What happens after you die? If you were an ancient Greek, but not too deep-thinking a philosopher, the chances are you would have thought you went to Hades or the Greek Underworld.
The Afterlife or Hereafter in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome takes place in an area often referred to as the Underworld or Hades (although sometimes the location is described as a distant portion of the earth):
- the Underworld, because it is in the sunless regions under the earth, or
- Hades' realm (or Hades) because the Underworld was Hades' third of the cosmos, just as the sea was the god Poseidon's (Neptune, to the Romans) and the sky, the god Zeus' (Jupiter, to the Romans). Hades is sometimes referred to euphemistically as Pluto, which refers to his wealth, but the Lord of the Underworld had little in the way of a following.
Perhaps the most familiar story about the Underworld is that of Hades' taking an unwilling young goddess Persephone below the earth to live with him as his queen. While Persephone was allowed back to the land of the living, because she had eaten (pomegranate seeds) while with Hades, she had to return to Hades every year. Other stories include Theseus' being trapped on a throne in the Underworld and various heroic voyages to rescue people down below.
Several myths involve a voyage to the Underworld (nekuia*) to obtain information. These voyages are made by a living hero, usually, the son of a god, but in one case a fully mortal woman. Because of the details of these trips, even at such a great remove both in time and space, we know some details of ancient Greek visions of Hades' realm. For instance, access to the Underworld is somewhere in the west. We also have a literary idea of whom one might meet at the end of one's life, should this particular vision of the after-death happen to be valid.
- Nekuia* in the Odyssey (Homer)
- Nekuia in the Aeneid of Vergil (Virgil)
- Labors of Hercules - Heracles/Hercules Tackles the Hound of Hades
- Orpheus in the World of the Dead
- Tasks of Psyche
- Rivers of the Underworld
- Ancient Ghost Stories
"Life" in the Underworld - A Shadowy Existence
Not Really Heaven or Hell
The Underworld, is not entirely unlike Heaven/Hell, but it's not the same, either. The Underworld has the glorious area known as the Elysian Fields, which is similar to Heaven. Some Romans tried to make the area around the burial site of prominent wealthy citizens resemble the Elysian Fields ["Burial Customs of the Romans," by John L. Heller; The Classical Weekly (1932), pp.193-197].
The Underworld has the dark or murky, torturous area known as Tartarus, a pit beneath the earth, corresponding with Hell and also the home of Night (Nyx), according to Hesiod. The Underworld has special areas for various types of deaths, and contains the Plain of Asphodel, which is the joyless realm of ghosts. This last is the main area for the souls of the dead in the Underworld -- neither torturous nor pleasant, but worse than life.
Like the Christian Judgment Day and the ancient Egyptian system, which uses scales to weigh the soul to judge one's fate, which could be an afterlife better than the earthly one or an eternal end in the jaws of Ammit, the ancient Greek Underworld employs 3 (formerly mortal) judges.
House of Hades and Hades' Realm Helpers
Hades, who is not the god of death, but of the dead, is Lord of the Underworld. He doesn't manage the limitless Underworld denizens on his own, but has many helpers. Some led their earthly lives as mortals -- specifically, those selected as judges; others are gods.
- Hades sits on the Underworld throne, in his own "House of Hades", beside his wife, the queen of Hades' realm, Persephone.
- Near them is Persephone's assistant, a powerful goddess in her own right, Hecate.
- One of the attributes of the messenger and commerce god Hermes -- that of Hermes Psychopomp -- puts Hermes in contact with the Underworld on a regular basis.
- Personifications of various sorts reside in the Underworld and some of the creatures of death and the Afterlife appear to be on the periphery.
- Thus the boatman, Charon, who ferries the souls of the deceased across, might not actually be described as inhabiting the Underworld, but the area around it.
- I mention this because people argue over similar matters -- like whether Hercules went all the way to the Underworld when he rescued Alcestis from Death (Thanatos). For non-academic purposes, whatever the shady area in which Thanatos looms may be considered part of the Underworld complex.
Next: Read about the 10 Main Gods and Goddesses of the Greek Underworld.
*You may see the word katabasis instead of nekuia. Katabasis refers to a descent and can refer to the walk down to the Underworld.