Greek Afterlife: Beliefs in Ancient Times and Today

Published January 25, 2021
Statue of Zeus

For the people of Ancient Greece, remembering the dead formed an important place in life. Greek afterlife was an uncertain and scary place. Greek mythology captures the triumphs and tragedies of Greek afterlife and it motivates beliefs today.

The Underworld in Greek Mythology Afterlife

The Greek culture had some vague ideas about what happened when a person died. Stories about those events evolved into the legends of Greek mythology. The people believed that when a person died, they had to enter a realm known as Hades or the underworld. The underworld encompassed Greek afterlife for good and evil without a concept of a final judgment common to many traditions. Most understood death to initiate a time of misery for all, escaped by only the greatest philosophers.

Gaining Access to the Underworld

The Greeks believed that the dead had to enter the underworld by taking a ferry guided by the skilled navigator Charon. He was tasked to take the dead across the River Styx to the gates of Hades. The journey was not free though. Charon demanded a coin for safe passage. The dead had to hope that someone who loved and cared for them would place an obol in their mouth before burial. The obol was a Greek coin worth about one-sixth of a drachma. The obol provided just enough for a one-way ticket to Hades.

The Gods of the Underworld

Only two gods inhabited the underworld, though others would come and go in the stories of Greek mythology. The powerful god of the underworld is the god Hades, for whom the underworld is named. Hades is the god of the underworld. He oversees all of the souls of the dead. With Hades is his wife, Persephone. Legends around Persephone account for some of the most colorful myths of the underworld. Other deities who wander through the underworld include Thanatos (the god of death), Hypnos (the god of sleep) and Nyx (the goddess of the night).

Artistic depiction of Lord of the underworld Hades

Regions of the Underworld in Greek Afterlife

Over time, the Greeks became dissatisfied with the concept of misery for all in the underworld. By the time of Plato, stories began to develop around three geographic areas or levels of Hades. Every soul is taken to a specific level, based upon the type of life lived on earth. The legends point to four levels, including:

  • Tartarus - This region compares to Christianity's concept of hell. This region is where the worst people are doomed to suffer incredible punishments for all eternity. According to legend, it takes the soul nine days to reach the depths of Tartarus.
  • Asphodel Meadows - This region resides in the mid-levels of the underworld. Those souls who reach this area are allowed to drink from the River Lethe, a means to forget their previous lives. The result of a cleared memory stirs an eternal bland existence, with no highs and no lows. Some writers describe the time as mindlessness.
  • Elysium - Everyone hopes to be able to live eternally in Elysium, though few actually realize their dreams. Elysium is meant for only the most heroic, only the wisest individuals. This region relates to Christianity's view of heaven.
  • The Fields of Mourning - This area is reserved for the souls "whom ruthless love did waste away." Legend persists that not even death can heal or forget the incredible hurt they felt through a disappointed love.

Most souls are not bad enough to be destined to Tartarus, nor are they good enough to inherit Elysium. Most souls found their way to Asphodel Meadows, an endless palate of a grey canvass.

Activity in the Underworld

The Greeks were not really sure what souls did in the afterlife. Occasionally, human souls play a role in the stories and legends of mythology. For the few that are cursed to eternal punishment, Tartarus holds a life of pain and misery. The suffering in this region is endless and unending. There is no way to escape from Tartarus in Greek mythology. Those lucky enough to be in Elysium spend eternity enjoying the finer things and pleasures of the imagination. The vast majority of souls spend eternity in a bleak, mundane existence.

Sleep and Death carrying body Sarpedon to Lycia

Belief in Afterlife Today

Many people in Greece today follow the teachings of their religion. The population of Greece on both the mainland and the islands runs about 90% Christian Orthodox. The rest of the population is a varying mix of Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, and other minorities. There is still a small minority of people who worship the ancient gods and goddesses, but almost everyone knows and feels an influence of the myths. Three areas still touched include:

  • The Greeks remain closely tied to their dead loved ones and family. Their personal well-being depends on how they honor and respect the dead. They are very concerned with preserving stories and legacies of the dead.
  • There was a strong understanding that the dead somehow remained close to the grave of their burial. It was believed that the spirits were able to visit the area on a regular basis. The living would adorn the gravesites and regularly pay their respects.
  • An underlying feeling remains for most Greeks that heaven is reserved for only the most moral and wise. People today strive to live their best on earth with the hopes of attaining a peaceful eternity.

Greek Afterlife

Different cultures perceive death rituals, dying, and the afterlife in unique ways. Greek culture represents several mixtures between ancient mythology and modern Christian Orthodoxy. The belief in a Greek afterlife affirms the traditions of culture and the practices of religion to help understand what happens to the soul at death.

Greek Afterlife: Beliefs in Ancient Times and Today