Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
The Hellenic Underworld and afterlife
The Underworld is described as lying in the west in the Odysseia, and there is an entrance that can be reached overseas. Yet, the dead enter the Underworld through one of five rivers surrounding the Underworld.
Acheron (Αχέρων) - The river of woe. This is the river that Kharon ferries the dead across, from the land of the living, to the realm of Hades.
Cocytus (Κωκυτός) - The river of lamentation. Those who could not pay Kharon, were destined to walk the banks of this river--a side river to the river Acheron--for one hundred years.
Phlegethon (Φλεγέθων) - The river of fire in the Underworld. It's a side river of the river Styx and is said to be permanently on fire, yet never burn anything it touches. It's located in Tartaros.
Lethe (Λήθη) - The river of forgetfulness. It runs through the Asphodel meadows, and the dead have to drink from it to completely forget about their lives on Earth. Those who were initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries--linked to Demeter and Persephone--were allowed to drink from Mnemosyne and are allowed to remember.
Styx (Στύξ) - The river of hate. The Acheron joins with the Styx at the moment the land of the living makes way for the Underword, and as such, She is a portal, and the most famous of the five rivers. It is said to wrap around the Underworld nine times. Styx was also the river upon which the Theoi, and mankind, swore oaths which could not be broken, an arrangement agreed upon by Zeus and the Goddes Styx in return for her aid in the Titan Wars. If one did break an oath made upon the river Styx, they were forced by Zeus to drink from the river, upon which they lost their voice for an extended period of time.
The Underworld has various areas where the dead are housed, but also where the various Gods and Goddesses of the Underworld--called 'Theoi Khthonioi'--reside. Several of the Gods and Goddesses have already been discussed; all the rivers are Gods or Goddesses who have their home in the Underworld, and there are Kharon, Kerberos, and the judges: Rhadamanthys, Minos and Aiakos. Yet, there are a lot more. The most well known are Hades and His consort, Persephone.
Hades, brother of Zeus, son of Kronos, is the Lord of the Dead. The Underworld is His domain. He rules it with his beautiful wife--and niece--Persephone, whom He stole away. She resides with Him in their home, a large mansion at the crossroads between the Asphodel meadows, Tartaros and Elysium. This crossroads is sacred to Hekate, and located in the courtyard of the mansion. The maiden Goddess Hekate is a companion of Persephone, whom she led out of the Underworld after Zeus decreed it to be so. She vowed to Demeter to stay with Persephone in the months She spent under the earth, and takes this vow very seriously.
Kronos is an Underworld deity as well: Zeus eventually released His father and made Him king of the Elysian Islands. Other Gods, like Hypnos, Erebos, Nyx, Makaria (daughter of Hades and Persephone, who watched over the blessed dead, who had been initiated into the Mysteries), and the Erinyes (three Goddesses of vengeance and retribution) also make their home in (a part of) the Underworld. The Moirai, the three Goddesses of fate, have their own space in the Underworld as well. Other Immortals who share the Underworld are deamons and nymphs.
In the Daemon-section, we have the the Arai (Daemones of curses), Askalaphos (who tended to the orchards of Hades and was transformed into a screech owl by Demeter for bringing Her bad news about Her daughter), Kakodaimones (Deamones which cause all kinds of harm), Empousa (a Daemon with flaming hair, the leg of a goat and a leg of bronze, who parents vowed would come after their children if they didn't behave), the Oneiri (dream spirits) and Epiales (the Daemon of nightmares). Other Daemones include: Eurynomos (who stripped the flesh off of the corpses of the dead), the Lamiai and Mormolykeia (vampiric, succubus-like, Daemones in the following of Hekate), Melinoe (who led the souls of the dead back to earth to haunt the living). Menoites, furthermore, herds the black-skinned cattle of Hades, and Thanatos, the winged Daemon of death, is Hades' minister.
There are also a few Underworld nymphs: Daeira (a companion of Persephone), the Lampades (torch bearing nymphs in Hekate's following who may have looked over the blessed dead on their way to Elysium), Leuke (a nymph abducted by Hades and transformed into a white poplar which stands in the Elysian fields), Mynthe (a beowed nymph of Hades, who Persephone turned to dust and Hades turned into the mint plant), and Orphne (wife of Acheron).
As for the dead, they had three places to go in the Underworld: Tartaros, where those who were punished for all eternity remained, the Asphodel meadows, where everyone who had lived a good life wandered about endlessly, and the Elysian fields, where the children of Gods, the blessed dead and those who had lead extraordinarily honorable, brave or otherwise well-respected lives resided.
The ancient Hellens believed the Underworld was a neutral place. One did not desire to go there in the least, but it was part of life, and as far as the afterlife went, it was dull and sunless but nothing like the hell of Christianity. The worst part about it is being without the touch of loved ones, and forgetting who you were. In the Odysseia, Odysseus meets his mother's spirit at one of the entrance points to the Underworld. She tells him:
Nobody wants to think about dying and the dead for too long, so I will end this post here. May it have given you some insight into the workings of the Underworld.
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