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The Body and Soul in Hades

When Odysseus goes to the underworld, he meets with a number of people, but most interesting are his encounter with his own mother (who died after he had set sail, years before, with the Greek armies heading to Troy) and the great Greek hero Achilles, the greatest of the mighty warriors in the war.   The encounters are interesting because they show us how the realm of the dead was being imagined.   There is real pathos in both episodes.  In this post I’ll talk about the first.

After Odysseus has arrived in Hades and has made the prescribed sacrifices (see the former post), the “shade” of his mother comes to him beside the pit filled with the blood of the sacrificial animals.   Several immediate points to make.

For one thing, it may seem weird that of all the people who are dead (today, of course, we think of many billions of people!), his mother just happens to come up.  How did she know he was there?  We aren’t told.

We are told, though, that he recognizes her.  But as will be evident in a second, she doesn’t have a body.  She is a “shade” that has no substance, no materiality about her.  If she doesn’t have a body, how does she look like herself?  Again, Homer doesn’t say, but just assumes that bodiless beings in the underworld look like they did on earth (at what age?).

This, of course, is a problem that many people have today as well, without realizing it: they think they’ll recognize …

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Life in Hades
The First Recorded Visit to the Realm of the Dead (in Western literature)



  1. Avatar
    godspell  August 30, 2017

    Over-literalism is always a problem when parsing stories of this kind. I mean, you can see your dead mother in a dream, right? People often do. She has no body–no substance of any kind–you still see her, still recognize her. An extremely vivid dream can seem very real, if strange.

    Because in fact we don’t actually ‘see’ other people in reality. What we see is electronic impulses in our brain, resulting from light passing through our eyes, translated by our optic nerves. You’ve never directly seen anything in your life. Everything you look at, could, conceivably, be an illusion. You might be a brain in a beaker. I might just be a figment of your imagination. Pretty sure I’m not imagining you, because I don’t know how to read Greek or Hebrew. Or do I? 🙂

    People have gone on finding powerful meanings in Homer, while still being very devout monotheists. I’m not aware of any fundamentalist interpretations of Homer in the modern era, but maybe they are out there somewhere. Everything else seems to be.

    What I’m saying is, Odysseus seeing his mom in the spirit world doesn’t strike me as any kind of problem. I mean, mothers are notoriously good at making contact with their sons at inconvenient times in this world. Why should the next one be any different?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      Interesting reflections. But in a dream you can touch and feel the other. So what he experiences is not actually like a dream.

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 4, 2017

        This is assuming we all dream the same way, and that is most decidedly not the case. Yes, in some dreams you can embrace other people–not all.

        There are people who can actually exercise some control over their dreams. Some have nearly perfect recall of them, most of us struggle to retain them. It’s an extremely individual thing.

        I don’t believe Homer, or whoever first wrote that passage, was directly transcribing a dream, but most storytellers are impacted by their dreams to some extent. They try to improve upon them, make them more coherent and meaningful.

        While I believe there was a Homer, he certainly was drawing upon many prior versions of the story to craft his narrative, and it probably went through some tinkering after he was done with it. Is this vision of Hades what most Greeks at that time believed, or did it in fact come to shape what later generations believed, as so many great works of literature have done? The most powerful dreamers can draw us into their dreams.

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  August 30, 2017

    Would your knowledge of Koine Greek allow you to read the Classical Greek of Homer if you decided not to read a translation? And would someone who knew only classical be able to easiy read Koine?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      No, someone trained in Koine would have to do a ton of work to be able to read Homer; but if someone can read Homer, it would be relatively easy to pick up Koine.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 30, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, the first thing that struck me when I first read that passage in the Odyssey was that I had always assumed that ancient Greek heroes were supposed to go to the Elysian Fields (aka Elysium), which was similar to the Norse Valhalla, i.e. an idyllic afterlife for those men who died valiantly in battle. But here in the Odyssey, Homer has Odysseus meeting up with the shade of the hero of heroes himself, Achilles. What gives? Is it that Homer doesn’t think Achilles was a hero worthy enough to go to Elysium? Or was the notion of Elysium non-existent at the time Homer (or should I write “Homer”?) composed the Odyssey? This is something I would like to find out.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      In the earliest period, the Elysian Fields were for the gods; only later do you start getting humans there.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 1, 2017

        Oddly enough, in the Odyssey itself Homer contradicts this notion. In book 4, Menelaus is prophesied to go to Elysian Fields. So it appears it’s not as simple and clear-cut as you might think. From 4, 630 (Fagles trans.):

        “But about your destiny, Menelaus, dear to Zeus, it’s not for you to die and meet your fate in the stallion-land of Argos, no, the deathless ones [i.e. the gods] will sweep you off to the World’s End, the Elysian Fields, where gold-haired Rhadamanthys waits, where life glides on in immortal ease for mortal man; no snow, no winter onslaught, never a downpour there but night and day the Ocean River sends up breezes, singing winds of the West refreshing all mankind. All this because you are Helen’s husband now–the gods count you the son-in-law of Zeus.”

        It appears to me that that passage throws something of a wretch into your working hypothesis. Note, however, that Menelaus is never said to actually die. He’s simply removed to Elysium before his death, where he becomes immortal. Compare that to the Pauline notion of Resurrection and then removal to paradise.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2017

          That’s right, Menelaus is the one exception in Homer. But note: it is not because of his virtue or deeds; it’s because he he is related to Zeus (his father-in-law through Helen)

      • Avatar
        mythosboy  September 1, 2017

        Hesiod, Works and Days, I think. “…And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them…”
        Also, having semi-divine status (father/mother was a god) helps: c.f. Rhadamanthus, And of course, these guys are pretty much divine even back in Hesiod and Homer’s day.

  4. Avatar
    crucker  August 30, 2017

    Do scholars tend to think there were many additions/alterations to Homer’s text when comparing what we physically have to what we think was originally written? Have there been many discoveries that have changed the way we read the text? How would you compare and contrast this to the text of the New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      There are far fewer manuscripts of Homer, but as it turns out, the study of the different forms of the text is what led to the development of textual criticism as a discipline in antiquity, especially in Alexandria Egypt, where they tried to establish the text of Homer. Scholars would mark, for example, passages in the manuscripts that looked like later additions.

  5. Avatar
    kentvw  August 30, 2017

    What a great post, Bart..

    So this verse finally makes sense to me now.

    Acts 2:31New International Version (NIV)

    “31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.”

    “Hell is used in some translations.”

    The Calvinist church I grew up in used the Lutheran version of the Apostles Creed in which Jesus descended into Hell… That never made sense to me. Why would a father God send his son God to a place ruled by Satan? Seemed a bit odd!!

    Thanks for putting another piece of the great puzzle in place.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  September 1, 2017

      I was raised Catholic, and we also learned the Apostles’ Creed, with Jesus descending into Hell. And then saying that – having subsequently ascended into Heaven – he would one day return to “judge the living and the dead.” Which seemed to make no sense at all, since we’d also been taught that the dead already *had* been “judged,” and the souls in Hell would be there eternally!

  6. Avatar
    sashko123  August 30, 2017

    Wow. Interesting look at comparative literature/ mythology. The devil’s in the details. Will the bodies then lack DNA? Eternal cells? How will they make proteins? Eternal chemicals? How will that work? No dS=dQ/T? Heat can produce an equal amount of work? Will we have brains? Brains suggest biochemical processes. Limbic system and reward centers? Wired only for happiness? Why would we eat? Do we have to eat? No emotions -> no metabolism. Or maybe no bodies – just energy. How would we hang together? Electrostatic force suggests material particles, which suggests a universe with physical laws . . . . The details are, let’s say, problematic at best.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 30, 2017

    But isn’t it possible that in *every* era, different people may have had very different beliefs? The “afterlives” decribed by authors may not have coincided with the beliefs held even by the majority of their original readers. With no one able to describe the “afterlife” based on real, firsthand knowledge, it seems to me that people would have felt free to imagine whatever they chose.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      I think it’s not only possible but probable!!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 1, 2017

      The notion of “firsthand knowledge” of the “afterlife” is an oxymoron of the first order.

  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 30, 2017

    I recall reading once that the Greeks disliked the idea of a fleshly body in the afterlife or, at least found the idea abhorrent. Is this correct? I imagine if some Greeks liked the idea of keeping their flesh then Christianity would be very appealing. Do we have any evidence that some Greek converts converted solely because they wanted to keep their flesh?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      Yes, that’s right. You can see it especially in Greek philosophy connected, e.g., with Plato: the flesh is the problem that needs to be escaped.

  9. Avatar
    mythosboy  August 30, 2017

    On the effect of brandishing swords at the dead, perhaps Odyseus was also in need of the comfort of it, more than the utility of the gesture. At least that seems to have become the effect by the time Virgil uses a similar device:
    “…Aeneas grasps his sword, and turns the naked edge against their coming; and did not his wise companion warn him that these were but faint, bodiless lives, flitting under a hollow semblance of form, he would rush upon them and vainly cleave shadows with steel…” (Book 6). But that is merely guesswork on my part: I haven’t re-read the Odyssey in 20+ years.

  10. Avatar
    RJTINGEY  August 30, 2017

    Question: Are the Ras Shamra texts about Ba’al’s battle with Death relevant here? Also, I’ve heard people argue that Canaanite and Egyptian notions of life after death could have been a hidden influence on Hebraic views, even as there were more obvious literary connections between the Ras Shamra texts and the Hebrew Bible. What is your view?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      My view is that the Ba’al narrative was especially connected with the Genesis creation account. It’s hard to know how other Ancient Near Eastern traditions affected the Hebrew concept of Sheol.

  11. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 30, 2017

    Very entertaining! (which is why we still read and make film adaptations of the Odyssey today, I suppose) 🙂
    I can sense that you’re probably not a sci-fi or fantasy fan, Bart?… or is your analysis meant to be rather tongue-in-cheek? Odysseus’ journey to Hades required a certain suspension of belief among Homer’s readers (I think even in the ancient world) and quite obviously shouldn’t be analyzed through a 21st century rationalistic lens. (For example), perhaps Odysseus’ sword took on properties which made it more lethal to denizens of the netherworld when he entered Hades? Perhaps he was looking at his mother with augmented human eyes or eyes that had grown accustomed to the darkness in Hades when he recognized her? However, there is still a big difference, since Odysseus has flesh and bones, so can’t hug his mother’s shade, for example. I am obviously being rather facetious myself, but I think this is the ground we’re standing upon – that of mythology.

    For anyone interested – a further exploration of the tangential, but still related, topic of beliefs about ghosts in the ancient world, I found this link rather interesting: http://www.ancient.eu/ghost/

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      I was once! But my canon consists mainly of classics (Asimov etc and Tolkien etc.)

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  September 1, 2017

        I’m confident that you’re aware that Asimov, a true polymath, published two (one for ‘old’, one for ‘new’) huge tomes, “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible” as well as two volumes interpretive of Shakespeare’s plays, all of ’em. As I recall, TIMING is a major issue for Asimov in his analysis of Hamlet. Lots if not all of the tragedy can be explained by ill-timed actions.

        O, most wicked speed, to post
        With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

        Love that verb: post

  12. Avatar
    Judith  August 30, 2017

    Yesterday’s and today’s posts are terrific but they are all really really good!

  13. Avatar
    CarlWeetabix  August 31, 2017

    This does sound very similar to your colleague(?)’s description of Sheol:


    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      Thanks! James is on the blog, btw!

      • Avatar
        CarlWeetabix  September 4, 2017

        Thanks! Really appreciate you taking the time to respond to your readers!

  14. Robert
    Robert  August 31, 2017

    While in these two passages, Homer and and the author of the gospel of ‘Luke’ use the same terms for ‘flesh’ and ‘bone’, they use different terms (‘psuxe’ or ‘pneuma’) for the aspect that somehow survives the body after death. Do you think Homer and ‘Luke’ had similar intended meaning behind this divergent word usage or are there differing nuances that can be reliably exegeted in these two passages?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      My sense is that the terms are often seen as synonymous, though some authors have clear differentiations in mind. I haven’t done a word study in either HOmer or Luke to see, but it would be easily done by anyone with an hour or two on their hands. I may need to do it at some point. (Luke would take just 20 minutes or so. But I’m on the road just now).

  15. Avatar
    nbraith1975  August 31, 2017

    The Bible teaches that in the “age of the life to come” there will be no pain or sorrow; that we will be united with our loved ones and live forever. But what about the memories of our loved ones who don’t make the cut? Talk about pain and sorrow! I still feel pain and sorrow often for my father, brother and sister that have died. How amplified will that pain and sorrow be if I realize that they didn’t make it to the eternal “promised land?” And what will be the remedy for that pain?

  16. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 31, 2017

    This and the foregoing post make me think of George Romero and the genre of *visual literature* spawned by his *Night of the Living Dead.* I was particularly struck by Homer’s description of the “shambling dead” and their craving for blood. Did anything like zombie literature appear in the ancient world, that you know of?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      This kind of passage is probably the closest thing to it.

  17. Avatar
    Stephen  August 31, 2017

    Perhaps Homer (or whoever) is more concerned with sending a shiver up the spine of his audience than presenting a consistent metaphysic? And the sword seems to function as a sigil or talisman. One consequence of this discussion is you’ve made me want to pull THE ODYSSEY off my shelf and spend some time with it. It has been years!

  18. Avatar
    AngeloNasios  August 31, 2017

    You compared the narratives between Jesus and Odysseus. Have you read The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Dennis R. MacDonald? He argues Mark used Homer to build Jesus’ and casts Jesus as being superior over Greek heros.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      Yes, I do of course know his work, and I’ve never been persuaded by it. But this is clearly a case where there is overlap. (Whether that means literary *dependence* is a veyr different question!)

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 31, 2017

    The term “shade” is an interesting one that I have not heard before.

    I guess most of us humans are irrational and, hence, humans have had a lot of weird ideas and beliefs and still do. We are lucky to have survived as long as we have and to have been as creative and productive as we have been despite our irrationality. .

  20. Avatar
    Hume  August 31, 2017

    I just returned to Canada from touring Jerusalem for four days! You know what I learned?! No one really knows exactly where the mount of Olives, garden of gethsemane, Mary’s assumption, and the Palm Sunday entrance road are! Just an idea. It was all beautiful, but no one is really sure. Even the church of Sepulchre, they are just guessing! Would you agree with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      Yes, the strangest case of this for me was on a tour when we were taken to an “upper room” in Jerusalem and told that Jesus had his last supper in an upper room, and look, you too are now in an upper room! Isn’t that amazing? Ai yai yai. Virtually all these tourist spots are wild guesses with nothing to back them u. (except mount of olives; gethsemane; etc.)

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