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Hermes Psykhopompos: sitting on a rock, the god is preparing to lead a dead soul to the Underworld, Attic white-ground lekythos, ca. 450 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 2797)

Greek underworld (often shortened as Underworld, depending on the context) is a general term used to describe the various realms of Greek mythology which were believed to lie beneath the earth or beyond the horizon.

This includes:

  • The great pit of Tartarus, which was originally the exclusive prison of the old Titan gods, but which later came to mean the dungeon home of the damned souls
  • The land of the dead ruled by the god Hades, which is variously called the house or domain of Hades (domos Aidaou), Hades, Erebus, the Asphodel Fields, Stygia and Acheron ;
  • The Islands of the Blessed or Elysian Islands ruled by Cronus (According to Pindar - other accounts differ), where the great heroes of myth resided after death ;
  • The Elysian Fields ruled by Rhadamanthys, where the virtuous dead and initiates in the ancient Mysteries were sent to dwell.

The five rivers of Hades are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) and Styx (the river of hate), which forms the boundary between upper and lower worlds.

The ancient Greek concept of the underworld evolved considerably over time.


The Homeric underworld

Greek underworld
Famous Inmates

The underworld is ruled by Hades. The oldest descriptions of the underworld can be found in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.The other poets of old epic such as Hesiod describe it similarly. In the Odyssey the Underworld is located beyond the Western horizon. Odysseus reaches it by ship from Circe's island, and later on, the ghosts of the suitors are herded there by Hermes Psychopompus (the guide of the dead). He herds them through the hollows of the earth, beyond the earth-encircling river Oceanus and the gates of the (setting) Sun to their final resting place in Hades.

The Classical underworld

The Homeric Hymns and lyric poet Pindar introduce the paradise-like realm of Elysium where the virtuous dead were sent after death. This blessed afterlife was also promised in cult to the initiates of the ancient Mysteries.

Transmigration of the soul

Local cults

Many local cults in Greece claimed to possess entrances to the underworld, and had special religious rites associated with these. The most famous of these is perhaps a cave in Sparta, which was found to be nothing but an empty cave. Ancient travel writers and geographers such as Pausanias and Strabo describe these.

The Ferryman

The deceased entered the underworld by crossing the River Akheron or Styx ferried across by Charon (kair'-on), who charged an obolus, a small coin, as a fee. This coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased by relatives. Paupers and the friendless gathered forever on the near shore. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades.

The hound of Hades

Myths in which it features

Nekyia: Ajax, Persephone and Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 1494)

The twelfth and last task of Heracles was to retrieve Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, from his post and show him to his cousin, for whom he was working as punishment from killing his wife and sons.

The Argonaut Orpheus, a wonderful musician, lost his soon to be wife, Eurydice, after she was bitten by a snake. He descended to the Underworld and managed to pass Cerberus and Charon by charming them with his kithara (a musical instrument similar to a lyre) to plead Hades and Persephone. Persephone felt sorry for him, so he was allowed to have her back, if he reached the living world again without looking over his shoulder. At the last minute, because he was unable to hear his wife's footsteps, he turned back and in doing so he caught his last glimpse of his wife's ghost as he lost her forever.

See also


Simple English

The Greek underworld is the place in Greek mythology where people go when they die. It is also called Hades after the god who rules there. Its gates are guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus. There are three places you end up, one is Tartarus. Not all people though end up in thare. People that were normal or heroic would ethier go to the Asphodel Meadows or Elysium.

There are several special places/areas:

  • the Elysion (Latin: Elysium) or Elysian fields, where the heroes and the virtuous go; very few people come here
  • the Asphodel Meadows, where the 'normal' dead people go
  • the Tartaros (Latin: Tartarus), where those who offended the gods are eternally punished, for example the Titans

Other pages

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