Underworld Geography and Underworld Creatures
Field and Meadows
Judgment and Punishment
Otherworld Time and Reincarnation
Charidas, what goes on down there?
But what about all those journeys upwards?
Then we really are f****d!
Callimachus, Ep. 15.3
The literary texts of the ancient Mediterranean present a fairly clear picture of an underworld and bear witness to the changes in its nature and purpose. The strong stamp of Hesiod and Homer marks the geography and inhabitants of later underworld descriptions. Plato and the mystery religions leave their mark on the genre, while satirical and comic works provide a totally different perspective on ancient beliefs. Works written during the long interval between the Iliad and the Odyssey (c. 700 bce) and the works of Lucian of Samosata (2nd century ce), a span of almost a millennium, show a remarkable consistency in terms of the underworld’s physical features and denizens, as a backdrop for significant changes regarding the nature of the soul and thus the fate of the dead in the otherworld.
A culture’s notions about its underworld generally can be discovered through a study of archaeological evidence, written documentation, and literary and other sources. Local beliefs revealed in epitaphs, tombs, and grave goods may at times be at odds with the literary sources. For instance, while it is clear that later Roman literary ideas of the underworld corresponded with Greek notions, earlier evidence indicates that existence was envisioned as continuing in another place after death. Interment therefore occurred in decorated and spacious accommodations with generous grave goods as attested by the Etruscan tombs and their contents. These were less grand but comparable to Egyptian burials. Remains, such as wall paintings, can now be found on site in areas in northern Lazio and southern Tuscany as well as preserved in museums in Tarquinia and Rome. Such physical remains would seem to indicate early Roman belief in a netherworld rather than an underworld.
Underworld Geography and Underworld Creatures
While the following texts can sometimes be confused and contradictory, sometimes even self-contradictory, a comprehensible underworld does emerge from the Greek and Roman sources. We know that one can enter and exit the otherworld from at least four places, one of them in Italy, at Lake Avernus west of Naples; another in Greece, on the southern Peloponnese in Laconia at Taenarus, where Psyche in Apuleius’s Golden Ass and Hercules in Seneca’s Mad Hercules enter the underworld; the third, called the Caves of Hades, east of Istanbul, at the Cape of Acherusia, in northwest Asia Minor on the Black Sea; and the fourth Pluto’s Gate at Hierapolis, near Pamukkale in southwest Turkey. In the legends associated with Theseus, there are allegedly six entrances along the Saronic Gulf between Athens and Corinth, each guarded by a cthonic guard. According to the medieval Mirabilian tradition, Lake Curtius, located in the Roman Forum, was an opening to the otherworld — a soldier named Curtius rode his horse into this lake in order to close the entry and protect Rome — but no ancient references to this entrance survive.
Many of the following descriptions note the great distance and vast separation between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Hesiod claims it would take ten days for an anvil to fall from the earth to Hades. While occasionally it is unclear whether a text refers to Hades or Tartarus, since they may at times be used interchangeably, Tartarus — also sometimes referred to as Erebus after the god of darkness — is usually situated below Hades. It might also seem from some descriptions to lie beside it, raising the possibility that ancient otherworld journeys might be lateral rather than standard descents. The mythical location occupied by Tartarus is sometimes referred to as a place where opposites meet. Plato’s Phaedo (111e1–12a) describes the Earth as a sphere bored through with holes, with Tartarus bored clear through the Earth’s center, which clearly contradicts any idea of a flat Earth with hell beneath it. Roman texts often convey the idea of a vast hollow space with a small entryway, referred to in the Aeneid and other Latin texts as the jaws of Orcus.
Some descriptions include a long, dark passage between this world and the otherworld, and the first features of note that the dead reach are the Rivers Styx and Acheron, over which the ferryman Charon transports the dead who have been properly buried. According to Virgil, the unburied dead must wait one hundred years before they reach this place. All the dead must carry a coin for their passage, and those few living individuals who travel to the otherworld must bring an extra coin for the return journey. On the other side, the three-headed dogmonster Cerberus, who guards the gates of the underworld, greets those who have made the crossing. Hercules in Seneca’s Mad Hercules carries no coins, using his lion pelt and club to subdue the dog.
The rivers of the otherworld can vary from text to text, but consistently the Styx and the Acheron seemingly form a border between this world and the other. Modern illustrations of the Greek underworld, which are based on ancient texts, vary considerably and may include the Stygian Marsh or Lake, into and out of which all the rivers (except the Lethe) flow, with the Phlegethon flowing down to Tartarus. These illustrations assume that despite consistencies among the surviving texts, Greek beliefs also varied from region to region and from cult to cult.
In the Phaedo, Plato assays a consistent categorization of the rivers when he describes how the first, largest and outermost of the four rivers of Hades is Oceanus. Inside this is the Acheron, the river of pain, which is similar in size and location, but flows in the opposite direction. The third, the Pyriphlegethon or Phlegethon, the river of fire, flows between them. Finally, the fourth is the Cocytus, which Plato claims is the same as the Stygian River since it forms the River Styx.
In the Aeneid, The Frogs, and Mad Hercules, the Cocytus — the river of wailing — and the Styx appear to be distinct. Although in the Aeneid, they are related, and in The Golden Ass they share the identical source. There is no river named Oceanus: instead in both the Aeneid and The Frogs there are five rivers: the Styx, the Cocytus, the Phlegethon, the Lethe — the river of forgetfulness — and the Acheron. The Phlegethon is mentioned in these texts as flowing into the Acherusian Lake or into a great burning lake toward the Acherusian Lake, but some texts say that the waters do not mingle and that this river flows down into Tartarus. The Phlegethon described in the Aeneid appears similar to the river in the Golden Ass where Venus sends Psyche to gather water. There she finds two monsters on either side of a treacherous chasm, but this text says that the Phlegethon flows into the Cocytus and the Styx. Mad Hercules distinguishes four rivers: the Styx, the Acheron, the Lethe, and the Cocytus, the last two arising from a single source in an obscure recess in Tartarus.
So over time and from text to text, the rivers change course, name, and location, but clearly these rivers form barriers that must be crossed — as in crossing from the land of the living to the land of the dead — and they become places of danger and even torment as Hades shifts from a neutral space to a land associated with punishment, purgation, and reincarnation.
There are other nameless bodies of water in the Places of Punishment, which appear in later texts. Plutarch’s Vision of Thespesius includes three pools: one of boiling gold, a second of freezing lead, and a third of rough iron. Lucian of Samosata mentions three rivers in this place: one of slime, one of blood, and one of flame. The Places of Punishment may be distinct from Tartarus, with the former as the destination of those mortals who may be cured of their evil, and the latter for the Titans as well as incurable mortals, but Plato, in his Gorgias, claims that all sinners are sent to Tartarus, the incurable for eternity and the curables for one thousand years.
Fields and Meadows
The Field of Asphodel, or the Asphodel Meadows, are mentioned in both the Odyssey and the Menippus of Lucian of Samosata. In Homer, where the otherworld is a neutral habitation for the dead rather than a place of punishment, this is the same destination for all. Later it becomes the destination of those who are neither good nor bad — morally neutral. It lies before the Plain of Judgment. The Fields of Sorrow or Mourning and the Elysian Fields are both mentioned solely in the Aeneid. In the first Aeneas meets Dido, and in the second his father Anchises. Mad Hercules refers to the Elysian Fields as the ultimate destination of good rulers, but otherwise describes only a foul earth, a stricken land, a place of death, “worse than death itself.”
The Palace of Hades or House of Hades, the dwelling place of the god Hades and his queen Persephone, is mentioned briefly in the Iliad and more fully in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as the destination for one of Psyche’s errands assigned by Venus, where she must petition Persephone for a day’s worth of beauty for Venus. Persephone offers Psyche a royal seat and fine refreshments, which she must refuse. Mad Hercules mentions refers to the palace as the hall of royal Dis [Pluto], a dwelling place overshadowed by overhanging rocks.
The underworld itself is often referred to as the House of Hades. It is dark and shadowy, full of mist and gloom and sometimes filth, windy and loathsome. The Iliad describes gates of iron and floors of bronze, while Hesiod describes gates of bronze and a bronze wall with a triple fence of night.
While sometimes full of abstract evils like Disease, Hunger, Fear, and War, these ills are embodied as well in the monsters and demons of Hades: Harpies, Gorgons, Furies, and a variety of giants. In addition to Cerberus and Charon, Hades and Persephone, all of whom are mentioned in various texts, Pausanias in his Description of Greece, includes a demon with skin that is a blue-black, the color of meat flies. His name is Eurynomus, a figure otherwise unknown, and he, bearing his teeth, sits on a vulture skin. He eats the flesh off corpses, leaving only the bones behind. Mad Hercules includes a large cast of allegorical figures including, Sleep, Famine, Shame, Fear, Murder, Grief, Mourning, Disease, War, and Age.
Although guides would later play a significant role in Christian otherworld literature, the preserved Greek texts generally are for the most part not catabases — journeys of a living individual to Hades — where often a guide would be advisable. When the text did involve a journey, advice could be proffered in advance. In the Odyssey, Circe advises Odysseus to visit the underworld. The advice he eventually receives from Teiresias concerns his homeward journey. So neither of them act as underworld guides. In The Frogs, Heracles advises Dionysus before his descent, but does not accompany him. In the Vision of Thespesius, a deceased relative he meets in the underworld, serves more as a tutor on leading a moral life than as a guide to an unknown land. On the other hand, in Roman works, Aeneas does have his Sibyl, Lucian his Nauplius, and Menippus his Mithrobarzanes.
Judgment and Punishment
After their defeat by the Olympian gods, the Titans were consigned to Tartarus. This special section of the ancient underworld was set aside from the neutral dwelling place of the dead, which only later would be divided into separate destinations, where the dead would be consigned to pain or pleasure based on their moral character.
The Gorgias of Plato attests to a tradition where the living, dressed in clothes that reflect their position and with witnesses to attest to their character, stood as living mortals to receive an early judgment concerning their fate in the afterlife. This text describes how Zeus overturned this tradition and assigned three judges to evaluate everyone — naked and without witnesses — after death. On the Plain of Judgment, Aeacus from Europe would judge the dead from that region, while Rhadamanthus from Asia Minor would judge the dead from there. If there was any doubt, Minos, also from Asia Minor, would cast his opinion, and the deceased would be marked with a sign and sent to its proper destination. The same judges are mentioned in Mad Hercules.
Plato’s Republic describes how two holes lead from the Plain of Judgment, one to a place of punishment for the wicked and the other to one free of punishment for the good. The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the Menippus also mention Minos as a judge. A character named Rhadamanthus is also mentioned in the Menippus, but he does not seem to function as the judge Rhadamanthus.
The punishments of humans are seldom specifically described in these texts, although they often revisit or reference those fallen gods, the Titans. Both the True History and Menippus of Lucian of Samosata, however, mention the crack of whips and the cries of those being punished. Mad Herculesmentions immured souls and scourged tyrants.
Although Aristophanes’ The Frogs is a less-than-serious description of the underworld, it does mention the presence of tens of thousands of snakes and savage monsters who punish various types of sinners. It also mentions the dead thrown into pits, covered with piles of bricks, being hacked, racked, flayed, flogged, and hung and finally having acid stuffed into noses.
Oath breakers and those who lack respect for their parents are specifically singled out for punishment in both Hesiod’s Theogony and The Frogs, while in the Republic, Socrates notes that there will be extreme punishment for murders and traitors, those who engage in slavery, those who are impious towards the gods or their own parents, and suicides. In Polygnotus’s painting that Pausanias includes in his Description of Greece, we witness the punishment of an unfilial son by his father and of a sacrilegious man by a woman skilled in poisons. This text also mentions a monster of the otherworld named Eurynomus who eats the flesh of the dead, but it is unclear whether this is a punishment for sin or simply the usual fate of all the dead. Lucian of Samosata calls out liars (as well as false historians) in his True History, and, in the Menippus, adulterers, tax-collectors, toadies, informers, millionaires and money-lenders, and those proud of their wealth, lineage, and sovereignty.
Plato’s Republic clearly describes the purgative power of punishment for those who are curable, if they are not ready for release at the end of one round of punishment.He narrateshow devils bind these shades hand and foot and head, fling them down, flay them and card them with thorns, and then throw them back into the depths of Tartarus until completely purged.
The Menippus describes the souls awaiting punishment as stripped naked, hanging their heads in shame. The Vision of Thespesius by Plutarch also describes the souls as exposed and naked and goes on to say how they turn themselves inside out to be flayed and cut open by underworld guards. According to Plato’s Republic, the incurable, on the other hand, were not punished for their own benefit — to purge them of their evil and return them to the cycle of life and death — but tormented and hung up in the infernal dungeon for eternity as a warning for others. In his Gorgias, Plato includes among the incurable the sacrilegious, wicked murderers, and the like.
While the Vision of Thespesius lays out in detail a three-tiered scheme for the afterlife punishment of those who escape punishment in this life, Virgil’s Aeneid only alludes to such an arrangement.In Plutarch’s scheme, punishment in this world before death might include loss of reputation, and that punishment would alleviate some suffering in the otherworld. Plutarch relates how Swift Poiné is responsible for this type of punishment, while Diké is charged with those who were unpunished for their more difficult crimes in this world and so would require otherworld punishment. The dead are marked by gradients of color, and only when they have been thoroughly purged does the color fade away. Finally Plutarch narrates how the Erinys, or Fates, imprison and exterminate the incurable in cruel and brutal ways.
Otherworld Time and Reincarnation
In the Republic, Socrates attempts an explanation of the relationship between life in this world and the amount of time between one’s death and reincarnation. There is a ten-fold penalty for sins, and these were measured in hundreds of years. Unlike the highly specific times periods designated in Buddhist and Hindu texts, duration of relegation to the underworld is not very cogently laid out here, but from other texts a much simpler formula emerges that seems to consign the dead to the underworld for a thousand years before they are released back into this world, after undergoing a period at the River Lethe where all memory of the past is erased, just as one finds in Buddhist and Hindu descriptions of the otherworld.
While the incurable are never released, even the curable may be sent back to suffer an additional thousand years. in Plato’s Republic, Er, describes how the mouth of hell will bellow, sounding an alarm, when an incurable or a soul who has not yet completed the specified round of punishment approaches, especially any tyrant. At that point, little savage devils rush out and drag the miscreant back. All the souls, as they approach the mouth of hell expecting release, fear the sound of that bellowing that would summon the devils to prevent their release.
Plutarch’s Vision of Thespesius describes how souls are generally reshaped for rebirth, although others are returned to their former bodies because of some necessity remaining from their past existence. The Menippus tells of a recently passed motion in the otherworld that permits special treatment of rich men who oppress the poor. At death their bodies and souls are separated, and as their bodies are punished in the otherworld, their souls are sent back to earth and placed into donkeys who bear burdens for the poor. They are transmigrated from donkey to donkey for 250,000 years and finally allowed to die.
As time passes, notions of the nature of the underworld and the fate of the dead change. Initially the shades never cease to exist but lose all sense of identity. From the time of Plato and the mystery religions, souls begin to retain memory and identity and eventually either return to this world, losing both memory and identity as they cross the River Lethe, or remain among the blessed in the otherworld. These souls reap benefits from those still living, who are capable of performing beneficial deeds.