I did a post about the afterlife in Etruria, which was in part of Italy. And that got me thinking about the ancient Greek afterlife, because they’re similar. Yet there are important differences, which raises some interesting questions about the two societies.
Etruscans believed that as long as the dead got past all the scary monsters and reached a safe place, they could take part in wonderful banquets with their families and, I guess, have lots of fun even though they were dead. The Greeks — as far as I know — believed that most people ended up as shades who just wandered around eating really bland and unsatisfying food, being kind of chilly and hungry and having very little fun at all.
Some people got to enjoy the Elysian Fields. As I understand it, only heroes went there. Now, maybe the Greeks had a broader definition of “hero” than I think. From my reading, it seems to me that heroes were mainly warriors. So . . . in order to get to their version of heaven, you had to kill someone? That makes no sense to me, and I suspect there was more to it than that.
The good thing — to me, anyway — is that the Greeks thought you had to do something really, really bad to end up in the worst parts of the underworld. Looking up a girl’s skirt wasn’t bad enough. Or a boy’s skirt, for that matter. You sure didn’t get there by going to the “wrong” church/temple/whatever. Or belonging to the wrong political party.
Anyway, once a spirit got into the underworld, it couldn’t get out again without the permission of Hades. And there was a huge, three-headed dog named Kerberos (Cerberus) to keep shades inside the gates where they belonged. We can think of this as a good thing, since it kept the shades from coming topside again and wandering around in the world of the living.
I wonder how the Greeks accounted for ghosts? That’s probably a good subject for another post.
One of the things that interests me is how the Etruscans seemed to believe in a generally happy afterlife with good food, wine, and family. Whereas the Greeks believed in a bummer of an afterlife unless you did something truly extraordinary to deserve better. Were the Greeks more of a merit-based society where you had to earn your way? Were the Etruscans just happier than the Greeks? Maybe the Etruscans didn’t want to leave anyone out of the fun.
I think a fiction writer could have a good time playing with these differing notions about the afterlife.