Prospects for the Afterlife in Ancient Greece

There are a lot of expectations associated with the afterlife. Many people hope for a reward for good behaviour, or at least some compensation for all their mortal suffering. Others focus on it as the means of punishment for those who caused the suffering.

The situation for Ancient Greeks was a little different. A substantial amount of written and artistic works from Greek culture have survived to give us an idea of the Ancient Greek perspective on death. Though certainly no less devout than the devout today – religion was embedded in the social fabric of Greece – ostensibly, their prospects for life after death were poor. The afterlife, as is the case with contemporary religious counterparts, was contained within a single post-mortal realm: Hades. Here, again comparable to current religious ontologies, a judgement is taken to divide the more and the less deserving. Yet to project modern preconceptions of what constitutes a 'good' afterlife on to the Greek system – and by that token discount other experiences as 'bad' – is both distinctly unhelpful and misunderstands the part of death in the wider context of Greek religious belief.

A soul's progress immediately after it died relatively closely parallels Christian thought on the subject: everyone ascends to congregate at the entrance to the realm of Hades – except perhaps those planning to head off to Elysium, which will be addressed later. Hades is not only the name of the place but also the name of the god who runs it. If Homer can be trusted on the subject of what is found as one makes their way initial entrance into the afterlife, things don't look promising: it is a dark inverse of the gates of Heaven or Hell. At the start of Aeneid Book Six, Virgil pictures Aeneas' descent through the vestibule of Hades: 'On they went in darkness, beneath the lonely night, through shadows and the empty halls of Hades in his lifeless Kingdom... '

Virgil follows this with a colourful description of all the unpleasant personifications of suffering which lurk in the doorways of Erebus, Hades' upper realm. Virgil's word alone for Greek conceptions of the afterlife is admittedly problematic: aside from anything else, he was a Roman. Yet the way Virgil's poetry depicts Hades is – with artistic embellishments – nevertheless an apt summary of the sort of things that Greeks like Homer and Hesiod wrote. Homer tells us what to expect once a soul has passed through the vestibule. Deciding to visit the oracular (but dead) Teiresias, Odysseus takes his company all the way to the gates of Hades – through which they could see lots to interest them. This interest must have intensified when in the course of conversation Teiresias announced that none of the crew had long to live.

In front of them sat the gold-sceptre-wielding Minos, King, demigod and more to the point: judge of Hades. By the fifth century BC, Aiakos and Rhadamanthys had been added to the score of judges; Aiakos plays a sizeable role in Aristophanes' The Frogs and both are mentioned by Plato, Rhadamanthys is named by Homer as the ruler of Elysium. Significantly for later mystery cults, the Eleusinian prince Triptolemus occasionally appears as a fourth judge. When Odysseus showed up, Minos was as usual occupied with the sorting of souls, separating the deserving for transportation to the Fields of Elysium (Heaven), the unremarkable to the Plains of Asphodel (Purgatory) and the remarkably undeserving to the Pits of Tartarus (Hell).

Perhaps unfortunately for the dead souls of Ancient Greece, at this point the theological similarity to Christianity breaks down. Hades is no meritocracy. Much like a corrupt government system, the Homeric concept of judgement reserves good living in Elysium for the well-connected few. Its removed status from the majority of the underworld was unambiguously exemplified through its description as an isle. For example, Minos seems to have largely ignored the dead masses, who were swept straight off to Asphodel. This seems odd to those of us who buy into the modern notion that most people are fundamentally good: good people perhaps ought to go to Heaven (Elysium) and not Purgatory. Nor did this only apply to ordinary Greeks. Despite his exceptional military prowess and loyalty, the ghost of Achilles' great friend Patroclus is also left to wander the grey Plains; his ghost appears to Achilles in a dream urging burial so that he can cross the Styx and mingle there with the flitting images of the dead. Meanwhile in the Odyssey, Menelaus, despite not being as reputable as Patroclus or having had as significant an input to beginning the Trojan War, was assured of his own plot in the Fields of Elysium. There were perks to having Zeus for a father-in-law.

The same applied to Tartarus, initially the prison of high-profile enemies to the gods such as the Titans. In order to be cast into Tartarus an individual had to attract special attention. Even murdering someone didn't necessitate such punishment: in the plot of Aeschylus' Eumenides, Orestes escaped eternal punishment for his blood-crime and throughout the play the emphasis is on punishment of the guilty in life by the hounding of the Furies. Confinement to Tartarus was often the result of an act that was directly offensive to the gods. As Tantalus discovered, serving the Olympians your own son in a stew was sufficient. Presumably the need to create highly inventive punishments also limited numbers; the same Tantalus was chained to starve for eternity just out of the reach of somesucculent pears and a particularly refreshing spring. Here lies the origin of the word 'tantalise'.

Why, one might ask, did these great heroes carry on honouring the gods with great deeds and sacrifices if they were aware that there was to be no reward? In fact the fate of Patroclus turns out to be a good illustration of exactly why. At the departure of Patroclus' ghost, Achilles laments:
'Oh wonder! Even in the house of Hades there is left something, a soul and an image, but there is no real heart of life in it.'

It was the very emptiness of immortality in the underworld that made it essential for these heroes to gain immortal renown by their deeds in life. In this way part of them lasted forever with full glory and vigour in the living world.

The capriciousness of the gods was another incentive for the Greeks to keep religious observances without needing promise of an idyllic afterlife. Reciprocity defined human-deity relations. A god received attention, votives, and sacrifices. In return a person had the right to request favours proportional to the offerings they gave, or at least to stave off the divine wrath of a god overlooked. The focus of reciprocity was a means of ensuring a better life, because after life there was nothing much to look forward to. The flawed and often wild characters of the gods were an excellent reason to stay on the right side of them just as a citizen would with any ruling class. The gods had the ability to intervene and aid a mortal if they wished, but more importantly they could decide to make life uncomfortable. This imperfection reflected the Greek view of gods as a part of the universe and not transcending it. Ultimately the Olympians were also subject to the Fates. This goes some way to explaining the religious focus on life rather than eternity.

Taking care to keep one god happy at a time may have been safer than attempting to please the whole collective. In the Euthyphro Dilemma of The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, Socrates cites the inability of the gods to ever reach a common agreement for his enquiry into the nature of good and evil. To summarise, Socrates asks: 'Is something that is pleasing to a god therefore “good”?' Euthyphro answers affirmatively. Socrates replies: 'But the gods are always at odds with one another! Chew on that Euthyphro.' One only has to look at Troy to realise the impossibility of doing right by one god as you do right by another. This might have made just judgement difficult, if it had not been for the fact that nobody really bothered to implement it. The system worked: you were related to a god then no-one could argue with that. For why else would one want to get caught up in the gods' politicking? On balance it was probably a relief for all concerned that the majority of souls were fast-tracked straight to Asphodel, without subjection to the unpredictability of divine justice.

All of this follows the decidedly traditional, Homeric and Archaic, understanding of prospects for eternal peace or suffering. Exceptions developed. By the end of the Archaic period someone had clearly spotted the chasm in the market; a variety of mystery cults had sprung up or changed tack to offer those in-the-know a possible pass to paradise. One which grew to particular popularity was the cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries. These Mysteries dated to within the Archaic period and Cassius Dio wrote of their continuation right up to the time of the Hellenophilic Roman Emperor Hadrian. Athenian patronage played a significant role in their establishment.They gained importance in the latter part of the sixth century BC when the tyrant of Athens Peisistratos opened up participation to all Greeks. The Mysteries centred around the myth of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, whose daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades to become Hades’ queen. Demeter remained in Eleusis during her search for Persephone, there she worked as nurse to prince Triptolemus and taught him her secret agricultural rites. This myth tied the secrets of the Mysteries to both fertility and death – the usual intriguing features of cult activity. Jealously guarded cult secrets meant that despite its remarkable inclusivity – accepting men, women, and slaves from all spheres of life – the precise revelations of the initiation rites have no surviving record. Broad statements made about them by ancient writers (including Cicero) are the main source on the Mysteries' influence in the afterlife. The aim was entrance to Elysium, in spite of Homer's assertion that it was for the glorious only. Understandably, ordinary Greeks were not so accepting of a fate to flutter endlessly on a shadow plain as their Homeric heroes.

The Mysteries' popular appeal is evident from an incident in 415BC, shortly before the planned departure of an Athenian naval expedition to Sicily. One night many of the Hermes (stone pillars representing the god Hermes) in Athens were mutilated; a subsequent investigation attributed the desecration to the post-symposium frolics of a group of aristocratic young men who were also accused of having profaned the Mysteries. Political agendas lay behind the accusation, but it mobilised a genuine popular outrage powerful enough to cause the implicated, highly resourceful, politician and general Alcibiades to abandon command of the Athenian fleet and flee to Sparta. Offending the Mysteries was regarded as a threat to the democracy itself. The Athenians' horror was hardly surprising. Not only did it bode ill for the Sicilian Expedition he had had to flee but the perpetrators had risked offending the powers which offered some hope for eternal bliss.

The main thrust of day-to-day worship prioritised obtaining support for the short term: there was time to deal with an infinite afterlife when it came. The Elysium of Homer was too exclusive to consider – though happily so was Tartarus. However mythology is not static. Perhaps its development and embellishment over time to include increasing numbers of residents in both Tartarus and Elysium began to suggest to ordinary Greeks that they too might have some way of evading Purgatory. The attention paid to cults like the Eleusinian Mysteries is a hint that the Greeks had registered the attractions of peace in Elysium over the forgetfulness of Asphodel, and aspired to get in.

Image: Dimitris Kamaras


Aeschylus, Oresteia, ed. H. Lloyd Jones (London, 1979).
Fox, R.L., The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (London, 2005).
Hesiod, Theogony, ;  accessed 18 October 2015.
Homer, The Iliad, ; accessed 18 October 2015.
Homer, The Odyssey, ed. R. Latimore (London, 2007).
Joint Association of Classical Teachers, The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian     Culture (Cambridge, 1984).
Palagia, O., Art in Athens During the Peloponnesian War (Cambridge, 2009).
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, ed. C.J. Rowe (London, 2010).
Rhodes, P.J., A Short History of Ancient Greece (London, 2014).
Sophocles, Ajax, ed. J. Hesk (London,2003).
Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. R.B. Strassler (New York and London, 2008).
Virgil, The Aeneid, ed. J.L. Whiteley (London, 1955).