The concept of an afterlife is not a novel one; many western religions, as well as south Asian and African ones, believe in some form of life after death. Its origins span from the ancient world and classical antiquity until today. Most often, the world of the afterlife is associated with Greek mythology, where it is called the underworld, or Hades.
According to the ancient Greeks, at the time of death, the soul separates from the body and is transported to the underworld, where it is accepted into the realm by the governing god Hades, who is known to reside at the edges of the ocean and under the deepest depths of the Earth.
Hades’ realm, as opposed to the kingdom of Mount Olympus, is virtually all gloom and darkness, solely inhabited by the dead. In Homer’s Odyssey, even the great warrior spirit Achilles in the nether world tells Odysseus that he would rather be subjugated as a landless slave than be the king of the underworld due to the dreary existence in the land of the dead.
Nonetheless, Greek mythology stresses respect for the dead due to the belief in the continued existence of the fallen after their spirit has passed on.
In the 4th century, the Greek philosopher Plato asserted that the gods’ biggest reward to the dead is to have their memory remain in the minds of the living long after they are gone.
But what ritual did the dead undergo before burial and passage into the underworld?
Burial Rituals in Ancient Greece
Once a Greek man or woman passed away, their families washed their bodies and placed a coin inside their mouth as payment for the spiritual ferryman Charon who carried the bodies’ spirits cross the river Styx into the underworld.
During the burial, the Greeks mummified the bodies – a tradition adopted from the ancient Egyptians (conquered by Greeks in 332 BC). Valuable objects such as pottery, coins, and jewelry were buried alongside them as gifts for the bodies to use in the underworld.
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Families of the deceased visited these tombs annually to make offerings and to refresh the tomb decorations. This ritual stemmed not only out of respect but also from the fear that the dead brought bad luck if the family did not pay tribute to them regularly.
The Soul’s Journey After Burial
The Greeks believed that after the burial, Hermes (the god of trade, travelers, and merchants) led the soul to the entrance of the underworld to a ferry that carried the spirit across the Acheron (river of woe) and the Styx (river of hate).
These two rivers divided the world of the living from that of the dead.
Charon, sometimes called the Ferryman, rowed the boat. Only souls who paid him the boat fare with coins, placed on the eyes or under the tongue of the corpse during burial, could gain access to the ferry.
Those unable to pay the fare remained trapped between the world of the living and the dead.
The Greek underworld consisted of various realms ruled by Hades. Elysium resembles a Greek pagan version of the Christian Heaven where good spirits whose lives were etched into the memories of the living began a bright new state of existence.
Wicked spirits were condemned to the dark pits of Tartarus. These spirits either overindulged their carnal desires or lived more for earthly pleasures than spiritual fulfillment during their earthly life.
Forgotten spirits who did not significantly impact the lives of others were sent to the Land of Hades where they wandered for all eternity.
After-life in Greek Mythology vs. Abrahamic Religions
The concept of an afterlife is not unique to Greek mythology. Most religions have some sort of believe in a soul and what happens to your essence when you die.
The Christian bible exhorts believers to make all their decisions during life based on what will happen to their soul in the afterlife. Jesus Christ maintained there would come a time when all the virtuous dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and leave their tombs as spirits to be physically resurrected.
Islamists believe God either grants admission into eternal paradise, Jannah, earned through good deeds, and unwavering faith in the existence of Allah, or combines the soul to Jahannam, the Muslim version of hell.
Evil doers condemned to Jahannam suffer spiritual and physical agony for all eternity.
The common theme among all three religions, the ancient Greek beliefs, Christianity, and Islam, centers on the belief that the soul never dies. Your actions in life either condemn you to an eternity of suffering, everlasting bliss, or something in-between.
Modern Views on Life after Death
Although today we have no empirical evidence of a soul or survival of some type of consciousness after death, most people still believe in some sort of eternal existence.
Many scientists, philosophers, and New Age adherents have each attempted in his or her own way to prove the essence of a person survives physical death.
Although people may not believe in the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, the essence of the Greek’s belief in a soul and some sort of continued existence beyond death continues to this day.