Most religions around the world have some form of afterlife. The standard conventions we know today separate the afterlife into two distinct realms: Heaven and hell. But in ancient Greece, those concepts did not exist. Religious ideologies were much different, and the people of antiquity believed in different realms for souls to reside.
Elysium, also known as Elysian fields, is the closest thing Greek mythology had to a concept of heaven. However, this idyllic place wasn’t for everyone. It’s was a place of exclusivity, reserved only for gods, their mortal family, and heroes. Over time, Elysium evolved to have a more diverse populace, but it still remained a separate place from where the souls of mere mortals would go.
This place of paradise evolved quite a bit throughout Greek mythology. Hesiod described it as a place untouched by sorrow. Meanwhile, Homer and other poets related Elysian fields as a physical paradise with no bad weather. At that time, heroes still went to the House of Hades.
It’s typically described as a beautiful place of luscious meadows, flowing streams, and abundant vegetation. Wine was readily available, and the residents of Elysium spent their time making music, singing, and participating in sports.
Tons of artwork exists showing Elysium in all its glory. In most instances, the artwork depicts vast plains of flowers, vibrant sunshine, and pure joy. It’s the epitome of nirvana and peace. Elysium is, by design, a place where no worries and sorrows can exist.
The location of Elysium changed a bit throughout Greek mythology as well. Homer’s earlier descriptions mention its location at the western edge of the Earth.
The islands of paradise were near the streams of Oceanus. The primordial god resided over a massive river circling the entire world, and Elysium received its waves on its shores.
Another possible location existed in the Underworld. It was considered a secondary realm, and later descriptions of Elysium painted it as a multi-layered paradise. Either way, this second location was separate from the doom and gloom of the Underworld. According to most writers, the River Lethe separated its wondrous fields from the sorrow of the Underworld realm.
Later, poets described the “Isle of the Blest” and the mythical White Island. The location was near the mouth of the River Danube on the Black Sea. Other potential spots include idyllic islands in the Atlantic. These identifications were more of an attempt to rationalize the myth than anything else. For most of the Greek mythology’s span, Elysium is a legendary place not accessible to humans.
Access to Elysium
So, who was lucky enough to get into Elysian Fields? That all depends on the source. As mentioned earlier, the concept of Elysium evolved throughout Greek mythology.
Initially, only gods and those favored by them were allowed to enter. That included heroes and mortal family members. Once they gained entry, the residents of Elysium would live the rest of eternity in pure bliss. They could enjoy the same things they did in life, but now they could live freely without worry or sorrow.
Later, admittance into Elysium expanded. Gods could choose who would go into paradise after death, letting many vital figures in Greek mythology enjoy eternity in peace.
For the second Elysium realm in the Underworld, admittance was a little different. This version of Elysium was for members of Mystery cults. It was promised to initiates of the cults of Demeter, Persephone, Hecate, Iacchus, Zagreus, Mellinoe, Makaria, and Tripolemos.
If initiates lived virtuous lives, they would become immortal and receive the status of a god. In turn, they could access the utopia and live in eternal bliss.
According to the mythology, mortal souls headed to Elysium first had to drink from the River Lethe. Also known as the River of Forgetfulness, its waters caused drinkers to forget their sorrows before heading to an afterlife of pure happiness and joy.
Later on, the concept of reincarnation became quite prevalent. When that happened, the purpose of Elysium changed. The two realms became part of a multi-layered afterlife. Virtuous souls would gain entry into the lower level. If they regained entry into this netherworld Elysium realm after three reincarnations, they could finally rest in the Islands of the Blessed. The fourth death granted entry into paradise, allowing souls to dwell with heroes of myth for all eternity.
In post-classical writing, Elysium was still a famous source of inspiration. Its purpose as a peaceful paradise continued even though ideologies changed.
One of the best examples of post-classic Elysium is in “The Divine Comedy.” Dante Alighieri describes it as the uppermost layer of hell. He supposed that it’s where non-Christians went instead of ascending into heaven.
Later, William Shakespeare famously described it as a general paradise location in “Twelfth Night.”
Many important figures in Greek mythology got to spend eternity enjoying Elysium.
Before we get into those characters, let’s talk about Elysium’s leader. Both Pindar and Hesiod named Cronus as the ruler of Elysium. Cronus was the leader of the Titans. He started the succession myth and was eventually overthrown by the Olympians during the Titanomachy. Most accounts say that Cronus and the rest of the Titans rotted in Tartarus. But, some versions say that Zeus granted clemency and let Cronus rule Elysium.
Homer had a different idea. He said that the rule of Elysium was the fair-haired Rhadamanthus. Rhadamanthus was the King of Crete and one of the many sons of Zeus. Even in Pindar’s retelling, Rhadamanthus was in Elysium. But rather than ruling it, he sat as the right-hand man of Cronus.
There’s no definitive list of all the figures that lived in Elysium or its many reincarnations. However, we can gather that several characters lived in eternal bliss thanks to mentions in passing.
In Homer’s “Odyssey” tale, Menelaus is a Spartan king. He’s taken across Oceanus to Elysium.
Helen was the Spartan King who kicked off the Trojan war by marrying Paris of Troy. She went to Elysium with her husband.
Alcmene was the mother of Heracles to Zeus. She was granted entry into Elysium and eventually married Rhadamanthus.
The famous musician and prophet went to the Underworld after his death. He got to reunite with his long-lost wife, Eurydice, and the two reached Elysium together.
Elysium is also known as “Elysian Fields” or “Elysian Plains”.
During the times of Hesiod, it was also referred to as “The Fortunate Isles” and “The Isles of the Blessed.” Some called it “The Golden Isles.”
Scholars connect the concept of Elysium with Christian ideologies of heaven or the Garden of Eden.
According to Homer, Elysium was on the western edge of the world near the stream of Oceanus, the primordial sea god.
Some writers mentioned the existence of two Elysian realms.
Elysium is the final home of famous heroes like Heracles and Odysseus.
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