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Greek Myths - Death and the Underworld

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Greek Myths: The Origins | Centaurs | The 12 Olympians | Achilles
Gods of Greek Mythology | Heroes of Greek Mythology | The Trojan War
Heracles | Sirens | Prometheus | Perseus | Pygmalion and Galatea
Jason and the Argonauts | The Children of Nyx | Death and the Underworld

The Underworld was ruled over by Hades, brother of Zeus, who received sovereignty over it when lots were drawn for the Heavens, the oceans and the Underworld - the home of the dead.

Hades and his wife Persephone were almost completely isolated from the other Gods, with only Hermes bringing them regular news. They both had a reputation for being cruel and merciless, to the point where the Ancient Greeks were afraid to say the word 'Hades'.


The Underworld - also known as Hell or Hades - was surrounded by water. The most important river of them all was the Styx - the river of hate. This was the same river that the Gods swore their oaths by, and the consequence of breaking the oath would be to lie as if dead for a year. The other surrounding rivers were Cocytus (wailing), Acheron (woe) and Pyriphlegethon (fire).

The Underworld was sometimes divided into two areas - Erebus, where most of the dead were sent, and Tartarus, where the Titans and the extremely wicked were imprisoned.

The Journey

The Ancient Greeks attached a great deal of importance to death rituals, because the journey to the Underworld depended on them. The manner of your death, your behaviour while alive and being buried in the correct manner - with a coin in your mouth - all affected your fate in the next world.

The journey of the dead began with Thanatos, God of Death, who would cut a lock of hair from them at the moment of death. Their souls were then guided to Hell by Hermes, who would lead them to the River Styx. There those who had been buried were permitted to approach Charon.

Those who were ferried across the river would pass Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld. He prevented the dead from ever leaving, although he sometimes failed at his task. The musician Orpheus enchanted him with music and Heracles conquered him with violence, while it was said that he was sometimes sedated with honeycakes.

After the Styx was crossed, the dead would travel until they found themselves in the Asphodel Fields, a place of apathy where they forgot who they were and drifted aimlessly until they were called to the next part of their journey.


Continuing along the road, the dead would come to a fork in the road, where they would be judged. The judges - Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus1 - had a choice of three verdicts. The good would head forward to Elysium, the bad would head forward to Tartarus, while those who were neither good nor bad would head back to the Asphodel Fields.

The Good

Elysium was a happy place, where it was always sunny and where the inhabitants would indulge in all the events that went on at a festival in Ancient Greece. It was the home of the great heroes, and it was the ultimate goal.

Some legends say that souls who reached Elysium had the option of returning to earth and starting a new life. An extension of this myth was the idea that there was even a special part of Elysium reserved for people who'd lived three times, and each time managed to reach Elysium.

The Bad

At the depths of the Underworld was Tartarus. It was said that if you dropped an anvil from the heavens it would fall for nine days and strike earth on the tenth, and if you dropped an anvil from earth it would fall for nine days and strike Tartarus on the tenth. It was the deepest place of all, where all the waters of the earth flowed from and to, and where those judged to have been bad were sent.

Tartaus was circled by a giant fence and Pyriphlegethon. Rhadamanthys, one of the three judges, was the ruler of Tartarus, and - assisted by the Furies2 - he would make sure the dead were punished. Some crimes were judged to be less wicked than others, and people who committed those stood a good chance of one day being allowed to leave Tartarus for the Asphodel Fields.

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1Minos and Rhadamanthys were both sons of Zeus, while Aeacus had been their enemy when they were alive.2Also called the Erinyes

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