In keeping with the rather spooky themed time of the year, here is a post on the Greek Underworld (somehow I don’t think that picture of Hades in Disney’s animated version of Hercules is going to scare anyone though!). The problem of giving a definitive view of the Underworld is that there are a number of conflicting accounts. Even while doing my research for this I realised that the sources I was using had taken their information from a number of different places.
Before I focus on the people associated with the Underworld, I’ll give a very brief summary of the layout. It was thought to be, like many think of hell today, underground. I guess the name “Underworld” sort of gives that away, eh?
It was perceived as rather unpleasant, being described by some ancient writers as a “mirthless place” along with the general cold, dingy feel that is to be expected.
There were three judges in the Underworld; Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthys although like everything to do with the Underworld, their functions vary from source to source. (We’ve actually come across one of these before, can you guess which one…Ding ding ding, that’s right. Minos! He was the King of Crete and the guy who got Daedalus to build the labyrinth for the Minotaur. If you want to refresh your memory then click here).
There were four rivers in the Underworld. Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon and Styx. Annoyingly, Latin poetry adds in a fifth, Lethe, but originally there were four. Of course, the Styx should be known to readers of this website (because you’re all such avid fans of mythology!)
The Styx was the river Thetis dipped her son, Achilles, into in order to try and make him invulnerable. Achilles also speaks in the Odyssey Book XI about how terrible the Underworld is, uttering the famous line “I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead”.
There are other aspects of the Underworld I would like to cover such as Elysium, Tartarus and so on but I fear this article will get far too long so I’ve decided just to leave them out and will hopefully cover them again some time in the future. As for now, let’s get onto some of the characters associated with the Underworld.
As we saw from the article on Zeus (which you can access by clicking here), Hades was one of the children of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and brother of Zeus and Poseidon. When he and his two siblings cast lots for their domains, the sky, the sea and the Underworld, it’s obvious which one befell Hades.
He is not only the god of the Underworld but the god of the dead, of death and many times he is even death personified. Thus, the terms Underworld and Hades can be used interchangably. Unfortunately, there are a limited amount of myths about Hades.
Possibly the most famous of what few myths do exist is the one of how he captured the heart of his wife Persephone.
And by captured I don’t just mean heart, but the kidneys, liver, lungs…ok so basically he kidnapped her.
Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and crops. One day Hades burst out of the ground on a gold chariot (I have to admit I was expecting something a bit less shiny and a bit more human skeleton-ish) and captured her. Zeus apparently saw all this but permitted it.
What followed was Demeter’s grief. She travelled far and wide searching for her beloved daughter and neglected the earth. The condition of the world deteriorated to such an extent that the land became barren and plague ensued. Zeus instructed Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to retreive Persephone and return her to Demeter.
Before she left, however, Hades tricked her. He gave her some pommegranate from the Underworld which meant that she then had to return to the Underworld for a third of every year. This is supposed to represent the seasons of the year. For one third of the year when Persephone was in the Underworld, Demeter’s heart was cold and in turn, the weather was cold. When she was with Persephone her heart was warm and so was the world.
Moral of the story kids: don’t go accepting pommegranates from strangers. You might just find yourself stuck in the Underworld for a third of every year.
That’s the end of the myth which is a little disappointing because half of it is about Demeter. Hades was also a rather forgotten about God in terms of worship. He was indifferent to worship and generally had no cult, although black sheep were sacrificed in his name. The Cult of Hades at Elis which opened a temple once a year and then only to priests as well as his temenos (a sacred enclosure around a temple) at Mount Minthe near Pylos are the exceptions to this.
The three headed dog who guards the gates of the Underworld. Some sources say that snakes may grow out of the mane on his back though I think he is generally seen as being snake-less. If society ever advances far enough that we can somehow create real life versions of mythological creatures, I’m choosing Cerberus. Either him or a dragon.
He is no doubt an impressive figure but can be beaten. Orpheus managed to get past him by putting him to sleep with his lyre playing skills. That’s quite an interesting myth actually as he was trying to save his wife Eurydice. He managed to do this successfully and was told that he could leave the Underworld with his beloved so long as he didn’t look at her until they had left Hades’ domain. While I have heard some varying stories on the moment when Orpheus looked at his wife one thing is for sure, she wasn’t out of the Underworld yet and as a result she became trapped.
There is a Middle English text called Sir Orfeo (very short, only 600 lines or so long) that is an adaptation of the Orpheus myth. It’s a very interesting read if anyone is interested. I tried writing an essay saying that the fairies were actually good people for kidnapping Orpheus’ wife. Yeah, go figure!
There is another time when Cerberus was beaten. For the final of his twelve labours, Hercules was set the task of capturing Cerberus and bringing him back to the real world. He did so and proceeded to scare King Eurystheus witless, the person who made Hercules carry out the twelve labours as a penance. In return for not setting the “hound of Hades” on him, Eurystheus released Hercules from doing any more labours.
Charon was the ferryman of the dead. He was usually depicted as a ragged old man and his job was to bring people across the Acheron and the Styx. The Greeks beleived he demanded payment for such a service and used to put a coin into the mouths of corpses before burial. That way they were ensured safe passage.
I’m going to make mention of one other character in the Underworld because I think it’s a pretty cool myth. The details on his life, his actions or who he annoyed are varied but it’s pretty clear he ticked off someone. Just listen to this punishment!
For eternity in the Underworld Sisyphus had to push a massive boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down when it was almost as the top. Then the cycle would repeat itself. Over and over and over again.
It hurts just to think about it.
So that’s the Underworld. Granted not quite as scary as some other stories that will be floating around this Halloween but hopefully you enjoyed it all the same. If you’re on my website for the first time why not have a look at what else I’ve written? And if you’d like to follow me on Twitter you can do so by clicking here and my Facebook link is here.
For now, enjoy your day and most importantly…