The Underworld sounds like a scary place, but it was mostly just a giant holding cell for souls
To the Ancient Greeks however, it didn’t have the same connotations as ‘Hell’ – it was just where you went once you died. The Underworld was a big place and was divided into districts. Depending on the type of life you lived (and who you knew – people were not above getting a god on side to help level up into a better district), you would be assigned a particular district and there ‘live’ (!) out your eternity.
Everyone’s Underworld is different.
Even among proponents of the same religion, the basics tend to stay the same but the embellishments and details can change with each retelling. So the Ancient Greek Underworld has several bits that line up no matter who you read, along with several bits that seem to stem from the imaginations of their authors.
The Underworld is mostly divided by five rivers, with vast plains and mountain ranges contained within. Hades and his dark Queen tend to occupy a palace or fortress in a central position and then the land of the Underworld stretches out around them.
The five rivers that contain the Underworld are each characteristics meant to reflect the woes of death;
- The Styx, river of hatred, circles the Underworld seven times and needs to be crossed by souls trying to enter the Underworld.
- The Acheron, river of pain, occasionally serves as Charon’s route to ferry souls across to the Underworld.
- The Lethe, river of forgetting, the waters of which will make you forget your life.
- The Phlegethon, river of fire, leads down into the depths beneath the Underworld to Tartarus.
- The Cocytus, river of wailing, filled with the souls of those who cannot forget and cannot move on.
As an introduction to the Underworld, we’ll cover the three main districts;
- The Elysium Fields, where those who had proved themselves by living righteous lives ended up. You could also be sent here (by far the best of the three) if you were related to a god.
- The Asphodel Fields, the place the vast bulk of souls were sent to mill around eternally, for neither committing crimes to punish or glories to reward.
- The Punishment Fields, where Hades rules in judgement over those who committed crimes against the gods when they were alive and decides on their punishment.
The souls of the Underworld didn’t really do much; they were frozen in time from the moment of their death and spent eternity much as they would have their lives. Games, the occasional feast, chatting with each other would all have been the order of the day. Souls no longer had an understanding of time, freed from their human bodies and so were often able to prophesise the future if summoned by someone alive.
Are you interested in learning more about the Ancient Greek Underworld? Let me know in the comments below.