Ancient Greek Beliefs Surrounding Death, Burial and Hades
29 SEP 2017
The ancient Greeks believed in a complex system of gods, goddesses, deities and heroes. This complexity extended to their view of the afterlife. With short lifespans and death a common occurrence, the ancient Greeks were very concerned not only with the act of dying, but funerary preparations, burial practices and their trip to the underworld. While their views differ somewhat from contemporary views on death and the afterlife, there are quite a few similarities. They gave careful attention to proper preparation of the body and burial, as these actions could change the dead person's afterlife.
For the ancient Greeks, death was not something to be feared, but embraced. For the fatalistic Greeks, their lives were lived according to the will of the gods and their death would come when it was fated. The ancient Greeks believed that the human spirit -- what they called psyche -- left the body at the moment of death in the form of an exhalation of breath. No matter if a human was a great warrior, a lowly peasant or a king, the Greeks had the same destination when they died and were buried.
After death, ancient Greeks believed that their spirits, or psyches, traveled to the underworld ruled by the brother of Zeus, Hades. Hades is also sometimes used to refer to the underworld itself. Upon entering the underworld, the spirits had to cross the river Styx on Charon's ferry to enter their final resting place. Depending on their actions in life, there were three possible places their psyche could end up: Tartarus, Elysium or Asphodel. Tartarus was for those who had committed sins against the gods. Here they received eternal torment for their crimes. Asphodel, where most spirits ended up, was a vast plain covered in flowers were the dead lived aimlessly. Elysium was reserved for heroes and those whom the gods favored, for their spirits would live on in an eternal paradise.
3 Preparation of the Dead
Crucial to a spirit's journey in the afterlife were the appropriate preparations of the body. The ancient Greeks not only prepared the bodies of the dead for their burial, but for their trip to Hades. The elaborate three-part burial practice started with the prothesis, or wake. During this period, the body was cleaned by servants or family, dressed in new or clean clothes and placed on a clean funeral cloth. How elaborate this process was depended on the deceased's status or wealth. The ancient Greeks placed coins in the deceased's mouth and tied a strap around the head and jaw to keep it closed. These coins served as the toll for the ferry across the river Styx. During this time, people viewed the body and placed flowers or other tokens around it while drinking wine and lamenting the death.
4 Burial Rites
The next stages of burial were the funeral procession and burial. While slightly less ritualistic, the process was important, as it served as a time to release grief and provide the dead with final dignities. The body was carried in a chariot or by pallbearers, depending on the deceased's wealth and status. Friends, family and neighbors followed the body to its destination, crying and playing music. The Greeks believed in proper disposal of the body, either by interment or cremation. When cremating a body, they would place it on a pyre of flammable reeds or wood and douse the flames with wine when the body had burned. After the burial or cremation, other Greeks would make sacrifices, leave trinkets or visit the burial site to offer goodwill or help to the person in the afterlife.