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Greek Mythology: Hades and the Underworld

Description of Greek Mythology's Underworld and its major stories.

Michael Schneider

on 22 February 2012

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Transcript of Greek Mythology: Hades and the Underworld

Hades and the Underworld
Before we get started, lets clear up a "myth" or two of our own...
Hades was the ancient Greeks' idea of the modern Christians' "Hell," a dark and fiery place ruled over by a wicked sorcerer comparable to the Devil or "Grim Reaper."
Hades was not a place at all, but rather the god and ruler of the Underworld, the realm beneath the Earth that the ancient Greeks believed was the final destination of ALL mortal souls. In fact, the anthropomorphization of "death," similar to the modern Grim Reaper, was a spector named "Thanatos," a character entirely separate from Hades in Greek Mythology.
Hades and Cereberus

Famous Residents
Hades was the ancient Greek god of the Underworld. The second of three brothers born from Titans Cronus and Rhea (Poseidon was the oldest, and Zeus the youngest), Hades ruled the Underworld absolute authority. Although modern connotations of death are associated with evil, Greek myths portrayed Hades in a more positive light. He maintained a delicate balance in both the Cosmos and his own kingdom, rewarding those who obeyed his rule and sternly punishing those who defied it (most especially those who tried to leave the Underworld). It is also said that he favored those whose earthly exploits increased his kingdom. He was often depicted with his guard dog, a three-headed beast called Cerberus, at his side (see right).
Persephone was daughter of Demeter, goddess of the Harvest and the second oldest of the original Olympian gods. Persephone is Hades' wife and queen of the Underworld, though brought there against her will. In the story referred to as "The Rape of Persephone," it is actually said that Zeus advised the love-struck Hades to abduct Persephone because her mother would likely not allow her to go to the Underworld with him. One day, Hades emerged from a crack in the Earth and stole her away. Demeter became so distraught that a harsh winter fell upon the planet and the crops died. Feeling pressure from the prayers of the hungry, Zeus forced Hades to return Persephone to her mother and Hades agreed, only if she had not eaten any food while in the Underworld. He had tricked her into eating four pomegranate seeds and it was ruled that she would have to spend four months per year in the Underworld. Each year when she is taken from her mother, winter returns and the crops die off.
Charon is the boatman tasked with the job of transporting souls across the river Acheron (Sorrow) into the Underworld. His existence in myth explains the Greeks' funeral rite of placing coins on the eyes of the departed. These coins allow the dead to pay Charon to ferry them across the river into the Underworld. It is believed that those souls who are denied proper burial are unable to pay Charon and are forced to wander aimlessly in the void between life and death for all eternity.
Acheron (Sorrow)
Cocytus (Wailing)
Phlegethon (Fire)
Lethe (Forgetfullness)
Styx (Hate)

Geography of the Underworld: The Five Rivers
The River Acheron
In Greek mythology, Acheron was the river the souls crossed with Charon to reach the Underworld. Some prophets wrote that it was not a river of punishment, but rather one of healing where sins could be purged from a person's soul.
Artistic representation of Charon and the ferry on the river Acheron
Phlegethon was the River of Flames in Greek mythology, and was believed to have coiled the Earth and flowed into the depths of Tartarus.
Lethe was the River of Oblivion and was thought to have bordered Elysium, the final resting place of virtuous mortal souls and those favored by the Gods. It is also believed that the shades of the dead would drink the waters of Lethe in order to "forget" their Earthly lives.
The River of Hate is perhaps the most famous river of the Greek Underworld. Many modern interpretations believe this was the river Charon ferried, though the earliest sources show it was actually Acheron. The gods swore oaths to the River Styx. Some believe that the five rivers of the Underworld converged at the center and formed a great marsh, called "The Styx." It is was also believed that mortals who bathed in this river would become invincible, and it is believed this is how the great hero Achilles became invincible, except for his heels, which his mother held when she dipped him in.
The Asphodel Meadows

Geography of the Underworld:
The Three Realms

The Asphodel Fields were the final resting place of the majority of dead souls, those who lived lives of near equal good and evil. It was described as a place where these souls routinely performed their daily tasks with no emotional response to their surroundings. Some also believed that these were the souls who drank from the river Lethe in order to forget their earthly identities.
The Asphodel Fields
Originally referred to by Hesiod as "The Isles of the Blessed," Elysium was a paradise in the Underworld reserved for those souls who were righteous, heroic or chosen by the gods for various reasons. The contrast in population to that of the Asphodel Fields seemed to indicate the Greek's favoritism for actionary conduct rather than passivity. Those people who made some kind of significant impact during their lives could likely look forward to a more enjoyable afterlife, as opposed to those who did not take action and therefore had little impact on those around them.
The deep and dark abyss beneath the Underworld was known as Tartarus and the Greeks' believed that those souls who deserved punishment after their judgment were sent here. It was a dark and gloomy place reserved for the fallen gods, monsters and most notorious of human sinners.

(IN)Famous Residents
King Sisyphys was one of the most notorius of mortals. His first indiscretion was killing travelers and visitors who came to his home, violating the Greeks' strong belief in hospitality. He later seduced his niece in order to take the throne from his older brother and reported some of Zeus' sexual conquests with mortals to the gods.
When he died, Zeus commanded Thanatos chain him to a rock in the Underworld for all eternity, but he tricked Thanatos by asking him how the chains worked. When Thanatos demonstrated, Sisyphus chained Thanatos to the rock and escaped the Underworld, boasting that he had outsmarted death and was therefore more clever than Zeus. Thanatos' imprisonment also prevented mortals from dying and overcrowded the Earth. Eventually, Ares freed Thanatos and returned Sisyphus to the Underworld. However, Sisyphus convinced Persephone to send him back to Earth to scold his wife for not burying him properly and refused to return to the Underworld until the god Hermes captured him and returned him.
Upon his third return to the Underworld, Zeus ordered Sisyphus receive a specially designed punishment....
King Sisyphus
He was ordered to push a giant boulder up a steep hill. This task required enormous effort and took days and days. However, each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill, the boulder slipped from his grasp and rolled back down to the bottom, at which point Sisyphus had to go back down and start over.
Ixion was the king of one of the most ancient tribes in Thessaly. He killed his father-in-law, committing the first kin-related murder. The other kings of Greece denied Ixion the cleansing of his sins. Zeus took pity on Ixion and invited him to Mount Olympus to dine with the gods.
However, during the feast, Ixion began trying to seduce Hera, Zeus' wife, until Zeus ordered him to stop. After supper, Zeus created a clone of Hera to test Ixion. He made love to her and was banished from Olympus.
Ixion was bound to a flaming wheel that spun through the empty abyss in Tartarus for all eternity.
King Tantalus was infamous for committing the first human sacrifice when he was invited to dine with the gods on Mount Olympus and boiled his son Pelops to serve to the gods in their stew. They became outraged when they realized what he had done and ordered him leave Olympus. However, before he left, he stole the sacred nectar and ambrosia, delicacies reserved only for the gods, and brought them back to man, telling man of their secrets.
Tantalus' punishment is perhaps one of the most well-known in Greek myth...
He was forced to stand in a pool of water deep enough that only his head remained above the surface. Hanging just above him was a beautiful fruit tree from which grapes and other delicious fruits grew. However, whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches rose just out of his grasp. Further, whenever he dipped his head to get a drink from the crystal clear water, it receded before he could get any, only to return as soon as he stood back up.
Hades' famous "best friend," Cerberus was a three-headed dog that guarded the main gate at the Underworld's entrance. A common interpretation is that the three heads represent the past, present and future, and that each of them has a taste for only live meat. Thus, dead souls can pass Cerberus and freely enter the Underworld; nobody can leave, however.
Artistic Representations of the Underworld
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