Surviving the Greek Underworld was no easy feat. Many untold dangers lay in wait for heroes who wished to traverse this dangerous dimension. There were, of course, some heroes who were up to the challenge.
These heroic trips were not always something to celebrate upon reaching the land of the living again. Many heroes left the Underworld in a worse condition than when they went in. Others came back with increased knowledge, a special gift, or sometimes just happy to have survived intact. Hades, the Lord of the Dead, was quite strict on dead souls leaving the Greek Underworld though.
Here is a description of the Underworld, and some myths of heroes who successfully made the trip there and back again.
The Greek Underworld: What Does It Look Like?
The Greek Underworld was the realm where the ancient Greeks believed their souls went when they died. It was not all dark and dismal. There were different places you could end up after being judged by a ghostly tribunal. Hades and Persephone were the king and queen of the Underworld. They made sure that everything was moving smoothly, and that the souls were judged correctly.
After death, the soul would follow this process: first, the soul would come to the first river of the Greek Underworld called the River Styx. If you had been buried according to Greek custom with a golden drachma, you would pay the ferryman named Charon to cross. If you did not have the coin, your soul would wander the riverbank forever.
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After crossing, you would have to pass through the Gates of the Underworld. These Gates were guarded by the ferocious and giant three-headed dog, named Cerberus. Cerberus could sniff out the living souls from the dead souls, so you had to be careful getting around him. Then, you would join the queue to be judged by Hades’ chosen tribunal. You would then be sorted into either Elysium, the Fields of Asphodel or the Fields of Punishment.
What Could You Come Across in the Underworld?
Elysium was where good people aimed to go. If you had achieved glory, and been a wonderful, helpful person, or helped to develop cities and so on, you might be blessed with Elysium. Heroes populated this part of the Underworld due to their fame and feats during their lifetime.
If you cruised through life, as an average person without doing anything spectacular, you would most likely go to the Fields of Asphodel. This was a giant plane of wheat (in some descriptions) where souls could wander forever. The worst place to end up was in the Fields of Punishment. This was a place specifically for criminals, and here they would be punished for their crimes during their life.
There were multiple rivers to cross in the Underworld, each providing a new terror to avoid. The River Styx was known as the river of lost dreams, or hatred. The River Acheron was the river of misery. If you fell in, you would be plagued with all your woes and you would be too inconsolable to get out.
The River Phlegethon was the river of fire and purging, it lead to the deepest part of the Underworld: Tartarus. The River Lethe was the river of forgetfulness. When choosing to be reborn, the soul would be bathed in this river so that they would forget their past life and become a blank slate again. The River Cocytus was the river of wailing, and carried the voices of those who were being punished.
The Greek Underworld was also the home to many deities, including Morpheus who could put you to sleep forever, the Erinyes (the Furies) who were bat-like figures with whips in charge of punishment, Achylus goddess of misery, Eurynomos a flesh-eating daemon, and many more!
There and Back Again: Heracles’ Tale
Who could survive all this and live to tell the tale? One of the most famous adventurers into the Underworld was Hercules. For his twelfth labor, Hercules was challenged to retrieve the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Underworld. He was to bring the dog to King Eurystheus alive.
Hercules, not one to shirk a challenge, set off at once to try to tame the dog. However, before he descended, Heracles knew that he would need to prepare. Returning from the land of the dead was unheard of. He sought the knowledge of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an organization that professed to have knowledge about descending into and ascending from the Underworld. Once he learned some tips from them, he entered the Underworld through a cave in Taenarum.
“The savage Stygian dog [Cerberus] frightens the shades; tossing back and forth his triple heads, with huge bayings he guards the realm. Around his head, foul with corruption, serpents lap, his shaggy man bristles with vipers, and in his twisted tail a long snake hisses. His rage matches his shape.”
(Seneca, Hercules Furens)
Hercules battled his way through the Greek Underworld and came to Hades. He came across Theseus along the way, who was trapped in an eternal slumber (we’ll get to that story later). He pleasantly asked Hades to take Cerberus on a short walk to the land of the living. Hades was at first resistant but eventually agreed as long as Hercules did not hurt Cerberus, and brought him back.
Hercules made another trip to the Underworld to bring Alcestis back from the dead. Alcestis was an honorable woman who had volunteered to die in her husband’s stead. Heracles wanted to honor the family for their kindness to him by returning Alcestis to her mourning family.
Theseus: And in the Darkness Bind Them!
Theseus’ myth tells the story of when helping out a friend goes awry… Theseus and Pirithous were best friends, and they decided to help each other get wives. However, they did not have the best plans in mind. Theseus wanted to marry Helen of Sparta, and so with the help of Pirithous, he kidnapped her. He kept her with his mother because Helen was not of age to marry. This was not an admirable move, and neither was their next plan! Pirithous had set his eyes on the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone.
The two friends decided to sneak into the Underworld and attempt to kidnap Persephone. This was a terrible plan: not only was Persephone already married, but she was a goddess, and they were clearly not intending to court her. The mischief of mortals does not often pass under a gods’ notice. Hades, Persephone’s husband, immediately sussed out their plan, and so he staged a fake welcoming for the two men.
When Hades invited Theseus and Pirithous to sit down, they instantly became glued to their stone seats. Some writers say their flesh became one with the rock, others say snakes tied them down. The stone seats also had the powerful magic of forgetfulness, no doubt from the River Lethe, and so the men began to forget why they were there or what they had come for.
After some time, Heracles came to the Underworld (he was on the quest for Cerberus). He was able to free Theseus, but when he tried to free Pirithous, the ground began to shake tremendously. This was a warning from Hades — clearly, Pirithous’ punishment was intended to be permanent for his insult to the god. Luckily, Helen was saved too from her predicament.
Psyche: All Fades to Black
In Psyche’s myth, Psyche angered the goddess Aphrodite. Therefore, the goddess of love and beauty had given Psyche a series of difficult and dangerous tasks as punishment. Psyche managed to complete these tasks, but Aphrodite’s final task seemed impossible. She was ordered to travel to the Underworld, find her way to Queen Persephone and ask for Aphrodite’s beauty potion. This potion was then to be returned to Aphrodite in the world above.
Psyche believed that the only way to get into the Underworld was to die. Just as she was about to throw herself off a high tower, the tower came alive and spoke to her. It told Psyche that there was an entrance to the Underworld in Taenarum and warned her of the dangers in the Underworld so that Psyche could prepare.
Now prepared and determined to succeed, Psyche entered the Underworld. Many dead souls came to her for help, but Psyche resisted their pull and stayed on her path. These trickeries could lead Psyche away from her mission, and she would be lost in the Underworld forever. She paid the ferrymen so that she could cross the River. Then, having prepared two cakes soaked in wine, she fed Cerberus one so she could safely pass the Gates. After that, she found Persephone, who agreed to give her the potion. On her way back out, Psyche fed the three-headed dog the second cake, and paid the ferryman his due.
Once back in the living world, Psyche gave into temptation and opened the box. However, instead of the beauty potion, Psyche was hit with an eternal sleeping spell. Eventually, her lover Eros found Psyche, and woke her with his magic. Psyche was then taken to Olympus where she was rewarded with immortality for her endurance of hardships.
Odysseus: Phantom Faces
Odysseus was famous for his intelligence, and he was always seeking new ways to improve his intelligence. It is no surprise then, that his motivation for a trip into the Underworld was in pursuit of that very thing: intelligence and wisdom. Homer records this myth in the Odyssey.
The prophet Tiresias had died. The only way for Odysseus to communicate with Tiresias was to find his soul in the Underworld. Tiresias is able to tell Odysseus about his future. Although, this is never completely clear. Prophecies and predictions from prophets were elusive things and could often be misinterpreted. Odysseus was warned about the death of his comrades if they should not follow the wisdom of their king. The prophet also predicted that he would return in a distressed state to his home. Unfortunately, all these things came true.
In the Underworld, Odysseus also came across his mother’s spirit. She had died while Odysseus was away at war, and this was the first time Odysseus heard of her demise.
“Three times, in my eagerness to clasp her to me, I started forward. Three times, like as shadow or a dream, she slipped through my hands and left me pierced by an even sharper pain.”
Odysseus also met other heroes who had passed on into the afterlife. Achilles and Heracles are two of them, and they describe their experience in the Underworld as dark and dismal. This is quite surprising, as they are likely to have reached Elysium as heroes, but Homer tells the story darkly.
Orpheus: Into the Abyss
Trips into the Underworld could be harrowing. Often, heroes would leave with greater grief than when they went in. Orpheus was one of them. His quest into the Greek Underworld was driven by love. On his wedding day, his wife, Eurydice, had been bitten by a poisonous snake and died.
Driven to despair, Orpheus picked up his musical instrument and rushed to the realm of the dead. Orpheus was a fantastic musician of the lyre, and he had an entrancing voice to accompany it. He played a sincerely mournful tune as he descended further and further into the Underworld.
At the feet of Hades and Persephone, he begged for his loved one to be returned.
“I beg you, by these fearful places, by this immense abyss, and the silence of your vast realms, reverse Eurydice’s swift death. All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later, we hasten home. Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race. Eurydice, too, will be yours to command, when she has lived out her fair span of years, to maturity. I ask this benefit as a gift; but, if the fates refuse my wife this kindness, I am determined not to return: you can delight in both our deaths.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses Book X)
The King and Queen were deeply moved, especially by his music, and so they agreed to let Orpheus take Eurydice back home under the condition that he did not look back until he was out of the Underworld. Orpheus rejoiced! He began his ascent but became increasingly worried for Eurydice’s safety. At the last moment, Orpheus glanced back, but the deed was done. Eurydice’s soul was lost to the Underworld forever.
The Greek Underworld
The descent into the Greek Underworld may be easy… but to return to the land of the living was not. The Greek Underworld was a place of many dangers and traps that could mean you were lost in its dark depths forever.
“The Stygian city and the cruel court of swarthy Hades. Countless broad entrances that city has and portals everywhere open . . . There the shades wander without flesh or blood or bones; some gather in the central square; some throng the courts of Hell’s King, Hades.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 4)
Hades and Persephone were a fair and judicious pair, and they ruled the Greek Underworld well. Life and death were kept in balance. Heroic trips into the Underworld are interpreted as trips into one’s own consciousness. What are your motives? What do you seek? A trip to the Underworld could reveal to you your deepest desires and uncover your suppressed emotions.