What is the Underworld?
In mythology, the underworld is a different world where the dead go after death and resides. The underworld is commonly referred to as ‘Hades’, a place of the dead, picking the name after the Greek god of the underworld and dead Hades, brother of the six original Olympians. The underworld is depicted as either at the sea’s outer limits or underneath the earth’s profundities or ends.
It is viewed as the dark counterpart to Mount Olympus‘s brightness, with the realm of the dead relating to the realm of the divine beings. Hades or Gehenna is a domain imperceptible to the living, made exclusively for the dead. In the Christian Bible, Hades was referred to as the ‘common grave of mankind’.
The hades, the underworld, the afterlife or even Hell were names assigned to the world of the dead. A place where dead people suffer for eternity based on their own beliefs.
The Greek underworld, the kingdom of the dead, was ruled by one of the twelve Olympians, Hades or Pluto, by the Romans and his queen Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. This world is often called Hades—after its ruler—and lies beneath the earth’s secret places. The way to it leads over the edge of the world across the ocean.
In some accounts, it was said that various entrances were leading to it through caves and deep lakes. The underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows, where nothing is real, or instead, its reality is beyond any mortals understanding. It’s like a miserable dream, a realm invisible to the living and only made for the dead.
For some, the underworld is more clearly seen as where the wicked are punished, and the righteous rewarded, where there is a torment of one class and the others’ joy is described at length.
The Rivers of the Underworld (Hades)
The path down to hades’ kingdom leads to five infernal rivers, the Acheron, the river of woe—the swampy lake that flows through hades; the Cocytus, river of lamentation; the Phlegethon, river of fire—often referred to the flames of the funeral pyre; the Styx, river of unbreakable oath by which the gods took vows; and the Lethe, river of forgetfulness which brings oblivion to those who drink its water.
It could easily be imagined that the dead would be deprived of their memories by drinking from Lethe. For those who believe in reincarnation, a subsequent sip of Lethe could explain why the souls that have been reborn into earthly bodies don’t remember anything from their previous incarnations. Hence why it was called the river of forgetfulness.
Map of the Underworld
Following on the myth of Odysseus visit to the underworld from the book of Homer, Odyssues was able to create a map of his journey in the underworld. During his journey, he admitted to have seen the souls of some popular ones in the Greek pantheon. These includes, Achilles, Orion, Alcmena, Ajax, and Megara, Heracles‘s wife.
The Permission to Enter the Underworld
For the dead, going to the underworld was a privilege not given to everyone. In fact, only the souls whose bodies have received proper burial rituals and having a coin placed on either their eyes or lips were sure to reach the gates of Hades.
After the ritual was over, souls were brought to the underworld entrance by the god Hermes, where awaited Charon, the old ferryman of the underworld. He would take the souls across the river Acheron to the other bank, where stand the adamantine gates of Tartarus.
However, not every soul was allowed to get on his boat. Only the souls of those upon whose passage money was placed on both eyes at their burial and who were fully buried were allowed into the gates of Tartarus.
Those who didn’t have the coin to pay for the fair would be stuck and wander between the underworld and the world of the living for eternity.
On guard before the gate sits Cerberus, the three-headed dragon-tailed dog who provided a gruesome welcome to new arrivals, allowing all spirits to enter but none to return—No soul was allowed to leave the domain of his master and lord.
The Judges of the Underworld
On their arrival, each soul was brought before the three judges of Hades: Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus. They judged the actions of the dead ones and are primarily involved in creating the laws of the underworld by which the dead are to abide.
These three judges of the underworld are former kings of Crete, who would direct the souls to the appropriate circle of hell based on their life in the world of the living. They bestowed a sentence upon the dead by sending the wicked for an everlasting torment in Tartarus and the righteous ones to a sanctity place called the Elysium Fields.
When Living Souls Visited the Underworld
You may ask, “Are the alive allowed to visit the underworld?” Yes! In Greek mythology, we have had accounts where the living had visited the underworld—but not on a pleasure trip. Hades’ kingdom was rarely visited by the living. On some occasions, when mortals travelled to the underworld, they must pay their admiration to Hades and Persephone.
Those who wanted to descend to the underworld alive would have to seek an entrance named Hellmouth, which were drawn into the mythology as the roots taken by great heroes of the past who visited hades while still alive.
Heracles in the Underworld
When in his final labour, Heracles was told to capture and bring the gatekeeper of Hades, Cerberus.
Through courage, he trespassed in hades to bring Cerberus, the three-headed hound, back to King Eurystheus during his labours. After asking for his permission, Hades told him that he could take Cerberus away in one condition—he was to use his bare hands to wrestle the beast, which he was able to successfully accomplish.
Theseus in the Underworld
The second account we will visit in the journey to the underworld is Theseus. He joined his friend who wanted to abduct and marry Persephone, but they failed, and they both ended up imprisoned in the underworld.
Although later in myth, Heracles was given permission to rescue Theseus. His friend remained trapped as a punishment for daring to seek the wife of a god for his own.
Orpheus the Musician in the Underworld
Orpheus, when he ventured into the underworld to retrieve his lover Eurydice. He was given for unique condition to not look at his lover before they both reached the surface. Unfortunately, he looked back and lost her once again to the darkness of the underworld.
The Dead Who were Given Permission to Leave the Underworld
Among the dead, only Alcestis and Eurydice were given permission to leave the kingdom of Hades. Alcestis succeeded and regained the world of the living, which isn’t the case for Eurydice, who was forced to go back to the underworld.
Those of Great Powers in Hades
Somewhere in this vast region was Hades’ palace, where no one can reach if they weren’t allowed in by Hades himself. It was considered to be the dark counterpart to the brightness of Mount Olympus. Still, despite what people think, the house of hades was quite a palace carved with precious stones from the underworld’s wealth. And beyond this magnificent palace was crowded with innumerable guests—the inhabitants of hades, beasts, creatures and other ghosts.
The hades count some other gods who deal with significant matters of the underworld and, on some occasion, get involved with the world of the living as well when its actions go against the standard order of things.
The Erinyes, known as the furies, the three goddesses associated with the souls of people who were wrongly murdered. They were in charge to avenge the crimes against the regular order of the universe, such as matricide and patricide. They were vengeful deities who punished evildoers and chased sinners on earth. They were unmerciful and remorseless.
Hypnos and Thanatos
The gods Hypnos and Thanatos, the twin brothers and children of Nyx and Erebus, the personification of sleep and death, respectively. They dwelt in the lower world where dreams ascended from there to the world of the living.
They passed through two gates to interact with the world above, one through which true dreams went through, another one for false dreams.
One of the gods mostly seen in Greek mythology as the transporter of dead souls to the underworld is Hermes, the Greek messenger god. In various stories, comics, and even TV shows like Blood of Zeus, Hermes was responsible for taking souls to Hades.
Hermes leads the souls to the river Styx (in some accounts, this is to the river Achaeon) in the underworld. Here, the ferryman Charon takes the souls into the depths of Hades. As previously mentioned, without a coin of when the souls were buried, they will not be accepted by Charon.
So, it could be said that that it is Hermes’ responsibility to pick up the coins of the souls where it was buried. If not, the souls would be stranded at the banks of the river.
Sections of the Underworld
Far deep in the darkness, the underworld divides into three sections:
- The Asphodel (or Meadows): a place where mortals who didn’t commit any significant crimes but did not also accomplish anything great in their life that would grant them access to the Elysian Fields. In this section, it was said that the dead would become shades or a shadowy version of their personality when they were still alive in the land of the living.
- Elysian Fields: this is a place where the souls who lived an outstanding and exceptional live, mostly heroical whilst still on earth. According to mythology, the Elysian Fields was described as a peaceful and blissful domain for these souls. Here, they will essentially enjoy their works for eternity.
- Tartarus—the dungeon of torments: far deep in the abyss of the underworld reserved for the worst transgressors and for the great sinners, mortal or immortal. This place was reserved for evil people, a place of torments and punishments for the evil deeds performed whilst on earth. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the place Zeus imprisoned Cronus and other Titans after defeating them in the Titanomachy war.
Others who were notably punished in Tartarus includes, Tityus who was tormented by vultures, feasting on his liver for eternity; Tantalus, with food and water, continually receding from his grasp; Ixion, tied up to a flaming wheel that never stops spinning; Sisyphus, eternally pushing his enormous boulder up a hill.
The Elysian Fields was considered to be a paradise in Greek mythology. Souls sent to that place had no labours—a place of blessedness, where reside the pure and virtuous dead heroes and the gods.
Usually, those who are related to the gods were granted admission as well. Souls granted access to the isles of blessing in the realm of elision would be given a choice afterwards whether they prefer to be reborn in earthly existence or remain in the Elysian Fields forever.
If a soul was reborn three times and achieved Elysian all three times, they were sent to the Isles of blessing to live in eternal paradise.
In Christianity, the conception of hell shares similarities with the Greek underworld as a place for the dead, the ghosts and other spirits, among which many exist in torment. The hades, however, includes its own paradise in the Elysian Fields.
In the Christian perspective of the afterlife, the heavens occupy a different physical space above the human world, which for the Greeks and Romans had been the domain of the gods of Olympus. It was commonly assumed, of course, that Hades’ kingdom lay somewhere far underground.
In some accounts regarding how souls find their way down to hades, there is no suggestion that the dead’s shades have to travel to the underworld by roots mentioned before. When the dead departs, the soul vanishes away under the earth like smoke and is gone to the hades without further ado.