The Hell of Tartarus, Ancient Greek Prison of the Damned
Tartarus is the infernal abyss of Greek mythology, which is used as a pit of suffering for the wicked and as a dungeon for the Titans. It is also the name of a deity, a primordial being that existed before the Olympian gods, and their predecessors, the Titans.
The concept of Tartarus as a place is much better known than the deity. Initially, Tartarus was imagined as a great pit beneath the earth but it was later re-imagined as a type of hell, where those who committed heinous crimes whilst alive were punished.
Tartarus in Hesiod’s Theogony
In Hesiod’s Theogony, Tartarus is one of the first beings to have emerged at the creation of the universe, and was the opposite of Gaia (Earth),
“First came the Chasm; and then broad-breasted Earth, secure seat forever of all the immortals who occupy the peak of snowy Olympus; the misty Tartara (the plural of ‘Tartarus’) in a remote recess of the broad-pathed earth;”
16th-century manuscript of Theogony. ( Public Domain )
Like the other primordial figures, Tartarus was thought of as a purely elemental being, rather than a god, like the Titans or Olympians, and is closely linked to its concept as a place. For instance, Gaia was not a deity of the earth, but the Earth itself. Similarly, Tartarus was not a deity of the Pit, but the Pit itself.
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The difference between the two figures is that Gaia features more prominently in Greek mythology, particularly in the myth explaining Kronos’ rise to power and his overthrowing of Ouranos, his father. In the process, Gaia, though purely elemental, is transformed into something that Hesiod’s human readers can perhaps relate to better. Gaia came up with a trick to castrate Ouranos, spoke to her children, the Titans, and was delighted when Kronos agreed to carry out her plan. Tartarus, by contrast does not get this type of treatment in the myths.
Aion and Gaia with four children, perhaps the personified seasons, mosaic from a Roman villa in Sentinum, first half of the third century BC, (Munich Glyptothek, Inv. W504). ( Public Domain )
As a place, Tartarus was imagined to have been an inverted dome. The Greeks imagined the cosmos to have been egg-shaped or spherical. This cosmic sphere was divided into half by a flat disc of earth. The upper half of this sphere formed the dome of heaven, whilst the bottom half formed the pit of Tartarus. In Hesiod’s Theogony, the distance between Heaven, Earth and Tartarus is given as follows,
“as far below the earth as heaven is from the earth, for so far it is from earth to misty Tartarus. For nine nights and days a bronze anvil might fall from heaven, and on the tenth day reach the earth; and for nine nights and days a bronze anvil might fall from earth, and on the tenth reach Tartarus.”
Initially, Tartarus was the place where the Olympians imprisoned those who posed a threat to their rule. The most important of these are perhaps their predecessors, the Titans. Following the war between the Titans and the Olympians, the former, who were defeated by the latter, were imprisoned in Tartarus. Hesiod’s description of the event is as such,
“And they (the Olympians) dispatched them (the Titans) in painful bondage, having defeated them by force for all their pride….
There the Titan gods are hidden away down in the misty gloom, by decision of Zeus the cloud-gatherer, in a place of decay, at the end of the vast earth. They have no way out: Poseidon fastened brazen doors thereon, and a wall is driven up to the doors from both sides.
ThereKottos, Gyges, and brave Obriareos live, trusty guardians of Zeus who bears the aegis.”
It was only later on that the Greeks re-imagined Tartarus as not just a prison for the great enemies of the Olympians, but also as a place of punishment for those who committed terrible crimes. As a realm where the wicked are punished, this view of Tartarus serves as a contrast to the concept of Elysium, where the righteous are said to reside.
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Some of the most well-known characters said to be punished in Tartarus include Tantalus, Sisyphus, Ixion, and the Danaïdes. There are a variety of crimes that could result in a person being punished in Tartarus, and the punishments are supposed to fit the crime. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas’ journey through the Underworld is described with much detail. At one point, the hero is told about the criminals and punishments of Tartarus by the Sibyl,
“Immured in this place and waiting for punishment are those who in life hated their brothers, beat their fathers, defrauded their dependents, found wealth and brooded over it alone without setting aside a share for their kinsmen – these are the most numerous of all – men caught and killed in adultery, men who took up arms against their own people and did not shrink from abusing their masters’ trust…. Some are rolling huge rocks, or hang spread-eagled on the spokes of wheels…. If I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths and a voice of iron, I could not encompass all their different crimes or speak the names of all their different punishments.”
Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attic black-figure amphora, c. 530 BC. ( Public Domain )
Top image: Tartarus (fotokitas / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
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