The Elysian Fields: The Paradise of the Greek Afterlife
Every religion in history has had its own concept of what happens to the human soul after death. Often, the experience of the afterlife depends on the person’s actions and beliefs during their time on earth.
A common feature in the afterlives of the world’s religion is a system of punishment and reward. The wicked are punished for their evil ways, while those people that led a good life are given rich rewards.
The form of that reward varied greatly from culture to culture.
For Norse warriors it was drinking and brawling in the hall of Odin until the last battle of Ragnarok. The Egyptian pharaohs believed they would live a life very similar to the one they had while they lived, including servants and food.
The Greek idea of reward in the next world was constantly evolving. Initially, there was no promise of a reward at all.
From a bleak and depressing eternity as a shade, the Greeks developed the idea of a true paradise.
The Elysian Fields were hard to reach, but for those few deemed worthy they promised an eternal life of relaxation, beauty, and amusements.
Elysium went by many names. It was sometimes called the White Island, and more often was referred to as the Islands of the Blessed.
Most often in English it is called the Elysian Fields.
This realm was, precisely speaking, not a part of the underworld. Although it was reserved for those who had died, it was not under the purview of Hades.
The Islands of the Blessed existed instead at the farthest edge of the physical world on the western stream of the wide river Oceanus that encircled the earth. Its remoteness and the dangers of crossing the expanse of Oceanus made it impossible to reach for those who were not sent there by the gods.
This peaceful afterlife was reserved for the very few. It was the exclusive destination for those who had been most favored by the gods in life.
A person could not earn their way onto the island through good deeds or devotion. The Elysian Fields were the destination for great heroes and the favored children of the gods.
Homer described Elysium as a place of eternal rest where men did not have to take part in any of the difficult toils they had faced in their mortal lives.
There were never storms on the Islands of the Blessed and snow never fell. The only notable weather was a gentle, refreshing breeze that blew in from the west and an occasional light sprinkle of rain.
Pindar claimed that Elysium was covered in golden flowers. The grass, trees, and water were dotted with fragrant blooms.
The people there, he said, had all day to pursue leisure. They played games, held friendly contests, and played music.
The Islands of the Blessed were an idyllic and pristine afterlife free of suffering, pain, and hardship. However, the heroes of legend were the only ones who were admitted.
For most people, the pastoral pleasures of Elysium were entirely out of reach. Only the most distinguished mortals, typically the sons and daughters of the gods, had ever gone there.
While the wicked were tortured in Tartarus, the average person had little to look forward to in the next life. Virtually everyone, regardless of class, deeds, or devotion to the gods, spent eternity on the Asphodel Plains in the heart of the underworld.
This was a dreary existence. The souls of the dead were reduced to mere whisps, forever wandering the underworld without purpose, rational thought, or emotion.
Some Greek writers even claimed that the souls sent to Hades’ realm forgot their lives and identities entirely. They were completely empty and devoid of their former personalities.
The increasing popularity of the Mystery cults, however, changed the perception of what awaited people in the afterlife.
The Mysteries were widespread in the Greek world. Some gave particular worship to Demeter and Persephone, others followed traditions supposedly laid down by the legendary poet Orpheus.
What all the Mystery cults shared was an intense, focused study of the land of the dead. By following certain rites and showing devotion to deities associated with the afterlife, members of these cults believed they could discover the secrets of what lay beyond the boundary of life and death.
The Mysteries taught that there was a way to achieve a better version of eternity, even if the Islands of the Blessed were off limits to common people. This hope eventually grew into the belief in a second Elysium that was accessible to those without a direct tie to the gods.
This version of the Elysium Fields, unlike the White Island, existed within the realm of Hades. Although it was part of the underworld, however, it was a much more pleasant place than the Asphodel Meadows.
The Elysium Fields of the underworld were separated from the rest of the realm by the River Lethe. It was a less gloomy place than the rest of the underworld.
Most important to those who followed the Mysteries, the underworld Elysium could be reached by average men and women.
Initially, the cults taught that this Elysium could only be attained by involvement in their rites. Soon, however, the idea of a better afterlife spread outside of cult membership.
The underworld Elysian Fields became a place for those who lived particularly virtuous and noble lives. While still difficult to reach, a person could be sent there through good deeds and devotion.
These fields were covered in roses and shade trees. Those who reached this comfortable afterlife spent their time playing games and riding horses.
Even though it was in the underworld, the light of the sun reached Elysium. Across the River Lethe, however, the eternal night of the Asphodel Meadows could be seen.
While the subterranean Elysian Fields was a more comfortable and enjoyable afterlife than the Asphodel Meadows, it was still imperfect.
Although some sunlight reached it, it was never as warm and bright as the upper world. There was no refreshing breeze and the waters of the River Lethe could not be touched without bringing the curse of forgetfulness.
Residents of the underworld Elysium could also see, just across the river, the constant darkness and misery of the rest of the underworld. Close by, the residents of Tartarus underwent constant, brutal punishments.
A foreign concept from the east finally found a way to reconcile the different tiers of the afterlife.
By the 5th century BC, the concept of reincarnation had found its way into the Greek world. Contact with religions of the Near East and India had introduced the belief that the soul could return from the underworld into a new life.
The Greeks, as they had with so many myths before, adopted this idea and incorporated it into their existing cosmology. Reincarnation provided a possible way out of the underworld.
Probably influenced by Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, some Greeks began to believe that souls reincarnated from the underworld Elysium might eventually be able to earn their way onto the Islands of the Blessed.
The idea developed that if a soul was virtuous enough to earn a place in the Elysian Fields after three incarnations, they would be elevated to the Islands of the Blessed. This would free them not only from the gloom of Hades’ realm, but also from the cycle of reincarnation.
The good receive a life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of their arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance. But in the presence of the honored gods, those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at. Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, follow Zeus’ road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others.
-Pindar, Odes 2.59-75
Pindar went on to say that reincarnation was not immediate. Persephone, as the queen of the underworld, required every soul to spend nine years in her realm.
Even the most virtuous and devout souls would have to experience the underworld. But the truly, undeniably good people of the Greek world had a hope of sometime reaching true paradise.
The Greek idea of the afterlife was constantly evolving to meet the ideas of the time. The Elysian Fields, as a later addition to their idea of the underworld, went through some of the most radical changes.
Paradise would never be considered easy for the Greeks to reach. But the idea of the Elysian Fields transformed over the course of a few hundred years from an exclusive and unreachable paradise to a tiered system based on rewards for behavior, devotion, and morality.
Even with this opportunity for advancement, the majority of the residents of the Islands of the Blessed were still the great heroes of legend.
There was no definitive list of which demigods and great rulers had been sent to the White Island, particularly as the idea of the afterlife paradise evolved. It was generally assumed, however, that any person great enough to have a hero cult on earth had been taken to the islands after their death.
There were some people who were specifically mentioned by poets and writers as having won admittance to the Islands of the Blessed. Among the names are the most famous heroes of Greek mythology.
- Menelaus – In Odyssey, the sea god Proteus assures the Spartan king that he will be taken across Oceanus to Elysium.
- Helen – The Spartan queen, whose elopement with Paris sparked the Trojan War, was sent with her husband to the White Island.
- Achilles – Upon his death in the Trojan War, the great hero was taken to the island by his mother, Thetis.
- Odysseus – When Telgonis unwittingly killed his father, he took the body to his mother Circe’s island. Circe had Odysseus taken to Elysium.
- Peleus – The father of Achilles and the mortal husband of Thetis, he outlived his son but eventually joined him in the afterlife.
- Cadmus – The founder of Thebes and the husband of the goddess Harmonia was granted access to Elysium after his death.
- Harmonia – Some legends said that the goddess chose to stay by her husband’s side even after his death instead of living on Mount Olympus.
- Medea – Several sources said that Achilles and Medea were fated to be married in the afterlife.
- Alcmene – The mother of Heracles was sent to the White Island, where she later married Rhadamanthys.
- Orpheus and Eurydice – The legendary poet and musician had tried to free his wife from the underworld during his own life. After death, his soul finally found hers and they were able to reach Elysium together.
In addition to the many heroes, demigods, and virtuous women who reached Elysium, there were three mortal judges who were associated with it.
There was disagreement among the ancient sources as to who ruled over the Islands of the Blessed. Because it was outside of the realm of Hades, the White Island was not under his dominion.
Homer said that Rhadamanthus ruled there.
A son of Zeus and Europa, he and his brother Minos were made judges of the dead by their father and Hades. He earned the position through his steadfast sense of integrity.
Zeus appointed three judges to weigh the merits of each soul that passed into the underworld without knowledge of their wealth or status. King Aeacus of Aegina judged those from the west, Rhadamanthus judged those from the east, and Minos cast the deciding vote if there was ever a disagreement.
These three were appointed to ensure that all souls who entered the afterlife were judged fairly and given what was due to them.
In Odyssey, Homer depicted Rhadamanthus as the ruler of the Islands of the Blessed. A later Roman writer seemed to agree when he had Zeus order that Alcmene be sent there to be his wife in the afterlife.
Pindar and others, however, said that Chronus ruled Elysium.
For leading the Titans, Zeus’s father had been imprisoned with most of his people in the pit of Tartaros. After several ages Zeus agreed to free the Titans he had once fought against.
Some ancient sources said that Chronus had become the ruler of Tartarus during his long stay there. But some gave him a more pleasant task after he gained his freedom.
As the ruler of Elysium, Chronus would have had a position fitting of his station as both an elder Titan and the father of Zeus. It was, however, not a powerful enough position for Chronus to ever try to retake the throne he had lost.
Additionally, the Islands of the Blessed were largely populated by Zeus’s children and allies. There would be no opportunity for his father to consolidate power.
In the 1st century AD, another story arose about the Elysian Fields. The mythographer Ptolemy Hephaestion wrote that a child was born on the Islands of the Blessed.
While other sources said that Achilles married Medea after their deaths, Ptolemy Hephaestion partnered the hero with Helen. They had a son they called Euphorion, “abundance,” after the richness of the island.
Euphorion was a winged boy who arrogantly tried to fly too far. Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt.
Euphorion was killed and his body fell to the island of Melos, just south of Crete.
The island was the home of the Meliai, a group of naiads, or water nymphs. Although Zeus had forbidden it, they buried the body of the boy.
As punishment for disobeying his command, Zeus changed the nymphs into frogs.
The bizarre story of Euphorion’s birth seems at odds with many other accounts of Greek mythology. Helen, for example, was married to King Menelaus who other writers described as having entered the Islands of the Blessed himself.
The short passage written by Ptolemy Hephaestion gives no explanation for this discrepancy, or for why Zeus seemed so hateful toward Euphorion.
The character would probably have been forgotten entirely had he not appeared in a later work. In the second part of Goethe’s Faust, it is the legendary German magician who falls in love with the spirit of Helen and fathers the winged boy.
Goethe makes no mention of Zeus’s wrath, but his Euphorion falls from the sky and is killed when he tries to fly too high.
The Greeks next thought it would be easy to reach eternal paradise.
Earning a spot among the blessed residents was second only to being elevated to godhood. The people there were not the lost shades of the underworld, but could experience all the joys of life without the pain and hard work.
As the concept of Elysium changed and expanded though, it became easier for a Greek person to imagine having a good afterlife, even if a perfect one was still hard to attain.
Those deemed worthy were allowed into another Elysium. It was not as perfect as the White Island, but it was a great deal better than their ancestors had thought possible.
Eventually, the people of Greece saw even this as a possible next step toward paradise. A truly virtuous soul could be judged worthy after three lifetimes and earn a place in paradise.
The Elysian Fields were not easy to reach, but as the idea developed they provided a sliver of hope for a peaceful and prosperous afterlife.