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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
    Hume  August 31, 2017

    In Jerusalem, they took my tour in a cave and said this is where Judas betrayed Christ. It was called the ‘Grotto’. But that’s not in the Bible, I thought it was Gethsemane?!

  2. Avatar
    mmns  September 1, 2017

    I wonder if the gospel of Luke were infleunced by Paul’s idea of glorified but different physical bodies the already departed and alive faithfus will acquire soon after the reunion with Jesus on the clouds during “parousia” to join him in the ultimate cosmic family? What do you think professor Ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      Luke seems to go a step farther in insisting that it really is exactly the same body that gets interred, with wounds and digestive organs and the works.

  3. Avatar
    mmns  September 1, 2017

    What is the difference between rapture and parousia Are both synonyms or distinctly different concepts and events according to the theological viewpoint of genuine and/or deutero-Pauline literature professor Ehrman?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      Parousia refers to the “second coming” of Christ, usually referring to the future judgment at Jesus’ return. “Rapture” is a particular fundamentalist doctrine of Christ coming back to take his followers out of the world prior to a period of tribulation on earth. I.e., “rapture” is a fundamentalist interpretation of what hte parousia will entail.

      • Avatar
        mmns  September 1, 2017

        Thanks, professor. That answer elucidates the confusion.

  4. Avatar
    Jana  September 3, 2017

    Just taking a moment to check in and resume reading an exciting theme Dr. Ehrman (Hurricane Harvey passed over the Yucatan in route to Texas .. we are water logged and no disaster. Prayers remain with Houston)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      I’m glad you’re safe. But yes, horrible things in Houston. (And Yemen, and Myanmar, and … and what a world we live in…)

  5. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 4, 2017

    Doesn’t the fact that the ‘ghosts’ crave blood run counter to the notion that they are strictly spiritual/non-physical?

    Of course, he wasn’t the first story-teller to struggle with internal consistency when making things up.

  6. Avatar
    dking  May 9, 2019

    I think this new book launching in 2020 will be your best seller. You mentioned several times about your worry of how many would be interested in the afterlife concept. I think you’ll be surprised. Lots of mainstream Christians will be challenging your book because your points will make sense. (I’m a full preterist and have been catching your eschatology hints regarding covenant language and ‘age’ concepts being converted into afterlife concepts.

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