Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The Kingdom

"H ADES," the name of the kingdom of Pluto and Proserpine, means "invisible," because it is unseen by living eyes. It is surrounded by the river Styx by which the gods swore their sacred oath, and which flows round and round it in nine circles before springing up into the living world. Even when the Styx rises out of the ground in the land of Arcadia, it still remains a cold black river, whose waters are poisonous to drink; but if anybody was bold enough to bathe in them, and lucky enough to come out alive, no weapon afterwards would have power to wound him. Some people say that Thetis (the goddess who saved Jupiter from the great plot) dipped her child Achilles into the Styx as soon as he was born, head foremost, holding him by the left heel between her finger and thumb. But she forgot that her thumb and finger prevented the water from touching the skin just where she held him. And so, when he grew up, though no weapon could hurt him anywhere else, yet, when he was hit by an arrow in the left heel, he died of the wound.

When anybody died, his body was buried or burned by his friends, and his soul left him and went down to Hades, till it reached the banks of the Styx. Here it waited for Charon's ferry-boat, about which you read in the story of Psyche. If its friends had buried its body properly, they had given it a small silver coin to pay the ferryman, who took the money and at once rowed it across the river. But if the soul had no money to pay for its passage, it had to wait for a hundred years, shivering and cold. Arrived on the other side, the soul was taken before the three judges of Hades—Minos, Æăcus, and Rhădamanthus. All three had been kings on earth, so famous for wisdom and justice that, when they died, Pluto made them the judges of the dead. These decided what was to be done with the soul. If it had been virtuous during its life upon earth, it was allowed to enter Elysium, or the region of happiness; if it had been wicked, it was condemned to the horrible prison of Tartărus, there to be punished by torture.

Elysium, which is also called "the Elysian fields," or "the Islands of the Blest," was a very delightful place, like the most beautiful country in the finest weather, never too hot or too cold, and full of sweet scents and sounds. There the souls of the happy enjoyed forever, without ever getting tired, whatever had given them the most pleasure upon earth—hunting, or war, or learning, or music, or whatever it might be: only all their pleasures became innocent and noble, and even if they fought, it was all in friendship and without harm. Nothing was quite real there: it was more like a beautiful and happy dream, lasting forever. Some of the very best and greatest human souls were taken up into Olympus and made "Demi-gods," that is to say "Half-gods"; but of course this was a very rare honor. The dream of Elysium was thought to be reward enough for the souls which, in their lives, had done more good than evil.

Tartarus, the place of torment, was a very different place, as I need not say. It was farther below the earth than the earth is below the sky, and was surrounded by three brazen walls, and by Phlegethon, the river of Fire. The only entrance was through a high tower, with gates which not even the gods could open, and guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus, which never slept; and the air was three times darker than the darkest midnight, lighted only by the terrible flames of Phlegethon. The jailers were Nĕmĕsis and the Furies. Nemesis is the great stern power who never allows the guilty to escape from their just punishment, nor the good to lose their just reward. If people are happier or more fortunate than they deserve to be, she always, either in this life or in Hades, gives them enough misery at last, until they are just as happy or unhappy as they deserve to be, and neither less nor more; and if they seem less happy or less fortunate than they deserve, she makes it up to them in the end. She is often so strangely slow in coming, that she has been called lame. But she always comes at last: if she is slow, she is sure.

There was once a king of the island of Samos, named Pŏlycrătes, who was famous for his marvelous good fortune. Nothing ever went wrong with him; he did not seem able to fail in anything, even if he tried; he knew neither misfortune nor sorrow. Though only the prince of a little island, he became, by one stroke of good luck after another, the most powerful monarch of his time, so that the kings of the greatest nations came to his court to do him homage and admire his glory. Among these was Amāsis, King of Egypt, who was frightened at the sight of such prosperity, and thought, "This is surely more than any mortal deserves—Nemesis must surely be near at hand!" So he advised Polycrates to bring some misfortune upon himself, to keep Nemesis away. At first Polycrates laughed at such counsel; but, to remove the friendly fears of Amasis, he threw into the sea a ring with a magnificent seal, which he prized the most of all his jewels, and the loss of which made him really unhappy—so you may guess how little unhappiness he had ever known before. A few days afterwards, however, while at dinner with Amasis, he happened to cut open a large fish; and behold, inside the fish he found the ring, which thus came back to him from the bottom of the sea. Instantly Amasis rose from the table and hurried back to Egypt, exclaiming, "I dare not have anything more to do with so fortunate a man—Nemesis must be at the door!" And he was right; and when she came, she came indeed! From the hour when the ring was found in the fish, all the prosperity of Polycrates departed from him; he sank lower and lower; until at last he was treacherously captured by the governor of one of his own cities, and put to a shameful death by torture. You will often hear people speak of "the Ring of Polycrates." When they do, they mean (or ought to mean) that a life of mixed joy and sorrow, such as most of us have, is what most of us deserve; and that this is the happiest as well as the best for us in the long-run. It is not good for us to know nothing of sorrow or pain. And if we ever feel that we suffer unjustly—well, Nemesis, the slow but the sure, will make it up to us in the end.

However, I must go back to Tartarus, in spite of its unpleasantness. I was speaking of the Furies, who served under Nemesis as its jailers. These were three creatures like women, with hissing and writhing snakes instead of hair, holding a torch in one hand, and a whip made of live scorpions in the other. These whips were the whips of Conscience, with which they scourged and stung the souls both of the dead and the living. They were the chief servants of Nemesis, because the stings of Conscience are the most terrible of all her punishments. The Furies were the most dreadful creatures in or out of Hades. People had such awe and horror of them that they dared not even name them. The real name of the Furies was the "Erinnyes," which means the desperate madness of those whom the gods or fates have cursed. But people who wanted to speak of them always called them the "Eumenĭdes"—that is to say, "the Gracious Ladies"—just as timid people in England used to say "the Good Folk" instead of "the Fairies," for fear of making them angry by naming their real name.

The tortures of Tartarus were of all sorts and kinds. Among the evil souls which suffered there, the most famous were the three wicked kings, Ixīon, Sĭsyphus, and Tantălus. Ixion was tied by his arms and legs to the spokes of a wheel, which whirled round and round at full speed without ever giving him one moment's rest. Sisyphus had to carry up to the top of a high and steep hill a huge stone, which, as soon as he got it up, instantly rolled to the bottom again, so that his labor had no end. The torment of Tantalus was perhaps the worst of all. Maddened with hunger and thirst, he was chained to a rock in such a manner that he could not seize one of the delicious fruits that hung close to his eyes, or one of the cups of cool and fragrant drink which unseen hands put to his lips, and then, just as he was about to taste, snatched away again. Being "tantalized" means being treated like Tantalus. Then there were the Danaides, or the forty-nine daughters of King Dănănus, who had all murdered their husbands, and were condemned to fill sieves with water, which of course ran out through the holes as soon as they poured it in. There had been fifty Danaides; but the fiftieth had taken no part in her sisters' crime. There was also the wicked giant Tityus, who was so huge that his body covered nine acres of ground, and whose punishment was, to be perpetually devoured by vultures.

Souls not good enough for Elysium, but not bad enough for Tartarus, were treated in another way. Some were sent to wander about the world as Lemures, or homeless ghosts; others were given to drink of the waters of the Lethe, the river of Forgetfulness, which threw them into a dreamless sleep forever.

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