"Not a man alive can send me to Haides until it's my time, and when it is my time, be I brave or coward, nothing can stop it." - Homer.
During my life as a Hellenist, I have more than once happened upon questions concerning the ancient Greek afterlife. What is it? Why would you want to go there? What happens? What are your goals? The curiosity and desire for possible knowledge never ends, and deservedly so.
Especially in our time, it's only natural that people be exceptionally wonderous, for not much has been seriously written or thought about on the topic in over 2,000 years, certainly not in a serious religious context. Nevertheless, belief in the old Gods continues to rise and death impacts us all, from the passing of people we know and love to the realization that we will one day join them.
I intended to answer all of those questions and more. Although the interesting factor is that the afterlife is not the primary focus in Hellenism. We believe in an elaborate world full of possibilities, and yet, the beyond is not our primary target. It's also very relevant to say that not all Hellenists believe the same things about it. There is no holy book.
Using my own worldviews along with Greek myth and religion from times forgotten, I will attempt to paint the most vivid depictions possible, from the last breath to the final destination, if there indeed is one.
Section 1: Get Some Coin!
Bad news! Or maybe good depending on how you see it. You're about to take your last breath. Thanatos, the Spirit of death, is here. Hopefully, you're also being visited by Makaria, the Spirit of blessed death.
But before now, did you ever stop to wonder what it's like to stop existing in your current form? What it's like to go to sleep for decades, only this time, to never wake again?
Some indeed are terrified at the mere thought. Bad news certainly, although Plato said that death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a man. The truth is that you're not dead, your body is. Death is not the ultimate end but a transition. It may, therefore, be inaccurate to call it the afterlife because life does not cease, it simply changes.
Take the air in one last time, then exhale. Your whole life flashes before you, then you blackout. All physicality has ceased. Your current life is over.
Since most people today are not Hellenists, I hope you left instructions. Your body, being dead, is now considered a pollutant upon the living, and anyone who comes into contact with it will need to later cleanse themselves with sulfur to purify their own body and life. Although in today's time, the undertaker will probably bear most of the burden.
At your funeral, coin of proper value will have to be placed with your body. Why? Because soon, in the spiritual world where you now stand, you will meet Charon the boatman, and you'll need that transcendental payment for him to boat you across the rivers, but more on that a bit later.
The good news about the money is that the exchange rate from ancient to modern time is very affordable for even the poorest of people. One coin, or obol, would be placed in the mouth of the body. Today, that value would be 10 USD. There are very rare $10 coins that can be purchased through the US mint, but it would be very costly and not arrive in time. However, paper dollars can be exactly exchanged for gold coin dollars at most banks. All 10 can be placed in the mouth, which would be the traditional method.
Why the mouth? It must have been believed that the mouth was the place from which the soul emanated, because part of the coin practice was to seal off the entrance the soul could use to return to this world. It makes sense. The mouth is where the very breath of life comes from. It was time for the soul to pass on and therefore had to be directed into the next realm. And so what better way to make sure the soul can retrieve the ferryman's fee?
I have also heard of coins being placed over the eyes or in the hand of the body, but I think that's more modern than ancient.
Coin Practice Continues Today!
Leaving coins for the dead has, in fact, never left the human condition. If you take a stroll through a large graveyard or cemetery, you may see a tombstone or marker with a variety of coins on it, especially if the deceased was military. The love of War Heroes is very ancient Greek. Heroism on the battlefield also wasn't only reserved for Kings and Generals. All of the Homeric warriors are Heroes, and a City or Locality in the ancient Greek world might even worship a soldier as a Hero if they came from, and died in service of, that City.
Coins left today on graves normally have several meanings depending on the value of the currency, usually having something to do with the visitor's relation to the dead person.
According to ancient Greek customs, your body must go through proper funerary rites. It must be washed and dressed in clean clothing or garments, something that, again, the undertaker would handle today. However, a female member of your family must anoint the body with olive oil.
"I anoint you in the good name of Hermes, the Guide of Souls, and for Haides, Receiver of the Dead."
Believe it or not, much of the same funerary customs in ancient Greece are still observed today in the West. All those years you may have spent as a Christian, not knowing you were performing Greek Polytheistic rites during the funerals of your friends or family.
The cleaning, dressing and laying out of the body for viewing with the feet facing the door and the head resting on a pillow, the area decked with funerary decorations, memorabilia, and emblems of mourning such as wreaths and flowers, the recitation of songs and prayers, accompanying the deceased to their final resting place, and even the feast or reception after, all originated from ancient Hellas. A laurel wreath should also be placed upon your chest.
However, if it is all ancient Greek custom, your body will not be buried until nightfall, at which time you would have the pall bearers and a procession that includes friends and family. At the gravesite or cremation location, a final funerary speech would be given, hopefully in good praise of you.
The end comes when you are lowered into the ground or set ablaze in cremation. The only thing that will remain of your old self above ground is the tombstone or marker, although you are never completely separated from the living.
In Greek belief, your grave is a direct link to you in the Underworld or afterlife, and libations can be poured down to you from that very spot. In fact, at the funeral, a declaration is recited to make your memory last forever, and then libations of water, olive oil, milk and honey are made, one for each declaration, then the vessels are broken onto the ground as the pourers turn away from the deceased.
Ideally, your friends and family will maintain religious honors for you each year. But that's their job. Yours is now to start your journey through the Underworld.
On The River Bank
The River Styx waits for you to cross it. While you stand upon the shore, think of all who have passed here before you, and even Achilles Himself who was dipped into the water as an infant. But why water or a river? How does this manifest into a reality of life after death? Simply put, water is not only the element of spirituality, but the eternal, recycling element of life through which all life must travel. Hermes Himself led you to the entrance where the river starts. Now you wait.
The Styx (Hate) in particular stands as a border between the world above and below, or rather, the living and dead. When Charon approaches you in his boat, you will hand over the 10 gold coins that were left with you by friends or family. You can now board and begin your journey, but don't expect to see all rainbows along the way.
If you do not have the coin to pay Charon, there's bad news. You will not be able to board, and you'll have to wait on the shores for 100 years. But if that is indeed the case, look at it this way, you'll have lots of company especially in today's time.
We might modernly interpret this to mean that those who do not cross with Charon, for whatever reason, remain ghosts. In fact, even Plato talked about the phantoms that haunted the tombs and cemeteries around his area in the Dialogue of Phaedo.
The Underworld is divided by 4 other rivers. These are Akheron (Woe), Kokytus (Wailing), Phlegethon (Fire), and Lethe (Forgetfulness). All of the rivers have something that links them with death. The hate people have for death and dying, the woe and wailing that comes from everyone effected, the fire that destroys and purifies the dead and the living, and the forgetfulness that the soul goes through to forget its previous incarnation or mortal life (perhaps this explains why reincarnated people cannot readily recall their past lives).
Judges of the Underworld
You probably thought you'd be meeting Haides Himself here, but no. He's very Supreme and has lots of lower officers, if you will, to handle the duties necessary; people He can trust and who lived greatly enough to be able to adequately judge the deeds of men. You will eventually face the 3 Judges of the Underworld. They are Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aiakos.
These 3 Judges are also given access to different parts of the afterlife or Underworld. Haides entrusts His very keys to Aiakos. Rhadamanthys will be the one deciding if you get Elysion or not (some may consider Elysion to be the same as the Isle of the Blessed). And Minos who normally gets the last vote.
The very interesting thing about Minos as a Judge of the Underworld is that we don't actually know who he is. Many automatically connect him with the Minos of Theseus, but historians now think that Minos was a dynastic title, not something reserved for only one person. The Minos of the Underworld is therefore technically not identified. Very fascinating and also a little unsettling, to my mind any way.
Where Will You Go?
With 3 Judges, it may not be outlandish to connect them with 3 commonly known realms of the afterlife. If you were a virtuous and pious person, Elysion is your reward, which is basically the ancient Greek version of heaven. It is nothing but an eternity of peace, beauty and bliss. If you were exceptionally bad, Tartaros will likely be your destination, which is the ancient Greek version of punishment and torment (although, as you will see, it's not eternal). Finally, someone who has been neither good or evil may find themselves a resident of the Underworld or reincarnation.
Toward the end of the 10th Book of Plato's Republic, the philosopher describes a man named Er, who had a near death experience, but returned to tell of the amazing parts of the afterlife he had experienced. It is truly a fascinating account, but also very lengthy, so I will do my best to sum it up adequately.
Er was a solider who fell on the battlefield, but unlike his comrades, he was not completely dead. He recovered, but during the penetration of the other side, he was told that he was to return to the physical world and tell people what he had witnessed.
He described people coming down from heaven and up from the earth, the ones from below being unpurified and the ones from above being holy. The two classes talked with each other about both places, the earthly wanting desperately to reach heavenly, but could not because, presumably, they were still on their journeys below to make up for the injustices they had inflicted on others during their life, each injustice having to be repaid 10 times over.
Er then describes the fate of the most wicked of people, Tartaros. They, he said, had not paid a sufficient penalty and thus heaven rejected them as they tried to go upwards. They were bound by their hands and feet, lacerated, and dragged to the entrance where they would be thrown into the bowels of the gloom. But Er also gives the impression that even if someone is sentenced to punishment, they can ascend after they have served their time.
Er now talks about the many facets of "the light and whorl" which hold all things together in many manifestations, and the souls of the many reaching it over all of heaven and earth. And that among these things, people are given new lives to return to, not always human lives either. Once all was decided, they were immediately launched up into their new births. In other words, Er not only saw people in the bliss of heaven and the atonement of below, but also in reincarnation.
Of course, keep in mind, this is a very, very brief description; one needs to read the account completely to grasp the true amazement of it all.
I cannot say for certain what your journey will be, nor mine, when the time comes. But what seems to be a consensus is that whether your next life will be happy, hateful or neutral, or what you may have to go through to get to the life you want, depends on how you have chosen to live the life you're presently in. Keep this in mind always, before every decision, before every action, before every word. Live a pious and virtuous life.
What're my goals? I'd say to reach peace and happiness. That may take a very long time, but that's where I'm headed, friends.
In the Goodness of the Gods,
I'll see you at the next Herm down the road,
Adkins, Lesley and Adkins, A. Roy, Handbook To Life In Ancient Greece, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997.
Hellenic Council YSEE of America, Hellenic Ethnic Religion: Theology and Practice, New York, 2018.
Cooper M. John, Plato Complete Works, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1997.