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Worlds apart

People in ancient Greece had a range of different views on what death meant:

More on the Hesperides: As far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, the world ended at the Straits of Gibraltar. The apparently infinite waters of the Atlantic Ocean belonged to another dimension of experience. The idea of the ‘Hesperides', however, seems to have been rooted in what they had heard from local people about the existence of a real offshore island-group, the Canaries!


The story of Castor and Pollux might be dismissed as no more than a Castor and Polluxsentimental story. However, there was a more widespread feeling that the dead might endure in different forms, which can be seen from the doctrines put forward by Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE. He was a firm believer in the ‘transmigration of souls': the dead came back, he argued, in other human, animal – or even vegetable – form.

Reward and punishment

The idea that the good might be rewarded in the afterlife is present in the notion of the ‘Isles of the Blessed'. The Greeks also had stories of hellish punishments as well. In a deep and gloomy pit called Tartarus, extending down far below even the underworld of Hades, certain sinners were singled out for terrible tortures:

Inconsistent 'justice'

To modern eyes there is an air of bleak comedy about the punishments of Tartarus. The ancient myths give no sense that such punishments were handed out systematically. Ordinary Greeks and Romans do not appear to have feared that they would go to hell as later Christian believers might have done: the afterlife seems to have been equally dismal for everybody, good or bad, an endlessly dreary existence of cold and darkness without relief.


The only thing worse than an eternity in the underworld was an eternity above ground as a ghost. Those who did not receive a fitting burial with the right ritual observances afterwards would not be admitted to the underworld and would be forced to wander the world in phantom form. It Antigone and Polyniceswas this belief which motivated Antigone to defy the edict of her uncle, King Creon, and bury her disgraced brother, Polynices. The Greeks and Romans were so frightened of this fate that those who had no children to see to their burial rites would often adopt them simply to be sure of being properly laid to rest when the moment came.

Death and judgement

The western European tradition of the Christian Heaven and Hell developed from Judeo-Christian writings, rather than from the classical world. In the early Jewish tradition, the realms of Sheol and Gehenna, mentioned in the earlier books of the Old Testament, are places of endless darkness and tedium, like the Greek and Roman underworlds. Only later do we find Jewish writers starting to distinguish between different sorts of afterlife for those who have conducted their earthly existences well or badly, which ideas the teachings of Jesus and the Early Church build on.

Jewish writers may well have been influenced by their contact with Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which saw existence as an eternal war between the great principles of good and evil. The dead, in this scheme, set off across a great bridge to the afterlife. For those who had lived well, this was an easy crossing to a paradise of light; the wicked were dragged down into an abyss of darkness.

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Stoicism

Member of a school of Greek philosophers who believed that the wise should be impervious to joy or grief and free from all passion.
The spirit which gives life to a human being; the part which lives on after death; a person's inner being (personality, intellect, emotions and will) which distinguishes them from animals.
a change of shape or form, from one thing to another
Jesus describes hell as the place where Satan and his demons reside and the realm where unrepentant souls will go after the Last Judgement.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
In many religions, the place where God dwells, and to which believers aspire after their death. Sometimes known as Paradise.
Jesus describes hell as the place where Satan and his demons reside and the realm where unrepentant souls will go after the Last Judgement.
1) In the Bible a member of the Hebrew race 2) Someone who belongs to the Jewish faith which believes in one God and the importance of Jewish Law.
The Hebrew word for the world of the dead, a shadowy place mentioned in the Psalms.
The name of a valley outside Jerusalem associated with pagan child sacrifice, and therefore designated as hell (or the place of the wicked) in Judaism.
A 'testament' is a covenant or binding agreement and is a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people). The sacred writings of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible). These also form the first part of the Christian Bible.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Term used to describe the first centuries of the growth of the Christian church, initially in Jerusalem and then across the Roman Empire.
The 'Daughters of Evening' were nymphs who lived in a garden in the west, beyond the sunset.
God of the Underworld. (Roman name, Pluto.)
Styx ' a river of the Underworld.
Ferryman of the dead across the River Styx.
One of the 'Heavenly Twins' with Polydeuces. (Latin, Castor and Pollux). Sons of Leda.
One of the Heavenly Twins, with Castor.
Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician.
A dark region in the deepest earth.
Ixion ' the Greek Cain, the first man to shed human blood.
Tantalus - a king of Lydia, punished in the Underworld for offending the gods.
Sisyphus ' a king of Corinth punished for his misdeeds in the Underworld.
Daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta; she was put to death by Creon for ignoring his decree and burying her brother Polynices.
Brother of Jocasta and king of Thebes after the deaths of Eteocles and Polynices.
Son of Oedipus and Jocasta and brother of Eteocles, the brothers dying at each other's hands.