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The Judges of the Underworld in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 1, 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.

Historically, and indeed today, the judgement of one’s life is a core element of the world’s religions.

In most cases this judgement will tell whether someone has led a good life, and therefore will go to a version of heaven, or if they have led a bad life, and will therefore end up in hell.

The concept of judgement was also present in Ancient Greece, as in Greek mythology there were Judges of the Underworld.

Passage to the Greek Underworld

In Greek mythology, the souls of the deceased would be collected by Hermes or another Psychopomp, and guided thereon to the edge of the Underworld.

Charon, the ferryman, would then transport all those who pay across the River Acheron. Part of the funeral rites of Ancient Greece required the placement of a coin, an obolus, between the lips, or upon the eyes, of the deceased. Those souls without coins could not pay Charon, and would wander aimlessly along the banks of the Acheron.

Those souls that did cross the Acheron, would then pass by the three-headed guard dog Cerberus, before coming in front of the Judges of the Underworld, who sat in judgement in front of the Palace of Hades.

Rhadamanthus, Aeacus and Minos

Ludwig Mack (1799-1831), Bildhauer PD-life-70
Ludwig Mack (1799-1831), Bildhauer PD-life-70 | Source

The Three Judges of the Underworld

Greek religious practices evolved greatly over hundreds of years, but in the simplest terms there were said to be three Judges of the Underworld, Rhadamanthus, Aeacus and Minos. Each of whom, in the mortal realm, had been noted kings, and sons of Zeus.

In many surviving texts it is Zeus who gave these three sons their role in the afterlife, although, of course, the Underworld was the domain of Hades, Zeus’ brother, and so Zeus had no power there.

Souls Before Judgement

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (1860–1933) PD-art-100
Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (1860–1933) PD-art-100 | Source

Rhadamanthus

Rhadamanthus was the son of Zeus, born when the god abducted Europa from Phoenicia and slept with her. Europa became pregnant with Rhadamanthus, along with Sarpedon and Minos.

Rhadamanthus, along with his brothers, would be adopted by Asterion, King of Crete, but when Asterion died, it was Minos who pushed his claim to the throne, forcing Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon to flee Crete.

Rhadamanthus would arrive in Ocaleia in Boeotia, and would become king there. During his lifetime, Rhadamanthus would become known for his fairness and honest, and therefore great integrity in all his decisions; making him an ideal judge of man.

Upon his death Rhadamanthus would be made Lord of Elysium, ruler of paradise.

Aeacus

Aeacus was another son of Zeus, although this time his mother was the Oceanid Aegina. Again, Zeus abducted Aegina, leaving her on an island which would later bear her name.

Aeacus would eventually become king of this island, and during his lifetime Aeacus would be known as religiously pious, but also as a just ruler. The fame of Aeacus would spread beyond the borders of his kingdom, and others would seek out his judgements.

After his death, Aeacus would be given control of the very keys to Hades, the Underworld.

Minos

The third of the Judges of the Underworld, is also arguably the most famous, for Minos was the King of Crete encountered by Theseus.

Minos was certainly a clever king, but he was also a cruel one, or made poor judgements. The first poor judgement undertaken by Minos was in not sacrificing the Cretan Bull when it was required of him; and the cruelty of the king was displayed with the sacrifices made to the Minotaur.

Nevertheless, Minos was still chosen upon his death, to sit in judgement over others.

The Elysian Fields

Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926) PD-art-100
Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926) PD-art-100 | Source

The Judges of the Underworld at Work

The three judges might not judge each deceased soul, and initially Rhadamanthus was said to only look at the deceased of Asia, whilst Aeacus would look at those from Europe. Contradictory though, it was also said Minos had the deciding vote in case of dispute, although where the dispute would arise is not clear.

Of course, the judges themselves could be bypassed altogether, and the gods were quite likely to make their own decision about where a deceased soul would spend eternity.

Anyway, in the Greek afterlife there were three possible outcomes from the judgement of the dead. Those individuals who lived a heroic life would spend eternity in Elysium (the Elysian Fields), the Greek equivalent of paradise; those deceased souls who had lived a bad life, or those who had angered the gods, were likely to spend eternity in Tartarus, the hell pit of the Underworld; there was though also a third possible destination, for those who had lived an indifferent life, neither good nor bad, were likely to be found in the Asphodel Meadows, a grey region of nothingness.

The religious nature of Ancient Greece was therefore aimed at ensuring people lived a heroic life rather than an indifferent one.

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