The Greco-Roman Underworld

The Greco-Roman underworld is the realm of the dead, where Hades reigns with Persephone by his side, and the place that all must pass once they have shed their mortal coil. The sprawling subterranean caverns below the earth are vast; Virgil has Aeneas landing on the coast of Cumae, near modern day Naples, on his journey to the underworld. After completing the sacred rituals revealed to him the by the Sybil, the entrance is unveiled to him:

There was a vast cave deep in the gaping, jagged rock, shielded well by a dusty lake and shadowed grove. Over it no bird on earth could make its way unscathed, such poisonous vapors steamed up from its dark throat to cloud the arching sky. – Virgil, The Aeneid

Orpheus, on the other-hand, reaches the underworld from ancient Thrace, an area that is located in modern day Bulgaria and Turkey, when he crosses the threshold in an attempt to find his beloved wife, Eurydice.

Odysseus has to travel even further; Homer locates the underworld not underneath, but outside the edges of the world. To get there Odysseus must cross the swirling waters of Oceanus, the currents that form the outer borders of the cosmos:

Our ship came to the farthest realm of deep-flowing Oceanus, where the country of the Cimmerians lies shrouded in cloud and mist. – Homer, The Odyssey

In Plato’s Republic the underworld seems to exist in an entirely different dimension. In Er’s journey through the underworld he describes a view from which he can see both the heavens and the earth:

They came to a place where they could see from above a line of light, straight as a column, extending right through the whole heaven and through the earth, in colour resembling the rainbow, only brighter and purer.  – Plato, The Republic

This underworld should not be confused with the Christian concept of Hell because of its occasional subterranean location. The Greco-Roman underworld is an entire system that houses all of the dead: the good, the bad, and the in between, though the beginning of the journey seems hellish enough.

Once the dead arrive in the underworld they come face to face with Charon on the river Acheron, the river of pain, the crossing point into the realm of the dead:

From there the road leads down to the Acheron’s Tartarean waves. Here the enormous whirlpool gapes aswirl with filth, seethes and spews out all its silt in the wailing river. And here the dreaded ferryman guards the flood, grisly in his squalor: Charon. – Virgil, The Aeneid.

(The Acheron is one of 5 rivers that flows through the underworld, the others being: Styx – Hatred, Lethe – Forgetfulness, Phlegethon – Fire, Cocytus – Wailing)

Not all souls get to cross the river. Those that do not have living loved ones fulfill the proper burial rites are stranded here, forced to spend eternity in limbo on the river banks.

Those that make the crossing find that their trials are not yet ended: their judgement still awaits, and will determine where in the underworld they will eventually reside.

Those whose sins are unforgivable are cast into Tartarus, the hellish place where Zeus locked away the Titans, where they are left to toil in bleak darkness. Those the have done heroic deeds go to Elysium, or the Isle of the Blessed, where they enjoy a life (death?) of leisure:

They live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed along the shore of deep swirling Okeanos (Oceanus), happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods – Hesiod, Works and Days

For the majority whose deeds lie in between, those that are neither heroic or unspeakably evil, death just reduces them to a shadow of their former selves. Homer leaves them wandering through the Asphodel Meadows with nothing to do, and later, Ovid moves them to the city of Pluto where they aimlessly try to recreate their former lives.

These shades are wan, lifeless, with neither flesh nor bones; while some flock to the forum, others fill the Halls of Pluto, king of the abyss; some souls would imitate the arts and skills they plied when, in the upperworld, they were alive. Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Is there any way out? Some Greco-Roman mystery schools and philosophies – including Plato’s – held that there is. Recall that there are five rivers that flow through Hades, one of which is Lethe, forgetfulness.

The cost of drinking from the waters of forgetfulness?

Reincarnation.

So, despite the Greco-Roman underworld offering some of the torments of Hell, some of the pleasures of Heaven, and mostly just gray shades of Limbo, it ultimately offers a way out.

Even if it’s just a way back in.


The Metamorphoses of Ovid


The Aeneid (Penguin Classics)


The Odyssey


The Republic (AmazonClassics Edition)

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