Greek Mythology and Life after D.e.a.t.h

The concept of an afterlife is not a novel one. Many western religions, as well as south Asian and African ones, believe in some form of life after death.

The concept of an afterlife is not a novel one; many western religions, as well as south Asian and African ones, believe in some form of life after death. Its origins span from the ancient world and classical antiquity until today. Most often, the world of the afterlife is associated with Greek mythology, where it is called the underworld, or Hades.
According to the ancient Greeks, at the time of death, the soul separates from the body and is transported to the underworld, where it is accepted into the realm by the governing god Hades, who is known to reside at the edges of the ocean and under the deepest depths of the Earth.

fussli shade teiresias painting

The Shade of Teiresias appearing to Odysseus in Hades, by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1780-1785, via Albertina Museum, Vienna

Hades’ realm, as opposed to the kingdom of Mount Olympus, is virtually all gloom and darkness, solely inhabited by the dead. In Homer’s Odyssey, even the great warrior spirit Achilles in the nether world tells Odysseus that he would rather be subjugated as a landless slave than be the king of the underworld due to the dreary existence in the land of the dead.

Nonetheless, Greek mythology stresses respect for the dead due to the belief in the continued existence of the fallen after their spirit has passed on. In the 4th century, the Greek philosopher Plato asserted that the gods’ biggest reward to the dead is to have their memory remain in the minds of the living long after they are gone.

But what ritual did the dead undergo before burial and passage into the underworld?

Burial Rituals in Ancient Greece

Tombstone of Xanthippos

Tombstone of Xanthippos

Once a Greek man or woman passed away, their families washed their bodies and placed a coin inside their mouth as payment for the spiritual ferryman Charon who carried the bodies’ spirits across the river Styx into the underworld.
During the burial, valuable objects such as pottery, coins, and jewelry were buried alongside them as gifts for the bodies to use in the underworld.

Families of the deceased visited these tombs annually to make offerings and refresh the tomb decorations. This ritual stemmed not only out of respect but also from the fear that the dead brought bad luck if the family did not pay tribute to them regularly.

The Soul’s Journey After Burial

An ancient statue of Hermes, god of commerce, merchants and travelers, Roman copy after a Greek original, Vatican Museum

An ancient statue of Hermes, Roman copy after a Greek original, via Vatican Museum

The Greeks believed that after the burial, Hermes (the god of trade, travelers, and merchants) led the soul to the entrance of the underworld to a ferry that carried the spirit across the Acheron (river of woe) and/or Styx (river of hate), depending on the source. These two rivers divided the world of the living from that of the dead.

lytovchenko olexandr charon painting

Charon carries souls across the river Styx, by Alexandr Lytovchenko, 1861, via WIkimedia Commons

Charon, sometimes called the Ferryman, rowed the boat. Only souls who paid him the boat fare with coins, placed on the eyes or under the tongue of the corpse during burial, could gain access to the ferry. Those unable to pay the fare remained trapped between the world of the living and the dead.

Hades’ Underworld

brueghel aeneas sybyl underworld painting

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630s, via Met Museum

The gods that resided in the underworld were known as chthonic. Apart from major deities like Hades, Persephone, and Hecate, there were also other minor deities living in the underworld, including the Furies (Erinyes), the god of sleep (Thanatos), his twin brother, the god of sleep (Hypnos), the goddess of the night (Nyx), and more.

The underworld consisted of various realms ruled by Hades and his wife, Persephone. In some sources, Elysium resembled a Greek pagan version of the Christian Heaven where good spirits whose lives were etched into the memories of the living began a bright new state of existence. Wicked spirits were condemned to the dark pits of Tartarus. These spirits either overindulged in their carnal desires or lived more for earthly pleasures than spiritual fulfillment during their earthly life. Forgotten spirits who did not significantly impact the lives of others were sent to the Land of Hades, where they wandered for all eternity.

A notable aspect of the underworld was its rivers. The ancient sources typically mention the Styx, the Acheron, the Pyriflegethon, the Cocytus, the Lethe, and Oceanus.

Orpheus, the Orphics, and the Orphic Tablets

camille corot orpheus leading eurydice 1861

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1861, via Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA

The Orphics were a sect that took part in the mysteries of Dionysus. The Orphics believed that their rites were created by the legendary poet Orpheus. In Greek Mythology, Orpheus visited the underworld to claim the soul of his deceased wife, Eurydice. Enchanted by his music, Persephone allowed Orpheus to take Eurydice with him but under one condition: Orpheus would have to lead the way and not look back until they were back to the living. If he looked back, Eurydice would return to the underworld forever. Suspicious of the silence behind him, Orpheus eventually succumbed to the desire and turned back, only to see the spirit of Eurydice being drawn back to the depths of Hades’ realm.

orphic gold tablet thessaly the getty villa

Gold sheet with Orphic prayer found in an unknown site in Tessaglia contained in a bronze funeral urn, 4th century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

The Orphic religion centered around the cult of Dionysus, and more specifically, the myth of Dionysus being torn apart by the Titans. In the myth, the Titans devour Dionysus, and Zeus punishes them with his thunderbolt for their sin. From the ashes, the first humans are created. As a result, each human is made of two parts, the material that is connected with the Titans, and the soul, connected with Dionysus. The Orphics sought to purify their bodies of the guilt they carried for eating Dionysus. They believed that if they succeeded, they’d spend eternity next to Orpheus and other heroes in the afterlife. The uninitiated would be reincarnated.

Particularly interesting are the Orphic tablets. These tablets were buried with followers of Orphism and offered instructions to the deceased. It seems that if the dead could follow the instructions, they could successfully navigate the afterlife.

After-life in Greek Mythology vs. Abrahamic Religions

krater altamura persephone hades

Krater from Altamura depicting Persephone and Hades, unknown artist, c.350 BCE., National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Naples, via Getty Museum.

The concept of an afterlife is not unique to Greek mythology. Most religions have some sort of belief in a soul and what happens to your essence when you die.

The Christian bible exhorts believers to make all their decisions during life based on what will happen to their soul in the afterlife. Jesus Christ maintained there would come a time when all the virtuous dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and leave their tombs as spirits to be physically resurrected.

A Christian tombstone

A Christian tombstone

Islamists believe God either grants admission into eternal paradise, Jannah, earned through good deeds, and unwavering faith in the existence of Allah, or combines the soul to Jahannam, the Muslim version of hell. Evildoers condemned to Jahannam suffer spiritual and physical agony for all eternity.
The common theme among all three religions, the ancient Greek beliefs, Christianity, and Islam, centers on the belief that the soul never dies. Your actions in life either condemn you to an eternity of suffering, everlasting bliss, or something in-between.

Modern Views on Life after Death

A New Age Believer Meditates

A New Age Believer Meditates

Although today we have no empirical evidence of a soul or survival of some type of consciousness after death, most people still believe in some sort of eternal existence.
Many scientists, philosophers, and New Age adherents have each attempted in his or her own way to prove the essence of a person survives physical death.
Although people may not believe in the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, the essence of the Greek’s belief in a soul and some sort of continued existence beyond death continues to this day.

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