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The Concepts of Heaven and Hell in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece Heaven and Hell
The Hades Amphora, depicting Hades (right) and Persephone (left). Painted by “The Oionokles Painter.” Detail from an Attic red-figure amphora, ca. 470 BC. Louvre Museum. Credit: User:Jastrow/CC BY 3.0

The Ancient Greece concepts for Heaven and Hell are of course different in many ways from those propounded by Christianity, but in other aspects they closely mirror the horror and the ecstasies of these places that we associate them with today.

Like the Christian concept of Hell, the Greek underworld had a ruler who was closely associated with its domain, the eponymous god, Hades.

But strangely, the Greek concept of Heaven did not have a god or goddess who personified its rarefied realms; the ruler of Elysium varies from author to author in Greek history. Pindar and Hesiod name Cronus as the ruler while the poet Homer in his Odyssey describes fair-haired Rhadamanthus as the one who dwelt there.

Hades and Persephone
A depiction of Hades abducting Persephone, from the fresco in the small Macedonian royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, c. 340 BC. Credit: Unknown/Public Domain

Elysium, or the Elysian Fields (Ancient Greek: Ἠλύσιον πεδίον, Ēlýsion pedíon) is a conception of the afterlife that developed over time and was a tenet of some Greek religious and philosophical sects and cults.

It was initially separated from the Greek underworld and realm of Hades, and only mortals related to the gods and other heroes could be admitted here.

Later, in a version that was more closely akin to the later beliefs of Christianity, the conception of who could enter the heavenly realm was expanded to include those chosen by the gods, as well as the righteous and those who were heroic.

They would remain luxuriating in the Elysian Fields after death to live a blessed and happy life and indulge in whatever employment they had enjoyed while they were living, according to the belief system of Ancient Greece.

Hades and his three-headed dog, Cerberus. Detail of Pluto/Serapis, statue group of Persephone (as Isis) and Pluto (as Serapis), from the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods at Gortyna, mid-2nd century AD, Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0

Hades was Ancient Greece God of the Dead, King of the Underworld

Hades (ᾍδης Hádēs; Ἅιδης Háidēs), in ancient Greek mythology, is the god of the dead and the king of the underworld with which his name became synonymous.

Hades was the grandson of Uranus, the god of the heavens, and Gaia, the goddess of the Earth. He was the eldest son of Cronus and Rhea although he was the last son regurgitated by his father. He and his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, defeated their father’s generation of gods, the Titans, and claimed rulership over the cosmos.

Perhaps from fear of even pronouncing his name, around the 5th century BC, the Greeks started referring to Hades as Plouton (Πλούτων, Ploútōn), with a root meaning “wealthy,” considering that from the abode below (i.e., the soil) come riches (e.g., fertile crops, metals and so on).

People would sometimes refer to him as “Zeus katachthonios” (Ζεὺς καταχθόνιος), meaning “the Zeus of the Underworld,” by those who felt they had to avoid saying his actual name since he had complete control over the Underworld.

Hades, as the god of the dead, was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him, they were reluctant to swear oaths in his name and averted their faces when sacrificing to him. Since to many, simply to say the word “Hades” was frightening, euphemisms were pressed into use.

In addition, he was called Clymenus (“notorious”), Polydegmon (“who receives many”) and perhaps Eubuleus (“good counsel” or “well-intentioned”); all of them were euphemisms for a name that was unsafe to pronounce, which evolved into epithets.

Since precious minerals come from under the earth (i.e., the “underworld” ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well. Sophocles explained the notion of referring to Hades as Plouton with these words: “the gloomy Hades enriches himself with our sighs and our tears.”

He spent most of the time in his dark realm. Formidable in battle, he proved his ferocity in the famous Titanomachy, the battle of the Olympians versus the Titans, which established the rule of Zeus, according to the mythology of Ancient Greece.

Feared and loathed, Hades embodied the inexorable finality of death: “Why do we loathe Hades more than any god, if not because he is so adamantine and unyielding?” This rhetorical question is Agamemnon’s in Homer’s Iliad.

As his birthright, Hades received the underworld, Zeus the sky, and Poseidon the sea; however, the earth, which had long been the province of Gaia, was open to all three gods concurrently for any actions they wished to carry out.

Hades was often portrayed with his three-headed guard dog, Cerberus.

Sacrifices to Hades involved black animals, touching heads to ground

Hades was not, however, an evil god, for although he was stern, cruel, and unpitying, he was viewed as a just one. Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself. That was Thanatos, the son of Nyx and Erebus, who was the actual personification of death in Ancient Greece.

When the Greeks propitiated Hades, they banged their hands on the ground to be sure he would hear them. Black animals, such as sheep, were sacrificed to him. The blood from all chthonic sacrifices, including those to propitiate Hades, dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person who offered the sacrifice had to avert his face.

The Etruscan god Aita and the Roman gods Dis Pater and Orcus were eventually taken as equivalent to Hades and merged into Pluto, a Latinization of Plouton (Greek: Πλούτων, Ploútōn), which was itself a more euphemistic title often given to Hades.

Plouton became the Roman god who both rules the underworld and distributed riches from below. This deity was a mixture of the Greek god Hades and the Eleusinian icon Ploutos.

The origin of Hades’ name is uncertain, but has generally been seen as meaning “the unseen one” since the time of Ancient Greece. An extensive section of Plato’s dialogue Cratylus is devoted to the etymology of the god’s name in which Socrates is arguing for a folk etymology—not from “unseen” but from “his knowledge (eidenai) of all noble things.”

Other epithets of Hades include Agesander (Ἀγήσανδρος) and Agesilaos (Ἀγεσίλαος), both from ágō (ἄγω, “lead”, “carry” or “fetch”) and anḗr (ἀνήρ, “man”) or laos (λαός, “men” or “people”). These describe Hades as the god who carries people away.

The Origin and Life of Hades in Ancient Greece mythology

He had three older sisters—Hestia, Demeter, and Hera, as well as a younger brother, Poseidon, the god of the sea—all of whom had been swallowed whole by their father as soon as they were born. Zeus was the youngest child and, through the machinations of their mother, Rhea, he was the only one that had escaped this fate.

Upon reaching adulthood, Zeus managed to force his father to disgorge his siblings. After their release, the six younger gods, along with allies they managed to gather, challenged the elder gods for power in the Titanomachy, a divine war.

The war lasted for ten years and ended with the victory of the younger gods. Following their victory, according to a single famous passage in the Iliad (Book XV, ln.187–93), Hades and his two brothers, Poseidon and Zeus, drew lots for realms to rule.

Zeus received the sky, Poseidon received the seas, and Hades received the underworld, the unseen realm to which the souls of the dead go upon leaving the world. Some Ancient Greece myths suggest that Hades was dissatisfied with his inheritance but having no choice, he moved to his new realm.

Hades and his consort, Persephone

Hades obtained his wife and queen, Persephone, in the usual, violent way that occurred throughout Greek mythology—through abduction, at the behest of Zeus. This myth is the most important one in which Hades takes part.

It also connected the Eleusinian Mysteries with the Olympian pantheon, particularly as represented in the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” which is the oldest story of the abduction and most likely dates back to the beginning of the 6th century BC. Helios, the god of the sun, told the grieving Demeter that Hades was worthy as a consort for her daughter Persephone.

Helios said: “Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.”

Hades as a being and a place in the world of Ancient Greece differs in a meaningful way with the concept of Hell and Satan as Christianity traditionally understands these concepts.

Hades himself was often portrayed as passive rather than evil; his role was often maintaining a relative balance between the worlds. He was depicted usually as merely cold and stern, and he held all of his subjects equally accountable to his laws.

Interestingly, any other individual aspects of his personality have not been noted in the literature since apparently Greeks refrained from giving him much thought to avoid attracting his attention.

Hell—Underworld “Full of Guests” who could not leave

The House of Hades was described as full of “guests,” though he himself rarely left the Underworld. He cared little about what happened in the world above since his primary attention appeared to be ensuring that none of his subjects ever left his domain.

Red Krater with Scene from the Underworld, by a follower of the “Baltimore Painter,” Hermitage Museum. Credit: Wmpearl /CC0

He strictly forbade his subjects from leaving his domain and would become enraged when anyone tried to leave or if someone tried to steal souls from his realm. His wrath was equally terrible for anyone who tried to cheat death or otherwise crossed him, as Sisyphus and Pirithous found out to their sorrow.

While usually indifferent to his subjects, Hades was very focused on the punishment of these two people and particularly Pirithous since he had entered the underworld in an attempt to steal Persephone for himself and was consequently forced onto the “Chair of Forgetfulness.”

Hades was only depicted outside of the Underworld once in the mythology of Ancient Greece, and even that is believed to have been an instance where he had just left the gates of the Underworld. Heracles shot Hades with an arrow as the latter was attempting to defend the city of Pylos.

After he was shot, however, he traveled to Mount Olympus to heal. Besides Heracles, the only other living people who ventured to the Underworld were also heroes: Odysseus, Aeneas (accompanied by the Sibyl), and Orpheus—to whom Hades, who was moved by Orpheus’ music, showed uncharacteristic mercy at Persephone’s urging.

In addition, Theseus appeared there with Pirithous, and, in a late romance, Psyche did, as well. None of them were pleased with what they witnessed in the realm of the dead. In particular, the Greek war hero Achilles, whom Odysseus conjured with a blood libation, said in the Odyssey:

“O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another
Man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on,
Than be a king over all the perished dead.”

Hades and Persephone
Hades is shown with his consort, Persephone. Tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440–430 BC Credit: User:Jastrow/CC BY 2.5

According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone did not submit to Hades willingly but was abducted by him while picking flowers in the fields of Nysa. Her father, Zeus, had previously given Persephone to Hades to be his wife, as is stated in the first lines of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

In protest of his act of violence, Demeter cast a curse on the land and there was a great famine in Ancient Greece; despite the gods requesting that she lift it, lest mankind perish and cause the gods to be deprived of their receiving gifts and sacrifices, Demeter declared that the earth would remain barren until she saw her beloved daughter again.

Zeus then sends for his son, Hermes, and instructs him to go down to the Underworld in hopes that he may be able to convince Hades to allow Persephone to return to Earth so that Demeter might see her daughter once again and cause the famine to stop.

Hermes relays Zeus’ message, and Hades complies, saying:

“Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me: be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods, that am own brother to father Zeus. And while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.”

Zeus, however, had previously proposed a compromise, to which all parties had agreed: of the year, Persephone would spend one-third with her husband. It is during this time, when Persephone is down in the Underworld with her husband, that winter falls upon the earth, “an aspect of sadness and mourning.”

Hades Abduction of Persephone
Hades’ Abduction of Persephone. 18th Century. Oil on wood with gilt background. Credit: Property of Missing Link Antiques. Public Domain

The Dichotomy of Hades and Dionysus in Ancient Greece

The philosopher Heraclitus, unifying opposites, declared that Hades and Dionysus, the very essence of indestructible life (zoë), were the same god. Among other evidence, Karl Kerényi notes in “Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter” that the Homeric Hymn To Demeter, votive marble images, and epithets all link Hades to being Dionysus.

He also notes that the grieving goddess Demeter refused to drink wine, as she states that it would be unfit for her to drink wine, which is the gift of Dionysus, after Persephone’s abduction, because of this association. This indicates that Hades may in fact have been a “cover name” for the underworld Dionysus.

He suggests that this dual identity may have been familiar to those who came into contact with the Mysteries. Dionysus also shared several epithets with Hades, such as Chthonios (“the subterranean”), Eubouleus (“Good Counselor”), and Euclius (“glorious” or “renowned”).

Evidence for a cult connection is quite extensive, particularly in southern Italy, especially when considering the death symbolism included in Dionysian worship. Statues of Dionysus found in the Ploutonion at Eleusis gives further evidence as the statue bears a striking resemblance to the statue of Eubouleus, also known as the youthful depiction of the Lord of the Underworld.

Both Hades and Dionysus were associated with a divine tripartite deity with Zeus. The Orphics, in particular, believed that Zeus and Hades were the same deity and portrayed them as such.

Zeus was portrayed as having an incarnation in the underworld, identifying him as literally being Hades and leading to Zeus and Hades essentially being two representations and different facets of the same god and extended divine power. This is strikingly similar to Satan in Christian theology, who was once an angel himself before being sent to Hell to rule there.

This nature and aspect of Hades and Zeus displayed in the Orphic stories is the explanation for why both Hades and Zeus are considered to be the father of Melinoë and Zagreus. The role of unifying Hades, Zeus, and Dionysus as a single tripartite god was used to represent the birth, death, and resurrection of a deity and to unify the ‘shining’ realm of Zeus and the dark realm of Hades that lay beneath the Earth.

Artistic representations of Hades or Hell very few and far between

Hades was depicted so infrequently in artwork, as well as mythology, because the Greeks were so afraid of him. His artistic representations are generally found in Archaic pottery.

He was later presented in the classical arts in the depictions of the Rape of Persephone. Within these illustrations, Hades was often young, yet he was also shown at various ages in other works.

Due to this lack of depictions, there weren’t very strict guidelines when representing the deity. On pottery, he has a dark beard and is presented as a stately figure on an “ebony throne.” His attributes in art include a scepter, cornucopia, rooster, and a key, which both represented his control over the underworld and acted as a reminder that the gates of the Underworld were always locked so that souls could not leave.

Even if the doors were open, Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, ensured that while all souls were allowed to enter into The Underworld freely, none could ever escape. The dog is often portrayed next to the god as a means of easy identification since no other deity relates to it so directly.

Sometimes, artists painted Hades as looking away from the other gods, as he was disliked by them as well as humans.

As Plouton, he was regarded in a more positive light. He holds a cornucopia representing the gifts he bestows upon people as well as fertility to which he becomes connected.

Elysium Funeral vase
An Ancient Greek funeral vase showing a scene from the afterlife believed to represent Elysium. On the face a young woman and a youth pick apples from a tree. This unique allegoric theme apparently alludes to the afterlife in the Elysian Fields. Credit: Jerónimo Roure Pérez/CC BY-SA 4.0

Realm of Hades included Elysium, Asphodel Meadows, and Tartarus

There were several sections of the realm of Hades according to the mythology of Ancient Greece, including Elysium, the Asphodel Meadows, and Tartarus. The mythographer Apollodorus, describes Tartarus as “a gloomy place in Hades as far distant from Earth, as Earth is distant from the sky.” This realm, of course, most closely resembles what may Christians may conceive of as Hell.

For Hellenes, the deceased entered the underworld by crossing the Styx, ferried across by Charon, who charged an obolus, a small coin for passage placed in the mouth of the deceased by pious relatives.

Greeks offered propitiatory libations to prevent the deceased from returning to the upper world to “haunt” those who had not given them a proper burial. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog defeated by Heracles. Passing beyond Cerberus, the shades of the departed entered the land of the dead to be judged.

The Styx formed the boundary between the upper and lower worlds.

The first region of Hades comprised the Fields of Asphodel, described in the Odyssey, where the shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats. Only libations of blood offered to them in the world of the living can reawaken in them for a time the sensations of humanity.

Beyond lay Erebus, which could be taken for a euphonym of Hades, whose own name was dread. There were two pools, that of Lethe, where the common souls flocked to erase all memory, and the pool of Mnemosyne (“memory”), where the initiates of the Mysteries drank instead.

In the forecourt of the palace of Hades and Persephone sit the three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus. There at the trivium sacred to Hecate, where three roads meet, souls are judged, returned to the Fields of Asphodel if they are neither virtuous nor evil, sent by the road to Tartarus if they are impious or evil, or sent to Elysium (Islands of the Blessed) with the “blameless” heroes.

Elysium, or “Serenity,” by Henri Martin, based on the Classical understanding of heaven. Credit: Public Domain

Elysium was Heaven in Ancient Greece

The Elysian Fields were, according to Homer, located on the western edge of the Earth by the stream of Okeanos. In the time of the Greek poet Hesiod, Elysium would also be known as the “Fortunate Isles,” or the “Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed,” located in the western ocean at the end of the earth.

The Isles of the Blessed would be reduced to a single island by the Theban poet Pindar, describing it as having shady parks, with residents indulging in athletic and musical pastimes.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Elysium is described as a “paradise”:

“(T)o the Elysian plain…where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men.”

According to Eustathius of Thessalonica, the word “Elysium” (Ἠλύσιον) derives from ἀλυουσας (ἀλύω, to be deeply stirred from joy) or from ἀλύτως, synonymous of ἀφθάρτως (ἄφθαρτος, incorruptible),referring to souls’ lives in this place.

The Greek poet Hesiod refers to the “Isles of the Blest” in his didactic poem “Works and Days”:

“And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them.”

Pindar’s “Odes” describes the reward waiting for those living a righteous life:

“The good receive a life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of their arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance. But in the presence of the honored gods, those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at.”

In “Odes,” it is further written that: “Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, follow Zeus’ road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others. With these wreaths and garlands of flowers they entwine their hands according to the righteous counsels of Rhadamanthys, whom the great father, the husband of Rhea whose throne is above all others, keeps close beside him as his partner.”

In the Greek historian Plutarch’s “Life of Sertorius,” Elysium is described as:

“(T)he Islands of the Blest enjoy moderate rains at long intervals, and winds which for the most part are soft and precipitate dews, so that the islands not only have a rich soil which is excellent for plowing and planting, but also produce a natural fruit that is plentiful and wholesome enough to feed, without toil or trouble, a leisured folk.”

Additional descriptions of Elysium state: “Moreover, an air that is salubrious, owing to the climate and the moderate changes in the seasons, prevails on the islands…Therefore a firm belief has made its way, even to the Barbarians, that here is the Elysian Field and the abode of the blessed, of which Homer sang.”

Concept of Elysium, Heaven Continued Throughout History

Elysium as a pagan expression for paradise would eventually pass into usage by early Christian writers.

In Dante’s epic The Divine Comedy, Elysium is mentioned as the abode of the blessed in the lower world in the meeting of Aeneas with the shade of Anchises in the Elysian Fields: “With such affection did Anchises’ shade reach out, if our greatest muse is owed belief, when in Elysium he knew his son.”

In the Renaissance, the heroic population of the Elysian Fields tended to outshine its formerly dreary pagan reputation; the Elysian Fields borrowed some of the bright allure of paradise.

In Paris, the Champs-Élysées retains its name, the Elysian Fields, which was first applied in the late 16th century to a formerly rural outlier beyond the formal parterre gardens behind the royal French palace of the Tuileries. The nearby Élysée Palace houses the President of the French Republic, for which reason “l’Élysée” frequently appears as a metonym for the French presidency itself.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Viola says “My brother, he is in Elysium” she and Elizabethan audiences understand this as Paradise. In Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Papageno compares being in Elysium to winning his ideal woman: “Des Lebens als Weiser mich freun, Und wie im Elysium sein.” (“Enjoy life as a wise man, And feel like I’m in Elysium.”)

Miguel de Cervantes’ epic hero Don Quixote describes Dulcinea del Toboso as “beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her; for her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields.”

Concept of Heaven Strikingly Similar Throughout the Ages; Hades and Hell Differ Markedly

Whereas the ancient Greeks viewed Hades as cold and an impersonal judge of souls, Hell as most people conceive of it today is the very embodiment of evil. Perhaps that version of him and the place he ruled was nebulous and incomplete because they didn’t even dare to think of or write much about Hades since they were in fear of him.

Sometimes, Elysium is imagined as a place where heroes are free to continue their interests which they pursued in their lives. Others suppose it is a location filled with feasting, sport, and song. However one views Heaven, it seems clear that the concept of Heaven that has passed down through the ages from Ancient Greece bears a much greater resemblance to the Christian version that we have today than does the concept of Hell, or Hades.

Joy is the “daughter of Elysium” in Friedrich Schiller’s ode “To Joy”—the very hymn that embodies Europe itself as an anthem.



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