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The Greek Underworld

Updated on November 17, 2013

If Underworld is hell, then is Olympus heaven?

Many people would think that Underworld -- hell, place of punishment for the sinners-- and Olympus --place for righteous and good--. But alas, it is not so. Yes Olympus is heaven but only for gods. Most living there were gods. Few humans ever got chance to go there.

However, Underworld had an extra facility. It was divided into three living quarter for the dead, the Fields of Punishment, the Field of Asphodel and Elysian. It also had the palace of Hades, garden of Persephone, way into Tartarus and other some places. It also had five rivers discussed further in this hub.


The Greek Underworld

Most of the mythologies have concept that death isn't the end. They think that there is more; afterlife. The concept of soul, afterlife and a world beyond ours is common in most of the mythologies like Chinese, Norse, Hindu, Persian and Greek.

Greek were very serious about afterlife. Underworld was a very important part of the myth. It was domain of Hades and is itself referred by the name Hades sometimes. It is also called the kingdom of the dead.

Although referred by many as "hell", Greek Underworld isn't only that. In Christianity, hell is a place of punishment. It is very ugly and is for men who did crimes and sins when they were alive.

Underworld has that as the Fields of Punishment and has some more of features. It is mixture of both heaven, hell and something in between.

It is said that the dead in underworld lacked menos and phrenes or strength and wit respectively.

The Fields of Punishment

This is the ideal "hell" of Greek Mythology. It is like torture chamber for sinners and criminals in their afterlife. The soul who did crimes against gods were specifically brought down here and were given hideous punishments according to their crimes.

In earlier version of mythological texts, the Fields of Punishment was separate portion of the Hades than Tartarus but later on the texts described both Tartarus (originally prison to Titans and threats to gods) and the Fields of Punishments were described as same. The Fields of Punishment were also the place of judgment for people's crimes in life.

Some sentenced to the Fields of Punishment were; King Tantalus, King Ixion, King Sisyphus and the giant Tityous. All these kings were sentenced because they tricked or betrayed god and Tityous was sentenced because of his attempt to rape Leto, lover of Zeus. This shows that mostly figures imprisoned in the Fields or Tartarus were directly related to gods' anger.

The King of Underworld, god Hades with the guard three headed dog Cerebus.
The King of Underworld, god Hades with the guard three headed dog Cerebus. | Source

The Fields of Asphodel

This was the field of neutrality. The souls sent here were just normal people. Those people who didn't do much sins and crimes but also didn't commit heroic great deeds were granted access here. Here, in these meadows, they wandered aimlessly for the eternity. It is also said in some sources that the souls in Asphodel were bathed in the water of Lethe which had special quality to erase one's memory.

Most of the people went here after death as the Fields of punishment and Elysium both were only reserved for those connected to gods, both allies and enemies.

More Of Mythology

My Other Hubs featuring different myths:

  1. Intoduction to Greek Mythology

  2. Intoduction to Norse Mythology

Elysium or Elysian fields

Elysium is the rough sketch of our idea of heaven. This place is said to be a resting place of heroes and people who did a great job or favors for the gods. In the poems of many ancient poets, this place is described as a joyous, bright and incorrupt place. Although reserved for the righteous and good, most of the residents of Elysian fields are those who were great heroes or friends of gods in their lifetime.

In this place people would live forever with plenty of food, wine and sex. And this place was also described as place where you would live without tears, a promise of gods to the heroes. Most of times Elysium is described as an isle or even a area near the primordial sea- Oceanus. Many poems depict Elysium being ruled by Cronus, the Titan, father of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.

A rough sketch of map of Hades
A rough sketch of map of Hades

Major places of the Underworld

These are the top attraction landmarks of the Greek Underworld;

  1. The Fields of Punishment
  2. The Fields of Asphodel
  3. Elysium
  4. Tartarus
  5. Five rivers; Lethe, Archeron, Coccytus, Styx and Phlegethon

Tartarus

Tartarus's locationin many legends. Earlier poems and legends depict Tartarus as a place of punishment and imprisonment of the Titans which was located deep down below Hades. It was said that Tartarus is as far from Hades as the Earth is far from Mount Olympus.

But the later stories describes Tartarus as the place of punishment and judgment. Here, the soul were judged and sentenced. It is described as same to the fields of punishment.

Note: Tartarus IS a living entity like Ocaenus and Gaea(earth) , parents to the giants and lover to Gaea.

Deities in Underworld

There are many figures living in Underworld other than the dead.

  • Hades is the god and ruler of Underworld. He has his own palace in underworld and lives with his wife, Persephone.
  • Persephone: She is wife of Hades and daughter of Demeter. She is goddess of spring, flowers and rebirth. As she can't tolerate Underworld, she resides six months in the domain of dead and another six months in earth.
  • Thanatos was god of gentle death. He was under command of Hades and brought special souls under commands of gods.
  • Charon was the ferryman of the boat which brought souls to the underworld.
  • Cerberus was the three headed hound of Underworld. Its task was to prevent any souls from living Underworld and guard the gates of Hades.

Rivers of Underworld

The Hades is said to be drained by five major rivers. These rivers are major part of Underworld as it is a mean of transportation of souls and even few of them have magical qualities.

  1. Styx: This is the river of goddess/nymph Styx. She was known for making vows that she never broke.
  2. Acheron: This river was wide and also regarded as a lake the ferryman of the dead, Charon was said to transport the dead from living world to Underworld in his boat through this river.
  3. Lethe: This is the river of nothingness/ Oblivion. Its water had the capacity to erase memories. The dead are said to be drink this water to forget their life as living.
  4. Cocytus: This is the river of pain and cries. It is said to be full of pain of the punished in the fields of punishment.
  5. Phlegethon: This is the river that passes through Tartarus and is said to have liquid fire. Phlegethon is also said to be lover of Styx as they flow parallel.

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    • Clinton1998 profile image
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      Abla Hulla 3 years ago from China

      Thank you very much DDE.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Greek Underworld great hub interesting useful, educational and well researched. Most fascinating!