Friday, May 4, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Most people have a passing knowledge of the Hellenistic underworld that was embraced by the Romans when they conquered Greece.  At the very least we know the name of the place and the god who ruled it: Hades.  The actual evolution of Ancient Greek chthonian beliefs bears looking at as it heavily influenced Jewish, Christian and Islamic portraits of what becomes of a soul after death.

Originally, Greek mythology envisioned an underworld similar to the realm of the Mesopotamian goddess Ereshkigal.  Here the dead had diminished to nothing more than shadows.  They could not speak, hardly moved and ate dust.  There was no real outline of what the underworld looked like and there were certainly no specific areas with names and functions.

This changed with the widespread availability of the works of Homer.  In the Odyssey, Homer has his hero travel to Hades which he finds by sailing to the west.  Here, what remains of the dead are called eidolon, which is perhaps clumsily translated as “shade”.  They chirp quietly and flit from place to dark place like injured birds.  Everything good about life is denied them, and they long for even the most difficult existence on Earth.

When Odysseus slaughters two sheep and pours out their blood in a trench to appease the needy shades, they leap forward:

From this multitude of souls, as they fluttered to and fro by the trench came a moaning that was horrible to hear.

Contact with fresh blood would give the sad shades a momentary memory of the life they so desperately longed for.

In Hades, Odysseus also found a grove of poplars sacred to Persephone the underworld queen, a field of the pale lilies known as asphodels (which were, interestingly enough, a staple of the peasant diet in Greece) and the rivers Acheron and Styx.  The three headed dog Cerberus is at the gate, keeping the unfortunate eidolon from trying to escape, and Eurynomus, an indescribable creature that would tear off men’s skins, crouches in the shadows.

Homer also tacked on other features to the classical Greek underworld that were more in keeping with the way the average Greek imagined things might be in Hades.  Odysseus witnesses three men tortured eternally for crimes against the gods.  There is Tantalus, forever hungry and thirsty but unable to reach the food and water just in front of him.  Sisyphus hefts a huge bolder up a hill, only to have it roll back down so that he must return to the bottom and begin again.  Homer also writes of Tityus, whose punishment is the same as that of Prometheus the fire-bearer; vultures appear each day and rip Tityus’ liver from his side only to have the wound heal and the torture repeated over and over again.

As time went on, other writers added to the list of tormented souls in Hades until the pit of Tartarus, where those who had done evil were tortured in all manner of gruesome ways, became a staple of Greek belief.  Along side Tartarus grew the Elysian Fields, where the righteous dead would know the joys of life for all eternity or until they were called to drink the waters of the river Lethe, “forgetfulness”, and be reincarnated on Earth.

The fact that what we would now call Heaven and Hell were within sight of one another in Greek mythology did not escape early Christian theologians.  Certain authors, including Augustine, speak of the damned having to watch the joys of Heaven as part of their torment.  Medieval writers and artists, whose sadistic depictions of Hell border on the psychotic, added to this idea by picturing the souls in Heaven enjoying the suffering of the damned.  That, of course, is a very wide leap in philosophy from the days when all that stood ahead of us was eternity as an eidolon.

Header: Orpheus in the Underworld by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 16th c


Timmy! said...

I like the way the Greek underworld is depicted in modern fiction (like the Rick Riordan YA books) and films (like the Disney Hercules movie): "Is my hair out?"

And, as you know, my favorite of the Greek myths is the story of Sisyphus. I strongly identify with that one, Pauline.

You can definitely see the influence on what was to come. Of course, the Greeks were influenced by the Egyptian and other earlier cultures underworld myths as well.

Pauline said...

I've tried really hard to find corners of the underworld where torture isn't a promonent feature - and will continue to do so - but, alas, I am more often than not disappointed.

I guess it's that universal human need to see justice done, one way or another.