Honour and prestige are paramount in a Greek's daily life and there is no escaping them even in death. The deceased actions in life as well as the treatment of their physical remains all shape the soul's reception in the Underworld.
To die in battle for one's polis is considered the highest honour. Greeks will respect the bodies of the dead regardless of which side they were on. Those with rich family or friends willing to carry them are returned to the city for their funerals.
Travellers who die far from their home are buried cordially, with the required rites carried out by local professional mourners. It is good practice to notify local officials of any dead encountered in the wild or to complete a simple funeral for them. Leaving the body for scavengers condemns the soul to wait on Acheron’s banks for 100 years.
Sailors lost at sea have little hope of a proper funeral unless they are washed up on the shore. It is common for sailors to wear a valuable jewel or carry a little silver to pay whoever finds them for the cost of a funeral. If bodies are not recovered there is little that those left behind can do to ease the dead’s passage through the Underworld beyond praying to the gods.
The poor and forgotten, if they are lucky enough to have someone to mourn their passing, end up in an unmarked grave. For urban dwellers this grave will not be close to the city, since such places are at a premium. Those who die alone are dealt with by the local authorities with the minimum of ceremony. Criminals or who have fallen far below the standards of civilisation are left to the gods. They are not interred near the honoured dead and their corpses are treated as refuse.
Funeral rites are practised the same way across Greece, and respect for the dead is considered vital by mortals and gods. Denying someone their funeral rites in considered a grave sin worthy of harsh punishment. Prothesis is the laying out, washing and dressing the body. Ekphora is the transport of the dead to their final resting place where the final rite is giving the dead two coins to pay Charon for passage to the Underworld.
It is common in Greek funerals that someone close to the deceased speaks of them at the burial or cremation. Short speeches are made about the great deeds of the deceased or how their loved ones will miss them. This is considered indispensable for those killed in battle. It has recently become popular to give ever longer orations.
After death, the soul of the deceased travels to the Underworld, the final resting place of the souls of the dead. Consisting of Tartarus, Erebus and the Isles of the Blessed, this vast and sprawling place deep below the earth is ruled with absolute authority by Hades.
Entry to the Underworld
Once freed from its mortal confines, the soul travels to the Underworld and awakens as if from a deep slumber to find itself on the banks of the river Acheron. The only way to cross safely is to pay Charon for passage on his ferry. If the deceased has been properly buried they will have an obolus coin, otherwise they must wait a hundred years on the river banks before Charon will allow them passage. A vast city of makeshift tents is found downriver from the crossing point, where the coinless wait and wait.
No true buildings exist, just approximations built for a semblance of privacy or as attempts to connect to their past life. The mud bricks are made from the oppressive dark grey silt of the river and add to the melancholic atmosphere of the camps. The coinless are listless, without purpose, and newcomers will find them apathetic and cold. All they do is wait. The impatient may attempt to cross the River Acheron without Charon's ferry. The river is marshy and foetid, and unpleasant creatures lurk beneath its placid surface. Souls attempting the crossing risk becoming stuck in the mud, swept away out to sea or devoured. Very rarely the coinless return to the surface as shades (Eidolon) to observe the mortal world as life continues without them.
Once across the river, the soul stands before the Judges of the Dead. If a soul is judged to have performed great acts of heroism or service to either man or god, they are deemed virtuous and allowed into the Isles of the Blessed. Those which have committed vile crimes against man or defied the gods are damned and sent to Tartarus for punishment. Any soul that has done neither of those things, or just led a blameless mediocre life, is sent to Erebus.
The great pit of Tartarus is located in the south of the underworld, surrounded by mountains. The lowest point in the world, Tartarus is the final resting place of those souls damned by the Judges or punished by Zeus. A place of torment and suffering, it is dark and gloomy with no natural light and a persistent cold mist. The third creation of Chaos, Tartarus is ancient and primordial and none knows its full extent or what might lurk in its abysses. Those who stay there long enough say that passageways move over time and that the shape of Tartarus twists and flows as it it were a living being. Tartarus is guarded by the Hecatonchires who answer to the court of the Olympic Gods rather than just to Hades. As the sons of Uranus, these three powerful divine beings are amongst the few strong enough to cope with the conditions in Tartarus.
Punishment of a damned soul in Tartarus typically matches the crimes committed by the soul. There are many famous examples of the creative nature of the Olympic gods in meting out these punishments. Greek children are told of King Tantalus who was damned for his greed to never have his desires fulfilled. For eternity he stands in a pool of water beneath a tree with low hanging fruit, forever tempted and denied. When he reaches for the fruit, the branches rise out of reach. When he stoops to drink, the water drains away. Above him towers a precarious rock, which will never fall to grant him the release of death.
In the darkest and furthest depths of Tartarus is the prison of the surviving Titans. Imprisoned in collapsed caves, the usurped gods sit alone, feeding only on their desire for revenge against the Olympians. The Titans' prison is so deep that the scribe Hesiod asserts that it would take an anvil nine days to fall there from the surface of the Earth.
Forming the middle of the underworld, this region is a mildly pleasant place of rolling hills, meadows, forests and small villages. At its centre stands the great court of Hades, a formidable temple complex made of dark stone and standing tens of feet tall. Surrounding the building are the Asphodel Meadows, a carpet of small flowers that stretches for many miles in all directions.
Erebus is the destination of those souls judged to be neutral so it is home to the great majority of the dead. This place is for those who made little impact on the world, and they are condemned to tedious and endless toil. They must work to provide for their needs but the soil is hard, the forests have little game and the lakes have few fish. Such unproductive work leaves no time for art, joy or rest. The gods think that it is fitting to give dull people a dull afterlife.
Erebus is, however, the only place where a soul can begin the process of reincarnation which starts with a pilgrimage to the waters of the river Lethe.
The Isles of the Blessed
The north of the underworld is covered by the Akineteo sea. Just off the coast are the Isles of the Blessed, home of the Elysian Fields, the final resting place of the virtuous dead and initiates of the ancient mysteries. The isles are a blissful winterless paradise that abounds in fruits and birds of every kind. The wind gently blows only from the south and the west, bringing the occasional soft shower of rain. Game and fish are plentiful and the soil is rich.
Here the dead remain in a blessed and happy life, indulging in whatever activities they had enjoyed in life. Those who live here dwell in small villages scattered along the coasts that are filled with art and song. Souls judged to be virtuous are free to travel the rest of the Underworld.
The Five Rivers
The Underworld has five rivers which form its borders and separate its regions. Each rivers flows from the mountains around Tartarus and empties into the Akineteo sea.
For most of its length the river Acheron is a slow-moving river with thick marshes along its shallow banks. At Charon’s crossing point it is almost a swamp and its banks are vast fetid marshes. Languid and torpid, its dark waters hide its depths and whatever lurks in the reeds and algae. Attempting to swim across the Acheron to avoid paying the ferryman is the very height of foolishness.
The river Cocytus is a fast-flowing river that crashes down through the mountains around Tartarus and speeds its way across the landscape. Flowing down steep gulches and through narrow ravines, the incessant noise of the waters sounds like a constant lament to the fates. The Cocytus joins the Acheron, many miles upstream of the ferry crossing.
Pouring out of a hot spring, the river Phlegethon keeps its heat as it flows. The steam that rises from river shrouds it in foul-smelling mists. Nothing grows or lives in the Phlegethon and the waters are not safe to drink, even when cooled. The river plunges over a tall escarpment where it joins the Styx, resulting in a plume of noxious steam.
The river Lethe meanders slowly through the centre of Erebus and the wide broad delta at its mouth separates the Isles of the Blessed from the mainland. The waters of this river are uniquely dangerous since those who drink them suffer increasing forgetfulness. The Lethe has two sources, both springs deep in the mountains above Tartarus. One spring is the true Lethe and gives it its forgetful properties and drinking directly from it will wipe a soul's memories of its life. This is the first step towards reincarnation. The other spring causes the drinker to remember every moment of their lives.
The river Styx forms the far boundary of the underworld. Beyond its far bank is nothing but desert wastelands empty of even the dead. Muddy and opaque with silt, the river flows unerringly straight for the sea as if its path has been cut into the landscape.
Return To The Mortal World
Hades does not suffer the dead to leave his realm, feeling that this upsets the balance of the world he protects with his laws. Escape is thus nearly impossible without divine help and only the greatest of the ancient heroes have entered the underworld alive and successfully left.
Perhaps the most famous rescue attempt was that carried out by Orpheus. A wonderful musician and companion of heroes, he lost his wife Eurydice after she was bitten by a snake. Distraught, he sang such a powerful song of despair that the Olympian Gods took pity on him and showed him the way to an entrance to the underworld. He gained passage from Charon and subdued Cerberus with his beautiful singing and lyre music. Making his way to the court of Hades and Persephone, he pleaded in song for the return of his beloved. Persephone, moved by his love, allowed him to retrieve Eurydice from the Asphodel Meadows. The condition was that Orpheus would have to reach the world of the living without looking over his shoulder at his wife. They made their way across the underworld, but at the last minute Orpheus panicked when he suddenly couldn’t hear her footsteps. Looking around, he caught a last fleeting glimpse of her sorrowful face before she faded forever back into the Underworld.
For those sentenced to Tartarus, no chance of reprieve exists - the punishments of the gods are not escaped. The Hecatonchires who guard the deep and twisted caves are loyal to the Judges and Hades. Tartarus is for eternity.
Souls sent to the Isles of the Blessed or Erebus may choose to follow the difficult path of rebirth. The Forgetting Pool is a spring in the mountains that encircle Tartarus. Its waters wipe clean the memories of a soul's past life, preparing the soul for re-entry into the mortal world. From the pool the waters form the River Lethe as it cuts an unnavigable course through canyons and over waterfalls. The mountain's cliffs and canyons are treacherous and require great skill to traverse. No servant of Hades will oppose such a journey, for rebirth is a noble thing. But the mountains are part of Tartarus, formed during the primordial times and in them lurk creatures that answer to no Olympian.
Once the mind is cleared by the Forgetting Pool, the soul must travel to Mount Targos. The River Phlegethon emerges from the side of this volcano but the boiling caldera of lava at its heart is what souls seek. Upon throwing oneself into the lava the fires free the soul from the Underworld, returning it to the mortal world as a newborn babe.
Mortals may appeal their fate to the Queen of the Dead, Persephone, wife of Hades. She is more compassionate than her husband and it was she that granted the requests of the two best known escapees, Orpheus and Psyche. Tales of love, separation and the pain of grief may move her to grant a measure of clemency but conditions are attached to her gifts. These are challenging and difficult to meet as Persephone tests the devotion of petitioners with trials of willpower and courage.
Despite his hard heart and cold reputation, Hades will hear those who wish to see him. A man of reason, he cannot be persuaded to bend the rules which ensure order and balance in the world. In Hades' court, a petitioner must convince the god and the Judges of the Dead that their death unbalanced the world. A death before time, with unfinished fate and unmet prophecy, is one which upsets the balance of the world. Such a death needs correction but Hades does not tolerate challenges to his authority. A soul failing to prove their death was untimely will face his wrath and will be lucky to spend eternity toiling in Erebus.
To escape the Underworld and return to life without divine help is a feat that no dead soul has reportedly managed. Though any soul achieving this feat would be wise to remain hidden, so hope exists.
An escape from the western edge of the Underworld involves crossing back across the Acheron. Besides the dangers facing those crossing the river without Charon's ferry, Cerberus stalks the east bank. The three-headed hound of Hades has an uncanny sense of smell which he uses to hunt down souls on the forbidden east bank. A captured soul is taken to Hades for punishment. Cerberus is not the only guardian of the river bank and an unlucky soul may encounter Hades or Hecate on their irregular patrols. A soul which crosses the river will find the coinless on the west bank attempting to block their way in the hope that Hades will reward them. Finally, before returning to true life, the escaping soul must find their way to the surface and sunlight. The caverns west of the river are believed to lead to the surface but no mortal knows the route.
The eastern edge of the Underworld is marked by the River Styx. Beyond it lies a great desert. A path leads through the flat, featureless desert and into the mortal world, though no one knows where it starts or where it goes. The desert is hot and dry and beset by winds carrying the despair of souls lost in the desert.
Any caught attempting an escape are punished by Hades for upsetting the balance of the world. Souls from the Isles of the Blessed are sent back there with a warning that further attempts to escape will meet greater punishment. They are granted leniency just once in mark of their heroic deeds in life. Escapees from Erebus and repeat escapees from the Isles of the Blessed are sent to Tartarus to endure pain and imprisonment for a century.
A soul succeeding in an escape from the Underworld must continue to evade the notice of the gods or risk the wrath of Hades. Any mortal will be in awe of the escapee's accomplishment but will fear what Hades will do if they provide aid. Souls who return face shunning by those who knew them. The escapee's old life is gone and they must forge a new existence.
A soul trying but failing to escape may be much worse off because a soul is eternal but not inviolate. They can feel pain and be driven mad by the torment. Souls who get stuck in the mires of the River Acheron or are washed out to sea are repeatedly drowned. Anyone who falls into the boiling waters of the Phlegethon burns continuously and those lost in the desert wander for eternity. Not even Zeus himself can help a soul lost to madness.