Ancient Greeks believed that all dead people ended up in a dark underworld called Hades (Άδης), where three judges determined their fate in the afterlife.
God of the Underworld Hades (also known as Pluto) and his wife Persephone ruled the place. Hades was the eldest son of Cronus and Rhea.
He was the last son and this made him the last son to be regurgitated by his father. He and his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, defeated their father’s generation of gods, the Titans, and jointly ruled over the Cosmos.
Hades received the underworld, Zeus the sky, and Poseidon the sea, with the solid earth, Gaia, owned by all three concurrently.
The three judges were like Hades’ ministers who would decide the dead’s placement in the Underworld.
Judgement upon death is an important aspect of most religions of the world. In Roman Catholic Church, it is Saint Peter who decides if the soul of a dead person can enter the Pearly Gates or not.
In Ancient Greek mythology, Hermes would come to collect the soul of the deceased and lead them to Charon (Χάρων), who would ferry them across the River Acheron, one of the five rivers that lead to the Underworld and to Hades.
Ancient Greek tradition dictated that among the funeral rites was the placement of coins between the lips of the dead to compensate Charon for the passage. Those who had no coin between their lips to pay the ferryman, would be left to wander aimlessly along the banks of Acheron.
Once before the gates of Hades, the dead had to pass through Cerberus, a wild three-headed dog-like creature with a serpent’s tail that guarded the dead from leaving.
The Three Judges of the Greek Underworld: Rhadamanthus
Once the dead passed through Cerberus, they would come across the three judges of the Greek Underworld, Rhadamanthus (Ραδάμανθυς), Aeacus (Αιακός), and Minos (Μίνως).
All three men were Zeus’ offspring from mating with either a human female or a minor female nature deity. They were granted their status in death as a reward for establishing law and order on earth.
At one point, the wise king of Crete, Rhadamanthus, was considered demigod, son of Zeus and Europa. He was the brother of Minos. For others, he was son of Hephaestus, god of fire and volcanoes.
Once the king of Crete, he was known for his fair legislation. There is a reference by Apollodorus of a law of Rhadamanthus dictating that if one defends himself against another who initiated violence, then he should suffer no penalty.
Rhadamanthus was the judge of the men coming from Asia and also the lord of Elysium, also known as the Elysian Fields (Ancient Greek: Ἠλύσιον πεδίον, Ēlýsion pedíon), a paradisial place that included those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic. There, they would live a blessed and happy afterlife, and indulge in whatever enjoyment they had enjoyed in life.
Aeacus (Αιακός) was a son of Zeus, born to the nymph Aegina. Zeus had abducted the beautiful nymph and then took her on the island that would later bear her name.
Ancient myth has it that Zeus promised Aeacus that he would become king of the island of Aegina and give him a population to rule over by turning the ants on the island into people, the Myrmidons. The famous warrior Achilles, mentioned in Homer’s Iliad comes from the House of Myrmidons.
Aeacus had two sons, Telamon and Peleus. As a king, he was famed for his piety and impartiality when it came to passing judgements. People visited Aegina to have their problems resolved by the king.
Once he became a demigod, Aeacus would judge the deceased of Europe, but he was also known as the Doorkeeper of Hades, for he was said to be in control of the keys to the Underworld.
Minos: The Third Judge of the Greek Underworld
Minos was a mythical king on the island of Crete. He was also the son of Zeus and Europa. He was famous for creating a successful code of laws and excellent educational system. He also made Crete a naval superpower.
The king of Crete is best known for his role in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. When Minos’ son, Androgeos, went to Athens, he was killed while fighting a bull.
Minos went to Athens to avenge his son’s death, and with the help of Zeus, he managed to install a capital tax on the Athenians; every nine years, seven boys and seven girls from Athens would be sent to Crete to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a part man and part bull creature. He was held in the Labyrinth, a maze under the palace of Minos.
Eventually, the hero Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne.
Following his death, Minos became one of the three judges of the dead in the underworld. He was the one who had the deciding vote.