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Mythology Greek Mythology- Underworld Deities October 25, 2005 The underworld deities are an interesting lot and usually stand as dark or morbid in contrast to the sky or sea gods. That is not to say they were evil. Though underworld gods often were connected with death, magic, and darkness they were not considered evil in our sense of the word. Libations The traditional way to honor the underworld deities as well as the spirits of the dead was through libation. A libation was a liquid offering poured on the ground so it could be absorbed into the earth. While burnt offerings were thought to reach the gods on Olympos, libations were required to reach the gods of the underworld. In the case of an offering made to a dead ancestor, the libation would be poured directly on the grave. Occasionally underworld deities were given burnt Roman mosaic showing a man pouring a libation. offerings too. Typically such an offering would be an animal with a black coat burnt in a sunken pit. This would stand in contrast to a typical burnt offering to the Olympians, which would be of an animal with a pure coat sacrificed on a raised altar. Furthermore in a sacrifice to the Olympians the meat of the animal would usually be saved to be eaten, while in a sacrifice to the underworld gods the whole animal would be burned and the ashes buried. Libations and burnt offerings were often made together so that one or the other sets of gods would not become angry at being excluded. Libations were most often performed using wine, although libations of vinegar, oil, honey or even fresh water were also made. It was thought that the libation would summon spirits close to the surface so that they could hear the prayers of the one offering the libations. The second play in the Oresteia (the only surviving Greek dramatic trilogy) is called the Choiepheroi, or Libationbearers. Chthonic Deities The word chthonic means "pertaining to the earth" and more specifically the world below the earth. The link between deities of the earth and deities of the underworld is somewhat vague, and such characters as Persephone who is both queen of the underworld and goddess of spring show this link. The ruler of the underworld is Hades. He is also called Plouton, and this name (which means wealth) shows the connection between earth and the underworld, since the wealth refers to the fertility of the earth as well as mineral wealth. In his guise as Plouton, Hades is often shown holding a bushel of grain. Hades' queen is Persephone whom Hades carried into the underworld while she was gathering flowers with a group of nymphs (female nature spirits). She was also called Kore (which simply means maiden). She was bound to the underworld after eating pomegranate seeds offered to her by Hades. Her mother, the earth goddess Demeter, mourned her abduction and withdrew her gift of fertility from the earth in protest. Although Zeus assented to Hades choice of Persephone for his wife, Demeter's demand for Persephone's return Hades abducting Persephone forced him to intervene. He ruled that because Persephone had only eaten a few pomegranate seeds she need only spend part of the year in the underworld. Persephone was depicted as a vengeful and jealous goddess, much like Hera. When she caught Hades dallying with the nymph Minthe, Persephone turned her into a mint plant. When she caught the nymph Leuke and Hades together she turned Leuke into a white poplar tree. According to one myth she desired the company of the mortal Adonis, and competed with Aphrodite for his affections. When Aphrodite prevailed, Persephone (as one account suggests) told Ares, Aphrodite's jealous lover, of the affair. Ares, in the form of a wild boar, gored Adonis to death. Adonis' soul descended into the underworld where he spent the winter months with Persephone. The summer months he spent with Aphrodite for she had convinced Zeus to make part of his soul immortal. The goddess Aphrodite holds the dying Adonis in this 5th century vase painting. The goddess of night, Nyx, and her consort, Erebos, were also considered chthonic deities. Nyx's children: Hypnos (sleep), Thanatos (death), Moros (doom), Nemesis (retribution) and the three Moirai (fates) were also underworld deites. Other chthonic deities included the children of Hypnos, the three Oneiroi: Morpheus (dream), Ikelos (satisfaction), and Phantasmos (fantasy). The Erinyes (furies) are also underworld deities who in some accounts are the children of Nyx, while in others they were born from the blood of Ouranos that spilt onto Gaia when he was castrated by Kronos. There were three Erinyes: Alekto (unresting), Megaera (jealous), and Tisiphone (avenger). The name Erinyes (since it means "furies") was considered to be rude and they were not commonly called by that name as it was thought that calling them that might bring their wrath upon you. As a euphemism, they were called Eumenides, meaning "the solemn ones". The myth of how they earned that name is told in the play Eumenides by Aischylos, which is the third play in the Oresteia. Another underworld goddess was Hekate, the goddess of magic, who was an attendant of Persephone. She was the daughter of two second generation Titans: Perses and Astereia. Dogs were sacred to her and the Greeks thought that even when she walked the earth invisible to mortals, dogs could still sense her. She was also a goddess of the crossroads and that is reflected in her Roman name: Trivia (three roads). She is sometimes depicted in statuary as a three headed goddess, though she is rarely shown with three heads in painted art. 5th century vase painting showing Hekate delivering Persephone (who is kneeling) to her mother Demeter (who is standing at the right). The god Hermes watches. The Rivers of the Underworld Styx (hateful) is the most famous river in the underworld. Three other rivers converge with Styx at the center of Hades. These are Phlegethon (fire), Acheron (woe), and Cocytos (wailing). When the gods had to make oaths, they made their oaths by the river Styx. It was the strongest oath one could make. Breaking an oath made by the river Styx meant you had to drink from the river, which would strike you mute for nine years. The ferryman over the Acheron was Charon, who charged an obolos (a type of coin) for passage across the river. In Greek burial rites the dead would be buried with coins over their eyes to pay the ferryman. The souls of the unburied dead (or those buried without proper rites) would be condemned to spend their lives as lost souls wandering the river banks. According to some accounts Charon was a son of Nyx and Erebos. Two other rivers in the underworld are mentioned. The first is Lethe (forgetfulness), which the dead drink from to forget their past lives. The second was the Eridanos (parched), which was mentioned by Hesiod and was supposed to have been the body of water that Phaiton, son of Helios, fell into after he was struck by Zeus' thunderbolt, and knocked out of the sky. The Roman poet Virgil also mentions the Eridanos as a river of the underworld. Past the river Acheron, the gate to Hades was guarded by Kerberos (Cerberus) a three-headed dog that was the offspring of Echidna and Typhon. Kerberos would allow souls to enter Hades, but not to leave. He would also attack living mortals who attempted to enter Hades, although there are myths where a few mortals (either by strength or skill) manage to get in anyway. Having three heads meant that Kerberos was three times as alert as a normal watchdog, since even if one head fell asleep the other two would still be awake. We'll see that the musician Orpheus got into Hades by playing a song that put all three heads to sleep at once. Funerary stele showing (at the top) the ferryman Charon accepting a passenger. The hero Herakles with the three-headed watchdog Kerberos The Geography of the Underworld The underworld was traditionally divided into two or three areas. It seems that at one point the names Erebos (darkness) and Hades (unseen) referred to the same place. Eventually the name Hades became the preferred name to describe the realm of the dead. Connected to Hades, but far beneath it, was Tartaros. Tartaros was the part of the underworld where Zeus imprisoned those who had committed crimes against the gods. The Titans, Typhon, and the Aloadai (Otos and Ephialtes) were confined there. Zeus also imprisoned several mortal sinners there. The main difference between Hades and Tartaros seems to have been that the prisoners in Tartaros were actively tormented. The closest the Greeks came to the concept of a paradise in the afterlife was Elysion, also called the Isle of the Blest. This was contrasted with Tartaros and described (especially by later poets) as a place of eternal bliss where the souls of dead heroes and those rewarded by the gods go after death. Homer mentions Elysion as being far to the west at the end of the world. Others put it somewhere below the earth opposite Tartaros (though how that would work geographically is not clear). Regardless of its location, it was place reserved for the heroic dead, not necessarily the morally good. As we'll see later, the Greeks held heroics in the same high regard society today holds moral goodness. Roman statue of Trivia (Hekate) 1st century BC relief carving of souls in Elysion. The goddess Hekate kills the giant Klytios in this relief carving. If you look carefully you can see Hekate's dog biting one of the giant's serpentine legs. The god Hermes stands over the body of Eos' son Memnon while Thanatos and Hypnos, the two sons of Nyx, carry him away.