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Greek Mythology – The Elysian Fields

By Marina Spanos

Elysium or the Elysian Fields is a conception of the afterlife that developed over time and was believed by many Greek religious and philosophical groups. Initially separate from the realm of Hades, admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, the concept was expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life. In Wicca, it is related to the concept of Summerland.

Author Scott Cunningham described the Summerland as a place where the soul goes on to live forever. In Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, he says,

"This realm is neither in heaven nor the underworld. It simply is: a non-physical reality much less dense than ours. Some Wiccan traditions describe it as a land of eternal summer, with grassy fields and sweet flowing rivers, perhaps the Earth before the advent of humans. Others see it vaguely as a realm without forms, where energy swirls coexist with the greatest energies: the Goddess and God in their celestial identities."

Even among Wiccan paths who accept the concept of the Summerland, there are varying interpretations as to what the Summerland actually is. Some see Summerland as a beautiful rest stop, a regular Elysian Fields where everyone go to take stock of their lives before moving on to a new incarnation. Let's look at the Greek view of Elysian Fields...

The Elysian Fields is the final resting place for the souls of heroes and the virtuous. The ancients often distinguished between two such realms - the islands of the Blessed and the Lethean fields of Hades. The first of these, also known as the White Island or the Islands of the Blessed, was an afterlife realm reserved for the heroes of myth. It was an island paradise located in the far western streams of the river Okeanos, and ruled over by the Titan-King Kronos or Rhadamanthys, a son of Zeus. The second Elysium was a netherworld realm, located in the depths of Hades beyond the river Lethe. Its fields were promised to initiates of the Mysteries who had lived a virtuous life. The gods of the Mysteries associated with the passage of initiates to Elysium after death include Persephone, Iakkhos (the Eleusinian Hermes or Dionysus), Triptolemos, Hekate, Zagreus (the Orphic Dionysus), Melinoe (the Orphic Hekate) and Makaria.

When the concept of reincarnation gained currency the two Elysian realms were sometimes tiered - a soul which had thrice won passage to netherworld Elysium, would, with the fourth, be transferred permanently to the Islands of the Blessed to reside with the heroes.

It should be noted that Elysium was an evolving concept. Homer knows of no such realm, and consigns all of his heroes to the common house of Hades, while Hesiod and many other poets speak only of a paradisal realm reserved for heroes. Roman writers (such as Virgil) combine the two Elysia - the realm of the virtuous dead and the realm of heroes become one and the same.

Late Greek writers who attempted to rationalise the myths identified the mythical White Island with one located near the mouth of the river Danube on the Black Sea. The Islands of the Blessed, on the other hand, were sometimes identified with the islands of the eastern Aegean, or with islands located in the Atlantic Ocean.

In ancient Greek the terms Elysium and Hades always occur as adjectives rather than proper names, i.e. pedion Elysian (the Elysian plain) and domos Hadou (the domain or house of Hades). The etymology of Elysion is unclear. It may be connected with the Greek verb eleuso (eleutho), "to relieve" or "release" (i.e. from pain), and/or with the town Eleusis, site of the celebrated Eleusinian Mysteries.

In ancient Greek mythology and religion the Domos Hadou or "realm of Hades" was the land of the dead, the final resting place for departed souls. It was a dark and dismal realm in which bodiless ghosts flitted across gray fields of asphodel. The Homeric poets knew of no Islands of the Blessed or Elysian fields, or for that matter a Tartarean hell, instead all the spirits, including those of the great heroes, descended into Hades.

In the Iliad the realm is a damp and moldy place buried inside the hollows of the earth. The dead cross a river, pass through gates guarded by the Hound, and present themselves before King Hades and Queen Persephone. The ghosts of the unburied dead are allowed to return to the realm above to visit the living in their dreams and demand a proper burial. The land of Hades is quite distinct from Tartaros, the prison-house of the Titanes, which is described as lying as far beneath Hades as earth beneath the heavens.

In the Odyssey Hades is described in even greater detail. It is now located at the end of the earth, on the far western shore of the earth-encircling river Okeanos, beyond the gates of the sun, and the land of dreams. It is bordered by the Akherousian lake and three named rivers - the Styx, Kokytos and Pyriphlegethon. A judge named Minos receives the dead from Hermes Psykhogogos (Leader of the Souls), and sentences the most wicked to eternal torment.

Hesiod describes the realm of Hades in his Theogony. Here it lies at the end of the flat disc of the earth, beyond the river Okeanos and the land of evening. It is a cosmic meeting-place of the ways where the great sky dome descends to rest its edge upon the earth, and, from below, the walls of the Tartarean pit rise up to enclose the lower half of the cosmos. Hades and Tartaros are again quite distinct - Tartaros is the cosmic pit beneath the earth, whereas Hades is the land on the gloomy edges of the earth. In his Works and Days and Catalogues, Hesiod introduces the Islands of the Blessed, a paradise realm reserved for the great heroes of myth.

Kharon, the ferryman of the dead, first appears in the lost epic of the Minyad, pointing souls across the Akherousian marsh in a skiff.

In the classical period the mystic religions and mystic prophets (e.g. the Orphics and Pythagoreans), as well as the philosophers, modified the realm of the dead to include an Elysian paradise for the good, and a Tartarean hell for the wicked. Souls were judged and assigned a suitable afterlife, and in some versions cast into cycles of purgatory and reincarnation.

Hades and Persephone
Hades and Persephone

The Realm of Hades

Domos Hadou is often translated into English as "the House of Hades," and indeed the god of the underworld is often described as a Homeric-style king living in a royal palace, with orchards and fields. The dead also passed through the pylai Hadou or "gates of Hades" to enter his realm. The adjective haidou, however, also means "unseen" or "invisible" and domos is simply a "dwelling-place," "domain" or "realm." So "the unseen realm" would be a fair translation. The common plural form domoi Hadou also needs to be rendered as something more than just "the house of Hades."

The dead were often described roaming across the leimon asphodelon, or "fields of asphodel". The asphodel is a pale-grey plant which is edible but very bland. The ancients regarded it as a food of last resort. The term Erebos, meaning "the dark" was sometimes used to describe the realm. However it was not very common, and for the most part purely descriptive. Later poets sometimes use Tartaros as a simile for Hades, and also the adjectives Akherousian and Stygian, derived from the names of the rivers.

Oceanus and Tethys
Oceanus and Tethys


In ancient Greek cosmology the River Okeanos was a great, fresh-water stream which circled the entire earth. It was the source of all of the earth's fresh-water - from the rivers and springs which were fed by subterranean aquifers, to the clouds, which dipped below the horizon to collect moisture from its stream. Okeanos also marked the outer boundaries of the flat earth which it encircled with a nine-fold stream. The sun, moon, and stars were all believed to rise and set into its waters. At night, the sun-god sailed around the northern limits of the stream in a golden boat from his setting in the west to his rising in the east. In a cosmological sense, the river symbolized the eternal flow of time.

Beyond Okeanos lay a dark and misty shore which marked the farthest edge of the cosmos, a place where the great sky-dome rested its hard edge upon the earth, and where, from below, the walls of the great pit of Tartaros rose up to meet earth and sky. Together the sky dome and Tartarean pit formed a great sphere or ovoid which enclosed the entire cosmos. Inside it was divided into two equal hemispheres by the flat earth. The world above was the home of Gods and men, the world below of Titanes.

Hades, the realm of the dead, was often located on gloomy far shore of Okeanos, beyond the setting sun. At other times it described as buried inside the cavernous belly of earth. Hades and Tartaros were two quite distinct places, the former being found within the earth or at the edges of earth, the latter wholly beneath it.

The native gods of the River Okeanos were the Titan Okeanos, his wife Tethys, and their daughters, the three thousand Okeanides. The gods of day and night also possessed palaces on islands in the stream.


Tartaros - The Great Cosmic Pit

In early Greek cosmogony Tartaros was the great pit beneath the earth. The cosmos was imagined as a great sphere or ovoid, with the upper half of its shell formed by the dome of heaven, and the lower half by the pit of Tartaros. Inside, this cosmic sphere was divided in two by the flat disc of earth. Above was the dwelling place of gods and men, and below was the gloomy, storm-wracked prison of the Titanes.

Hades, the realm of the dead, was originally quite distinct from the pit of Tartaros. The Hadean realm was located either at the very ends of the earth, beyond the river Okeanos and the setting of the sun; or in the hollow depths of earth's belly. Tartaros on the other hand, lay as far beneath Hades (i.e. beneath the deepest recesses of the flat earth) as the sky lay above the earth. Tartaros was secured with a surrounding wall of bronze set with a pair of gates, guarded by the hundred-handed Hekatonkheir giants, warders of the Titanes.

Through the gates of Tartaros passed Nyx (goddess of the Night) who emerged to wrap the earth in darkness, and also her daughter Hemera (Day), who scattered the mists of night.

The Pit sired a child, Typhoeus, a monstrous serpentine storm-giant who attempted to seize heaven. Zeus vanquished the creature and cast it back down into the Pit. From Typhoeus came hurricanes and storm-winds, which issued forth from Tartaros when Zeus commanded the gates be opened.

The protogenos (or primordial deity) of the Pit was Tartaros, a figure who unlike his agemates Gaia (the Earth) and Ouranos (the Sky) scarcely figures in myth. These ancient deities were purely elemental, Tartaros, for example, was the pit, rather than simply the god of it. Later classical writers re-imagined Tartaros as the hellish prison-house of the damned, conflating it with Homer's Hadean chamber of torments.

Tartaros - Doungio of the Damned

Tartaros was the prison of the damned, a region in Hades where the souls of wicked men were condemned by the Judges of the Dead to an period of enforced purgatory, or, for the truly nonredeemable, to eternal damnation. It should be noted that the archaic Greek poets represented Tartaros in quite a different fashion. For them it was the great cosmic pit beneath the earth, home of the Titan gods, Night and the storm winds. It was only in the 5th century B.C. that Tartaros was re-imagined as a type of hell, in contrast to the paradise of Elysium.

The Abode of the Gods

The Olympian gods lived in palaces constructed by Hephaestus on the summit of Mount Olympus, the highest peak (9,570 feet) in a mountain range between Macedonia and Thessaly near the Aegean Sea. Mount Olympus is sometimes called Upper Olympus because it lies just north of a lesser peak (5,210 feet) known as Lower Olympus. Minor goddesses called the Seasons (Horae) maintained watch at the entrance way of Mount Olympus, a gate of clouds which opened and closed whenever a god left or returned to Olympus.

In their lofty domain, the gods breathed only pure air, or ether. They took their meals in the palace of Zeus, eating ambrosia to sustain eternal life and drinking a delicious beverage called nectar, served by Hebe. Near the throne of Zeus sat lesser goddesses known as Muses, who were nine in number. They regaled the gathering with songs of the gods and of earthly heroes and history. These daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, learned under the tutelage of Apollo.

Other lesser gods on Olympus included the following: (1) Eros (Cupid), god of love and son of Aphrodite who shot arrows that impregnated humans with love. (2) Iris, messenger goddess of Zeus and Hera who created rainbows when she flew across the sky. (3) Themis, a companion of Zeus who was the goddess of justice. She holds scales on which she weighs the claims in a suit of law. (4) The Charites, or Graces, goddesses of joy and beauty. (5) Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment. (6) Aidos, the goddess of conscience.

Thanks to HellasFrappe, republished under the Creative Commons license.

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