Greek heroes had it rough. Perseus had to fight the monstrous Medusa. Theseus volunteered to enter the mysterious labyrinth to slay the beastly Minotaur. Achilles survived the long Trojan War only to be later killed by an arrow to his unprotected heel. Fortunately, Greek mythology provides a wondrous afterlife in Elysium for most of its heroes.
The Final Stop
Early Greek writers portrayed Elysium as an earthly paradise. Gods sent favored heroes there, making them immortal. Later stories opened its gates, and Elysium became an afterlife haven for those blessed by the gods. Anyone who had lived virtuously was also welcome. Storytellers offer different locations for Elysium: sitting on the banks of the Oceanus River or floating in the Western Ocean. Some said it was not on earth but in the underworld, in the land of the dead.
Elysium was imagined as a lovely natural world with meadows, trees, sweet air and purplish sunlight. Gentle lyres and pipes provided continual background music. Food was plentiful and appeared upon request. Hunting was a popular pastime. Poets, priests and humanitarians dwelled there among the heroes. Anyone welcomed into Elysium could choose to return to the mortal world, but this seldom happened. This haven was also known as Elysian Fields or Elysian Plain.
Even after a person obtained permission from the gods to enter Elysium, it was still a long journey. Five rivers flowed around the underworld, and the deceased had to travel across Acheron, the River of Woe, when leaving the land of the living. After crossing, the soul faced three judges, Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthys, who had the responsibility of deciding the mortal's fates. After the verdict, the departed faced a fork in the road. Those deemed worthy were guided to the right, which led to Elysium. The other fork ended at Tartarus, the opposite of paradise. People who committed grievous sins or offended the gods were banished to this afterlife of torment.
The Same in Rome
The Romans adapted much of earlier Greek mythology for their own use, so there are many similarities between the two traditions. In both, Elysium is paradise for heroes. For example, in “The Aeneid,” the Roman poet Virgil wrote of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who traveled to the underworld Elysium to meet the ghost of his father, Anchises. Once there, Anchises informed Aeneas that he and his children were destined to be great leaders of Rome. The father predicted a glorious era for the empire. With this information, Aeneas bade farewell and returned to the land of the living.
- Encyclopedia Mythica: Perseus
- Tufts University: The Life and Times of Hercules
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Elysium
- Myth Encyclopedia: Elysium
- Encyclopedia Mythica: Styx (River)
- Clarke College: The True Judges
- Greek Mythology Link: Underworld and Afterlife
- The J. Paul Getty Museum: About Greek and Roman Mythology
Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.