What Did the Ancient Greek Believe Happened After Death?

Charon rowed the dead across the river of Acheron.
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The god Hades ruled the underworld, and while he might take an interest in the afterlives of certain mortals, he often appointed specific tasks within the underworld to others. In this manner, every stage of the human afterlife was overseen by a particular deity, ensuring each human followed the appropriate path after burial.

1 The Fleet-Footed Guide

The Greeks believed that the soul, which they called "shade," left the body after burial. From there, the god Hermes descended from Olympus on his winged boots to lead them to the afterlife. He guided each individual shade to the Acheron, the river of pain. The upper world location of this river in changed as the Greeks expanded their territory, but each of these landmarks served to connect the upper world to the underworld. (See Reference 3)

2 Pay the Toll

As part of their burial ritual, Greeks always placed coins in the mouth of the deceased so that they could pay the entrance fee to the underworld. Those shades who received improper burials and couldn't pay the toll were turned away. Doomed to wander the upper world for an eternity, the outcast shades joined the retinue of the Melinoe, an underworld goddess. She and her ghostly companies roamed at night, terrifying the living and reminding humans of what befalls those unfortunate enough to receive an improper burial.

3 Ferry to the Underworld.

Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, was the son of Erebos, or darkness. He would accompany all shades who could pay the fee into the underworld, but refused to allow any to leave. He was aided in his task by Cerberus, a fearsome, three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the underworld. Charon rowed the shades across the Acheron to their final resting place in the underworld, where they would remain forever, untroubled by thoughts of their human lives.

4 Forgetfulness and Judgment

Lethe was the goddess of forgetfulness and her namesake river flowed around the cave of Hypnos. The river murmured to the shades invited lethargy and sleep. Shades drank from the river and immediately forgot their earthly lives. Yet the Judges of the Dead, Minos, Aiakos and Rhadamanthys, did not forget the deeds and misdeeds the shades. Instead, they judged earthly lives determine whether the shades would reside in the gray field of Asphodel, the glorious fields of Elysium, or, for the wicked, the horrible prison of Tartarus.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.