Skip to main content

Odysseus and the Underworld

George Alexander Gazis is Assistant Professor in Greek Literature in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. He is interested in the function of mortality and the afterlife in the Homeric Epics and early Lyric. On Halloween we explore how these ancient understandings resonate with the festivities which now take place on 31st October.

Why are you interested in Death and the Afterlife? 

I think the Afterlife in Greek mythology is fascinating because it signifies an end of existence, which is so different from what we tend to think of today, where we have this idea of continuity after death, through religion or whatever else we believe in. The Underworld was essentially a nonexistence that just kept open the possibility of remaining somewhere.  I find it fascinating that a society keeps functioning when death is visualized as something almost completely finalising.

Were there ghosts in Ancient Greece? 

Vindictive spirits, such as the Furies would be a good example. These were not spirits of the dead, but more like divine entities. They reside in the Underworld but would thread into the other world and avenge the living if they transgressed.  

In mythology, Orestes is plagued by the Furies, who chase him wherever he goes. He is never killed by them, but he is constantly tortured in a very similar way to how we now understand hauntings. Whenever someone was found murdered outside the city or on a crossroads it would be blamed on the ghost of Orestes, so in turn his ghost gained the material power to harm people.  

It was also common practice for murderers to remove the limbs of their victims, particularly their arms. They believed that the victim’s ghost would be powerless to take revenge without their limbs.  

What does the Underworld look like?  

It has very broad gates made of bronze. It is surrounded by rivers. There is a dog that waits at the gates to let you in but will tear you to pieces if try to leave. It’s a dark and damp place, and a place of torture, but not much more is spoken of it.  

It is at once below the earth and beyond the ocean, material but also translucent. The concept of the underworld keeps shifting all the time, it is very elusive and that is of course, very important, because it must always be separated from the experience of the living.

Can you see the roots of modern Halloween in Ancient Greece? 

Definitely. The beginnings can't be found in the celebrations of Dionysus, the God of Wine and Revelry, and also extreme surrealism and gore. People would dress up and go out carrying phallic symbols, trying to commit acts of indecency or illegality. It was a day of masquerade – where all tensions of modern society could be dealt with in an alternative way. By embodying them evil entities, it was believed that you were also able to fend them off.  

It’s very similar to what we see in modern day ideas of the Carnival, and of course Halloween is very interconnected will all these things.  

Find out more:  

Death and the Afterlife 

Dr George Alexander Gazis  

Centre of Death and Life Studies   

Department of Classics and Ancient History