Greek MythologyMythology

4 Sights of the Greek Underworld

Let’s be clear: the underworld is not a pleasant place. No one WANTS to go there. Achilles says in the Odyssey “‘Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.” (11:489-90) It was a place of misery but not, usually, of punishment. In Greek mythology, the underworld wasn’t simply the underworld. It was a place with a geography, dedicated places for those who were blessed, tortured, or simply lived normal lives.

Let’s take a quick journey through some highlights.

Table of Contents

1. Asphodel Meadows

Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) - - 2504282

Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) by Anne Burgess, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Our first stop on this journey is the Asphodel Meadows. There’s not much to it, and it doesn’t receive a lot of attention in the myths. It’s the afterlife for normal humans, for people who were neither good nor bad. It’s not a place of punishment. It simply…is.

2. River Styx

Psyche in de veerboot van Charon Verhaal van Amor en Psyche (serietitel), RP-P-H-H-816

Both a river and a goddess, Styx is the most famous of the underworld rivers. She stood with Zeus during the Titanomachy and was rewarded for this with a special power. Any god who swears on the river Styx is swearing an unbreakable vow. In some myths, she’s the border of the underworld, the river across which souls who experienced proper burials must be ferried by Charon. She is also able to bestow powers. In some myths, it was Achilles being bathed or dipped into her waters that rendered him invulnerable.

3. Tartarus

Ixion in Tartarus on the Wheel 1731 (504x640)

Here is hell. Or close to it. The Christian interpretation of an underworld as a place of punishment doesn’t really fit in with Greek myths most of the time. Tartarus is the exception. Technically it’s not the underworld, but the under-underworld. Zeus notes that Tartarus is “far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth:” (Illiad 8:1) Originally only the titans that fought against Zeus were imprisoned here, but later myths put especially vile humans there, those who had sin egregiously against the gods.

4. Elysium

A Wanderer in the Elysian Fields - Charlotte Wylie

The direct antithesis to Tartarus, Elysium was essentially a paradise after death, where the righteous, the heroes, those related to, and those chosen by the gods could spend eternity. In some stories, they essentially lived as gods, free of work and toil. Some myths don’t place it in the underworld at all, instead making it an island or a chain of islands called the Isle(s) of the Blessed. Later myths tend to change this though and from a modern viewpoint, it’s considered part of the underworld.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments