An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 91

"Such, then, was the development of Jewish eschatology as compared with that of Egypt, Assyria, and Persia. At first an 'eternal house' beneath the earth is imagined to hold for ever the shades of good and evil in appropriate habitations. Gradually the expectation of a return to earthly life grows up, and the idea of spiritual and immortal bodies. These are, however, reserved for the elect few, and the wicked are condemned either to a second death or to eternal torment in their[Pg 206] former bodies in a Hell of flame, where, according to Isaiah, a fiery worm gnaws upon them."


The Greek place of punishment embraces three abstract regions, Hades, Tartarus, and Elysium. Spirits leaving the earth entered 'the Unseen,' passing, according to their worth, into one of these three abodes.

According to one writer, Oceanus, greatest of rivers, rolled between the place of perfect happiness on its southern banks and the realms of eternal darkness on its western, where fog and gloom encircled a place of everlasting punishment. This stream had no mouth and no source, and did not mingle with the sea which, according to Homer, it enclosed. Earlier than this, Plato described a still more gloomy region. He speaks of the plain of Lethe (situated near the two springs of Lethe and Mnemosyne, which represented oblivion and memory), whose waters give forgetfulness.

In the Iliad, again, the place of Oceanus is usurped by the Styx, which wound its course seven times round the world of the dead.

Those who had been taught the divination of the mysteries of infernal life could find guidance as to the future engraved on a gold plate in a tomb in Petelia at the oracle of Trophonius; and this tomb came to be regarded as one of the entrances to Hell.

The supreme sovereign of the infernal regions was Pluto, brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and a willing accomplice in deposing Cronus, their father, and sharing his kingdom. Pluto, spouse of Persephone, whom we have mentioned before, ruled with merciless severity, striking terror to the hearts of his subjects. He possessed a helmet which rendered him invisible, and he was feared by the gods as well as by the dead. He was assisted by a tribunal of judges, the chief being Æacus, son of Zeus and Ægina (appointed to this trust in the Underworld because of his just dealings with men in his kingdom above), Minos, and Rhadamanthus. Elysium and Tartarus were two late offshoots of the region of Hades. In the Odyssey, the souls who were[Pg 207] utterly worthless fell into the 'deep bottomless pit' of Tartarus, while those who merited reward passed into the pleasant land of Elysium. In the most ancient Greek mythology, however, Hades was a region for all the dead, good and bad, a land of shadow and dim suggestion.


The Elysian fields appear in some descriptions as a fertile plain at the utmost ends of the earth, washed by the waters of Oceanus, and ruled over by the god Rhadamanthus, a fair-haired deity who exercises a benevolent sway over his perfect kingdom. The balmy air, mingled with the perfume of sweet-scented blossoms, is tempered by zephyrs and whispering winds. It is never too hot nor too cold. Snow and storm have no place in this delectable country. In Hesiod, in addition to this description, Elysium is said to be ruled over by Cronus, the father of Rhadamanthus, the latter sharing his sovereignty and administering judgment. Heroes who never died, but were transferred from the realms above without pain, were the principal subjects of Elysium.