In ancient Greek and Roman Mythology, only a handful of mortals successfully witnessed the Underworld and returning to the living realm.
In ancient Greek and Roman Mythology, the Underworld or Hades was where the souls of the dead resided. Thanatos, the deity of death, made no exceptions. All mortals would inevitably reach the Underworld and stay there forever. Still, there were a few instances where a mortal went to the Underworld and returned to the living, a mythological journey known as a katabasis.
The Basics of the Underworld
The Underworld crater of Altamura, depicting an underworld scene with Hades and Persephone in the center, attributed to the circle of the Lycurgus painter, 360–340 BCE, via J Paul Getty Museum
The Underworld constituted a fundamental aspect of Greek and Roman Mythology and Religion. Most commonly called the realm of Hades, the Underworld was ruled by Pluto and his wife, Persephone (or Proserpina). In Hades, the souls of the dead resided alongside a series of deities, better known as the Chthonic Gods.
The Boat of Charon, by Otto Brausewetter, 1904, via Wikimedia Commons
In passing from the living to the dead, the souls were guided by the God Hermes in his form known as psychopompos (soul guide). To reach their final destination, the dead had to offer a coin to the immortal ferryman Charon, who would take them down the river Styx or Acheron, depending on the source. Cerberus, the terrifying three-headed hound, guarded the gates of Hades, ensuring that no one could enter or leave without permission.
A katabasis was a journey into the Underworld and entailed two parts: the traveling down (katabasis) and the traveling up (anabasis). These fascinating, mythical journeys offer us glimpses into the way the ancients imagined the afterlife. Some of the myths offer extensive descriptions of the journey, such as those of Odysseus and Aeneas, while others only mention that a certain hero, mortal, or god simply went to Hades and returned, as is the case with Alcestis and Semele.
Journeys into the Underworld
The central scene from the painting Jupiter and Semele, by Gustave Moreau, 1894-5, via Musee National de Gustave Moreau, Paris
Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, was impregnated by Zeus. Filled with jealousy, Hera caused the girl to doubt that Zeus was her lover. Semele then asked Zeus to swear on the waters of Styx that he would grant her whatever she asked. Zeus swore, and Semele asked to witness his real nature. Zeus begged her to change the request, but Semele insisted. Left with no other option, Zeus revealed his divine form, and Semele, unable to withstand it, burst into flames. At the last moment, Zeus saved Semele’s fetus and sewed it into his thigh.
The deity that came out of the thigh was Dionysus, god of wine and revelry. When he grew up, he went to Hades and rescued his mother, bringing her to Olympus to live among the gods.
Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma – The Choice Between Virtue and Vice, by Frans Francken the Younger, 1633, via Museum of Fine Arts Boston
The myth of Er is detailed towards the end of Plato’s Republic. Er is a warrior who died in battle but did not drink from the waters of Lethe, the river that makes the dead forget. Thus, he is able to recall what took place before his reincarnation.
In his journey, the good are rewarded with an afterlife in the sky, among wondrous sights. The bad are sent underground to be punished tenfold for the evils they caused while alive. After four days, the souls are led to the Spindle of Necessity, given a number by lot, and form a line to choose their next life.
An interesting idea is that the ones who were rewarded in the afterlife recklessly chose lives that would wield power but suffer misfortunes. Those who were punished tended to appreciate a simpler and presumably happier life. In addition, animals sought human lives, and humans who had experienced the anguish of human life sought the simplicity of an animal’s life. In Er’s vision, everyone went after what they didn’t have. Finally, the souls are taken to the river Lethe to become blank slates and be reincarnated.
According to Plato, only by understanding the Forms of Good through the study of philosophy could someone make informed choices repeatedly, ensuring that they picked good, happy lives.
12. Castor and Pollux
Castor and Pollux, by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1783, via ArtUK
Castor and Pollux were the legendary Spartan twin heroes and half-brothers known as the Dioscuri. Their mother was Leda, but Castor was the son of the Spartan king Tyndareus and Pollux of Zeus. Together they went on many adventures, including the Argonautic expedition. However, here, we will only examine the story of their death.
The story began when the Dioscuri abducted Phoebe and Hilaeira, who were betrothed to their cousins, Idas and Lycaeus. Sometime later, during a common raid in Arcadia, as the Dioscuri and their cousins were about to divide the loot — some cattle — Idas and Lycaeus tricked the Dioscuri and left with the whole herd.
When, at a later time, the Dioscuri attempted to steal the herd under their cousins’ noses, Idas and Lycaeus ambushed them. In the ensuing combat, Idas stabbed Castor, Pollux killed Lycaeus, and Zeus struck Idas with his thunder to save his son, Pollux. Zeus then asked Pollux to choose between keeping his immortality, he was a god’s son, after all, or sharing it with his dying brother.
Pollux chose to save Castor, and the brothers were allowed to spend “half the time below the earth, and half the time in the golden homes of heaven.” (Pindar, Nemean Ode 10). In another version of the myth, the Dioscuri became the Gemini constellation.
Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, by Frederic Lord Leighton, via ArtFund
Alcestis, the princess of Iolcus, became the wife of Admetus, the ruler of a Thessalian kingdom. In a post-marriage sacrifice, Admetus forgot to sacrifice properly to the goddess Artemis causing her rage. When Admetus went to his chambers, he found them filled with snakes, an omen of his approaching death.
Apollo, who liked Admetus, convinced the three Fates to accept someone else’s life in Admetus’s stead. Though his mother and father did not wish to take Admetus’ place in Hades, the young and beautiful Alcestis did.
According to Apollodorus’ Library (1.9.15), in the end, Alcestis returned to life either with the help of Heracles, who freed her in response to the hospitality Admetus had offered him, or by the will of Persephone.
Hyppolitum Dianae impulsu ad vitam revocat Aesculapius et Virbius vocatur, by Antonio Tempesta, 1606, via British Museum
Although there are many versions of Hippolytus’ story, more or less, the main narrative goes as follows.
Hippolytus — the son of Theseus — worshipped Artemis and refused to honor Aphrodite. To punish him, Aphrodite cursed his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. As Hippolytus refused her advances, Phaedra committed suicide and left a note blaming her stepson for raping her. Theseus asked his father, Poseidon, to punish Hippolytus for the alleged crime. The god caused the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot to go mad, overturning the chariot and dragging Hippolytus to death.
According to Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, Artemis ultimately revealed the truth to Theseus and ensured that Hippolytus’ memory would never be forgotten. However, Pausanias relates that after his death, Hippolytus was transformed into the constellation of the charioteer (Auriga) or was resurrected by Asclepius — the god of medicine — who was in his turn punished by Zeus for this act.
Venus and Adonis, by Simon Vouet, 1642, J. Paul Getty Museum
According to the tragic myth, king Cynyras of Cyprus was deceived into sleeping with Myrrha, his daughter. When he found out what had occurred, he sought to kill her. Myrrha begged the gods for mercy, and they transformed her into the myrrh tree from which the god Adonis was born.
Adonis was so beautiful that, according to Apollodorus’ Library (3.14.4), Aphrodite and Persephone argued over him while he was still an infant. Finally, they agreed that Adonis would stay with Aphrodite for two-thirds of the year and for the remaining one-third with Persephone in the Underworld.
Mixing Vessel with Hades and Persephone Watching a Fury Bind Theseus and Perithoös, attributed to the Suckling-Salting Group, 365–350 BCE, via Museo Archeologico Nazionale “G. Jatta”
Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, was good friends with Pirithous, king of the Lapiths. After losing their wives, the two men took an oath to help each other marry to daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen of Sparta and, with the help of his friend, took her as his wife. Pirithous, however, was more reckless and chose Persephone. Theseus understood that going to Hades, abducting the Queen right under Pluto’s nose, and returning to the surface was impossible. In vain, he urged his friend to reconsider, but Pirithous was not listening.
Unfortunately, their quest in Hades ended unsuccessfully. According to different versions of the myth, when they sat down to rest, they were either shackled or enchanted to remain still. In both cases, they remained trapped in Hades.
Heracles later tried to help them but only managed to save Theseus. Pirithous’ offense was apparently too grave to be allowed to return to the surface.
Psyche in the Underworld, by Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1735-39, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Psyche, a young princess of unrivaled beauty, fell in love with Cupid (or Eros), the god of love. At some point in the story, as found in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, Cupid was imprisoned by his mother, Venus (Aphrodite).
To release Cupid, the goddess requested three “impossible” tasks. The final task required the delivery of a box to Persephone. The Queen of Hades would fill the box with some of her beauty, and Psyche would have to return it to Venus without peaking inside.
To reach the Underworld, Psyche traveled to cape Taenaron near Sparta and followed a certain path while holding a barley cake soaked in honeyed wine in each hand and two coins in her mouth.
A series of challenges occurred, all designed to make Psyche leave the cakes on the ground. A man with a donkey asked for help with some sticks that had fallen on the road. Charon, the ferryman, requested a coin, but Psyche ensured that he took it from her mouth with his own hands. Psyche also ignored the calls of a corpse who asked to be taken aboard the ferry and some women looming who requested her.
Psyche offered one barley cake to Cerberus and entered the gates of Persephone’s halls. The Queen asked Psyche to sit, but she squatted and asked for common bread when offered food. After Persephone left part of her beauty in the box, Psyche offered the second cake to Cerberus, gave Charon the other coin, and left the Underworld.
In the daylight, however, she succumbed to the temptation and opened the box. Instead of beauty, she only found death-like sleep inside. To her luck, Cupid escaped prison, used his arrows to lift the dark spell that caused her to fall asleep, and married her with the blessings of Zeus. Psyche was finally granted immortality and became the goddess of the soul.
The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1890-91, via The Met Museum
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess of agriculture, Demeter. According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus allowed Pluto to take Persephone with him into the Underworld ad his bride. So, one day, as Persephone gathered flowers, Pluto rose to the surface with his chariot and abducted Demeter’s daughter, who desperately cried for help.
Demeter, with the help of Hecate, went to Helios, god of the sun, and enquired about her daughter’s whereabouts. Helios revealed that Zeus had offered Persephone to Hades. Furious, Demeter caused the earth to go barren. Humanity faced an existential threat.
To resolve the crisis, Zeus sent Hermes to Demeter, who clarified that she would not stop the famine or return to Olympus until her daughter was returned. The messenger god immediately left for Hades. Pluto agreed to return Persephone but secretly gave her pomegranate seeds. Having tasted the food of the Underworld, Persephone would have to return. Finally, it was arranged that she would spend two-thirds of the year with her mother and one-third (the winter months) in the Underworld as Pluto’s Queen.
Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630s, via Met Museum
In an episode of Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas — the legendary Trojan hero and ancestor of the Romans — seeks to visit his father in the Underworld. In his quest, he receives help from Deiphobe, a Sybyl (oracle), who instructs him to bury a dead comrade with proper rites and find a golden bough that will grant him access to Hades. Having completed the tasks, Aeneas and Deiphobe reach the entrance of the Underworld, offer sacrifices to the gods of darkness, and begin their katabasis surrounded by spirits.
Upon reaching Acheron, they encounter the spirits of those who weren’t buried properly and must wait 100 years before boarding Charon’s ship. Aeneas, despite being alive, gets on the ferry thanks to the golden bough.
On the other shore, they first encounter the souls of dead infants, then those executed for crimes they didn’t commit, and finally, those who committed suicide. In the latter, they find Dido, who had taken her own life when Aeneas abandoned her. Next, they reach a place with the souls of famous heroes and come across Deiphobus, a Trojan hero and friend of Aeneas. He informs them that if they follow the path on their left, they’ll find Tartarus, the prison of the Titans and the place where the damned are tortured eternally. The way on the right will take them to Elysium.
Aeneas and Deiphobe choose Elysium and enter the grounds by offering the golden bow. There, they meet Aeneas’ father, Anchises, accompanied by the poet Musaeus. They also see Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and a gathering of souls who, drunk from its waters, await their return to life in newly appointed bodies. Anchises also explains the concept of reincarnation and offers a glimpse into the future, talking about spirits who will be reincarnated as important figures in subsequent Roman history, such as Romulus, Caesar, and Augustus.
Successful in their quest, Aeneas and Deiphobe pass through the gates of sleep and ascend to the light.
Hercules and Cerberus, By Nicolo Van Aelst, 1608, via LACMA
Heracles, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, is especially famous for his twelve labors, the last and most difficult of which saw him capturing Cerberus and taking him to King Eurustheus of Tyrins.
Knowing the dangers of Hades, Herakles first visited Eleusis to be cleansed and initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Then, he visited Taenarum, near Sparta, where the Underworld’s entrance was hidden. The souls of the dead fled in front of him. Only Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa stayed, and as Hercules prepared to fight Medusa, Hermes, who accompanied the hero, told him that she was but a mere phantom.
Near the gates of Hades, Hercules met Theseus and Pirithus, who were trapped for attempting to abduct Persephone. Heracles saved Theseus, but Pirithus could not be lifted. Next, Heracles is said to have engaged in a wrestling match with Menoetes, a minor god of Hades. The hero won and met Pluto. The king of Hades allowed Heracles to take Cerberus with him but only under the condition that he would use not use any weapons to capture him and would return him upon completing the labor.
Heracles found Cerberus at the gates near Acheron. With his bare hands, he mastered the hound, even though its dragon tail bit the hero’s leg. Then Heracles presented Cerberus to Eurustheus and returned him to the Underworld, honoring the agreement with Pluto. As we already saw previously, Heracles was also said to have visited the Underworld to save Alcestis.
Sisyphus, by Antonio Zanchi, c.1660-1665, via Mauritshuis, Netherlands
Sisyphus, the legendary king of Corinth, was the only mortal in Greek myth to have visited Hades, not once, not twice, but thrice!
After Zeus abducted Aegina, Sisyphus betrayed the location where she was secretly held to her father, the river-god Asopus. To punish him, Zeus ordered the god of death, Thanatos, to chain Sisyphus in the deep and dark dungeon of Tartarus. Sisyphus, however, cheated Thanatos and chained him in his stead. With death in shackles, no one could die. Zeus was furious as that meant no sacrifices to the gods. So, the father of the gods forced Sisyphus to release Thanatos and accept his death.
Sisyphus, though, was not going down without a fight. Before leaving for the Underworld, he instructed his wife to leave his dead body unattended and naked in a public space. Once in Hades, Sisyphus asked Persephone to let him return to the surface and ensure his body’s proper and decent treatment. The Queen agreed, but Sisyphus used the opportunity to escape. Before succeeding, he was dragged back down and punished to eternally drag a boulder on a hill.
Mixing Vessel with Odysseus Summoning the Shades from the Underworld, attributed to the Dolon Painter, 390–380 BCE, via Bibliothèque Nationale de France
The truly mesmerizing episode of Odysseus’ journey into Hades, the so-called Nekuia, is described in the Odyssey’s Book XI.
To access the realm of the dead and meet Teiresias — the blind seer who will help Odysseus safely leave the island of the sorceress Circe — Odysseus offered libations of milk, honey, wine, and water with white barley to invoke the souls of the dead. Right after that, he sacrificed sheep, and “the ghosts of the dead swarmed out of Erebus”.
Reconstruction of the Nekyia of Polygnotus, by Carl Robert, 1892, From the Book “Die Nekyia des Polygnot”
At this point, it is worth clarifying that whether Odysseus physically went to the Underworld (i.e., a katabasis) or simply summoned the spirits of the dead (i.e., a nekuia) near an entrance to the Underworld is highly debatable.
The first soul to appear was Elpenor’s, a companion of Odysseus who died on Circe’s Island without a proper burial since his companions ignored his whereabouts. The second person to appear was Odysseus’ mother, Anticleia. Tragically, this was how Odysseus learned of her death, as she had passed while he was still away from home.
The Shade of Teiresias appearing to Odysseus, by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1780-1785, via Albertina Museum, Vienna
Of course, Odysseus also meets Teiresias, who foretells how his adventure will unfold and prophesizes that “you may yet reach Ithaca, though you will suffer”.
During the rest of the journey, Odysseus encounters a series of noble women and heroes, including Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax. Odysseus even catches sight of Sisyphus and encounters the ghost of Heracles, who talks of his own trip to the Underworld. Even though Odysseus longs to see more famed spirits, he suddenly becomes scared that Persephone, Hades’ wife, might send the head of the Gorgon Medusa toward him and decides to leave immediately. It seems that a mortal could not stay in Hades for a long period without facing grave consequences.
Orpheus and Eurydice, by Jean Raoux, after 1709, via J. Paul Getty Museum
Orpheus was a legendary poet and musician whose name was firmly connected with ancient Greek mystical rites and culture. In the famous tale, Orpheus fell in love with the beautiful nymph Euridice. As soon as they got married, Aristaeus, a minor divinity, attempted to snatch Euridice, who ran into the forest, was bitten by a venomous snake, and died.
Orpheus did not give up on her. He took his lyre and ventured into the Underworld. The first obstacle he encountered was Cerberus. The three-headed hound was easily tamed by Orpheus’ music. Reaching the thrones of Pluto and Persephone, Orpheus sang. His music was the music of someone who just lost everything. He sang about his love for Euridice, how he lost her, and how he wished to get her back. The song was so powerful that everything in the Underworld froze.
Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld, by Pieter Fris, 1652, via Museo del Prado
“…the bloodless ghosts themselves were weeping, and the anxious Tantalus stopped clutching at return-flow of the wave, Ixion’s twisting wheel stood wonder-bound, and Tityus’ liver for a while escaped the vultures, and the listening Belides forgot their sieve-like bowls and even you, O Sisyphus! sat idly on your rock! Then Fame declared that conquered by the song of Orpheus, for the first and only time the hard cheeks of the fierce Eumenides were wet with tears: nor could the royal Queen, nor he who rules the lower world deny the prayer of Orpheus…” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 10:1)
Euridice would grant Orpheus his wish. Music had triumphed. Then Orpheus would lead Euridice back to the surface, but only under the term that he would not look back until they reached the light.
Orpheus and Eurydice, by Carl Goos, 1826, via National Gallery of Denmark
Orpheus agreed and began walking. However, he could not hear Eurydice’s steps or any other sound coming from behind him. When he had almost reached the light, he became afraid that the gods had deceived him and that Eurydice was not following him as promised. He then looked back only to see the soul of his loved one being drawn back into the darkness.
Orpheus had completed a task like no other. He had traveled to the Underworld and had come back. However, he failed to bring back Eurydice.