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Tartarus in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 23, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

In the mythology of Ancient Greece, Tartarus is famous for being the region of the Underworld; a region where eternal incarceration and punishment would occur. As such Tartarus is normally equated with the Christian concept of Hell, just as Elysium is thought of as Paradise. Greek mythology also had a third region, that of the Asphodel Meadows, a region of nothingness.

Tartarus the god

As well as being a region of the Underworld, Tartarus was also thought of as one of the deities of the Greek pantheon; indeed Tartarus is named by Hesiod as one of the four original Protogenoi. Alongside Chaos, Gaia and Eros, Tartarus was one of the first born gods.

The concept of Tartarus as a god though was not a prevalent one, and unlike Gaia, who continued to be thought of as both a goddess and a place, earth, Tartarus simply became known as a place within the bowels of the earth.

Tartarus the place

Tartarus as a place was situated deep beneath the surface of the earth; the often given analogy being that it would take nine days for a bronze anvil to fall from the surface of the earth, or from the realm of Hades in other version.

It was therefore a place of imprisonment, a place where it was impossible to escape from, and also the place where eternal punishment and torture was meted out.

Place of Punishment

In theory those judged as wicked or evil by the Three Judges of the Dead (King Minos, King Rhadamanthys, and King Aeacus) would be sent to Tartarus, but the most famous of inmates bypassed this judgment, and were simply sent to their incarceration by the supreme deity of the day, first by Ouranus and then by Zeus.

In the time of Zeus it was said that punishment would begin even before arrival in Tartarus, as those who had displeased the supreme god, would be transported by the three Erinyes, the Furies, who would mete out punishment on the journey.

The First Prisoners

The first prisoners incarcerated in Tartarus were imprisoned in a time before Zeus, when Ouranus locked up the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes. Ouranus was the god of the sky, and became the prominent god of the cosmos.

Ouranus was a son of Gaia, but was fearful of his position, and was especially fearful of the power of the three gigantic Hecatonchires (Briareus, Cottus and Gyes), and the three Cyclopes (Arges, Brontes and Steropes), despite them being his half-brothers.

The imprisonment of her children was one of the reasons why Gaia cajoled Kronos and the other Titans to rise up against their father; Kronos taking up an adamantine sickle to castrate his father.

Kronos would take up the mantle of supreme deity, but he was no more secure in his position than his father had been, and Kronos kept the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes prisoners in Tartarus. Kronos would even add an extra guard, Kampe, a monstrous she-dragon, to keep prisoners locked up.

Zeus would lead a rebellion against his father, Kronos, just as Kronos had led a rebellion against Ouranus. Zeus though was told that a war with the Titans could only be won with the help of the prisoners of Tartarus. So Zeus set forth into the depths of the earth, and having killed Kampe released the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes.

So for a brief time Tartarus was empty.

The Titans in Tartarus

A ten year war, the Titanomachy, would take place between the Titans and their allies, and Zeus and his. Eventually the war was one by Zeus and his siblings, and to cement his position, Zeus dispatched his enemies to Tartarus.

The male Titans, including Kronos, Coeus, Crius, Iapetus, Hyperion and Menoetius, were imprisoned; although inmates vary depending upon the source. The roles undertaken by the Titans in the cosmos were then taken over by the Olympians.

All of the female Titans avoided imprisonment, as they had not taken part in the fighting, and for the same reason the male Titans, Prometheus and Epimetheus, also avoided the fate of their kin. Atlas also avoided eternal imprisonment, although he was punished differently, being tasked with holding up the heavens for eternity.

The Hecatonchires also returned to Tartarus, although this time not as prisoners, but as prison guards. Soon other prisoners would need to be guarded.

Ixion

Bernard Picart (1673–1733)
Bernard Picart (1673–1733) | Source

Ixion

Ixion was the son of Phlegyas and the king of the Lapiths; and was noted as a descendent of Ares. Ixion though killed his father-in-law whilst he was a guest in Ixion’s court. For such a heinous crime Ixion was run out of Thessaly, and no king would enact the rituals required to cleanse Ixion of his sins.

Ixion was forced to roam the land, but Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus, took pity on the former king, and invited him to be a guest upon Mount Olympus. From his lowest point, Ixion was now in an exalted position; but King Ixion promptly threw it all away.

Ixion would start to lust after Zeus’ wife, Hera, and although Hera was amongst the most beautiful of goddesses, it was hardly the proper actions of a guest. Zeus initially did not believe the rumours told of Ixion, but sought to find some proof of his guest’s indiscretion. Zeus created a clone of Hera from a cloud, and Ixion fell into the trap by making love to the cloud.

Zeus dispatched Ixion to Tartarus immediately, and Hermes enacted the punishment. Ixion was tied to a flaming wheel, and that wheel would cross the sky each day, in an action that was an early mythological tale of the sun. Eventually the role of Ixion was taken over by Helios and his golden chariot, but it was presumed that the punishment continued deep in the underworld.

Having had the chance of redemption, Ixion was now forced to endure eternal punishment, although the King of the Lapiths was not alone.

Tantalus

Bernard Picart (1673–1733)
Bernard Picart (1673–1733) | Source

Tantalus

Another mortal king to be found in Tartarus was Tantalus, the king of Sipylus. Tantalus was actually an offspring of Zeus, and one of the god’s favourites. Tantalus was another welcomed guest upon Mount Olympus, but he was a guest, who like Ixion, was indiscrete. Tantalus did not make the mistake of lusting after a goddess, but instead would tell other mortals of the events upon Mount Olympus, and would also try to steal ambrosia from the gods.

Perhaps the most serious misdemeanour of Tantalus though was serving up his own son, Pelops, as a dish to the gods when they were invited to the king’s court. Despite the fact that Tantalus was a favourite son of Zeus, the crimes of infanticide and cannibalism required punishment.

In Tartarus, Tantalus was positioned chin deep in a lake of water, above him was a tree bearing fruit of every kind, but when Tantalus would reach up to pick some food, the branches of the tree would be blown just out of reach. Likewise if he stooped to drink from the lake the water would recede out of reach. For eternity Tantalus would be tantalised by the food and drink that was just out of reach.

Sisyphus

Friedrich John (1769–1843)
Friedrich John (1769–1843) | Source

Sisyphus

Tartarus was also home to a third regal prisoner, as famously it was also the place where King Sisyphus of Ephyra was tortured.

Sisyphus’ initial indiscretion was the reporting of Zeus’ marital affairs, although he was also famously a cruel king, killing guests to his kingdom. Zeus decided that the king should be punished when Sisyphus told Asopus that Zeus had abducted Asopus’ daughter, Aegina

Thanatos (death) was dispatched to take Sisyphus to the underworld, but Sisyphus was clever and managed to trick death into chaining himself up, and so the king of Ephyra remained free. Ares himself would have to come to release Thanatos and escort Death and Sisyphus to the Underworld.

The cleverness of Sisyphus once again emerged though as he managed to convince Persephone that he should be allowed to return to the earth’s surface to scold his own wife for not having undertaken the proper funeral rites.

This time Zeus dispatched Hermes to retrieve Sisyphus, and a suitable punishment was devised for his impertinence. Sisyphus would be tasked with rolling a boulder up a hill everyday, but before the boulder reached the summit it would roll back down the hill, forcing Sisyphus to start his task once again.

In Greek mythology Tartarus, and the Underworld as a whole, was used to guide people’s lives. The thought of eternal punishment in Tartarus might have been enough to ensure that some people did not transgress against the rules and customs of the day; and conversely living a heroic life was the goal, as that would lead to eternity in paradise.

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