The Underworld and Justice in Homer

Hi Andre,

I had a question not directly related to the Odyssey story, but when I was reading over the glossary of names in the back of the book, I came upon Rhadamanthus who was granted eternal life in the Elysian fields because he was a fair king.   I had forgotten about the Elysian Fields, and I don’t know much about entry requirements to this much more preferable place than Hades.  Why is it that ‘fair’ mortal heroes like Achilles don’t end up in the Elysian Fields?  Do you know?



Hi Pauline,

The Greco-Roman variations on belief in the after-life differ from legend to legend.  Although there was never any official orthodoxy concerning the underworld, most ancient Greeks and Romans still believed in a sort of after-life.  As legends grew concerning the underworld, various places of punishment or peace were attributed to the realm of Hades and Persephone.  One was the Elysian fields mentioned in Homer (Od. 4.  561-9) and Hesiod (Op. 167-73), “as the place to which certain favoured heroes, exempted from death, are translated by the gods.  Elysium appears to be a survival from Minoan religion” (The Oxford Classical Dictionary).  After Homer and Hesiod, other Greco-Roman writers like Vergil embellish the realm of Hades with all kinds of areas for certain people due to their actions on earth.  Dante was inspired by Vergil and interpolated Book VI of the Aeneid into his own Inferno making up a third of his Divine Comedy.  But going back to Homer, it is hard to see anything clear about what the underworld was, and why certain heroes were favored.  Achilles, Agamemnon etc. all share the same basic fate in the Odyssey regardless of their status on earth.  That says quite a lot in itself.  If the gods were said to choose certain heroes to be blessed (i.e. Hercules was said to have been immortalized and brought to Olympus itself), then it shows how arbitrary the gods could be when they wanted.  Justice (if any) is hard to see rationally at this point.



 I think it makes sense that we wouldn’t see justice in these depictions from Homer.  The Gods in Homer are behind things like the weather, the ocean, and things of chance like the tide in battle.  The Gods are seen as being behind unexpected events like a small military force somehow beating a larger military force.  The weather, the elements, the ocean, and turns of chance do not follow any rules of justice so the Gods arbitrary behavior is a reflection of the arbitrary nature of our world.  For example, why are good people sometimes killed in a boat when an expected storm blows up and their boat is sunk?  Such people don’t deserve that but it happens all the time in an arbitrary way in our world.  There are others who get away with murder and don’t come across any misfortunes.  Justice itself does not occur naturally in nature; it’s a human abstract concept.


04. December 2009 by Arrian
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