THE LAND OF NO RETURN: THE GLOOMY KINGDOM OF HADES
While the gods represent the Greek desire for perpetual youth, beauty, and
eternal life, myths about the heroes show awareness of the finality of life and
of every valued quality.
The circumstance that Greek heroes were so eager to risk their lives in battle and
other dangers is related to Greek ideas about how final death was and how
grim Hades was.
The terror that Odysseus felt when he learned that he had to descend into
Hades’s kingdom reveals the Greek dread of death. To Odysseus, death
represented perpetual imprisonment in the dark. Traveling to the Underworld,
Odysseus faces both his own mortality and the fate of the soul after death.
In the Underworld, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor man’s
living slave than king of the dead. His only joy in Hades derives from the news
that his son Neoptolemus has become a well-respected and efficient warrior.
In the Homeric epics, death is final and satisfactory contact between the living
and the dead is impossible.
The souls in Hades have lost memory, reason, and willpower.
Odysseus performs a ritual to summon the dead and communicate with them by
digging a trench for them to drink from; the trench symbolizes both the grave
and the boundary between life and death. The drink consists of elements of the
earth’s bounty as well as blood.
Odysseus travels westward to Hades across the River of Ocean, the earth’s
boundary. His journey parallels that of Gilgamesh traveling to the retreat of
The Homeric concept of the afterlife resembles Mesopotamian beliefs about the
Underworld. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the dead, good and bad, reside
in an underground region, Sheol, where there is nothing but inactivity.
10. Five rivers were said to flow through the Underworld: the Styx, the Acheron,
Cocytus, Phlegethon, and a “river of unmindfulness” that runs through the
plain of Lethe. The Romans called the river Lethe and maintained that a soul
preparing for reincarnation first had to drink its waters of forgetfulness.
11. A few heroes are allowed to spend the afterlife in the Homeric paradise of
Elysium or the Isles of the Blest. Menelaus received the privilege not because
of his own virtue but because of his marriage to Helen, daughter of Zeus. This
concept of Elysium echoes the Mesopotamian myth of Dilmun, where a few
fortunate souls could live a pleasant afterlife.
12. Hades represents death, and Persephone, earlier associated with youth and
flowers, takes on the same quality of pitilessness; only a few dead are allowed
to return to earth, and they generally accentuate the inevitability of loss.
13. In her new, dark persona, Persephone combines two Near Estern goddesses: