Southgate Schools»Joseph Reynolds

Mr. Reynolds' English Classes

Southgate Anderson High School

Bookmark and Share

Underworld Notes

Click here for Tartarus pdf file

The Underworld was surrounded by rivers, the most famous of these being the River Styx. In Greek mythology, when someone died, following a proper funeral, the person's soul was immediately transported to the entrance of the Underworld. The ancients believed that the departed soul took on the appearance of the deceased, although it would be rather gray.

Many ancient cults in ancient Greece identified actual caves as being the "official” entrance to the Underworld, and held various rituals at these locations. Hades had fewer cult followers than did most other gods (Dionysus being the most popular), but even he had his loyal supporters.

When a person's soul arrived at the Underworld, the first priority was to cross the River Styx and enter the Underworld proper. To cross the river, one needed to take a boat, and the Boatman of the Underworld, Charon, was there waiting. Naturally, the boatman wanted to be paid. Those who didn't pay were doomed to wander the shores of Styx with no way to cross. This is why, when someone died, ancient Greek custom was to place a coin (Charon's obol) under the person's tongue. This would serve as their payment to Charon and assure that they made it safely across.

The Underworld was said to be surrounded by Rivers, of which Styx was the most famous. The river Styx was said to circle the Underworld 9 times. The river was named for the goddess Styx (goddess of hatred). During the war with the Titans, Styx sided with Zeus and the Olympians. As a favor/reward, Zeus promised that every oath of the gods would be sworn upon Styx. This is why Styx is the river of unbreakable oaths. (also known as the river of hatred).

Zeus' wife, Hera, a goddess jealous of usurpers, discovered his affair with Semele when she later became pregnant. Appearing as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her lover was actually Zeus. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele asked Zeus to grant her a boon. Zeus, eager to please his beloved, promised on the River Styx to grant her anything she wanted. She then demanded that Zeus reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his divinity. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he was forced by his oath to comply. Zeus tried to spare her by showing her the smallest of his bolts and the sparsest thunderstorm clouds he could find. Mortals, however, cannot look upon Zeus without incinerating, and she perished, consumed in lightning-ignited flame.

In the prevailing account, Phaethon, challenged by his playmates, sought assurance from his mother that his father was the sun god. She gave him the requested assurance and told him to turn to his father for confirmation. He asked his father for some proof that would demonstrate his relationship with the sun. When the god promised to grant him whatever he wanted, he insisted on being allowed to drive the sun chariot for a day. Placed in charge of the chariot, he was unable to control the horses. The earth was in danger of being burnt up and, to prevent this disaster, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt.

In modern times, an asteroid whose orbit brings it close to the sun has been named "3200 Phaethon" after the mythological Phaethon.

The French form of the name "Phaethon" is "Phaéton". This form of the word is applied to a kind of carriage.

According to some versions, Styx had miraculous powers and could make someone invulnerable. According to one tradition, Achilles was dipped in it in his childhood, acquiring invulnerability, with exception of his heel, by which his mother held him. This is the source of the expression Achil

les' heel, a metaphor for a vulnerable spot.

A little more about Styx, she was married to Pallas, Titan of warfare, and was the mother of Nike, Greek goddess of victory, along with other children. Other children were Zelus (glory) and Kratos (strength/power). Why would victory be the daughter of death? What is the ultimate victory?

Other rivers include:

Acheron, the river of woe (painful sorrow). Different stories about his river give it different

qualities. The Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, calls it a river of healing,

where people can be cleansed of their sins. According to Homer, however, Cocytus and

Phelgathon both flowed into Acheron, leading to the depths of Tartarus.

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and oblivion, associated with the goddess of the same name.

According to some sources, this river allowed people who drank from it to forget their

past lives and be at peace in the Underworld.

Phlegaton, the river of fire, that leads to the depths of Tartarus. Described by Plato (not the god) as "a stream of fire which coils around the Earth and descends into the depths of

Tartarus. According to some sources, the god of Phlegathon was in love with Styx, who

allowed her to flow through.

Cocytus, the river of lamentation (wailing). Represents the sins of humanity. Home of traitors,

and of those who have committed fraud. Depending on the degree of their treachery,

victims are buried in ice to varying degrees, ranging from neck-high to complete

submersion. Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, who

betrayed Jesus Christ, are said to have gone here.

Once you cross the river Styx, you meet your eternal destiny. Tartarus is said to lie beneath the Underworld, in similar fashion to the earth lying beneath the sky.

Once you made it, you had to face the judges of the Underworld. Considered good men in life, and responsible for the creation of law and order on Earth, Zeus made them judges of the Underworld. Your nationality determined which one you answered to. Rhadamanthus judged men of Asia, Aiakos, judged men of Europe, and Minos was the judge of the deciding vote.

After the vote of the judges, you went to one of three places. If you were a great hero, you went to the Elysian Fields. Common, everyday people roamed the field of Asphodel, while criminals were sent to Tartarus.

Sisyphus was the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly. King Sisyphus promoted navigation and commerce but was avaricious and deceitful. He also killed travellers and guests, a violation of Xenia which fell under Zeus' domain.

Xenia is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home and/or associates of the person bestowing guest-friendship. The rituals of hospitality created and expressed a reciprocal relationship between guest and host expressed in both material benefits (such as the giving of gifts to each party) as well as non-material ones (such as protection, shelter, favors, or certain normative rights). Xenia was considered to be particularly important in ancient times when people thought gods mingled among them. If one had poorly played host to a stranger, there was the risk of incurring the wrath of a god disguised as the stranger.

He took pleasure in these killings because they allowed him to maintain his iron-fisted rule. Sisyphus and Salmoneus were known to hate each other as Sisyphus had consulted with the Oracle of Delphi on just how to kill Salmoneus without incurring any severe consequences for himself.

From Homer onwards, Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. He seduced Salmoneus's daughter Tyro in one of his plots to kill Salmoneus, only for Tyro to slay the children she bore by him when she discovered that Sisyphus was planning on eventually using them to dethrone her father.

Zeus then ordered Thanatos, the personification of death, to chain King Sisyphus down below in Tartarus. Sisyphus was curious as to why Hermes, whose job was to guide souls to the Underworld, had not come. King Sisyphus slyly asked Thanatos to demonstrate how the chains worked. As Thanatos was granting his wish, Sisyphus then seized the advantage and trapped Thanatos instead. This caused an uproar since no human could die with Thanatos disabled. Eventually Ares (who was annoyed that his battles had lost their fun because his opponents would not die) intervened. The exasperated Ares freed Thanatos and turned King Sisyphus over to Thanatos as well.

In another version, Hades was sent to chain Sisyphus, and was chained himself. As long as Hades was tied up, nobody could die. Because of this, sacrifices could not be made to the Gods and those that were old and sick were suffering. The Gods finally threatened to make life so miserable for Sisyphus that he would wish he were dead. He then had no choice but to release Hades.

Before King Sisyphus died, he had told his wife to throw his naked body into the middle of the public square (purportedly as a test of his wife's love for him). This caused King Sisyphus to end up on the shores of the river Styx. Then, complaining to Persephone that this was a sign of his wife's disrespect for him, King Sisyphus persuaded her to allow him to return to the upper world and scold his wife for not burying his body and giving it a proper funeral (as a loving wife should). Once back in Corinth, the spirit of King Sisyphus thereby scolded his wife for not giving him a proper funeral. When King Sisyphus refused to return to the Underworld after that, he was forcibly dragged back there by Hermes.

As a punishment for his trickery, King Sisyphus was made to endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for King Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus himself. Zeus accordingly displayed his own cleverness by enchanting the boulder into rolling away from King Sisyphus before he reached the top which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. Thus it came to pass that pointless or interminable activities are sometimes described as Sisyphean. King Sisyphus was a common subject for ancient writers and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi.

Site updated on March 19, 2018