The Ancient Greek Afterlife and Its Evolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History—Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The ancient Greek afterlife myth included paying Charon, the ferryman, to reach Hades, a cheerless place. But there was no postmortem judgment like the Egyptians because the Greeks didn’t have a concept of heaven and hell. Over time, however, the Greeks became increasingly dissatisfied with the concept of equal misery for all. So they found new ways to make it more cheerful and interesting.

Archaeological site of Eleusis in Greece.
Eleusis was an ancient Greek mystery religion that offered its initiates a blessed afterlife. (Image: Andronos Harris /Shutterstock)

Paying Charon, the Ferryman

The ancient Greeks had some ideas about what happened to a person afterlife. They believed that when a person was dead and buried and was ready to enter Hades, they just needed to get Charon to ferry them across the River Styx. They had to pay him for it though. What it meant was that the person had to hope that someone put an obol in their mouth. That’s a Greek coin worth 1/6 of a drachma, just enough for a one-way ticket across the River Styx to Hades.

Learn more about being Minoan and Mycenaean.

What Happens in the Other Realm?

What happens once the dead cross to the other side? Truth is, it is not really known. The only semi-detailed description of Hades is provided by Homer, who suggested that the quality of life down there was cheerless, albeit devoid of any terrors. He characteristically described the dead as ‘strengthless’ and ‘witless’. Whatever a person has done in this life, they’ll end up in the same place as everyone else.

There was no postmortem judgment like the Egyptians because the Greeks didn’t have a concept of heaven and hell. It’s true that deep in the bowels of Hades there was a drafty region called Tartarus to which were consigned those who had insulted the majesty of the gods. Someone like Sisyphus who has to perpetually roll a stone uphill, which ceaselessly rolls down again.

That wouldn’t include people. People’s crimes were much too petty to warrant the attention of the gods and merit that kind of punishment.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Introduction of Blessedness in the Afterlife

Over time, however, the Greeks became increasingly dissatisfied with the concept of equal misery for all. They began to hanker for the good afterlife. So from the 6th century B.C. onward, they came to believe that those who had been initiated into certain secret rites could expect a more blessed existence in the hereafter, a more blessed existence than those who had not been initiated. It is not known exactly what they meant by ‘blessedness’. It’s a state of being that never actually gets described.

Learn more about being Greek.

Eleusinian Mysteries

A plaque depicting an element of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Eleusis had several Roman emperors among its initiates, including Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. (Image: Marsyas/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The most prominent of these rites were the Eleusinian Mysteries—so named for Eleusis, an Attic township, or deme, some 13 miles from Athens on the Attic coast. All Greek-speakers were eligible for the initiation, including women and slaves. The English word ‘mystery’ comes in fact from mustês, meaning ‘an initiate’. The inclusion of slaves was very unusual in the Greek world.

Greek religion, on the whole, enforced social distinctions by making it plain that if someone had money to throw around, they’d be more likely to get the attention of the gods. But not in this case. Initiation came at a snip.

The one category of people who were excluded, apart from non-Greek speakers, were murderers. Eleusis reached the height of its importance in the 4th century B.C. and was still important in Roman times. In fact, such was its prestige that it numbered several Roman emperors among its initiates, including Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

Learn more about growing up Greek.

The Initiation in Eleusis

The initiation would take place in a windowless building known as the Telesterion or place of initiation, which, at its maximum size, held about 3,000 people. What one witnessed inside, however, is a complete mystery. In fact, the rites were so secret that the Athenian state imposed the death penalty on anyone who divulged them.

The poet Aeschylus almost got executed on this charge. There’s no evidence that once someone had been initiated, they were required to conform to any rule of life. So far as one can tell, the Eleusinian Mysteries, like all other mystery religions, promised eternal bliss on purely ritualistic grounds.

Eleusis’s Competition with Christianity

Because they admitted women, slaves, and all Greek speakers, the Eleusinian Mysteries were arguably one of the first universalist-type religions in human history. ‘Universalist’ is putting it too strongly—since one had to be able to speak Greek, or at least to mouth a few Greek words.

For this reason, these mystery religions presented a serious rival to Christianity. Christian writers went to inordinate lengths to suggest that initiates witnessed lewd and immoral acts, but their testimony is heavily biased and should probably be discounted.

The Connection Between the Living and the Dead

Whether or not a person had been initiated into the mysteries, being a dead Greek meant being part of a continuing family. The so-called handshake motif, which frequently appears on gravestones, symbolizes that fact perfectly. Either the two figures are parting from this life or greeting one another in the life to come. One can’t tell which, and it hardly matters. What the motif demonstrates is a belief in human fellowship that outlasts death and is eternal.

A statue showing two people shaking hands.
The handshake motif on a gravestone was a common engraving to depict ancient Greek beliefs about afterlife. (Image: Vladimir Korostyshevskiy/Shutterstock)

This sense of connectedness between the living and the dead was further conveyed by the fact that it was the duty of a person’s relatives to visit their tomb at periodic intervals and supply them with food and drink—typically wine and cakes—which the relatives would deposit on or beside the funerary monument, very much as the Egyptians used to do on behalf of their dead.

This practice suggests a very different belief than the belief in Hades. It suggests that the dead remained in proximity to the grave or were at least capable of visiting it periodically. But who said that beliefs about the afterlife have to be consistent?

The Greeks retained close emotional ties with their dead, whose welfare depended on the efforts that they, the living, performed on their behalf. Even so, their connection with their dead was much weaker than that which existed between the Egyptians and their dead, and they certainly did nothing to preserve their dead physically.

When Socrates was asked whether he wanted to be cremated or buried, he replied, “Any way you like, so long as you can catch me.”

Common Questions About the Ancient Greek Afterlife and Its Evolution

Q: What did the ancient Greeks believe happened after death?

Ancient Greeks didn’t believe in postmortem judgment because the Greeks didn’t have a concept of heaven and hell. They saw the afterlife as a cheerless phase.

Q: Who was Charon?

Charon, the ferryman, helped the dead cross the river Styx and enter Hades.

Q: How did the afterlife of ancient Greeks evolve?

From the 6th century B.C. onward, the Greeks came to believe that those who had been initiated into certain secret rites could expect a more blessed existence in the afterlife.

Q: What was Eleusis?

Eleusis was an ancient Greek mystery religion that offered its initiates a blessed afterlife.

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