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Origins of the Underworld

In ancient Greek mythology, Muses are personified as nine goddesses of inspiration. They were sources of divine creativity in poetry, song, and myth. Reverence for the muse is deeply embedded in Greek culture and religion. Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, Ovid–all these ancient poets of Greece once spoke of Muses.

A muse, as we know it now, refers to that person, place, or thing that sparks inspiration.

Happy is the man whom the Muses love: sweet speech flows from his mouth

-Hesiod

One must wonder (or I certainly did, anyway) what inspired the ancient oral history that evolved into mythology? What land might have brought to mind the underworld? What body of water spawned ideas of the River Styx?

Homer must have had somewhere in mind when he envisioned these other-wordly places. It was worth looking into.


Notes from an Underworld

In July of 2019, my husband and I had the thrill of flying into Athens and driving the entire span of Greece over a period of a month. Up, down, right, left: we endeavored to see it all. While doing research on ancient muses, I had uncovered some interesting theories about the origin of the Greek underworld, and we hit the roads of Greece, armed with an international driver’s license and a thirst for answers. We drove from Athens to Eleusis to the fifty-two peaks of Mt. Olympus and all the way down to the Cape of Matapan, at southernmost point of the Peloponnese (above, in blue). Along the way, we fanned out and saw the country of Greece, roughly the size of Alabama.

Think of the Greek Peloponnese as a three-fingered hand–and the Mani peninsula is the middle finger. “Mani” comes from a word that means “a sparse and treeless place.” It is aptly named. Along the coast, the land is rocky with grassland mountains. Deep blue water sparkles clear near a rocky shore. The mountains appear sparse, almost barren, but littered with grassy patches and low shrubs, all of them spindly and spiky at the ankles.

Morning haze gives way to afternoon sun. Around 5:00 pm, clouds roll in and a gusty wind cools the air. The mountains grow black in shadow. There is a certain, solemn air about the land.

Here, the supposed birth places of two infamous mythological sites: the underworld and the river Styx.


The Mavronéri River

Because of its similarity to Styx, the Mavronéri River (“Black Water”), located near Nonakris in the Aroania Mountains of Achaia in the Peloponnese, is now theorized to be the muse for the River Styx. Why?

In mythology, Styx is the daughter of Oceanus, the great earth-encircling river otherwise known as the ocean. Gods swear their most binding oaths on the River Styx. Roman poet Statius wrote that its water could make a person invulnerable, which is the reason why Achilles had a bum heel. It was the only part of him not dunked in the river.

More notoriously, Styx is the route to Hades’ doorstep.

The ancients swore its water was poisonous.

Recent discoveries reveal that the Mavronéri contains deadly bacterium called calicheamicin, which turn the water toxic. Calicheamicin was discovered in the 1980s in the river’s caliche, calcium carbonate deposits on limestone. These cytotoxins cause cell death and induce high fever, chills, and severe muscle and neurological pain.  

On June 11, 323 BC, just prior to his 33rd birthday, Alexander the Great was declared dead, after a mysterious 12-day illness that began with a fever. The mysterious illness that led to Alexander the Great’s death may not have been mysterious at all. Scientists now speculate that Alexander the Great, who conquered vast amounts of land between Greece and India, could have suffered poisoning from the Mavronéri. It is unlikely that he was the first or last to fall victim to the toxic water.

Did the Mavronéri lead Alexander the Great to the underworld? In history, how many others may have found themselves at this place, drinking blindly from the infamous river Styx?


The Caves of Diros

The Caves of Diros, an underground cave system in the Mani peninsula of the Peloponnese, is a commonly theorized place of origin for Hades’ underworld. In the 1970s, excavator Giorgos Papathanassopoulos discovered the caves were used as burial sites during the Neolithic Period. Human remains were found, along with an ossuary and many other offerings. Papathanassopoulos further concluded there had been a massive cave-in around 3,000 BC, resulting in the sudden deaths of those in an advanced civilization.

Today, the caves, with its entrance near the coastline, are underwater and tourable by ferry.

As you descend underground, the temperature drops dramatically. Though parts of the cave are walkable, one cannot navigate without venturing into water. There, a ferryman awaits. Water-worn limestone is smooth to the touch. Having formed when the sea level was lower, green-yellow stalactites and stalagmites surround you like teeth. The ferryman steers from the back, using the oar to push and guide between cave walls. The water is cold, clear, and well over your head. Underground cave systems snake beneath the Mani peninsula. They say that, of the projected 33,000 square meters of cave, only 5000 have been explored.

It is easy to see why the Caves of Diros stand out as the muse for the underworld.


Creating Erebus

Born of Chaos, the god Erebus was considered a primordial deity of darkness. Erebus is a rarely mentioned god whose name comes from a word “deep darkness, shadow.” In more recent Greek literature, Erebus is a synonym for a region of the underworld where the deceased travel upon death.

The Titanomachy was a ten-year series of battles fought in Thessaly, where the Olympians, led by Zeus, emerged victorious. After defeating the titan gods, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon drew lots and divided their world. Zeus gained control of the sky and air, Poseidon the sea and waters, and Hades the underworld.

What might this have looked like in history? What realms might these brothers have divided?

The Rape of Persephone series assigns the name of Erebus (ancient Greek spelling) to the region belonging to Hades.

The series depicts the territories of Olympos, Erebus, and the Cyclades, split between brothers who once shared a common cause and now find themselves increasingly at odds.

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