Nearly all faiths and cultures have had an idea of the afterlife. It offers salvation not only to those individuals suffering but also to those of high status, reminding them that the opulence they are accustomed to is likely on the other side, too. When our worldly existence comes to an end, our bodies, souls, or consciousnesses leave the realm of mortals and moves onto an afterwards. This afterwards is not always a positive place or a negative place but sometimes just a bland, grayscale somewhere. All of these aspects are embodied in the Greco-Roman Underworld, the land of the dead where all mortals are supposed to spend eternity1.
As you will soon see, this is not the case for a few spectacular individuals. In Antiquity, there were a few myths surrounding the untimely deaths of undeserving individuals. When these people die, another person who has stake in the deceased’s fate will embark on a katabasis, or a descent, to visit “the house of Hades and awesome Persephone”2. This journey is hoped to yield one outcome: to deliver the dead person from the domain of the dead. Unlike the modern Christian view where the world is often disliked and death is a heavenly solace from the earth3, Antiquity held a much more positive view of mortal existence4. In life, a person could experience all sorts of worldly pleasures that cannot be enjoyed in Hades. Once a rather unimportant individual dies, they are sent to a place called the fields of Asphodel, where they wander aimlessly for eternity5. If you committed a major crime against the gods in your life, you were sent to Tartarus instead to be punished. If you were heroic enough to be rewarded in the afterlife, you went to the Elysian Fields. Even then, the Fields do not compare to the thrill that life once held6.
Death was not nearly as celebrated as it is made out to be in our modern lives. That is not to say that funerals weren’t a time to grieve, typically expressed when the mourners pull their hair out of frustration for the loss of their loved ones. The discourses surrounding mortuary rituals were well documented in art and culture and so were funerary practices. It was common for people to either be cremated or if the family was very well off, they would be entombed in a sarcophagus. Sometimes these more elaborate burials were accompanied by portrait busts of the deceased, a practice more common in Imperial Roman times.
Death was largely reviled and seen as the end of the best part of existence. The afterlife offered little solace other than the continuity of a conscious. This idea is perpetuated in mythology where individuals pray for eternal life instead of the promise of a secure afterlife. When mortals are rewarded by the gods or spared from the wrath or lust of another god, their lives are often preserved in the form of a tree to stave off death as long as possible. Here myths reflect the ideas of the retention of youth and preservation of life. However there is this other genre of death myths where people are rescued from the unappealing afterlife to continue their mortal lives. This sentiment is preserved in myth and in visual representations but is also an ideal of Antiquity that has endured to this day in modern media.
While over exaggerated and rather whimsical, this clip from the 1997 Disney film, “Hercules” fairly accurately depicts the unappealing qualities of the Underworld and reinforces the fact that a mortal existence is more treasured than an eternity in the Roman afterlife. So how did they cope with this overwhelming pressure to enjoy their comparatively short existence on earth? Well, in some regards they used other people’s deaths to reinforce the beauty of life and the sharpness of death. For the well off, this came in the form of stone sarcophagi with narratives of death on the facade. Alternatively, theater or more accurately, the tragedies that were performed were reminders to the people to enjoy their lives before life catches up with them.
With two vastly different media that depict death, which myths are shown in each way? Based on the individual narrative, each story lends itself to its own typical form of visual representation. For example, Persephone is frequently shown on sarcophagi while Eurydice is never shown in this way but rather in theater. Alcestis, on the other hand, is seen in both places. What elements exactly lend each story its own representative form? To identify that, we must first better understand the stories.
- Tanya Wilkinson, Persephone Returns (Berkeley: Pagemill Press, 1996), 23. ↵
- Stamatia Dova, Greek Heroes in and out of Hades (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 1. ↵
- Lars Albinus, The House of Hades (Oxford: Aarhus University Press, 2000), 9. ↵
- Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 16. ↵
- Lars Albinus, The House of Hades (Oxford: Aarhus University Press, 2000), 27-29. ↵
- Lars Albinus, The House of Hades (Oxford: Aarhus University Press, 2000), 72. ↵