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The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Shades of Hades


The concept of the soul has long fascinated humanity, occupying a central place in the collective consciousness. In the framework of ancient Greek history of thought, the notions of it formed a vibrant and evolving tapestry. The ideas surrounding the soul that emerged from ancient Greek thought exerted a profound influence on subsequent intellectual developments, particularly within the realm of Christianity and Western European philosophy. From the Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophers, the soul remained a focal point of inquiry and speculation. Even in modern times, the legacy of the Greek understanding of the soul persists, shaping the contemporary conceptions and debates. The exploration of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and ethical considerations all bear traces of the enduring influence of Greek philosophy on the existent beliefs on the matter.

This series of articles seeks to explore the multifaceted concept of the soul in ancient Greek literary, ritual, and philosophical traditions. Beginning with foundational literary works such as those of Homer and Hesiod and progressing through the profound theories put forth by philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and others, it aims to unravel the diverse and evolving understanding of the soul in ancient Greece. The series is divided into the following chapters:

2. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Shades of Hades

3. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Dualism and Metempsychosis

4. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plato’s Tripartite Soul

5. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Aristotle’s Psychology

6. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms

7. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Air and Fire of Pneuma

8. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plotinus and Neoplatonism

The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Shades of Hades

In the ancient Greek worldview, the moment of an individual's passing was universally believed to signify their transition into the enigmatic realm of Hades, a realm inhabited by the shades of the deceased. This belief, which permeated their culture, likely found its roots in the profound significance attributed to burial practices. It's worth noting that as we examine the historical records of the Greeks, we discern a subtle shift in their consciousness concerning this connection between death and Hades. Over time, Hades had transformed into the designated abode for all disembodied spirits, becoming the destination that the departing soul embarked upon for its release from the confines of mundane existence (Tarbell, 1884).

An illuminating account of the presence of unburied individuals in Hades is preserved within the twenty-fourth book of The Odyssey. Within this narrative, we encounter a portrayal of the arrival of unburied souls in Hades as a commonplace occurrence. Hermes, the divine messenger, is depicted as guiding the shades of the suitors, who attempted to woo Odysseus' wife, to their destination in the lower world. These instances provide us with a profound insight into the intricate and evolving nature of Greek beliefs regarding the journey of the soul after death. They underscore the intricate tapestry of ideas that the ancient Greeks held in reverence, particularly in matters pertaining to death, burial customs, and the destiny of the departed. In essence, these instances offer a glimpse into the complexity of Greek thought concerning the afterlife, revealing a society whose understanding of the posthumous journey was marked by a rich mix of beliefs. Central to this comprehension were the customs and rituals associated with burial, which played a pivotal role in shaping their perceptions of what awaited the departed beyond the threshold of mortal existence (Tarbell, 1884).

Figure 1: Persephone and Hades (440-430 BC).

In The Odyssey, the Land of the Dead is portrayed as a domain where the departed souls assume the form of spectres endowed with precognitive abilities and the potential to influence the living. Significantly, these spectral entities are categorised according to the circumstances of their demise, including distinctions for youth, violent fatalities, and other criteria. Complex rituals, involving offerings, libations, and sacrificial rites, were employed to ensure the favour of these spirits and to enhance their capacity for divination (Caskey & Dakaris, 1962).

The narrative of Odysseus' expedition to consult the soul of Teiresias and his ensuing encounters with a variety of spectral entities in the netherworld offers a vivid illustration of the ancient Greek perspectives on the afterlife. This long journey underscores the paramount importance of appeasing these spirits and furnishing them with oblations, accentuating the necessity of perpetuating a connection with the deceased. Moreover, the institution of oracles specialised in communicating with the deceased and the demarcation of specific locales as entrances to the Land of the Dead, exemplified by the site in Thesprotia, underscore the enduring prevalence of these beliefs and rituals across diverse regions within ancient Greece (Caskey & Dakaris, 1962).

Then there came up the spirit of the Theban Teiresias, bearing his golden staff in his hand, and he knew me and spoke to me: ‘Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, what now, hapless man? Why hast thou left the light of the sun and come hither to behold the dead and a region where is no joy? Nay, give place from the pit and draw back thy sharp sword, that I may drink of the blood and tell thee sooth.’ (Homer, Odyssey, 11.90-95)
Figure 2: Bust of Homer (2nd c. BCE).

An excavation of the sanctuary in Thesprotia yielded substantial archaeological corroboration of the depictions found in classical texts. According to Sotirios Dakaris, a prominent archaeologist, the architectural layout of the sanctuary, the subterranean chambers, and the artefacts unearthed within the precinct closely aligned with the Homeric accounts of ceremonies designed to establish communication with the deceased. The presence of votive offerings, amphorae, and depictions of chthonic deities, notably Persephone, underscores the perception of this sanctuary as a conduit for interfacing with the realm of the departed (Caskey & Dakaris, 1962). It's important to note that Dakaris' interpretation of these findings has remained highly influential in the field, despite recent critiques (Ogden, 2001).

The notion of shades and the practice of necromancy (the practice of using dead spirits to foretell the future) in ancient Greek culture are intriguing facets of the past that invite exploration, characterised by diverse sources and rituals. When we delve into the potential sites associated with necromantic activities, we find them falling into three distinctive categories. The first category involves places that, though indirectly implicated in the practice through literary references, remain somewhat enigmatic. Among these, Phigalia emerges as a contender, yet its true nature remains veiled in speculation. Byzantine scholars have ventured to propose other potential sites like Thessaly, Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia, and Etruria, although these suggestions appear to stretch the bounds of probability. Adding to the complexity, modern scholarship even suggests intriguing connections between mythological narratives and locales where spirits were consulted to foretell the future (Ogden, 2001; Wiseman, 1998).

Figure 3: Mankind's Eternal Dilemma – The Choice Between Virtue and Vice (Frans Francken the Younger, 1633).

The second category centers on oracles of deceased heroes, such as those of Trophonius and Amphiaraus, both accessed through a mysterious process known as incubation. Curiously, while ancient sources frequently intertwine hero oracles with necromancy, the terminology employed does not explicitly link the two. This nuanced distinction hints at a conceptual divergence between the practices, potentially rooted in the choice of the entity being consulted—whether one summoned the spirits of their choosing at necromantic sites or engaged directly with the heroes at hero oracles. However, subtle hints in the historical record suggest a hierarchical relationship between the two, with certain deceased entities holding special roles at particular necromantic sites (Ogden, 2001).

The third category encompasses known entrances to the underworld, which could manifest as caves, often entwined with myths of Persephone's descent or Cerberus's ascent, or as birdless lakes due to the belief that the toxic fumes emanating from them had the potential to fatally harm birds passing above (Knowles, 2005). These entrances, scattered across various regions, offered a direct route to the underworld, relieving local residents of the customary payment to the ferryman, who carries the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. These locations, occasionally possessing mephitic qualities, played a pivotal role in the practice of conversing with the spirits of the dead. The diverse array of such sites, ranging from Avernus in Italy to Tartessos in Spain, underscores the widespread belief in the intrinsic connection between geography and the spirit realm. In literary portrayals of necromantic rituals, authors frequently adopt settings that mirror the topographical features of established necromanteia, including caves, marshes, lakes, and shadowy forests. These settings evoke an eerie and mystifying ambiance that serves as an ideal backdrop for the mystical rites of contacting the dead (Ogden, 2001).

Figure 4: Herakles, Cerberus and Eurystheus (Eagle Painter, circa 525 BC).

Within the realm of ancient Greek mythology, a distinct pantheon of deities governed the intricate domain of the underworld. Hades, the god of the underworld, stood as the preeminent figure among these divine denizens. Despite his classification among the Olympian gods, Hades resided in the subterranean expanse, assuming the mantle of sovereignty over the multitudes of souls dwelling therein. Often portrayed as an austere and solemn deity, he personified the profound enigmas concealed within the subterranean recesses of the Earth. His sacred responsibility encompassed the preservation of order in the underworld, ensuring that the souls of the departed met their preordained destinies (Roberts, 2020).

In the context of the Underworld, the notion of exposure poses a unique challenge, both for the god Hades and the realm he governs, as they are inherently intended to remain unseen and concealed from mortal view. The concept of Hades as 'unseeable' is notably reinforced by the mythic reference to his 'cap of invisibility,' an attribute that finds its earliest mention in Homer's works when Athena employs it to veil herself from the gaze of Ares (Homer, 1919, 5.844). Hesiod, too, alludes to this enigmatic cap, albeit with a distinctive emphasis. Instead of imparting invisibility, it envelops Hades in the 'awful gloom of night' (Hesiod, 1914a, 227). Such a description intertwines the realm of darkness and night with death, as is evident in Homer's narratives. Within Homer's epic works, the demise of heroes is often signified by the descent of night or darkness upon them, obscuring their vision or covering their eyes. This narrative device unequivocally signifies the hero's transition into the realm of the deceased. The stark dichotomy between darkness and light can be interpreted as the juxtaposition of the living and the deceased; the living perceive the light, while the deceased are enveloped in darkness. Indeed, the absence of illumination and the act of seeing directly correlate with the concept of invisibility. Moreover, the Underworld itself, inherently shrouded in darkness, mirrors the god who governs it. Here, the deceased remain concealed from the living until they are reintroduced to the light. The dearth of illumination and the corresponding act of seeing serve as a direct conduit to the concept of invisibility. Hence, it is apparent that these two distinct interpretations of the cap––as delineated in the works of Homer and Hesiod––are fundamentally synonymous in their association with the concealed and the unseen in the mythic narratives.

There, in front, stand the echoing halls of the god of the lower-world, strong Hades, and of awful Persephone. A fearful hound guards the house in front, pitiless, and he has a cruel trick. On those who go in he fawns with his tail and both his ears, but suffers them not to go out back again, but keeps watch and devours whomever he catches going out of the gates of strong Hades and awful Persephone. (Hesiod, Theogony, 767-74)
Figure 5: The Abduction of Persephone by Hades Surrounded by Gods (circa 340-330 BCE).

Complementing Hades in the underworld's pantheon was Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who assumed a crucial role as the consort of Hades. Her presence in the underworld, experienced cyclically, played a significant role in the mythological explanation for the changing seasons. Her return to the surface world heralded the reawakening of spring, while her descent signified the onset of winter. The Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient Greek religious rites for spiritual enlightenment and afterlife blessings, at their core, find their foundation in the profound agricultural connections attributed to the two goddesses, Persephone and Demeter. In contemplating these sacred rites, it is evident that participants were not only drawn to the rituals' agricultural significance but were also inclined to reflect on the Underworld associations inherently linked to both deities. Consequently, a prevailing belief among initiates was that engaging in these Mysteries might bestow certain privileges upon them in the afterlife. It was believed, however, that this profound spiritual connection would open the door to the receipt of divine blessings during one's earthly existence. Foremost among these blessings was the assurance of agricultural fertility, as both goddesses were intimately associated with the abundance of harvests. While the prospect of afterlife privileges was indeed considered a secondary benefit, it should be viewed as just one facet among several potential gifts and advantages. It is imperative to recognise that the primary purpose of the Eleusinian cult was the establishment and nurturing of a deep spiritual bond with Demeter and Persephone, with otherworldly privileges serving as supplementary elements rather than the central focus of the Mysteries (Roberts, 2020).

The responsibility of shepherding the departed into the Underworld primarily fell upon deities known as the psychopompoi, or 'soul guides.' These divine entities undertook the solemn task of facilitating the transition of souls from the mortal realm to the ethereal domains of Hades. To secure passage, it was customary for the departed to be interred with an obol, a coin placed beneath their tongue to compensate Charon for his indispensable service (Roberts, 2020).

Figure 8: The Boat of Charon (Brausewetter, before 1904).

While Charon is often regarded as the iconic ferryman, it is Hermes who emerges as the psychopompo par-excellence during the archaic and early classical periods. It is worth noting that Hermes, despite his pivotal role in guiding souls to their final destination, is not traditionally classified as an Underworld god. However, his multifaceted role extends to encompass boundary crossings, both physical and metaphysical. The etymological origins of Hermes' name are rooted in hermai, originally stone boundary markers that evolved into not only demarcations of territory but also guardians of the threshold between life and death. In this capacity, they often served as grave markers, demarcating the metaphysical space associated with mortality. This transformation of the hermai concept endowed Hermes with the representation of boundary-crossing in all its ritualised forms, encompassing territorial and symbolic transitions (Roberts, 2020).

In the closing book of The Odyssey, Hermes emerges as a figure, awakening the souls of the deceased and leading them in a disoriented state past the mystical streams of Okeanos and into the depths of the Underworld. This portrayal of Hermes as a psychopompos is further corroborated in Athenian white-ground lekythoi (oil flasks used for funerary purposes), where he assumes the role of controlling the transit of souls between the realms. In some depictions, he is found in tandem with Charon, guiding the deceased individuals to the awaiting boat with a gesture reminiscent of a groom leading his bride to the marriage bed, a motif that shares profound symbolic ties with the concept of death (Roberts, 2020).

Figure 7: Charon with punt pole standing in his boat, receiving Hermes psychopompos who leads a deceased woman (Thanatos Painter, circa 430 BCE), Staatliche Antikensammlungen

Although the shades of Hades were supposed to be invisible inhabitants of the underworld forever, in literature and mythological tradition, the motif of descent, katabasis, is remarkably prevalent. This recurring theme features heroes or deities employing their unique abilities to navigate and resolve the challenges of the Underworld. For instance, when Heracles was tasked with bringing the triple-headed dog Cerberus that defends the Underworld from the depths of Hades, he engaged in a contest using his incredible strength to subdue the formidable watchdog. In earlier accounts, Heracles received guidance from Athena and was accompanied by Hermes. Later variations of the myth emphasised Heracles' initiation into the Mysteries, granting him control over the hound. Euripides even referenced these diverse versions in his play Heracles, where Amphitryon questioned whether Heracles had defeated Cerberus in battle or received the creature as a gift from a goddess. Dionysus, a god not traditionally associated with the Underworld, embarked on his own katabasis to retrieve his mother, Semele. Although detailed sources are limited, it is said that Dionysus struck a bargain with an underworld power, offering a gift in exchange for expert guidance to navigate the realm of the dead. Aristophanes also referenced the ritual katabasis of the cult of Trophonius in his comedy Clouds, highlighting the complexity and significance of such journeys. Additionally, Theseus and Peirithoos embarked on a katabasis to abduct Persephone but faced failure and were entrapment in the Underworld. These katabatic narratives share common elements, including the involvement of an expert or guide, the descent into the underworld, the overcoming of obstacles, and the fulfillment of an exchange or bargain crucial for success (Floky, 2015).

The Orpheus myth, which narrates the hero's descent to the Underworld to reclaim his deceased wife Eurydice, is a rich source of spiritual insight within the context of ancient Greek mythology and has influenced various works of classical literature and philosophy. This mythological account of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, examines issues of love, grief, mortality, and the human desire for transcendence. Orpheus, a renowned musician and poet, undertakes a hazardous voyage to Hades to liberate his beloved Eurydice from the grasp of death. Beyond its literal plot, this katabasis represents a symbolic and metaphysical inquiry into the human condition. The Orpheus myth highlights the universal human dilemma of confronting the reality of death. Orpheus's descent to the Underworld signifies a profound spiritual quest. In his journey to Hades, he crosses the threshold between the world of the living and the domain of the dead, reflecting the ancient Greek conception of the dual nature of existence. This mythical journey mirrors the human aspiration to connect the material and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal (Britannica, 2023).

Figure 8: Orpheus and Eurydice (Kratzenstein-Stub, 1806).

Orpheus's extraordinary musical abilities play a crucial role in his katabasis. His captivating lyre music, which has the capacity to affect even inanimate objects, serves as a powerful emblem of the transformative potential of art and spirituality. Orpheus's music not only mesmerises the inhabitants of the Underworld but also persuades the rulers of Hades, Persephone and Hades, to grant him a chance to retrieve Eurydice (Floky, 2015). This underscores the belief in the transcendent power of art and the spiritual significance of music, which can bridge the gap between life and death. However, the tragic outcome of the myth, in which Orpheus loses Eurydice a second time due to his failure to resist looking back, captures the bitter-sweet reality of human existence. It illustrates the vulnerability of spiritual quests.

The idea of shades in Hades is a rich and complex theme in ancient Greek mythology and literature, revealing various aspects of the human experience. The stories of heroes who go down to the Underworld, such as Orpheus's katabasis and the adventures of Heracles and Odysseus, show not only the lasting interest in the afterlife but also the elaborate practices and views about death and the soul's journey. These literary works function as symbols for the human desire to overcome the limits of mortality and restore what has been taken by the inevitable force of death. The theme of trying to bring back a shade from Hades expresses the eternal human hope for reunion and salvation, emphasising the spiritual meaning of such endeavours. These tales highlight the lasting role of art, music, and ritual in connecting the living and the dead, providing glimpses into the mysterious and sacred realm beyond the physical world. Thus, the shades of Hades signify not only the deceased but also the timeless investigation of the human mind's deepest questions about life, death, and the potential for transcendence. These narratives remain relevant as witnesses to the lasting human curiosity about the mysteries of existence and the unceasing quest to bridge the gap between the temporal and the eternal.

Bibliographical References

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023). Orpheus. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Caskey, J. L.; Dakaris, S. I. (1962). The dark palace of Hades. Archaeology, 15(2), 85–93.

Floky, A. (2015). Mythical and ritual katabasis in Aristophanes' Frogs. Australasian Society for Classical Studies, 36. Retrieved from

Hesiod. (1914a). The Homeric hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Shield of Heracles. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library:

Hesiod. (1914b). The Homeric hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library:

Homer. (1919). The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. (in two volumes). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library:

Knowles, E. (2005). Avernus. The Oxford dictionary of phrase and fable. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Ogden, D. (2001). The ancient Greek oracles of the dead. Acta Classica, 44, 167–195.

Roberts, E. M. (2020). Underworld gods in ancient Greek religion: Death and reciprocity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Tarbell, F. B. (1884). Greek ideas as to the effect of burial on the Future of the Soul. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1869-1896), 15, 36–45.

Wheatcroft, A. (2014). On the topography of the Greek underworld and the ‘orphic’ gold tablets. Prandium - The Journal of Historical Studies, 3(1). Retrieved from

Wiseman, J. (1998). Insight: Rethinking the “Halls of Hades.” Archaeology, 51(3), 12–18.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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