» Greek Gods Of The Underworld

 by Heidi Keller - September 5, 2003

nyxThe Greek gods were traditionally both deadly and beautiful, and their gods of the underworld, were even more dangerous and sometimes beautiful and sensuous too. In this first article on mythology, you'll find information on:

1. how the Greek legends reached our days,
2. the way mythology describes the birth of the gods,
3. the war that gave power to the new gods,
4. how the gods became the underworld lords.

Click on the links above to jump through the texts or read on - knowing that this month's article ended up being quite comprehensive...

Behind The Legends

All ancient Greek writers and playwrights made their stories using the Gods as characters or simply retelling traditional tales about them.
The first legends to pass to literature are attributed to Homer, a blind bard who lived around the year 1000 BC, and about whom nothing concrete is known. The Illiad and the Odyssey are said to have been stories told by him, but also this isn't 100% sure. 

Then in the Greek Classical Age - around 450 BC - some of the finest pieces of Western literature were written, like Aeschylus' plays and Plato's deep and complex philosophical dialogues. In later years, when Rome was already a vast empire, writers like Ovid and Cicero also wrote their stories based on the old myths.

Many of those stories were preserved in the Middle Ages by Christian monks in the West and Arabian scholars in the East. By the time of the Renaissance, they became fashionable again and even artists of other fields like Michelangelo, wrote verses and more stories on those legends, either praising the beauty of goddesses like Aphrodite or damning gods like Saturn (Cronus to the Greeks).

furies - erynnies This was a custom that survived the French Revolution and fitted perfectly in the cynicism and fake morality of the Romantic Era - the 19th century - when poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and the Pre-Raphaelite painters brought to the present all those almost eternal tales.

One thing that I think is key to understand the Greek mythology is to know that the Hellenics didn't see their gods as totally good or totally bad, as is the case in monotheistic societies like ours. Their gods were very human in their passions and committed mistakes, sometimes they even represented human emotions, and above the symbolic nature of their legends, they showed a great complexity of character.

Take their maximum god Zeus as example, he was a proud god, who enjoyed mixing with his subjects (e.g. mortals, demi-gods and gods), and could be loving and somewhat fatherly sometimes, but when he wanted something - especially when this something was a woman - he could be violent, stubborn, vengeful to his enemies and stern.

And so could be every god of their pantheon…
Such deities' personalities maybe can be explained by the way things were at that time, as all peoples were constantly facing war, men used to go around armed and women were either oppressed or deified. Also much of their folklore was taken from older cultures than theirs, like the Persian and the Egyptian ones.

Now that you have the historical part of it, it's time to get into the legends.

The Beginning of All

There are several different creational myths and I decided to tell here the most common one, the one shown by Hesiod in his Theogony.

First there was Nyx "Darkness", and from her sprang Chaos "The Deep One", and from their union sprang the Night, the Day, Erebus and the Air, and finally from Night and Erebus' union sprang the oldest dark gods: Moros "Terror", Thanatus "Death", Momus "Blame", Oizys "Hurt", Nemesis "Revenge", Apate "Mistake", Eris "Conflict" and the Three Moerae "Fates" who weaved the 'web of destiny': Clotho, who was responsible for the loom, Lachesis for turning the spindle and Atropos who cut the thread with a scissors.

moeraeFrom Eris sprang other dark gods, such as Lethe "Forgetfulness", Limos "Hunger", Aegea "Sadness", Mache "War", Androctasia "The Killer of Men", Ate "Ruin", among others.

Erebus fathered Charon through Nyx, the boatman who took the dead in his boat through the Styx river in Tartarus.

More incredible and powerful monsters were born from the union between Gaia "The Mother-Earth" and Pontus "The Sea", and from these, some others like the Graeae, which was a group of fiends composed of the "Pemphredo" - old crones, the "Enyo" - war genies, and some terrible beasts called "Deino".

There were also the Gorgons: Medusa - the famous female with snakes for hair, who could turn people to stone; Sthenno and Euryale - who were winged, had metal claws, big teeth and also snakes for hair; and Ladon - who was a dragon that could speak in different kinds of voices.

Through time other beasts were born, like the Harpies: Aello, Celaeno, Ocypete and Podarge, who were terrifying birds with maiden's heads.

Still in the first age of gods, there's Tartarus, who was more a place than a human personification. It was the underworld itself, where all souls, either good or bad, went to. Legends tell that it could take an entire year for someone to reach its depths, due to the strong wind and the heavy darkness that there were in it.

Through his union with Gaia were born monsters like Typhon "The Wind Demon" - who was larger and longer than the sea; Cerberos - the three-headed dog who guarded Tartarus' gates and who allowed people to get in but never to get out; Chimera - who spit fire; Hydra, the two-headed serpent, whose heads when cut grew back instantaneously; the Nemea lion - who would be killed by Herakles (Hercules to the Romans) and Orthrus, a two-headed dog.

After this genealogic-like list, let's go to how some of these Titans were suddenly dethroned by a young god.

The Olympics Take Power

Once upon a time, Gaia and Uranus' son, Cronus, castrated and killed his father, thus taking his throne over all the other gods. He was so frightened by his mother's prediction that he would be dethroned by one of his offsprings that every time his wife Rhea had a child, he swallowed it, so that the prophesy wouldn't be fulfilled.

But Rhea decided that he wouldn't do so to her youngest child, Zeus, and after giving birth to him in secrecy, she had him be raised by other goddesses and when he grew up to manhood, he had the goddess Metis serve his father a potion, which made him vomit each one his children.

charonThen Zeus and his siblings started a war against Cronus and the Titans who followed him, and in the end the young god and his allies won. Zeus killed his father, took up his throne and established a new rule in a place called Olympus.

After taking the Earth and Olympus as his reigns, he gave the other parts of the world to his brothers Poseidon and Hades. The first became the Sea Lord and the second the Lord of the Underworld.

In The Underground Lands

Hades hardly ever went to the surface - except when some nymph interested him - and the only way he knew of what happened there, was when mortals evoked him with oaths and curses.

The dead were generally buried with a coin in their mouths, so that when they arrived in Tartarus, they would be able to pay Charon to take them by boat to the place where it would be decided to which part of the underground they would go.

Tartarus was at this time only a place, part gloomy and part idyllic, in which some of the monsters mentioned above dwelled or were arrested.

Its main river was the already mentioned Styx "Hated" and it had five tributaries: Acheron "Stream of Woe", Phlegethon "Burning", Cocytus "Wailing", Aornis "Birdless" and Lethe "Forgetfulness".
It was divided in four lands: the cheerless Asphodel Fields - where the souls of heroes roamed without purpose and whose only pleasure was to drink the blood of libations poured by mortals.

Beyond Asphodel there were Erebus and Hades' palace. In this region lay the river Lethe, from which the ghosts drank and nearby it the newcomers were 'received' by Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus, Zeus' sons, who judged them and decided to which side of Tartarus they would go: either to the Asphodel Fields, if they were reasonable; to the depths of the underworld, if they were bad, or to the Elysium, if they were good.

Talking about it, the Elysium Fields (Champs Elysées to the French ;)) were ruled by Cronus. Near its entrance there was the Pool of Memory and it was a land of happiness, perpetual day and fun. Nearby there was the Fortunate Islands, a place where the three-times born went to, when they had also entered the Elysium three-times previously.

In the depths of Tartarus, the Olympians enemies were punished, like Tantalus, who dared to reveal the gods' secrets to mortals and who was penalized with eternal hunger and thirst, living with water up to his neck, without being able to drink it, and having a tree loaded with fruits in front of him, without being able to get them. 

hades and cerberusAnother inhabitant was Sysiphus, who told Zeus' rape of Aegina to her father, and who after running away from his imprisonment in Tartarus a couple of times, was finally definitely arrested, and punished with having to roll a heavy and big rock up a hill, without never managing to get it to the top.

Erebus is the region controlled by the Erynnies "Furies", which are Tisiphone, Alecto and Megaera, who are avengers of injustices done to mortals. They are crones, and have snakes for hair, dog's heads, coal-black bodies, bats' wings and bloodshot eyes! (Did you notice how creative the Greeks were?)

One of the most famous legends involving Hades, is the one that the Greeks used to explain the seasons: the kidnapping of Persephone.

The goddess Demeter, Zeus' sister, had a very beautiful daughter called Core. One day Hades fell in love with her, and went to Zeus to ask her in marriage, but the god didn't allow it. So Hades decided to kidnap her, which caused the rage of her mother, who went through the world searching for her, and who finally got mad.

Some time later, she recovered her wits and went to Zeus telling him that if Hades didn't give her daughter back, she would impose winter on the world forever.
So the god told his brother to let the young goddess get back and sent Hermes to fetch her. All through this time Core had starved, but right before Hermes' arrival, she ate 7 seeds of pomegranate, which by the laws of the place, forced her to have to get back there every year.

So in the time Core was in the surface with her mother, it was summer, and when she was in the underground as Hades' consort, it was winter. That's when she adopted the name Persephone, which means "she who brings destruction".

There are many other tales to be told, but as this is meant to be only an article, I'll finish it now with some information on another important dark deity: Hecate, the goddess of witches.
It's said that Persephone preferred to spend her time with her than with Hades and that Zeus himself respected much her powers.

She had three heads and three bodies, that of a mare, a dog's and a lion's. This is an allusion to her role as the original triple-goddess, who ruled in Heaven, earth and Tartarus.

Her offsprings were the Empusae, who were demons that frightened travelers and who were kind of ancient succubi, because they used to lay with men and take the vital forces from them until they died. This legend was derived from the Hebrew Lilim, which means "children of Lilith", this goddess being an equal to Hecate.

Many other gods certainly could be mentioned here, but I think this is the main story.
I hope you'll join me here next month!

Best wishes! 

Information source: Graves, Robert - The Greek Myths I - Penguin Books

Download Hesiod's Theogony now! (ZIP file: 25 KB)

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