ClassicsGreek MythologyMythology

The Nature of the Underworld in Greek Mythology

Just as it’s impossible to give a single account of Greek mythology in general, it’s also impossible to give a single account of the underworld. Different authors emphasize different things at different points and certain popular figures that we would consider central to the myths don’t figure into the mythology of the underworld until surprisingly large (Charon, for example, isn’t mentioned in Homer). We rarely think about it much, but the mythology wasn’t a stagnant, frozen thing; it evolved and changed over the centuries just like anything else, and we can’t really definitively give a snapshot of a frozen moment and say “this is the underworld. It was x but not y”. That being said, what we can discuss is the nature of the underworld and how it was understood in Greek mythology.

Our knee-jerk reaction, probably thanks to the inundation of western society with the dichotomy of heaven and hell, is to think that the underworld and anything associated with it must be hell-like. While there are some similarities at certain points in certain time periods, the reality is much less cut-and-dry.

Table of Contents

Location location location?

The term itself suggests somewhere subterranean and “it was commonly assumed, of course, that the kingdom of Hades lay somewhere far underground, the Greeks were also inclined to place that dark land in the far west, as already noted (p. 17), beyond the sunset. (Hard, 98)

Ultimately the location sort of depends on whether you were embodied or not, and the two contradictory locations sort of existed at the same time. Souls sort of floated down (in later traditions guided by Hermes and then ferried by Charon), but there were “local traditions in which people claimed to have a cave, chasm, or lake in their area that communicated with the Underworld (much like the hellmouths of modern folklore). (Hard, 99) And Odysseus physically went to the border.

Life After…Life?

The underworld was just that: an under…world. It had a topography and region with “groves, hills and other features of a conventional landscape. It is separated from the world of the living by a boundary-river, the Styx in the Iliad, but usually the Acheron in later sources.” (Hard, 99). It’s a shadow-wold, however, and this idea isn’t uniquely Greek; we see echoes of this in other mythologies and beliefs as well. Burkert notes that “a comparison has justly been drawn between it and the Babylonian idea of the underworld with which in turn Ugaritic and Old Testament conceptions agree. There, too, there is a gloomy land of no return and, moreover, in the final scene of the Gilgamesh epic, the way in which the dead Enkidu appears like a puff of wind before his friend Gilgamesh is strikingly reminiscent of the scene between Patroclus and Achilles towards the end of the Iliad.(Burkert, 294)

 People became echoes of who they were, and Hard states 

“The witless insubstantial ghosts who throng the Underworld are the merest shadows of living human beings, lacking all that is needed for real vigorous life. All that survives from the living person is the tenuous psychē or ‘breath-soul’ (the word is related to pyschein, to breathe), which departs from the body at the time of death and finds its way to the world of the dead.”(Hard, 103)

However, Hard also notes that “the shades may be regarded as witless by comparison with embodied mortals, while they yet must be supposed to possess some form of attenuated consciousness if they are to be capable of forming a society of their own and communicating with one another.” (Hard, 103) So what we really have is a world of smoke and shadow, a more muted, hollow version of life. Unless you were particularly vile.

Judgment

This is an idea that changed over the centuries, possibly as a result of contact with other cultures and religions. In the beginning, there wasn’t really a concept of punishment in the afterlife for the Greeks. Hard notes that

Since the dead are not subjected to any form of posthumous judgement in the Homeric account, the mass of them share a common fate in the Underworld, living together as gibbering shades, rather like bats in a cave. Although this would certainly seem a dispiriting prospect, the dying would have nothing positively dreadful to fear, however they may have behaved in their previous life. (103)

In general, death was an equalizer, and everyone was equal in the underworld, except in truly rare cases. Hard notes that “In the Homeric account, the fate of the tormented offenders (as of the favoured few who are transferred to Elysion) is wholly exceptional, and cannot be interpreted as providing a warning for ordinary people, who could expect to share a common posthumous fate of living the same half-life as shades.” (103)

The idea of judgment comes later and “Pindar and Aeschylus are the first authors to refer to a general judgement of the dead that might assign individuals to a happier or worse fate in accordance with their merits. (Hard, 103)  We see something much more familiar to modern ideas in which “the dead are consigned by these judges to a better or worse region of the Underworld in accordance with their deserts, and so to a better or worse fate in the afterlife.(Hard, 109)

Heaven?

There’s an analog to the modern Christian concept of heaven, but it also mutated over the centuries. It didn’t originally start as part of the underworld, but as a sort of paradise island. It was called ‘Elysion’, or ‘Elysium’. and was “located in the upper world in the original tradition because continuance of bodily life was thought to be essential to a vigorous and enjoyable existence; but when the idea developed that ordinary people might win a better fate for themselves in the afterlife by living well or receiving certain initiations, the imagery that was traditionally associated with this earthly paradise was borrowed to describe the part of the Underworld in which the virtuous dead could expect to live.” (Hard, 105)

Conclusion

Like I said, nothing is truly concrete in Greek mythology, and that even includes the underworld and the state of being after death:

With regard to the fate of the dead in the afterlife, two conceptions subsisted side by side in the classical period, the old one that suggested most of the dead would share a common fate, and a newer one that suggested the dead would meet with differing fates in accordance with their merits. In the ancient belief found in Homer, as outlined above, the dead would live together in the same surroundings in the nether gloom as witless or semi-witless shades. (Hard, 108)

This nebulous nature only increased over time, and “authors from the time of Plato onwards came to offer curiously heterogeneous descriptions of the afterlife, accompanied by increasingly elaborate and definite accounts of the topography of Hades. (Hard, 109)

And all of these are valid. We can’t say that one has more of a claim to being an ‘authentic’ belief than any other because our understanding of things like definitive canon don’t really work for Greek mythology. We get everything from the shadow world of Homer to “a lively extension of the life of the living, either a continuation of its activities and social forms, or a compensation for its problems. (Edmonds, 551)

Bibliography

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion Archaic and Classical. Blackwell Publishing, 2013

Edmonds III, Radcliffe, “Chapter 37: Imagining the Afterlife” in The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion, eds.  Eidnow and Kindt. Oxford University Press. 2015

Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. Routledge. 2019

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