Above Terracotta pinax (painted plaque) from the 5th century BC, attributed to the Gela Painter, showing a funerary scene. The deceased lies on a bed, surrounded by family, some tearing their hair in mourning.

The Greek dead and the Great Beyond

The ancient Greeks thought much about the dead – how their remains should be disposed of, how their spirits might be summoned, how malignant they could be if unavenged. Classicist David Stuttard brings us face to face with the Greek dead.


Near the western shores of Greece, just south of Corfu’s southern tip and the lovely mainland seaside town of Parga, the modern village of Ephyra sprawls on a low hill above well-watered farmland. Sheep’s bells clack hypnotically; crows caw from nearby trees; and far off to the east the jagged mountains of Thesprotia shimmer like a mirage in the morning haze. It is a place of such beguiling peace and beauty that even the most well-informed, imaginative visitor must struggle to envisage how it looked 3,000 years ago. For then, instead of fertile ploughland, marshes stretched towards the seashore; a shallow lake, reedy and loud with frogs, lapped against the cliffs that fall sheer from the hillock’s farther flank; and the sluggish streams that fed it bore foreboding names – Acheron, Cocytus, Pyriphlegethon – names they shared with darker, more sepulchral rivers, the rivers of the Underworld, of Hades. Then, too, the atmosphere was foetid with the stench of stagnant water and the still air thick with screaming clouds of myriad mosquitoes. Can there be any wonder that Bronze Age Greeks associated Ephyra with the dank lands of the dead, or that it was here (some say) that the bewitching Circe sent Odysseus on a mission to commune with hungry ghosts?

Terracotta pinax (painted plaque) from the 5th century BC, attributed to the Gela Painter, showing a funerary scene. The deceased lies on a bed, surrounded by family, some tearing their hair in mourning. IMAGE: Walters Art Museum [CC0].

Here, as instructed, the Greek hero dug a pit, and, summoning the dead, poured out libations of milk and honey, wine and water, sprinkled white barley meal, and slit the throats of sacrificial sheep, allowing the black blood to drench the earth. At once, thirsty spectres coiled out of the ground, craving blood and mutton; but Odysseus, crouching with his sword outstretched, would not let even his own mother’s spirit feast until he heard all he had come to learn from the ghost of Teiresias the prophet, still proudly clutching the golden sceptre that had been his in life.

This encounter – envisaged in Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest works of Western literature – already reveals much about Greek attitudes towards the dead. Insubstantial their spirits might be, but they could still be cowed by the sharp edge of a bronze sword; removed beneath the earth, they nonetheless retained an interest in what was happening on it; and, though wraith-like, they were still recognisable from when they lived. Among the spirits Odysseus met Achilles, the bravest Greek at Troy, still powerful even in death, though this was little consolation. ‘I would rather be alive and hired out to a landless pauper as a labourer’, he famously declared, ‘than rule over all the dead.’

Antonio Zanchi, Sisyphus. Oil on canvas, c.1660-1665. IMAGE: Mauritshuis, the Hague.

This did not mean that the dead were unconcerned about their status in the afterlife, for even now there was a social and moral hierarchy. In the Underworld, those guilty while alive of heinous crimes might be condemned to suffer fitting punishments – Sisyphus, who tried to cheat death, was compelled to push a boulder up towards the upper world, only for it to roll repeatedly back down to Hades; Tantalus, who tried to trick gods into eating human flesh, endured torments of thirst and hunger; and the daughters of Danaus, who killed their husbands, performed forever the wifely chore of fetching water, but with no hope of success, since their amphoras had been deliberately holed.

Meanwhile, the brave or virtuous could enjoy a privileged eternity. Homer’s contemporary, Hesiod, imagined carefree heroes living in the Islands of the Blessed, while the 5th century BC poet Pindar described them riding, wrestling, playing draughts, or strumming lyres. By the time that he was writing, the prospect of a blissful afterlife was available to to lesser mortals, too, at so-called ‘mystery cults’, such as those held at Eleusis near Athens, where by undergoing physical ordeals initiates were promised spiritual contentment in the Underworld.

Ciro Ferri, The Danaids. Chalk and ink on paper, c.1644-1689. IMAGE: Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands [CC0].

Yet, for the dead to be truly content, it mattered how they were treated by the living. To be remembered well was paramount. Faced with the choice, Achilles preferred an early death and ‘undecaying’ fame to unsung old age (notwithstanding this was a choice he lived – or died – to regret), while in the early 6th century BC Sappho took pleasure in taunting an acquaintance:

When you are dead, you will lie forgotten.
No one will mourn you, no one bring roses for you from Pieria.
In death as in life you will be quite anonymous, wandering vaguely with the aimless, nameless dead.

To be one of the wandering, homeless dead was clearly feared by many Greeks, which was why the respectful treatment of remains was so important. Appearing in a dream to Achilles, the ghost of his friend Patroclus berated him for leaving Patroclus’ body unburied and thus preventing him from interacting with the other dead. This matter of proper burial pervades much of Greek literature. Perhaps most famous is Sophocles’ Antigone, where King Creon of Thebes forbids the burial of Oedipus’ son, Polyneices, killed leading a foreign army against his city (an impious extension of an actual Athenian law denying burial in their native soil to traitors and temple-robbers).

Many monuments to the dead still stand in ancient Athens’ public cemetery at Kerameikos, north-west of the Acropolis.
IMAGES: D Stuttard.

While Romans believed that the souls of the unburied were forbidden access to the Underworld, it is unlikely that this view prevailed in the 5th century BC or earlier – in the Iliad, unburied Patroclus declares that his spirit is wandering in Hades, while Penelope’s unburied suitors successfully reach Hades in the Odyssey. Rather, Greeks, whose sense of identity lay in belonging to the larger group of family and city, may have imagined that the spirits of the unburied were excluded from interaction with those of fellow citizens or family members. If, as the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote, the worst thing in life is to be ‘an outcast and a beggar, wandering the world’, it is probable that this was the worst thing in death too, and that to deprive a corpse of burial was, quite literally, to condemn the soul to a fate worse than death. Such attitudes would explain why, in 406 BC, the Athenian democracy was so incensed at admirals who failed to pull dead oarsmen from the sea after their victory at the Battle of Arginusae that they voted to execute them; that the admirals had been prevented in their duty by a sudden storm was simply not a good enough excuse for not ensuring that the dead could take their rightful place in the parallel Athenian society of the Underworld.

Parian marble grave stele of a girl with her pet doves, c.450-440 BC.

Under normal circumstances, Athenians of the 5th and 4th century BC did all they could to honour their war dead, not least in annual commemoration services held on the road between the city and the Grove of Academus, where, accompanied by an impassioned, patriotic speech, the cremated remains of the fallen were laid to rest in the Public Cemetery. The ashes were contained in ten cedarwood coffins, one for each of the tribes of Athens (further evidence of the importance of belonging to a civic group), but there was, too, one symbolic empty coffin for those ‘whose bodies are missing and cannot be retrieved after battle’; for, although these men could not be buried, it was still important to honour them, since no one wanted to be plagued by angry ghosts, and the malignant dead could be destructive. The audience for Euripides’ Hekabe (c.424 BC) knew this well and found nothing strange in Achilles’ ghost demanding that the Trojan princess Polyxena be sacrificed to him simply because he felt that he had not received sufficient recognition for his role in taking Troy.

If Achilles, honoured with a sumptuous funeral, was able to feel so aggrieved, what might a dead man do who had been treated with far less respect? The people of Temesa in southern Italy found out to their cost, when in the early 5th century BC they were troubled by a vengeful spirit. They told how, blown off course on the voyage home from Troy, one of Odysseus’ crew raped a Temesan virgin, for which the locals stoned him to death. Thereafter the man’s spectre stalked the town, attacking old and young alike, until the Delphic oracle bade the Temesans build it a temple, and annually dedicate the most beautiful virgin in the land to be its ‘wife’ and priestess. Visiting Temesa at the time of the yearly rituals, however, the Olympic boxing champion Euthymus fell in love with the chosen bride and vowed to do battle with the spirit. So he donned his armour, fought with it and drove it down into the sea, before marrying the maiden and living happily ever after. But Euthymus did not meet a normal death. Instead, he vanished into thin air, and so became a hero.

On this Attic white-ground funerary lekythos (oil flask), a mourner (on the left) attends the grave of the deceased (who appears on the right, with a diminuitive soul above his head). Attibuted to the Achilles Painter, c.440 BC.
A woman ties a fillet around a gravemarker, while two others present a wreath and a libation, on this red figure hydria (water jar) attributed to the workshop of the Iliupersis Painter, c.375-350 BC. IMAGEs: Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0].

In the strictest sense a hero was a man who had accomplished such outstanding deeds in life that in death he became semi-divine. Not all heroes vanished like Euthymus. Indeed, many found their bones being treated as religious relics with special magic powers. In response to an oracle, 6th century BC Spartans relocated bones from nearby Tegea said to have belonged to the legendary Orestes, ownership of which they were convinced would bring them victory. In the following century, the Athenian general-cum-politician Cimon scoured Skyros for the resting place of Theseus. When, guided by an eagle, his men discovered a huge skeleton buried with a bronze sword and an antique spear, he shipped it back to Athens, where he oversaw the building of a sanctuary in the city centre, so that the hero could promote his power most strongly. Although his own bones were repatriated following his death in Cyprus, Cimon was himself later worshipped – on the instructions of Apollo – at a hero-shrine in the island’s city of Citium, where his spirit was believed to avert epidemics.

Cimon’s hero-shrine was a cenotaph, but more commonly the dead were thought to have close connections with their last resting place. Except at Sparta, Greek cemeteries were sited next to roads outside the city walls – apart from the world of the living, but easily accessible – where mourners would leave offerings of flowers or special drinks or cake. Vase paintings show family members approaching the grave marker, while the deceased stands out of sight behind it. In some, a small winged figure representing the soul hovers next to the head of the deceased; but whether Greeks imagined that souls were really so diminutive, or whether artists drew them small to emphasise their relative powerlessness, we cannot tell.

Giovanni Battista Pittoni, The Sacrifice of Polyxena. Oil on canvas, c.1733-1734. IMAGE: J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Certainly, however, Athenians believed that once a year in late January or early February the dead returned to stalk the streets of their old city. This was the day of the Chytrai (the ‘Day of Pots’), the third day of the winter Anthesteria (the ‘Festival of Flowering’), when, after Dionysiac parades and feasting celebrating new vegetative growth, Athenians boiled up a pot of vegetables, which they left as offerings to Hermes, the god who conducted dead souls to – or, in this case, from – the Underworld. For, on this day, the gates of Hades swung open, the dead swarmed out, and prudent Athenian householders, chewing buckthorn for protection, smeared their doors with pitch to stop malignant spirits entering, while priests and priestesses made sure that every shrine and temple door was tightly closed. Only at sunset could the ghosts be driven out, when – addressing especially the Keres, the malignant dead – heads of households toured their properties proclaiming ‘Be gone, you Keres! The Anthesteria is done!’

While the dead sometimes had to be chased off, occasionally in times of trouble individuals or communities might wish to summon them. Extant Greek tragedy imagines two such cases, where the methods used are similar. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Orestes, Electra, and their attendants gather at the tomb of their murdered father, Agamemnon, pour libations and beat the earth while chanting verses which, they hope, will rouse his ghost to help them in their mission of revenge to kill their mother, Clytemnestra. Their séance is unsuccessful, but another dramatic necromancy in Persians (also by Aeschylus) sees Persia’s Queen Mother and her retinue of elders raise the spirit of her dead husband Darius from his grave. Once more the process is achieved with offerings (this time of special cake), earth-beating, and chanted verses, but when Darius first appears, bewildered by his reawakening (‘It’s not an easy road up from the Underworld – the gods beneath the earth are always quicker to receive than to let go’), he seems to be even more ignorant of current affairs than those consulting him. Only with time does his prophetic memory return, and then his message is not what the Persians had hoped to hear.

This is always a danger when people try to learn the future. Yet Greeks’ quest to do so led to a proliferation of oracles, and while most were thought to offer conduits to the gods, many were connected to the dead. Even the most famous oracle of all, at Delphi, was delivered at a burial site – the grave of Python, the serpent-guardian slain by Apollo, its name commemorated in the title of the priestess Pythia and the Pythian Games celebrated partly in its honour. Other oracles, such as that of Amphiareus north-east of Athens, or of Trophonius at Lebadeia in nearby Boeotia, were connected with specific dead heroes. But at others, such as Phigalia in the rugged mountains of Arcadia, Taenarum at the southern tip of the Mani Peninsula, and Ephyra, the wider company of the dead might be consulted – and not just by the likes of Odysseus. Herodotus records how a 6th century BC Corinthian tyrant sent envoys to Ephyra to ask his dead wife, Melissa, where she had buried a large sum of money. At first she refused to tell him, and it was only when he collected their most sumptuous dresses from the women of Corinth and burned them as an offering to her that Melissa revealed the hiding place. Over six centuries later, writers were still associating Ephyra with the Underworld – the historian Plutarch and the traveller Pausanias both believed that it was here that Theseus descended on his quest to abduct Persephone, the goddess of the dead.

The vaulted subterranean chamber at Ephyra has been associated with the Oracle of the Dead by some archaeologists.
Ephyra today: on the left, a church of John the Baptist and a farmhouse (both built in the 18th century AD) stand on top of the hill, the site of ancient Ephyra. On the the right are the remains of the acropolis of Cichyrus. IMAGES: D Stuttard.

Today, visitors to Ephyra can follow him – part of the way – descending underground by a vertiginous ladder to a vaulted chamber which some archaeologists associate with the Oracle of the Dead. As evidence, they cite statuettes of Persephone; foundations of buildings they identify as dormitories; remains of hallucinogenic lupin seeds, perhaps used in ritual; a labyrinth for disorientating drugged petitioners; and pieces of machinery which they claim were used by priests to stage levitations and theatrical raisings of the dead. Others, however, are more sceptical. Since the hill was levelled in the 4th or 3rd century BC, its buildings burnt by the Romans in 168 BC, and both a church of John the Baptist and a farmhouse erected in the 18th century AD, little of the original ancient Greek site remains. Yet that there was something here is clear. Perhaps the only way to learn precisely what it was is to climb down the ladder, beat the ground, and offer cake – and pose our questions to whoever might appear.