Ghosts of Ancient Greece

The Greeks were one of the very few people throughout history to not have a strong belief in ghosts. In fact I'd be willing to bet there are more people in the western world per capita today who believe in ghosts, than there were in Athens in 460BC.

I put this down to the Greek belief that the world was fundamentally explainable by rational means. That very modern viewpoint was totally at odds with their own religion, and the deeper thinkers of the time were painfully aware of the paradox. Yet nevertheless, give a Classical Greek a problem, and he would instinctively look for a rational solution. This rather suits me as a mystery writer.

The unusual converse however, is that although people didn't believe the dead visited the living, they did believe the living could visit the dead. Greek mythology is full of people just popping down to Hades for a quick chat with the shade of someone long gone. Theseus, Heracles, Odysseus, Aeneas and Orpheus all take the plunge and return to tell the tale.

The important thing to a Greek was to make sure the spirits of the dead made it into Hades, after which they weren't coming back. This was largely arranged via the funeral ritual.

Here is Nicolaos, visiting the body of his first ever investigation:
I stepped forward to the body, as was required. An urn of ashes had been placed there. I dipped my hands in, raised them high above me, and poured a handful of ash over my head, felt the soft falling touch against my face, and the harsh burnt smell in my nose. Looking down I could see the pattern of black and white specks on the floor all about me, where every visitor before had done the same thing.
I cried and lamented for the shortest time I decently could, inspecting the body all the while. Ephialtes had been dressed in a white shroud. A honey cake rested by his right hand. A strip of linen had been tied around his chin to the top of his head, to keep his mouth shut, by which I knew the coin, an obol, had already been placed in his mouth.
Ephialtes would give the coin to Charon the Ferryman, who would carry him across the Acheron, the river of woe, on his way to Hades. He would cross the river Cocytus of lamentation, and the Phlegethon of fire, before coming to the river Lethe, where he would dip in his hand and drink of the waters, and so lose all memories of his earthly life, finally coming to the Styx, the river of hate, after which he would be in Hades, and remain there for all eternity.
You'll notice I managed to get in the basic geography of Hades, as it was generally agreed. This is pure exposition, so I was probably a bit naughty, but I thought it was kind of cool to sneak it in. Nico doesn't mention it here, but the body when it lay in state awaiting burial was always placed with its feet towards the door, which was to prevent the dead man's psyche from wandering off.

The psyche was the closest thing the Greeks had to a ghost. It was possible, if burial hadn't been performed properly, for the psyche to hang around. But this was extremely rare because the Greeks had enormous respect for the dead, even of their enemies. (Which is what made Achilles' mistreatment of Hector's body so very shocking.)

A lot of people think the coin placed in the mouth was to pay to get over the river Styx. Nope. Hades had many rivers, and the first of them was the Acheron. That's the one Charon the Ferryman carries you over. The Styx was the end of the line; when you crossed it, you'd reached Hades.

The coin placed in the mouth was an obol, not a drachma. Six obols make a single drachma, which was the average daily wage in Athens. So an obol represents about 2 hours of work and is probably what a for-real ferry crossing might have cost at the time. It also meant anyone could afford to get their loved ones to their eternal home.

There was no concept in Greek religion of being judged after death. Good or bad, you ended up at the same place.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I've always loved the Greek belief in the ferryman and the required obol (although I didn't know it was called an obol until now). I enjoyed reading Rick Riordan's version of Hades and even Katharine Beutner's take in Alcestis.

Then again, I've always been intrigued with death rituals in ancient cultures. I think the Egyptians took the cake for burial customs, but they weren't quite as in depth with their layout of the afterlife. There was the whole judgment with Anubis' scales and the monster Ammit, but if you were good you got to go on to the Field of Reeds. I like that name- it just sounds peaceful. I think the closest Greek equivalent would be the Asphodel Fields, but I could be wrong.

Loretta Ross said...

Very cool post, as usual!

I was wondering not too long ago (and I don't even know why now) if a warrior going into battle might have carried a coin with him as a symbol that he was prepared to die for his cause.

It occured to me that one going against overwhelming odds with his ferry passage already in his mouth would be highly dramatic, but not practical in real life. For one thing, it would hamper communications with his fellow warriors, "Look out! There's a guy with a spear behind you!" turning into "arrglearrglearrgleurrghhhh!" I can just imagine the statistics for the battle: 43 wounded, 17 killed by enemy action, 3 choked to death and one beaten to death by a dying comrade for yelling "arrglearrglearrgleurghhhh!" instead of "look out! There's a guy with a spear behind you!"

On the other hand, maybe it was Charon who originated the saying, "cough it up!"

(Forgive me! It's been a very strange weekend!)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie, as an Egyptian writer I knew you'd be totally into afterlives!

Hades in some versions does have good and bad neighborhoods. The Asphodel Meadows are for the average guys, the Elysian Fields are for heroes, and Hesiod mentions the Isles of the Blessed, and Tartarus is the bad end of town.

The Elysian Fields these days, btw, are better known as the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

I wonder to what degree these are all imports from surrounding religions. You'll be thrilled to hear some people think the Elysian Fields were an import of the...Field of Reeds.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Loretta. Your imagination sets you apart from all other mortals.

I can't offhand recall anyone fighting with a coin prepositioned. It does imply a certain degree of pessimism. I do recall reading that the Cambodians during the Vietnam war fought with an image of Buddha in their mouths so they'd be as close as possible to him if they died.

Amalia T. said...

Importation of underworldly neighborhoods would not surprise me in the slightest.

These contradictions and struggles between the rational and the religious in ancient Greece remind me a little bit of the fights between evolution and creationism. But it's really fascinating to me that there were so many highfalutin Greeks who just kind of discounted the gods, or sought to undermine their roles for the sake of the rational. Honestly it just kind of makes me sad that they weren't all committed, pious, believers. But I suppose if you worship at the altar of purely rational thought, there isn't a lot of room for religion.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia, you've got a good point. People have written entire books about just this. There was a considerable amount of doublethink. Socrates of course was executed for impiety despite supporting the standard pantheon, while Euripides wrote in a play, "If the Gods do evil then they are not Gods," which is as good as denial in the Greek world, and not only did he survive, but he was revered. Then there were a number of philosophers who had a good try at creating their own belief systems. It was all rather confused really, at the top of the intellectual tree. The common people seem to have ignored all the nonsense and got on with their worship. This'd make a good post, I guess...thanks for the inspiration...

KM said...

If I were Greek, I would have been seriously ticked off that me and the murderer would be sharing the same afterlife. Doesn't seem very just, does it? Seems to me like there wouldn't be any point in being a good person.

Wasn't there an instance in THE AENEID when Aeneas visits the Underworld and sees one of his soldiers who died at sea and wasn't buried properly? I know this is Roman mythology, but Virgil stole basically everything from Homer, even his style. I always found the idea of spirits standing around wishing to get on Charon's boat but having no gold to pay him fascinating. Such a creepy picture of the afterlife!

Lexi said...

I have a mental image of Hades as being rather dim and dark, not a lot of fun. I'd like it if you can tell me I'm quite wrong...

Gary Corby said...


I'm sorry to have to disappoint you on this one, but Hades was not a good place to relax. When Achilles arrived he was instantly made king of the dead. Odysseus later drops in for a visit. Here is what Achilles has to say on life in Hades:

O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man,
one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the perished dead.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Wouldn't Hades get rather crowded after a while? Didn't you say they drank the water to forget all about their formers lives? How would Achilles know Odysseus? But then if he was king, well, even kings in Hades probably had(have?) special accomadations.

Gary Corby said...

KM, that is a brilliant observation! You're absolutely right, in the Greek world, being good had no particular reward in the afterlife. Being bad had no particular comeback either, unless you seriously irritated the Gods, in which case you might find yourself chained to a rock with your liver being eaten out for all eternity, but that was obviously a special case.

You've actually hit on one of the minor themes in my second book!

There was indeed a fellow who Aeneas needed to bury at the last moment. He met the psyche of his former helmsman, stuck on the wrong side of the Styx. The helmsman's psyche couldn't get across because he hadn't been properly buried. Fixing that was a bit tricky because the fellow had been lost at sea.

Yes, Hades was a creepy place. I wonder that more people don't use it in horror stories.

Gary Corby said...

You're right Susan, but there's no law that says mythology has to be consistent.

Drinking from the river Lethe was a standard part of the progress to Hades, at which point you lost all memory of your earthly life. But that apparently doesn't stop dead characters shooting the breeze with former acquaintances. I guess it would be a boring story if they the writers didn't cheat that bit.

Those Greeks who believed in reincarnation (and believe it or not, there were some), took the view that you had to drink from Lethe before you could be recycled, so I suppose in that system you could hold off drinking. But that wasn't the standard model.

Gary Corby said...

Hey KM, I think that might have been the first time you ever commented here. So, welcome to the blog!

L. T. Host said...

Mythology isn't consistent, that's for sure. When I researched for my first novel, I included the "triumvirate of the dead"-- three judges in Hades who sent the souls when they arrived to their respective destinations: Asphodel, Elysian fields, Tartarus. King Minos was one of the three and the other two escape me at the moment. Anyway, I found that fascinating, but I wonder if it eventually came about out of other mythology? If the memory of it is corrupted and someone much later than the actual Greeks came up with that? Or if the time period that you're writing in and the time period that my material was sourced from actually had different sets of beliefs?

It's just fascinating to me how mythology evolves over time. I'd love to see a track record of this particular belief someday.

Meghan said...

I have to say this post baffles me a bit. I KNOW you must be familiar with the Elysian fields and Tartarus, as well as the three judges of the Underworld. The majority went to Hades because they lived a ho-hum life but not all. And you didn't mention the Eleusinian Mysteries (Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια), which may have offered hope in the afterlife for many Greeks, especially Athenians. It was their biggest religious cult, in fact. Am I missing something?

As for ghosts, Herodotus himself mentions that Athenian solders saw the ghost of Theseus wandering the battlefield at Marathon, and Aeneas sees the ghost of his wife in Troy after he leaves her behind (it always bothered me she kind of got ditched).

I'm not picking a fight by any means. Your post is really interesting, but I'm just wondering if you could expand a bit because it is interesting there aren't many actual ghost stories in Ancient Greece.

Gary Corby said...

Minos, his brother Rhadamanthys, and another guy called Aikos. You're right, there are versions where these three former mortals judge the dead exactly as you say, Lessa.

Here's the timeline as best I know it, which is probably slightly dodgy:

This is unbelievably complex. Minos and Rhadamanthys are Cretan of course, so it raises the sticky question of the relationship between Minoan civilization and the early Greeks, which except for some myths the Greeks appear to have no memory of whatsoever.

Homer, toward the end of the dark ages, mentions Minos being in Hades and "delivering judgements", not as a judge of mens' lives, but as if he were king of Hades in some sense, which job of course he later reassigned to Achilles.

Hesiod doesn't mention the triumvirate at all, and he's usually considered to be slightly later than Homer. So I'd say up to the start of the archaic period, the lives of the Greek dead are not being judged.

Now it gets tricky. Pindar, at the start of the classical period, in Olympian 2, mentions the dead being judge and assigned spots in Hades. He doesn't mention judges. He does mention Rhadamanthys as king of the Isles of the Blessed. (Getting confused?). It reads to me like he's making this up as he goes along, or putting some structure on random tidbits of folklore.

The first mention I know of a formally organized judgement system is, incredibly, Plato! And he has four judges: the three above plus Triptolemos. And Plato comes toward the end of the Golden Age.

So for my money, the judgement of the dead was an artificial way for the Classical Greeks to reconcile their very ancient religion with what their modern philosophy was telling them about the value of leading a good life.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Meghan, I'm very happy to be wrong, it wouldn't be the first time! Feel free to correct me when I blunder.

Your post and my last crossed on the net and I didn't see it when I posted the last, so here's a little more:

Homer and Hesiod both state point blank that Tartarus is a completely different place to Hades. They are even vaguely consistent on the relative locations: Hades is underground, and Tartarus is far below Hades and closely associated with the Titans as a prison.

Tartarus must have moved inside Hades at some later point.

I believe Hesiod is the first person ever to mention the Isles of the Blessed. It's not in Homer. Hesiod places the Isles far to the west across the river Oceanos. Therefore to Hesiod the Isles are not part of Hades. It appears to be an alternate destination for a lucky mythological few.

To the best of my knowledge, as far as Homer's Iliad is concerned, when you're dead you go to Hades, and that's the end of the story. The Iliad never subdivided Hades. I could be wrong about this -- I'm hardly an expert -- but that's as I know it and I welcome any correction on that one.

In the Odyssey, Homer has Minos in Hades and he can punish the dead (again, no subdivision). Hermes leads the dead to Hades. It sounds slightly Egyptian to me. It's definitely a bit different to the Iliad's Hades. And of course by this time Achilles is king of Hades. How he got on with Minos is anyone's guess. But again, consistency is not a virtue here.

In the Odyssey, Homer does mention the Elysian Fields, but not as part of Hades. It's a pleasant meadow, apparently next door to Hesiod's Isle of the Blessed (nice places are always far to the west.) It appears to be an alternative to dying. I think Menelaos might be the only one who gets to go there (rotten choice).

Like Tartarus, the Elysian Fields must have become part of Hades later on. As far as I know (and I'm weak on this) the first mention of such is in Vergil.

So the summary of this very long comment (sorry) is that the whole thing evolved and the model you describe is accurate for later Greek/Roman times.

As far as I know, no one has the faintest clue what went on in the Eleusinian Mysteries, other than that they might have been related to Demeter and corn. I guess there's a fair chance they initiated some form of reincarnation, but I think even that's uncertain. Pythagoras and Empedocles both preached reincarnation, but if they were breaking silence on the Eleusinian Mysteries nobody mentioned it.

Plutarch does indeed say that a few Athenians who fought at Marathon reported seeing the ancient king Theseus fighting alongside. Thanks for the reminder! I'd totally forgotten that one. Plutarch gives this as the reason why the Athenians moved the (supposed) bones of Theseus back to Athens. I searched Herodotus, but couldn't find the same story there. Plutarch was a Greek writer, but he wrote in the Roman period, by which time ghosts were in, because the Romans did believe in ghosts, in the form of lemurs.

The ghost of the wife of Aeneas comes straight from Vergil. It's Roman, and therefore a Roman ghost story. (Unless someone knows of a Greek source?)

I've got to agree with you on Aeneas. He was the love 'em and leave 'em sort.

Gary Corby said...

I think I just broke the record for my longest comment ever.

Meghan said...

Thanks for clarifying! (I THOUGHT that was weird you didn't mention those things at first and knew there had to be an explanation so I'm glad you commented). And you're right it's Plutarch not Herodotus that mentions Theseus' ghost (sorry about that).

It IS interesting to note the Darius' ghost appears in Aeschylus' The Persians, although I guess you could argue that's more about Persian religion than Greek since he's sort of "conjured." Still it's an early reference to ghosts, if a bit obscure.

Also just to throw this out there Aeacus is mentioned in Frogs as a sort of gatekeeper to Hades (he also is responsible for Cerberus according to the playwright). It's true he isn't mentioned as an actual judge but he's already established as part of the Underworld and the audience would be familiar with him. So I guess even if it may not be safe to say he's considered a judge in the Classical period it does seem that he's known in some capacity by then with Hades.

At any rate, I went through a bunch of research books looking for references to the topic and you're spot on. This post is something to keep in mind for sure, especially since I don't want to be anachronistic when talking about Ancient Greece and people's beliefs!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Meghan!

I thought about mentioning The Frogs in all this, but figured people wouldn't appreciate the extra 300 words.

The Persians is an exceptional play in so many ways, and the ghost is one of them. Darius was the father of Xerxes, the king who led the Persians into Greece. In the play the wife of Darius (and mother of Xerxes), asks for her husband's ghost to appear, and it's quite clear Aeschylus only introduces Darius so the old man can totally diss his son for being dumb enough to attack Greeks.

CKHB said...

So. Cool.

L. T. Host said...

Thanks for that timeline! I didn't expect you to do it right now, haha. But it's appreciated all the same.

I think I'm okay either way because my story takes place at the tail end of the Roman empire, so the belief/ judges system would likely definitely be in place then (or have been invented). It's kind of complicated but basically part of my premise is that the gods/underworld are all the same throughout time (at least in Europe), they just go by different names depending on the belief system. Which is why I have Greek mythology and call them by their Greek names (the first of the three big incarnations that I know of: Greek, Roman, and Norse gods are all very similar and share similar mythology) even though the time period is ~375-400 AD.

Not that that particular novel is going anywhere, anyway, but I feel better knowing what's there is still somewhat right, even if I'm the only one who will ever read it again.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Carrie!

Gary Corby said...

L.T., your premise is probably close to reality! Those three pantheons, plus a number of others, are almost certainly descended from a common pantheon used by the original tribe of proto Indoeuropean speakers.

This is definitely worth a blog post some time. Thanks for sharing the book idea!