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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.
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
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
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.