Photo courtesy of Camil Seisanu
The Elysian Fields, or Elysium, were originally the home and sanctuary of the Gods. There they were able to share eternity, both heroes and mortals to whom the Gods were related. In time, although some feel there is no time in the afterlife, the entry criteria was extended to include those selected by the Gods for the righteous life or heroic deeds.
Nestled cozily on the banks of the Oceanus River, the Elysian Fields are understood to be at the end of the Earth. However, there was speculation that it was on the Fortune Islands or the Islands of the Blessed, located in the western ocean.
To reach the land of peacefulness and beauty, one had to cross the River Styx. This journey involved being ferried across by Charon, the Boatman, and then facing judgment in Underworld; the final decision on the specific part of Underworld in which the soul was to reside for eternity would be made by the judges and gods.
Interestingly, there is little description of the physical beauty of the Elysian Fields other than the presence of pale liliaceous asphodel and poplars. However, there is much greater interest shown in the potential to share ideas and conversations with the other heroic and brilliant residents. This may be a telling statement on the aspects of life that was valued most highly by the Greeks and Romans.
The ancient Greek conception of the afterlife and the ceremonies associated with burial were already well established by the sixth century B.C. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the Underworld, deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the “shades” of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld (Odyssey, 11.489–91).
The Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis(laying out of the body (54.11.5)), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed (75.2.11) and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. Lamentation of the dead is featured in early Greek art at least as early as the Geometric period, when vases were decorated with scenes portraying the deceased surrounded by mourners. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and libations.
The most lavish funerary monuments were erected in the sixth century B.C. by aristocratic families of Attica in private burial grounds along the roadside on the family estate or near Athens. Relief sculpture, statues (32.11.1), and tall stelai crowned by capitals (11.185a-c,f,g), and finials marked many of these graves. Each funerary monument had an inscribed base with an epitaph, often in verse that memorialized the dead. A relief depicting a generalized image of the deceased sometimes evoked aspects of the person’s life, with the addition of a servant, possessions, dog, etc. On early reliefs, it is easy to identify the dead person; however, during the fourth century B.C., more and more family members were added to the scenes and often many names were inscribed (11.100.2), making it difficult to distinguish the deceased from the mourners. Like all ancient marble sculpture, funerary statues and grave stelai were brightlypainted, and extensive remains of red, black, blue, and green pigment can still be seen (04.17.1).
Many of the finest Attic grave monuments stood in a cemetery located in the outer Kerameikos, an area on the northwest edge of Athens just outside the gates of the ancient city wall. The cemetery was in use for centuries—monumental Geometric kraters marked grave mounds of the eighth century B.C. (14.130.14), and excavations have uncovered a clear layout of tombs from the Classical period, as well. At the end of the fifth century B.C., Athenian families began to bury their dead in simple stone sarcophagi placed in the ground within grave precincts arranged in man-made terraces buttressed by a high retaining wall that faced the cemetery road. Marble monuments belonging to various members of a family were placed along the edge of the terrace rather than over the graves themselves.
THE ELYSIAN FIELDS was the final resting place for the souls of heroes and virtuous men. The ancients often distinguished between two such realms–the islands of the Blessed and the Lethean fields of Haides.
The first of these, also known as the White Island or the Islands of the Blessed, was an afterlife realm reserved for the heroes of myth. It was an island paradise located in the far western streams of the river Okeanos, and ruled over by the Titan-King Kronos or Rhadamanthys, a son of Zeus.
The second Elysium was a netherworld realm, located in the depths of Haides beyond the river Lethe. Its fields were promised to initiates of the Mysteries who had lived a virtuous life. The gods of the Mysteries associated with the passage of initiates to Elysium after death include Persephone,Iakkhos (the Eleusinian Hermes or Dionysos),Triptolemos, Hekate, Zagreus (the Orphic Dionysos), Melinoe (the Orphic Hekate) andMakaria.
When the concept of reincarnation gained currency the two Elysian realms were sometimes tiered–a soul which had thrice won passage to netherworld Elysium, would, with the fourth, be transferred permanently to the Islands of the Blessed to reside with the heroes.
It should be noted that Elysium was an evolving concept. Homer knows of no such realm, and consigns all of his heroes to the common house of Haides, while Hesiod and many other poets speak only of a paradisal realm reserved for heroes. Roman writers (such as Virgil) combine the two Elysia–the realm of the virtuous dead and the realm of heroes become one and the same.
No matter our faith or beliefs, we as human beings, can relate with our ancestors when it comes to taking care of our beloved dead.
Elysian Fields echo the Field of Reeds of the Egyptians as well, perhaps because their cultures seemed to be co-created with many similarities in practice as well as worship.
The rituals and myths surrounding death and dying do so much for our psyches and hearts, allowing them to be dealt with compassionately and with warmth and honour. The Elysian Fields are one such place where we may wish to venture in both meditation and perhaps, in our own time, at the end of our lives with our last breath on the wind.
- Department of Greek and Roman Art. “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dbag/hd_dbag.htm (October 2003)
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