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Friday, April 23, 2021

A To Z Blogging Challenge 2021 - U Is For Underworld!


Persephone being abducted.public domain

Have you ever heard the expression “Hot as Hades”? Felt as if you are pushing  a rock uphill only to have to do it again and again? What about getting that close to your goal only to have it snatched away? 

Apart from the heat, you are probably thinking of the stories of the Greek Underworld. That was not especially hot unless heat was involved in your punishment, such as Ixion on the wheel of fire,

Hades was the god of the Underworld, a brother of Zeus, but he could just as easily have been King of the gods or god of the sea instead of Poseidon. When the three brothers were splitting up the world among them, they shook lots in Hades’ helmet. Hades got the world below. 

To reach the Underworld you crossed the River Styx, in a ferry boat rowed by the ferryman Charon, so you were farewelled with a coin under your tongue to pay the fare. This is why Psyche, sent to the Underworld by her dreadful mother in law, Venus, to fetch some of Persephone’s perfume, held two coins in her mouth, so she could return. 

There was a guardian to the Underworld, the three-headed dog Cerberus. Psyche carried a distraction, some food, while Orpheus carried his lyre. 

The three judges of the dead, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus, decided where to send you. Mostly it was a boring place called the Asphodel Fields, with Elysium and the Isles of the Blessed as rewards, although the impression I get from my reading is that you mostly had to be related to the gods to get into those places. Mind you, most of the characters in Greek mythology seem to be related to the gods in one way or another.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visited the Underworld to get some information from the seer Tiresias and, while he was there, spoke to other shades. They needed to drink blood from his sacrificial animals to be able to speak and remember who they were, presumably because the shades had to drink from the stream of Lethe, which made them forget. That was no doubt a mercy! But when Odysseus speaks with his old comrades from Troy, Achilles says that he would rather be the slave of some poor farmer on Earth than ruler of this whole realm. 

It’s interesting to note that, actually, the rulers of Hades’ realm lived comfortably enough, with a palace and gardens from which Persephone, Hades’ Queen, ate those fateful pomegranate seeds that doomed her to spend half the year there before returning to her mother, Demeter.

Far below Hades was Tartarus, which started off as a prison for Zeus’s enemies, but became a place of punishment for people who had done things even the horrible gods couldn’t stomach. 

There was Ixion, who had betrayed the concept of how to treat your guests or hosts, murdering his father in law when the old man was his guest  and betraying his own duties as a guest on Olympus. Never mind the details, he ended up strapped to a wheel of fire.

Tantalus stood in a lovely, clear pool beneath fruit trees which were always just out of reach, unable to drink from the pool, however thirsty he was, for cutting up his son Pelops and serving him up to the gods. Silly man for thinking he could get away with it! This, of course, is where we get the word “tantalise”.

Sisyphus was doomed eternally to roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. He had killed guests and relatives at his home, plus a lot of other things I’ll let you look up. 

There were these fifty women, the Danaids, who had all killed their husbands on their wedding night, who had to draw water forever, in leaky jars.

That was Tartarus for you!  

It seems to have been possible to enter the Underworld from Earth, judging by the number of live people in the myths who do manage to get there - and back. There was even a spot in Sicily where traditionally Kore, Demeter’s daughter, a goddess of spring, was kidnapped by her uncle Hades and became Persephone.

Personally, that is one quest I’ll skip, thank you!

Do join me again on Monday, when the theme is V for Victory, Goddess of...


Debra She Who Seeks said...

There's a modern retelling of the myth of Persephone where she eats the 6 pomegranate seeds willingly, because secretly she wants to get a half-yearly break from her mother Demeter's control and be a Queen in her own right. She tells her mother a slightly different version, of course, so as not to anger her.

AJ Blythe said...

I'm with you, I'd skip that quest too! I wonder if he ever felt he drew the short straw, getting the underworld?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Debra! I haven’t read that story, can you remember the author? I have read a story seen from the viewpoint of a princess whose home Demeter visits during her search for her daughter, and the girl wishes her own mother cared that much about her. And no,
I can’t remember who wrote that, alas, it was in an anthology I read. 😉

Hi Anita! Yes, I have often wondered how Hades felt, stuck with the kingdom of the dead instead of something cool and classy like the sea. No wonder he wanted a spring goddess to keep him company, even if he did go about it the wrong way.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

No, unfortunately I don't remember where I read it. To the best of my recollection, it was in a book exploring the mother-daughter dynamic in that myth. I know that's not much help!

Stuart Nager said...

If we stopped putting our (human) thoughts, desires, etc into the myths, what would the Gods "really" think/feel? Would they just be reactionary, anger personified? Would all the humans who wrote down these myths just projecting their own inner demons?
What if they were all one entity or none?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Stuart! What if all the gods ARE just our own ideas of how the universe runs? I mean, a sex goddess like Aphrodite - how would she act? The king of the gods - why not give him a thunderbolt to strike us down?

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I liked your quick tour of the Underworld.

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Unnatural Magic

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thank you, Ronel!