Hidden deep within the bowels of the earth and ruled by the god Hades and his wife Persephone, the ancient Greek Underworld was the kingdom of the dead, the sunless, cold and shadowy place where the souls of those who died went after death. The Underworld was watered by the streams of five infernal rivers – The Styx, the river of hatred and unbreakable oaths; the Acheron, the deep river of sorrow and pain; the Cocytus, the river of lamentation and wailing; the Phlegethon, the river of fire which led to the very depths of Tartarus; and the Lethe, the river of oblivion and forgetfulness, out of which the dead souls are obliged to drink to forget their previous lives on earth in preparation for a possible reincarnation.
For most of the ancient Greeks, the Underworld would not have been viewed as a particularly pleasant place. Ancient authors described the Underworld as nothing more than a joyless realm where the dead would slowly fade into nothingness or, as one learns from Plato’s Myth of Er, prepare themselves for a reincarnation back to earth. However, it is also known that the Underworld was divided into four different regions.
Arguably the most famous part of the Underworld was the Tartarus. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus described Tartarus as “the deepest gulf beneath the earth” and “as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth”. It serves as the dungeon of the rebels against the divine order such as the Cyclopes, the Hecatoncheires and the Titans. It also houses the worst of perpetrators destined to endure eternal punishments fitting their crimes such as Sisyphus and Ixion. In contrast, the Elysian Fields, or the Elysium, was a land of eternal sunlight and rosy meadows where only the most exceptional mortals were privileged to an existence free of pain and hard labor.
Somewhat less well-known is the Asphodel Meadows. The Odyssey, Book 11, provides this description: “the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of Asphodel.” Apart from it being the place where Odysseus meets the shade of Achilles in Homer’s Odyssey, and Achilles sorrowfully tells Odysseus that he “would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead”, Book 24 says that the souls of the dead, “came to the Meadow of Asphodel where abide the souls and phantoms of those whose work is done.”
Finally, the last of the four regions of the Underworld is the Fields of Mourning, which are reserved for the souls of those who died of a broken heart. Those souls “wander in paths unseen, or in the gloom of dark myrtle grove: not even in death have they forgot their griefs of long ago” (Aeneid, Book 6, line 426). Some of the most famous inhabitants of the Fields of Mourning are Dido, Phaedra, Procris and Laodamia.
A small gold pendant was found in the Douïmès cemetery (sixth–seventh century) at Carthage in 1894. The pendant, dated 814 BC, was inscribed with a six-line epigraph which mentioned the name Pygmalion. Pygmalion may reference a known king of Tyre, Pummay, in the ninth century BC. He was the brother of Dido who succeeded to the throne of Tyre when his father died. Judging from this date, if Dido and Aeneas were real people, they could not have met as he would have been old enough to be her grandfather. Nevertheless, the myth of Dido was engaging enough to become a focus for many later writers including the Romans Ovid (43 BC–17 AD) and Tertullian (c. 160 – 240 AD).
The earliest known person to have written about Dido was the Greek historian Timaeus of Taormina (c. 350–260 BC) who says that Dido founded Carthage in either 814 or 813 BC. A later source is the first-century historian Josephus whose writings mention an Elissa (another name for Dido) who founded Carthage during the rule of Menandros of Ephesus. Most people, however, know about the story of Dido from its telling in Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido was the daughter of the Tyrian king Mutto and the sister of Pygmalion, who succeeded to the throne of Tyre when his father died. Dido married Sychaeus, a priest of Hercules and a man of immense wealth. Her brother Pygmalion later murdered him out of jealousy of his treasure.
The ghost of Sychaeus revealed to Dido what had happened to him and told her where he had hidden his treasure. Understanding the threat her brother posed to her, Dido took the treasure and secretly sailed from Tyre accompanied by some noble Tyrians who apposed Pygmalion’s rule. She landed in Cyprus where she carried off 80 maidens to provide her followers with brides. They then crossed the Mediterranean to Carthage, to what is now modern Tunisia. To the locals, Dido offered a substantial amount of wealth in exchange for whatever land she could cover with the hide of a bull. After they had agreed to what seemed to be an exchange greatly to their advantage, Dido cut the hide into strips and laid them out in a semi-circle around a strategically placed hill facing the sea on the other side. There, Dido founded the city of Carthage and ruled it as a confident and competent queen.
Dido was resolute in her determination not to marry again and to preserve the memory of her dead husband, Sychaeus. However, according to the Aeneid, Dido met the Trojan prince Aeneas who was travelling from Troy to Lavinium. Expecting to find only a desert, Aeneas was surprised to find a prosperous city which included a temple to Juno and an amphitheater. He then wooed Dido who resisted him until she was struck by Cupid’s arrow. Virgil depicts the suddenness of the change that love provokes in the queen as the arrow striking her almost like madness or a disease.
By taking Aeneas as a lover, Dido risked everything. She compromised her loyalty to her dead husband’s memory. She lost the support of her citizens, who saw their queen indulge an amorous obsession at the expense of her civic duties. Furthermore, by dallying with another foreigner, Dido alienated the local African chieftains who now posed a military threat to her kingdom.
When Aeneas abandoned her, the devastated queen committed suicide. Later, Aeneas encounters Dido’s shade in the Underworld just before the future legacy of Rome is revealed to him and protested that his abandonment of Dido was not an act of his own will. This poignant encounter of the queen and her lover was soon dwarfed by Anchises’ subsequent revelation of the glory of Rome to be founded. Aeneas again left to pursue his destiny leaving Dido literally as a shadow of her former self in the Fields of Mourning.
The legend of Phaedra and Hippolytus originated at Troezen, a town located in the northeast Peloponnese at the Saronic Gulf. While the town’s most important local deity was Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, Hippolytus also featured as a popular cult figure. Over time, the legend gained greater acclaim through the dramatic retellings of two of the tragedy writers, Sophocles and Euripedes.
After abandoning Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him and helped him overcome the Minotaur on Crete, Theseus, the new king of Athens, kidnapped Ariadne’s sister Phaedra and married her. In Seneca the Younger’s play Phaedra, she reveals that her marriage to Theseus was a political arrangement to quell hostilities between Athens and her native island of Crete. Although the marriage had produced two sons, as was often the case in ancient Greek and Roman marriages, little love appeared to exist between husband and wife. Phaedra laments to her nurse, “Why compel me, hostage to a hated house, Married to my foe, to consume a life, In pain and tears?” (Phaedra, 2.89-91).
Tragically, Phaedra fell in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Hippolytus, the illegitimate son of Theseus and Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, led a perfectly chaste life. He worshiped Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and shunned all mortal women. Wishing to punish him for his stubborn insistence on remaining chaste, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, made Phaedra fall in love with Hippolytus. Despite initially struggling to conceal her passion for her stepson, Phaedra finally confessed her love to Hippolytus. Horrified, he rejected her.
Fearing that Hippolytus would denounce her to her husband, Phaedra took matters into her own hands. She wrote a letter to Theseus and accused Hippolytus of attempting to rape her. Believing her, Theseus cursed his son and called upon Poseidon to punish Hippolytus. In response, Poseidon sent a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus’ horses. Terror-stricken, the horses flung their master from his chariot and dragged him to his death. Artemis later told Theseus the truth. A guilt-ridden Phaedra committed suicide and entered the Fields of Mourning.
The story of Procris begins in Athens. She was the third daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens and Praxithea. Procris went on to marry Cephalus, prince of Phocis. There are at least six different accounts of Procris’ story. Cephalus went away from home for eight years because he wanted to test Procris’ loyalty to him. When he returned home in disguise, Cephalus succeeded in seducing Procris. He then revealed to his very surprised wife that he had uncovered her infidelity.
Procris fled from Athens first to the forests where she became part of the retinue of Artemis. Later, Procris was found on the island of Crete. King Minos of Crete was suffering from an affliction brought on by the sorcery of his wife, Pasiphae who, angered by his infidelity, had caused his sperm to transform into miniature poisonous scorpion-like creatures, thus killing any lover that Minos might have.
Procris cured king Minos through with the Circaean root. In gratitude, King Minos gave her Laelaps, the legendary hunting dog, and a javelin that always hit its mark. Procris returned to Athens and, in turn, tested Cephalus by disguising herself as a young man. In her disguise, Procris challenged Cephalus to a contest in hunting and easily bested him with the aid of Laelaps and the javelin. Wishing to buy the hunting dog and javelin, Cephalus offered a large amount of money. However, Procris would only agree to sell them if Cephalus slept with her, still in her disguise as a man. Overtaken by his yearning for the dog and javelin, Cephalus agreed. Afterward, Procris revealed her true self. The pair were reconciled and Procris gave Laelaps and the javelin to her husband as gifts.
Despite their reconciliation, Procris could never again be sure about her husband’s loyalty. One day, when Cephalus was out hunting, a servant of Procris heard him call out for someone to come to him. Although the words of Cephalus were perfectly innocent as he was simply calling to Aura, the Titan goddess of the breeze and fresh air of the early morning, to cool him during the exertions of the hunt, the servant reported this to the already suspicious Procris. Procris followed Cephalus the next time he went hunting and leapt out of the thicket when she heard him call out to Aura again. Thinking that she was a wild animal, Cephalus shot her with an arrow and killed her.
Laodamia, the daughter of King Acastus of Iolcus, one of the Argonauts, and his wife Astydameia, married Protesilaus. Before his marriage to Laodamia, Protesilaus had been one of the men who had vied for the hand of Helen of Sparta and was thus bound by the Oath of Tyndareus to protect Menelaus, the chosen husband of Helen, at any cost. Due to this oath, Protesilaus was duty bound to lead his people, the Phylaceans, to Troy, and he became the first of the Achaean heroes to die during the Trojan War.
As they had only just married, Protesilaus was allowed to return to his wife for only three hours after his death, before entering to the Underworld. Hyginus Gromaticus’ Hygini Fabulae says that after her husband returned to the Underworld, Laodamia made a bronze likeness of her husband, put it in her room under the pretense of sacred rites and devoted herself solely to it. Early in the morning, a servant brought fruits for the offering and peeped through a crack in the door and witnessed her holding and kissing the likeness of Protesilaus in her embrace. The servant thought she had a lover and told her father Acastus. This misunderstanding was immediately cleared when Acastus burst into the room and saw the statue of Protesilaus. To put an end to his daughter’s grief, Acastus he had the statue and the sacred offerings burned on a pyre. However, not being able to contain herself, Laodamia threw herself on the burning pyre and was burned to death.