Throughout the stories of ancient Greece, the god of the underworld has always been a bit of an enigma. The keeper of many names, Hades was sometimes referred to as Aidoneous or the "Unseen One".
He also appears quite frequently in the Roman texts under the cognomen of Dis. Since mortals deemed it unlucky to utter his proper name out loud, it was common for both Greeks and Romans to attach various forms of the name Pluto to the ominous god.
Because Pluto, Plouton and Ploutos were all synonyms for the word wealth, their use as an epithet for Hades clearly indicated his command over all riches found buried beneath the earth.
Though Hades had many treasures, it was said that his prize possession was the magical helmet of invisibility that was given to him by the Cyclopes during the great war of gods and titans.
There is not a lot of detailed information about Hades, as the god is usually found playing small background roles in the midst of much larger dramas.
The most familiar tale concerns his abduction of the maiden Persephone and how his actions eventually brought about the change of seasons. Please click on the link to read a detailed account of that story.
Below you will find a small peek into the curious world of the Lord of the Dead. I hope you find your visit both entertaining and informative.
After the defeat of Cronus, the universe was divided equally among the three sons of Rhea. In order to keep things fair, the brothers decided to draw lots to determine which area each would be awarded.
Zeus was grated dominion over the heavens, Poseidon took possession of the sea and Hades inherited the underworld along with all of its inhabitants. The earth and Mount Olympus were viewed as neutral territories and were left to be equally managed by all.
Hades preferred to shun the company of others and chose to spend most of his time sulking in his own dark domain. Because he rarely had any first hand knowledge of events happening in the world of the living, he relied heavily upon the words of mortals to keep him in the know.
The god was well known for shrewdly piecing together the days current events by carefully listening to men swear oaths and invoke curses in his name.
In Greek mythology, the land of the dead differs greatly from our modern day accounts of Christian hell.
It was the place to where all souls journeyed after death, regardless of how they conducted themselves while alive on earth.
The traditional location of the realm of Hades was found underground. Though many regions across Greece claimed possession of the entryway, the main entrance to the lower world was said to lie between a group of black poplar trees that stood beside the river Oceanus.
It was here that the newly departed were met by the old ferryman Charon. For the price of an obol the cantankerous oarsman would load the despondent spirits upon his boat and carry them into the land of the dead.
Those who did not receive a proper burial or were unfortunate enough to be laid to rest without a penny would be left eternally stranded on the banks of the river. Their only recourse was to sneak away from their guide Hermes and make their way down through a back entrance.
Though it was more commonly written that Charon's ferry passed over the river Styx, the earliest texts tell us that is was actually the river Acheron that delivered the shades to their perpetual dwelling.
Hades' three headed dog Cerberus stood guard before the gates leading to the underworld. His duty was to allow the approaching spirits to pass by freely, while simultaneously preventing any living creatures from entering.
Before being led to their permanent places of residence, the newly deceased were required to drink from Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.
Just one sip of the hypnotic water would cause the spirits to lose all recollection of their former lives on earth.
Once void of all prior memories, the souls were then presented to the three judges of the underworld; Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus.
In an area known as the Plain of Judgement, the brothers pensively sat at the sacred crossroads and meticulously decided the fate of each spirit that passed before them.
Based upon the acts of their mortal life, the shades were then sent down one of two roads; the path to Elysium rewarded those who were pure of heart, while the path to Tartarus brought eternal punishment to those found to be wicked and immoral.
Much like today, the people of the ancient world believed that the deeds of one's earthly life greatly influenced their position in the afterlife. For this reason the underworld was divided into different sections, each designed to reward or punish the new arrivals for their behavior during their corporeal lifetime.
As usual, it is common to find variances in the details pertaining to these specific areas. Differences can be found in the names, the quantities and the locations of the individual sections. This seemed to depend not only upon the writer in question, but also from which time period the particular account has been taken.
Below please find a brief description of the individual areas that made up the land of the dead and the boundless domain of the god Hades.
The Fields of Asphodel, also known as the Asphodel Meadows was a neutral area of the underworld, used for housing the souls of those who had lived out their mortal days in a relatively conventional fashion.
It was for those who were neither virtuous nor evil, but fell somewhere in the middle of the two.
The Asphodel Fields was designed to provide a mundane existance for its common and ordinary inhabitants.
It was here that one could also find the joyless souls of past heroes. Once famous and powerful, these former men of distinction were left to wander wistfully among the colorless flowers, deeply mourning their bygone glories. Their only comfort was found in the blood libations offered to them from those still residing in the land of the living.
Just past the ghostly meadow, beside the River Lethe and beneath the never-ending shade of a white cypress tree, stood the somber palace of Hades and Persephone. From the throne room window the royal pair could watch as the new arrivals took their first sip from the Pool of Forgetfulness.
The Isles of the Blessed were thought to be located in the vicinity of the Fields of Elysium. It was believed that all spirits that entered into Elysium were given the opportunity to once again be born into the earthy plane.
If it came to be that a spirit was able to reach Elysium after being reborn three times in a row, they were then sent to the Isles of the Blessed where they would be rewarded with the gift of eternal paradise.
The Isles of the Blessed can sometimes be referred to as the Fortunate Isles. Some accounts describe it as an earthly paradise where the ghosts of Greek heroes happily dwelled in the warm breeze of the never ending summer.
The Fields of Elysium belong to the area of the underworld most commonly associated with paradise and incessant joy. Though opinions tend to vary, all agree that Elysium provided an eternity of happiness and comfort to those who retired there after death.
While Elysium is often identified with the Isles of the Blessed, there are some myths that view them as being two distinct and separate entities.
In Homer's story of the Odyssey, the Fields of Elysium were said to be located at the far west end of the earth, close to the shore of the river Oceanus. Though Homer was known to ascribe rulership over the domain to Rhadamanthys, Hesiod clearly identifies Cronus as being the sovereign leader over the region.
When the location of Elysium is found to be inside of Hades proper, it is usually positioned beside the Pool of Memory. It was a peaceful place filled with everlasting daylight, music and games. The land was abundantly decorated with beautiful orchards and the scent of fragrant flower blossoms gently perfumed the air.
Those sent to live in Elysium were given the chance to be reborn on earth anytime they desired. Shades who were virtuous enough to achieve three consecutive placements in Elysium were sent to the Fortunate Islands, a sector of Hades filled with glorious beasts and ghosts of celebrated heroes.
There are some inconsistencies in the texts regarding just who would be allowed to enter into Elysium. Although it was agreed that only the best souls would be able to gain access to this eternal paradise, there were some who believed that this area was restricted to only those who had been specifically chosen by the gods.
To make matters even more confusing, there also existed the belief that entry into Elysium was forbidden to all common mortals, making the area available to only the spirits of untarnished heroes.
Though there is very little information available regarding the Vale of Mourning, it looks to have been a place designated for those who died of a broken heart. It is usually found on maps of the underworld situated just past the Plain of Judgement and directly before the Asphodel Fields.
The Roman poet Virgil tells us that it was here at The Vale of Mourning that Aeneas encountered the ghost of Dido, the first queen of Carthage.
It seems that Dido was so distraught over Aeneas' sudden departure to Italy that she petitioned her sister to build her a pyre large enough to burn all that reminded her of her former lover.
When Dido saw the ships of Aeneas leaving the shore, she climbed atop the pyre and took her own life by plunging his sword into her heart. According to the Aeneid, Dido refused to speak to Aeneas when the two subsequently met up in the underworld. In this case it is clear that Dido's acute feeling of abandonment remained with her even after death.
Another of the lesser known areas of the underworld was known as The Fields of Punishment. It was thought to be located just above the entrance to Tartarus and was reserved for those who had committed heinous crimes against the gods.
It is said that Hades himself evaluated the behavior of each transgressor and then assigned a specific punishment to fit the nature of his deeds.
The realm of Tartarus was the most feared area in the land of the dead. According to Homer it was located deep beneath the underworld, sitting as far below Hades as did the earth sit below the heavens.
Hesiod gives us a bit more detail in his description by stating that a bronze anvil dropped from heaven would fall for nine days before reaching earth. It would then have to fall another nine days before touching ground in Tartarus.
Tartarus was a dark and foreboding pit, whose raging storms and formidable wind gusts induced terror inside all those who attempted to pass through its gates of iron.
The time period one needed to reach its bottom was no less than one year, as each step taken was greatly hindered by tremendous bursts of air. Early accounts usually depict Tartarus as a prison used to house those who had seriously erred against the gods.
Zeus in particular was known to cast his most despised enemies into this dungeon of primordial darkness, where they would then be subjected to unspeakable punishments. It was here that he placed many of the Titans after they failed to be victorious in their battle against the Olympians.
In the later texts, the nature of Tartarus was modified to include all those guilty of committing excessively wicked deeds. The three judges; Rhadamanthys, Aeacus and Minos were given the task of deciding which spirits would be condemned to spend the rest of eternity in the dreaded abyss.
It was thought that Rhadamanthys presided over the fate of Asian souls, Aeacus over those of European descent and Minos over the souls of newly departed Greeks.
According to the Roman poet Virgil, the hellish realm of Tartarus was completely surrounded by the fiery Phlegethon River. It was then protected by three massive walls designed to prevent its inhabitants from escaping the miseries of their punishments.
A fifty-headed hydra stood guard before the impenetrable gates and Tisiphone, the Fury of revenge, stood atop a tall tower, brandishing her whip and keeping an ever-watchful eye over the vast enclosure.
Tartarus was also personified as one of the primordial deities that predated the Olympian gods. Born third after Chaos and Gaia, Tartarus, was said to have fathered many of the monstrous offspring of the earth mother. Tartarus is sometimes identified with Erebus, another early deity who represented the incarnation of complete and total darkness.
There were many rivers and streams that flowed through the gloomy realm of the underworld. Information on the River Styx is plentiful through the Greek tales, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the lot.
Most of the texts agree that there were five major rivers and various smaller pools of water located throughout the land of the dead. I have tried my best to present a variety of interesting facts regarding each of the waterways. I have also included a few of the lesser known pools and streams for your enjoyment.
The Acheron River was also known as the River of Woe. Though it is common for most people to associate the River Styx with Charon's ferry route into the underworld, the earlier texts clearly indicate that the newly departed entered into Hades by way of the Acheron.
Under the guidance of Hermes the shades were led to the riverbank, where they paid a small traveler's fee before silently boarding the ghostly vessel.
There are quite a few varied descriptions pertaining to the River Acheron. In Homer's tale of the Odyssey the rivers Cocytus and Phlegethon were both said to flow directly into the body of the Acheron.
In a contradicting account, the Acheron is described as emptying its dense mud and sand into the Cocytus. In Virgil's poem The Aeneid, he refers to the Acheron as being the primary river in Tartarus, from where both the Styx and the Cocytus had their beginnings.
Plato claimed that the Acheron was second in size only to Oceanus and flowed beneath the desert areas of the earth until finally resting beside the edge of the Acherusian Lake.
In some of the later accounts Acheron was personified as being one of the sons of Gaia. He offended Zeus by providing water for the Titans during their revolt against the Olympians. For this act of treason Acheron was punished by being transformed into this melancholy river of the underworld.
Acheron was also considered to be the father of Ascalaphus, the infamous gardener of Hades, whose accusatory declaration doomed Persephone to spending six months of the year in the land of the dead.
The River Cocytus, also known as the River of Wailing or the River of Lamentation was another of the five rivers that encircled the realm of Hades. In some cases it was thought to flow into the River Acheron.
According to some accounts, those who were buried without a coin for the ferryman would be forced to remain upon its banks for a total of one hundred years.
Though the Cocytus does not play a big part in the myths of the Greeks, references to the formidable river can be found in other literary tales.
In Dante's Inferno the Cocytus was described as being a frozen lake located in the ninth circle of hell. It was here that traitors and those that were guilty of fraud could be found hopelessly imprisoned in the ice.
The degree to which they were buried ranged from neck high to completely covered, depending upon the severity of their crimes.
The Phlegethon was known as the River of Fire. According to Plato it flowed parallel to the River Styx and traveled down into the deepest levels of Tartarus.
Like the Cocytus, the Phlegethon also played a part in the pages of Dante's Inferno. Located at the edge of the fifth circle of hell, the Phlegethon was depicted as being a river of boiling blood.
Here, floating among the scalding waves could be found all those who had committed inexcusable acts of violence against their fellow man.
The River Lethe was sometimes referred to as the River of Forgetfulness or the Pool of Forgetfulness. It was thought to border upon the entrance of the Fields of Elysium, just opposite of the Pool of Memory and beside the palace of Hades and Persephone.
It was said that as Lethe traveled around the cave of Hypnos the sound of her gentle murmuring brought about deep and restful sleep.
In order to relinquish all memory of their past lives on earth, new arrivals to the underworld were required to drink from her waters. Virgil tells us in the Aeneid that only after all earthly memories are purged through the powers of Lethe was the soul capable of being reborn.
Lethe was personified as being the goddess of oblivion and forgetfulness. According to Hesiod Lethe was the daughter of Eris (discord) and was often depicted as being the goddess of indifference and absence of mind.
The River Styx, also known as the River of Hate was the main waterway of the underworld. Most texts seem to agree that her beginnings started from within Oceanus and continued on into the land of the dead. Robert Graves tells us that the Styx was the boundary line which separated the earth from the western side of Tartarus.
Virgil tells us that the River Styx encircled the underworld nine times before coming to rest on a plot known as the Stygian Marsh. Considered to be the center of Hades, it was at this point that all five rivers came together.
As I have previously stated, there seems to be a bit of a controversy regarding which river was actually used to ferry the newly arriving spirits into the underworld; the Styx or the Acheron. Though the Acheron was named in earlier texts, later accounts indicate that the Styx was Charon's route of choice.
When Styx is personified she is usually said to be the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, as well as the wife of the Titan Pallas. During the great battle of the gods and titans, Styx, along with her four children Force, Power, Zeal and Victory were the first to come to the aid of Zeus and the other Olympians.
In order to reward Styx for her loyalty, Zeus promised to keep her children with him forever. He also decreed that by her name alone would the most inviolable oaths of the gods be sworn.
According to Hesiod, when it came to be that one of the immortals desired to swear a solemn oath, Iris was first sent to fill a golden pitcher with the frigid waters of the Styx. This was then poured over the god's head as he loudly invoked the name of the daunting river.
If the vow was ever broken, the god would find himself deeply lost in a coma for the length of one year. During this time he would neither eat nor drink, nor speak nor think, but instead lay flat and immobile upon a bed of marble.
Upon his waking he would once again regain all of his physical abilities, but would be barred from the company of his fellow Olympians until an additional nine more years had passed.
In rare cases Styx is sometimes said to be the mother of Persephone by Zeus. In an even more obscure account it has been purported that she also gave birth to Echidne by Peiras, the son of King Argus of Argos.
The Ascherusian Lake is an area of the underworld that in my opinion is often overlooked. Plato describes it in his dialogue Phaedo as a place where victims were given the task of deciding the appropriate length of time their offenders were to be punished.
Those malefactors thought to be redeemable were sentenced to spend one year in Tartarus. At the end of the allotted time period they were then carried out of the abyss by a strong current and quickly drawn to the Lake of Acherusia.
Here they would cry out to those they had wronged, imploring them for permission to enter into the lake. If mercy was shown, the transgressor's suffering would cease and his damnation would come to an end.
Those who were not absolved of their crimes were returned to Tartarus, where they were forced to repeat the agonizing journey until amends were sufficiently made to all those who had been dishonored.
The Pool of Memory was a spring of water located just past the Asphodel Fields. It rested under the shade of a white poplar tree positioned directly beside the palace of Hades and Persephone. It was ruled by the Titaness Mnemosyne, who in the post-Homeric world represented the aspect of memory in physical form.
The Pool of Memory is often associated with the Mysteries of Orpheus and the reincarnation of the soul. Upon arriving in the underworld, the new initiates were advised to refrain from tasting the forgetful waters of Lethe and instead seek out the Pool of Memory.
All those desiring a drink were first required to recite an Orphic phrase to the guardians of the underworld. After sipping from the magical spring, the shades were granted the ability to recall all events of their past, thus allowing the individual soul to retain all facets of itself in the afterlife.
Though Hades was usually content to remain secluded in his underground kingdom, there were a few instances when the beauty of a female caused the usually grim spirited god to venture into the light of the upper world.
One such occasion centered around a Cocythian nymph name Minthe who found herself entranced by the sight of Hades and his radiant chariot of gold. The god was having no problem attracting attention to himself, and would have most likely succeeded in seducing the impressionable young girl had not Queen Persephone intervened.
Though the Roman poet Ovid tells us that Persephone, in order to spare the maiden of Hades' lustful desires quickly transformed her into the sweet smelling mint plant, there are other writers who see the story in a different light.
An opposing point of view comes to us through the poet Oppian. In his poem Halieutica, he states that Minthe, who had already been romantically involved with Hades became enraged when he took Persephone as his wife.
In a fit of jealousy, the scorned nymph loudly boasted that it would not be long before Hades returned to her, as she clearly surpassed Persephone in both beauty and nobility.
Upon hearing these words, Demeter hurried to her daughter's defense and promptly trampled Minthe into the ground causing a stem of mint to sprout up in her place.
On another occasion Hades found himself in love with a beautiful Oceanid by the name of Leuce. According to Robert Graves when the young nymph tried to resist the god's sexual advances she was transformed into a white poplar tree and placed beside the Pool of Memory.
In a more uncommon version of the story we find Leuce to be the willing lover of Hades. At the time of her death the god was so filled with grief that he changed his beloved into a white poplar tree and set her next to the Pool of Memory. It is for this reason that the leaves of the white poplar are associated with the underworld and sacred to the god of the dead.
Another tale that clearly illustrates the dangers of angering the gods is the story of Theseus and his best friend Peirithous. It seems that one day the two young men found themselves in need of some female companionship.
In the wake of weighing all of their options, the randy pair decided there could no better place to start than with the daughters of Zeus. While Theseus fancied the company of the lovely Helen of Greece, Peirithous set his sights on a more significant trophy; Hades' young bride Persephone.
After first kidnaping Helen, they promptly placed her in the care of Theseus' mother Aertha and set off on their dangerous quest to retrieve Persephone. The two traveled to the most southern tip of Greece where they ultimately entered into the underworld through the passageway at Taenarum.
Carefully they made their way through the gloomy kingdom, until finally reaching the palace of the dead. Without any sign of emotion, Hades listened quietly as Peirithous revealed the purpose of his visit.
As any good host would do, Hades promptly invited his guests to sit down and rest while he called for refreshments to be brought to his chamber. Relieved that the god was taking their presumptuous venture in stride, the two heroes smiled and unwittingly took a seat upon Hades' couch.
In an instant their flesh became permanently attached to the back of the davenport! Here they remained until Heracles, while in the underworld performing one of his twelve labours saw the unfortunate duo and tried to release them.
Theseus was easily loosened from the chair, but when the strong man tried to pry Peirithous free the ground trembled with such force that he could not continue. Heracles had no other choice but to leave Peirithous behind, where he can still be found doing penance to the Lord of the Dead.
Medea's Lair Of Greek Mythology © 1999-2016.