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Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities


   According to the belief current among the Greeks, the world of the dead, or the abode of Hades, with its wide doors, was in the depths of the earth. In the Odyssey, its entrance and outer court were on the western side of the river Oceanus, in the ground sacred to Persephone, with its grove of barren willows and poplars. Here was the home of the Cimmerians, veiled in darkness and cloud, where the sun never shines. This court, and indeed the lower world in general, is a meadow of asphodel, an unattractive weed of dreary aspect usually planted on graves. The actual abode of the subterranean powers is Erebus (Erebos), or the impenetrable darkness. In later times entrances to the lower world were imagined in other places where there were cavernous hollows which looked as if they led into the bowels of the earth. Such places were Hermione and the promontory of Taenarum in the Peloponnesus, Heraclea on the Euxine, and Cumae in Italy, where the mythical Cimmerii were also localized. The lower world of Homer is intersected by great rivers--the Styx, Acheron ("river of woe"), Cocytus ("river of wailing"), a branch of the Styx, Phlegethon and Pyriphlegethon ("rivers of fire"). The last two unite and join the waters of the Acheron. In the post-Homeric legend, these rivers are represented as surrounding the infernal regions, and another river appears with them, that of Lethe, or oblivion. In the waters of Lethe the souls of the dead drank forgetfulness of their earthly existence. The lower world once conceived as separated from the upper by these rivers, the idea of a ferryman arose. This was Charon , the son of Erebus and of Nyx, a gloomy, sullen old man, who took the souls in his boat across Acheron into the realm of shadows. The souls were brought down from the upper world by Hermes, and paid the ferryman an obolus, which was put for this purpose into the mouths of the dead. Charon had the right to refuse a passage to souls whose bodies had not been duly buried. In Homer it is the spirits themselves who refuse to receive any one to whom funeral honours have not been paid. At the gate lies the dog Cerberus, son of Typhaon and Echidna. He is a terrible monster with three heads, and mane and tail of snakes. He is friendly to the spirits who enter, but if any one tries to escape he seizes him and holds him fast.
    The ghosts of the dead were in ancient times conceived as incorporeal images of their former selves, without mind or consciousness. In the Odyssey the seer Tiresias is the only one who has retained his consciousness and judgment, and this as an exceptional gift of Persephone. But they have the power of drinking the blood of animals, and having done so they recover their consciousness and power of speech. The soul, therefore, is not conceived as entirely annihilated. The ghosts retain the outer form of their body, and follow, but instinctively only, what was their favourite pursuit in life. Orion in Homer is still a hunter, Minos sits in judgment, as when alive. Perhaps the punishments inflicted in Homer on Tityus, Tantalus, and Sisyphus (Ixion, the Danaides, Pirithous, and others belong to a later story) should be regarded in this light. The penalties inflicted on them in the upper world may be merely transferred by Homer to their ghostly existence; for the idea of a sensible punishment is not consistent with that of an unconscious continuance in being. It must be remembered, at the same time, that Homer several times mentions that the Erinyes punish perjurers after death. It must be concluded, then, that the ancient belief is, in this instance, found side by side with the later and generally received idea that the dead, even without drinking blood, preserved their consciousness and power of speech. Connected with it is the notion that they have the power of influencing men's life on earth in various ways. The most ancient belief knows nothing of future rewards of the righteous, or, indeed, of any complete separation between the just and the unjust, or of a judgment to make the necessary awards. The judges of the dead are in the later legend Minos, Rhadamanthys, Aeacus, and Triptolemus. It was a later age, too, which transferred Elysium and Tartarus to the lower world--Elysium as the abode of the blessed, and Tartarus as that of the damned. In the earlier belief these regions had nothing to do with the realm of Hades. The name Tartarus (Tartaros) was in later times often applied to the whole of the lower world. The spirits of those who had lived a life of average merit were imagined as wandering on the asphodel meadow.
    In general it must be said that the ancient ideas of a future life were always subject to considerable changes, owing to the influence of the doctrines taught in the mysteries, and the representations of poets, philosophers, sculptors, and painters. The general tendency was to multiply the terrors of Hades, especially at the gates and in Tartarus. The Greek beliefs on the subject found their way to Rome through the instrumentality of the poets, especially Vergil; but they did not entirely supplant the national traditions.

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