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Underworld in Greek and Roman Mythology Term Paper

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Many human beings for centuries have been fascinated by the Greek and Roman mythologies. The success and failure of the stories concerning the Greek and Roman mythologies have influenced many other different religions such as paganism and Norse Mythology (Noriega 2006, Para 1). At many times, however, people have been confusing between the two mythologies and interchanging them at will. But according to Noriega (2006), “the two are very different from one another, and capture almost opposing life values that are central to the people of the time,” (Para 1). In the Greek and Roman religious beliefs, the gods were not worshipped as is done by the Christian God but were however used as a symbol of mortality that guided how human beings were supposed to behave or not behave.

The work of the Greek Iliad came many years earlier before the Romans Aeneid manuscript came into being. The stories in the Greek Iliad were based on stories and myths running for about 300 years. The stories were gathered and passed down by mortal observant. These stories certainly correlate with the Christian stories (Noriega 2006, Para3).

The concept of Afterlife

The Greek’s focus was on life on earth versus life after death. In the Greek’s beliefs, a man’s worth was determined by what actions he did while he was alive, and hence his true immortality was in the remembrance of his gifts to the world (Noriega, 2006 Para 4). The human personality traits determined the gods and goddesses to be immortalized, hence the actions that were observed in the myths were as a symbol of the actual actions of men.

In many myths, it involved mortals or deities that were depicted as snatching something from the underworld. In these myths, the symbol was that the people were not very much concerned with the afterlife, but rather with the physical world’s life. It thus implies that the early Greeks did not believe that any person’s physical life had an impact on the afterlife. However, with time, (during the classical times, 480-323 BC), there was the belief that people who were morally upright in their life would be rewarded afterlife. At the same time, there developed the idea that a person who transgressed in life repeatedly would be punished. With these concerns about how one spent their afterlife, there were increased burial rituals and commemorative ceremonies of the death.

The Romans adopted many of the Greek beliefs and deities even though they changed many circumstances and names so that they could support and suit into their own beliefs. According to the Romans, the Gods were individualistic and unlike the Greeks, the Gods were named after objects and actions rather than human characteristics (Noriega, 2006). Myths strongly surrounded God’s heroic acts and such myths had a rare display of mortal lives. This is because they did put less importance on mortal life as compared to the afterlife.

The ancient Greeks did not take death as a glorious thing. “In Homer’s epics, the dead are pathetic in their helplessness, inhabiting drafty, echoing halls, deprived of their wits and fitting purposelessly about uttering bat like noises,”. This did not however cause much alarm to compare life on earth with life after death. It was rather the sinners who were punished after the death.

In Greek Religion, the dead had the universal destination at Hades. According to, “Hades was a cold, damp and dark realm that was guarded by the god of the same name,” (Para 12). The Hades gates were guarded by the fearsome bound Cerberus, who welcomed new arrivals by wagging the tail but did not allow anyone to leave. Therefore, without proper burial, no one was allowed to enter into gates of Hades.

The Greeks believed that Tartarus was the deepest region of the underworld. It is much deeper than Hades. Therefore, the Greeks believed that the wicked that died were kept in Hades while those who were defeated by the gods were cast into Tartarus. On the other hand, the Romans believed that all the sinners were cast in Tartarus.

The distinguished in the society inhabited the Elysium paradise, but the place was also later inhabited by the good people. The Elysium paradise is located in the western ends of the earth. The characteristics of this paradise are that it has gentle breezes and it has got an easy life like that of the gods. In Homer’s Odyssey, Elysium first appears as the destination of the Menelaus.

According to the book of Homer, the odyssey is always caused by human error. The deaths could be caused by such issues as greed, selfishness, or because of being curious. After the death, the Greek’s ideas about the soul and the afterlife were indefinite. However, the belief that was apparent was that the soul survived the body. In this case, the soul either hovered around the tomb or was deported to a shadowy region where it led to a melancholy existence waiting for offerings that will be brought by relatives.

The living believed that the disembodied souls had the power to inflict injury on them hence they had to undertake proper funeral rites so that they could ensure that there was peace and goodwill for the deceased. The cult of the dead in a way presupposes that the deceased is present and active at the place of burial, i.e. the grave beneath the earth (Burkert, 1985 Pp 194). The dead are appeased with for instance pouring of blood so that as the libations seep into the earth, the dead would send good things to those still living. The living has a great fear for death’s anger and thus keeps on appeasing them with offerings so as they make sure that they are always in good spirits (Burkert, 1979 Pp 112).

The Greeks do believe that a snake is a form of the deceased who come to lick libations left over. After this, the snake usually vanishes as swiftly as it came. It is believed that the spinal code of the corpse is what is transformed into the snake that comes for libation. According to Burkert (1985), “the death snake is, especially in iconography, a convenient and therefore almost omnipresent motif. The characteristic vessels of the Bronze Age snake cult, which was clearly a house cult, now appear only in the cult of the dead,” (Pp 195).

According to Plato’s myth of Er, the sinners had to suffer for the sins they had committed. Each sinner was to suffer ten times over for each sin committed for 1000 years. Those who were deemed to be extraordinary wicked were never allowed to come out of the earth. Such people had committed crimes such as murder and many unholy deeds, (Burkert, 1979 Pp 130). These people were seized and flayed and hurled down into Tartarus by wild men. The group of the virtuous on the other hand descended up in the sky after one thousand years and came to tell of great happiness they had felt during that period and the indescribable beauty they had seen.

After the cycle of a thousand years, all the souls (sinful and the virtuous) proceeded to another journey that led them to a place that provided a cosmic view of the universe, (Morford & Lenardon N.d, Para 10). This place was controlled by the spindle of necessity and her daughters. Each soul was required to pick a lot and choose from examples of lives before deciding on the kind of lives to lead before beginning the next cycle of mortality.

This choice was based on the fact that the souls had learned a lot from the past life and death, and therefore had an experience that would help them to choose between the best and the worst because they were aware of the difference between a good life and a wicked life. It is at this point of choosing that life is crucial since the choice has to be made by an individual’s own decision, hence god is blameless.

The Greeks had a belief that death’s soul entered into another body upon death. The first experience on the issue of reincarnation was put forth by the Pythagoreans and orphic who believed that the soul retained its identity throughout, but Plato’s indication was that the souls were not able to remember their previous experience. In the beliefs of reincarnation, those who are destined to be reincarnated drink from the streams of lethe so that they can be able to forget their problems and return to the corporeal existence of the earth, (Parada 1997, Para 9). Some believe that the desire to return to earthly existence is part of the laws that govern the universe.

When all the souls had now chosen their different kinds of lives, they were taken to the Lethe, (which is a river for forgetfulness). Each soul had a divine guardian spirit regardless of the choice that was made. At the river, the souls are made to drink a certain amount and then made to sleep and forget everything else. In the middle of the night, they were carried upwards like shooting stars and reborn at different places. Plato’s afterlife concept differs from Homer’s because humans not only have a soul and a body, but also moral and religious concepts that merit reward and punishment in the next life.


In Vergil, Tartarus is a “triple-walled, invincible fortress with huge door, mighty columns, and an iron tower, and it is surrounded by a seething violent river,” (Morford & Lenardon, N.d, Para 15). In this Tartarus, the horrible sounds of suffering are heard coming out. In Elysium, Sibyl and Aeneas find that paradise is bright as it has got its own sunlight. People in paradise are entertained by sports, music, and dances.

Works Cited

Burket W. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, ISBN 0631156240, Blackwell Publishing, 1985.

Burket W. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, ISBN 05200477702, University of California Press, 1979.

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Greek Mythology. Web.

Morford M.P.O & Lenardon R J. Views of the Afterlife: The Realm of Hades, N.d. Web.

Noriega B. Greek vs. Roman Mythology: The Differences and Similarities of the Two Fascinating Cultures, 2006. Web.

Parada C. Underworld & Afterlife, 1997. Web.

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