. They are; Lachesis of the past, Clotho of the present, and Atropos of the future. Lachesis measures the thread of a person's life, Clotho spins out the thread of a person's life, and Atropos cuts the thread of a person's life. Busy little Fates indeed.
Okay, so now the layout of the underworld gets more revealing. The judges have decided where the best place for the dead soul goes. Here are the choices.
- Elysian Fields. This is where the VIP's are sent. Considered to be a heavenly plain of a lovely land of bliss that sits on the banks of the River Oceanus, where the sun never sets. Here is the geography digression from Homer and Plato whose descriptions are vague, and defined obscurely. In fact, Plato doesn't describe an Elysian paradise at all. This may best explain the different afterlife versions, ". . . a heaven and hell are clearly depicted for the soul of every mortal; and in addition to the upward and downward paths that must be traversed, special tormentors exist, as does a special place of torment (Tartarus) in which the greatest sinners are placed forever."
- Tartarus. This is the gloomy hellish part of the underworld where tortured souls remain insane, practicing punishment over and over with the same results. For example, Sisyphus (who told a Zeus secret) was seen pushing a huge rock uphill only to have it roll back down before going over the crest. Sisyphus continued to put forth his strength pushing the rock uphill repeating the torture over and over. Not a fun place to be sent to for eternity!
Both Plato's and Vergil's Underworld/afterlife visions convey Orphic concepts. That is, the Orpheus myth of visiting the underworld as written by Ovid. Homer's Odyssey explains how a hero conquered death, experienced the afterlife, and returned to the above earth knowing the truth about life and death. His mom, who he sees in the underworld, explains:
This is the doom of mortals when they die, for no longer do sinews hold bones and flesh together, but the mighty power of blazing fire consumes all, as soon as the life breath leaves our white bones and flesh, and the soul like a dream flutters and flies away.
Plato's Myth of Er has a river of Forgetfulness (Lethe) where souls are rebirthed after dealing with the cosmic view of the universe as meted out by the 3 Fates. His main underworld boss is named Er. A man who died in war and was returned to life after 12 days. Thus he could describe the underworld, like Odysseus.
Many ancient ethics are played out in the underworld and this beginner's guide is meant to stimulate your curiosity and learn more about it.