A Brief Analysis of the Greek Underworld
During my Latin classes in high school, the underworld in Greek mythology was often compared with the perception of Hell to Christianity. While it may not have beheld the fiery pits and endless prison cells that I imagine in Hell, it was still a highly feared place for the ancient Greeks. Because the underworld was a heavily discussed topic in my class, I expected there to be a large amount of scholarly articles on the topic. Unfortunately, however, my gut feeling had me steering in other directions to gather as much information about the topic as possible. Instead of discussing the structure of the underworld as the ancient Greeks perceived it, I will mainly be overviewing it.
C.J. Mackie, author of “Scamander and the Rivers of Hades in Homer,” explained that, traditionally, the underworld was said to be near a body of water. While some stories described a large body of water such as a lake, others mentioned the location of the underworld as the convergence of multiple rivers. Mackie also explained the reoccurring presence of gates in the underworld. These themes, especially the use of bodies of water to identify the entrance to the underworld, could suggest how ancient Greeks used either item. If bodies of water were frightening to the Greeks, could this explain the emergence of the underworld’s secret location?
Regardless of knowing where the entrance is, the underworld was the location where Hades, god of the underworld, resided. He kept his three-headed dog, Cerberus, with him. Below is a sculpture with Hades standing guard with his alert dog by his side. He appears to be gentle but has a stern face. His curly hair and muscles seem typical for a god, especially a brother of Zeus. While Hades ruled the underworld and the people there, he did not choose the fate of the dead. Because of his character, he did not pity the dying or deceased, much like death itself. The view of Hades and the underworld vary greatly throughout mythology, as well as literature. This seems relevant today with religion, as the only people who know what heaven and hell are like are the ones who have “been” there. Furthermore, it’s hard to ask someone six-feet under what it is like.
Although he may not be the hero of Greek mythology, Hades is the subject of my favorite Greek myth that I studied in high school. According to the British Museum’s website, Hades is responsible, in part, for the creation of seasons. Because he wanted to marry Persephone, he abducted her and kept her with him in the underworld. Persephone’s mother, Demeter (the goddess of agriculture), did not agree with this and requested the return of her daughter. When Hades provided Persephone with the fruit of winter, or the pomegranate, she ate four seeds. These seeds represent the months that Persephone had to spend with Hades in the underworld. For these months, Demeter wept and could not allow for agriculture to grow. And so we have winter!
In book ten of the Odyssey, Circe instructed Odysseus to visit Hades. Because of the way the book has been translated, some versions make it sound like Odysseus descended into the underworld. However, in a paper titled “The So-called Hell and Sinners in the Odyssey and Homeric Cosmology,” Nanno Marinatos explained Odysseus never actually entered the underworld. According to Marinatos, this suggestion was also reflected in the Iliad when Achilles, because “he is not buried,” could not cross a river to descend into the underworld. This went against the main understanding that Odysseus visited Hades in the underworld on his journey.
The underworld, while feared among ancient Greeks, was respected throughout mythology. It remains unclear where the entrance to the underworld began, or really what it was like other than gated and supplied with water. However, I believe the underworld related to Hell today. Neither place has been classified as a dream destination, even when soul leaves body. Instead, Fiske spoke as archaic Greeks that were “haunted by a sense of social and personal instability” in regards to the afterlife. The vagueness of the underworld proved to be similar to the way hell is spoken of today. For this reason, I think the way our culture perceives death is similar to that of the ancient Greeks. Alas, sometimes it’s the unknown and undiscoverable that makes humans more curious to dive deep into complicated thoughts. I hope this has got you a bit more curious as well.
"British Museum - The Greek god Hades." British Museum - Welcome to the British Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2013. <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/g/the_greek_god_hades.aspx>.
Caraveli-Chaves, Anna. "Bridge between worlds: the Greek women's lament as communicative event." The Journal of American Folklore 93.368 (1980): 129-157. Print.
Fiske, Shanyn. "Hades and Hellism: Underworlds of the Victorian Mythopoetic Imagination." ProQuest Information and Learning Company (2004): vi-vii. Print.
Mackie, C.J.. "Scamander and the Rivers of Hades in Homer." Journal of Philology 120.4 (1999): 485-501. Print.
Marinatos, Nanno. "The So-called Hell and Sinners in the Odyssey and Homeric Cosmology." Numen 56 (2009): 185-197. Print.
"The Underworld and its Inhabitants." Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Ed. Edward I. Bleiberg, et al. Vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 B.C.E.-476 C.E. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 309-312. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.