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Greek underworld facts for kids

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Hades with cerberus
Hades with Cerberus.
Hekate Kharites Glyptothek Munich 60
Triple Hecate and the Charites, Attic, 3rd century BCE (Glyptothek, Munich)

The underworld is the place in Greek mythology where people go when they die. It is also called Hades after the god who rules there. Its gates are guarded by the three-headed dog, Cerberus.

The Greeks had a definite belief that there was a journey to the afterlife or another world. They believed that death was not a complete end to life or human existence. The Greeks accepted the existence of the soul after death, but saw this afterlife as meaningless. In the underworld, the identity of a dead person still existed, but it had no strength or true influence.

There are five places you could end up in, one is Tartarus. Not all people though end up in there. People that lived normal lives would go to The Fields of Asphodel, heroes would go to The Fields of Elysium and very bad people would go the Fields of Punishment. If you were put into Elysium, you could choose to be reborn and if you made it to Elysium three times then you went to the Isle of the Blessed. This was like the ultimate heaven.

Entrance of the underworld

The deceased could enter the underworld through various routes, but perhaps the most common depiction is that of the ferryman Charon to take them across the river. While Charon doesn't feature in the earliest mythical sources, there was a superstition that the unburied couldn't cross over until they receive a proper burial. Alternatively, Hermes Psychopompos could also be relied upon to lead the deceased to the underworld and appears first in Homer's Odyssey book 24.


In mythology, there are multiple bodies of water that are associated with the underworld (varying in number and combination depending on the source).

  • The Styx can be considered the most prominent and familiar of the underworld rivers. It is the only named underworld river mentioned in Homer's Iliad. It often serves as the entrance to the underworld over which Charon (the ferryman of the dead) rows the deceased in order for them to enter the underworld. It is also known as the river of hatred.
  • The Acheron is the river of misery or river of woe. It is mentioned in many early sources of archaic poetry but is less prominent and early than the Styx. In some mythological accounts, Charon rows the dead over the Acheron rather than the Styx. In some alternative sources Acheron is a lake (rather than/as well as the river) and also functions as a synonym for the underworld.
  • The Pyriphlegethon/Phlegethon is the river of blazing-fire (Pyriphlegéthōn being from the phrase puri phlegethonti, 'blazing like fire'). It has a single mention in Homer's Odyssey (Pyriphlegéthōn) where it is described as flowing into the river Acheron, and then does not appear again in sources until Plato. According to Plato, this river leads to the depths of Tartarus and is associated with punishment.
  • The Cocytus is the river of wailing (from kōkuein, 'to weep, lament'). It too has only a single mention in Homer's Odyssey where it is described as a branch of the Styx that flows into the Acheron. According to Plato, the Cocytus is circular and empties into Tartarus and is associated with the punishment of murderers.
  • The Lethe is the river of forgetfulness, taking its name from Lethe, the goddess of forgetfulness and oblivion. In later accounts, a poplar branch dripping with water of the Lethe became the symbol of Hypnos, the god of sleep. Some sources reference a plain of Lethe, rather than a river. Souls undergoing reincarnation were forced to drink from the river in order to forget their past life and the underworld. Only after drinking could a soul be reborn in the living world.
  • Oceanus is the river that encircles the world, and it marks the border of the land of the living and the underworld.


In some Greek sources Tartarus is another name for the underworld, while in others it is a completely distinct realm separate from the underworld. Hesiod most famously describes Tartarus as being as far beneath the underworld as the earth is beneath the sky. Like Hades, it too is so dark that the "night is poured around it in three rows like a collar round the neck, while above it grows the roots of the earth and of the unharvested sea." The most famous inhabitants of Tartarus are the Titans; Zeus cast the Titans along with his father Cronus into Tartarus after defeating them. Homer wrote that Cronus then became the king of Tartarus. According to Plato's Gorgias (c. 400 BC), souls are judged after death and Tartarus is where the wicked received divine punishment.

Asphodel Meadows

The Asphodel Meadows is the location in the underworld where the majority of the deceased dwell.

Elysium/Elysian Fields

The Elysium (also referred to as the Elysian Fields) was reserved for specially distinguished individuals. The righteous could be sent to the Elysian Fields after being judged by the underworld judges, Rhadamanthus and Minos. The Elysium is described as being located at the edges of the earth (the peirata) and is where life is "easiest for men".

The Elysium would also be known as the Fortunate Isles or the Isles of the Blessed. The isles, which were sometimes treated as a geographical location on Earth, would become known as a place of reward in the underworld for those who were judged exceptionally pure.

See also

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