Hades' Underworld in The Odyssey

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  • 0:04 Death and Ferryboat Taxes
  • 0:29 Hades the God
  • 1:28 Hades' Underworld
  • 2:55 Odysseus' Travels
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Not many people enjoy thinking about death, but the symbolism stemming from Greek mythology can teach us a lot about ourselves and the way we live. In this lesson we will learn about the Greek Underworld and explore Odysseus' time there in the epic poem 'The Odyssey.'

Death and Ferryboat Taxes

Death isn't the most comfortable topic, but for the Greeks, it was just another part of daily life. They prayed to the gods and performed ceremonies to ensure the dead made it to the Underworld to rest for eternity. Let's take a look at the mythology behind the Greek Underworld known as Hades. We'll learn about the ruler with the same name and journey with Odysseus as he leaves the land of the living to receive his prophecy from the dead.

Hades the God

Hades, translating to 'the unseen one' in antiquity, later received the translation of 'knowing all things noble,' as death encompasses everything in time. He was described as pitiless, as death pities no one, a clear metaphor for the fate we all share. Hades himself plays a small role in Greek mythology, but his Underworld is well-documented in epic poems and myths.

Hades is the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. The three drew for which realm they would rule after defeating the Titans, including their father Cronus. Zeus won the Heavens, Poseidon the oceans and land, and Hades received the Underworld.

Hades is often depicted in images with his dog Cerberus, said to have three heads and snakes for tails. Hades is best known for the myth surrounding Persephone, his wife. Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, which resulted in her being held captive in Hades for half of every year, which brings winter to the land above.

Hades' Underworld

When most people think of dying and going down somewhere, they typically picture a terrible place, something like the Christian version of hell. In Greek culture, however, the Underworld was nothing more than a place for spirits to reside. Over time, writings on an afterlife became more vivid, transforming the idea of Hades from a place where the dead go to wander to also include levels of death, where punishment or gifts could occur.

It was said the dead would be brought to the River Styx by Hermes, the gods' messenger, where the soul would pay a toll to cross the river. In Greek culture, the dead were buried with coins placed on their eyes and/or their mouths so they could pay the ferryman to bring them across the river to judgement. If a person could not afford to pay the toll, meaning they were not properly buried, their soul was left to wander the earth for eternity.

At the gates of Hades, the souls were judged by Minos, Aiakos, and Rhadamanthys. If you lived a good life, you would drink from the River Lethe to forget your time on Earth and be sent to the Elysian fields to rest in peace. If you did not live an honorable life, you were taken to Tartarus by the Furies, the deities of vengeance. In this lowest level of Hades, you would be punished for your wrongdoings. There was also a third option, one that characters of myths such as Sisyphus and Tantalos faced. If you offended the gods, you were sent to eternal torment that matched your morally wrong deeds. Odysseus, the main character and hero of The Odyssey, was sent to the depths of this place but not for his eternal judgment.

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