Who knows then whether Life be not Death, and what we here call Death be called Life there below?

In ancient Greece the myth and cult of death is centred on the different beliefs concerning the inherent nature and fate of the psyche. Although "psyche" is often translated as "soul," that is too simplistic to be entirely correct. The psyche was the life force that combined with the body made a person human. One could see evidence of the psyche in the phenomena of dreaming, ecstatic states and fainting, when it left the body, usually temporarily. The psyche was often thought to occupy the midriff. Whenever it became visible, it took the form of a snake. The snake appears throughout Greek mythology, as a soul, a chthonic entity, an ancestor or a house spirit.

Almost every custom associated with death and burial that was practiced by the average Greek shows a belief in the continuance of the soul after death.

Even, in Homeric thought, the psyche was not a person’s spirit or personality at all, but rather a being without feeling. Homeric poetry, which was intended for the higher classes, tended to be more cynical than the customs and beliefs of the peasants. In Homer, the psyche becomes a shade after death, a mere after-image of the person it once occupied. It cannot communicate with the living, nor is it immortal. There is only one exception, in the Iliad, where sacrifices and feasting are performed at the funeral of Patroklos, showing a glimpse of the belief in the soul’s continuance after death.

In Homeric thought, the average shade, after leaving the body through the mouth or wound, descended into Hades, which was beneath the earth. It passed Kerberos, the three-headed guard dog, which let souls in but did not let them back out. It then approached Charon, the ferryman of the dead. After paying Charon’s fee, the shade rode his boat across the River Styx to Erebos, or Tartaros , a dark, dismal land. It drank from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, thereby erasing its memory and what was left of its humanity. In later years, the mythology expanded to include judges of souls: Minos, Aiakos, and Rhadamanthys, but judgment was not an original concept.

There was, however, hope for immortality. Initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries were promised a wonderful afterlife, one in which they retained the memory of who they were, and lived in the Elysian Plain forever. The Elysian Plain, or the Isles of the Blessed, was located at the ends of the earth, not below it (according to most sources), and it was a paradise where the skies were always clear and every day was joyous. Lamellae found in an ash urn give instructions to the dead that may be intended for initiates:

You will find to the left of the House of Hades a spring, and by its side a white cypress standing. Do not approach near this spring. You will find another, with cold water flowing from the Lake of Memory, and sentinels before it. Say, ‘I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven, but my race is of Heaven. You know this already. But I am parched and perishing of thirst. Quick, give me the cold water flowing from the Lake of Memory.’ Then they will freely let you drink from the holy spring, and, after, you will have lordship with the other heroes.

There were other Mystery cults in ancient Greece, and it is probable that initiates of these as well were given eternal life after death. Lamellae that seem intended to be read to a brand-new initiate of the Dionysian Mysteries include the line: ‘And below the earth there await you the same rites as for the other blessed ones.’

Reincarnation, a common philosophy in other cultures, does not seem to have been a popular belief among the Greeks, but in later times it became part of the doctrines of the Orphics and the Pythagoreans.

The actual process of burial changed little through the ages. The Mycenaeans, the culture that lived in Greece before the Hellenic people, buried the dead with their possessions, often reusing older graves. Sometimes an altar was constructed over the grave with a funnel that went down to the person within, so that libations could be poured directly to the dead. There is some evidence that the Mycenaeans may have practiced embalmment.

Although the cultures that preceded the Greeks practiced inhumation exclusively, the Greeks eventually developed the custom of cremation (which may have been brought from the Near East), and the two methods were used alternately over time. Some thought that burning the body was necessary for the psyche to leave (or at least, to leave immediately), so cremation was performed for the sake of the dead man’s soul, and so that his ghost would not plague the surviving relatives. The ashes were then placed in an amphora and buried in the same fashion as a body.

In the Bronze Age, adults were cremated and children were inhumed, both in chamber tombs or pit graves. Offerings to the dead included oil flasks, cups, bowls and vases, jewellery, and sometimes weapons. Food and drink were also left, some of it burnt.

In the Geometric Period, the manner of burial varied. Inhumed bodies were buried in a shroud, without a coffin, and the ashes of those cremated were buried in amphorae of different shapes for men and women. Grave markers were made of wood, stone or earth or decorated vases, and were placed over the head or the urn. Animals, or parts thereof, were offered to the dead.

During the Archaic Period, cremation became more popular, and began to be executed in the grave itself (they were previously performed at another location, and the ashes brought to the grave). Burials in the city may have been banned at this time. Tombs were built above graves, and gravestones became more elaborate. Inscriptions on the stelai told the name of the deceased, his family and who erected the monument.

In the Classical Period, graves lined the roads and the course of the city walls. Offerings were placed in special ditches within the grave. Lekythoi, or oil jars, were given, with scenes of burial or death, including various chthonic spirits. Stelai became more ornate with carvings of animals and mythological creatures, especially sirens. Sparta is the only exception to this; there burials were allowed in the city so that the people would not fear death, and bodies were wrapped simply and left no offerings. The Classical Period is when most of our information on burial customs is found.

By the Hellenistic Period, inhumation had become more common than cremation again. It is in this period that the coin, ovolos, offering to Charon is first seen.

It was very important to the Greeks to be buried in their homeland by their close family. When a person died away from home, their soul had to be called back somehow to an empty grave called a cenotaph, where a stone represented the person. Relatives tended cenotaphs in the same manner as real graves. The rituals accompanying death were often expensive, and over time laws were enacted that limited the cost of funerals. Although women were a crucial element of the rituals, only women who were closely related to the deceased or over the age of sixty were allowed to participate.

The burial rites began on the day after death. The eyes and mouth of the dead person were closed, the body was washed and anointed, with a laurel branch used to sprinkle sanctified water. A coin for Charon was fixed between the teeth (though later this was substituted with a fake coin called “ghost money” which was left in the mouth, hand or loose in the grave). The body was then wrapped in a linen shroud and crowned with garlands, and sometimes it was laid on vine branches. Oregano was put on the body to ward off evil spirits. Finally, the body was laid on a bier, with its feet facing the door, in the house for a whole day; this was called prothesis. Women lamented, and men came to pay their respects.

On the third day after death, before sunrise, the corpse was brought out in a procession to the cemetery; this was called ekphora. The women displayed violent exhibitions of grief to please the dead spirit and sang a funeral dirge; but in some places laws limited the noise during the procession. Vase paintings show female mourners in a particular ritual position, with their hands placed on their heads. Sometimes the mourners made themselves physically unclean as an expression of their grief.

At the cemetery, the body was lowered into the grave, and libations were made and offerings left. Cups were common as offerings, perhaps because the dead were often referred to as thirsty. Sacrifices during the funeral included wine, oil, honey, and certain animals. When the dirt was put over the body, seeds were scattered upon it, to return that patch of land to the use of the living. A gravestone of some sort was erected on the burial mound, sometimes a phallus or a herm (a primitive idol of Hermes, the guide of souls). In older times, trees were planted around the grave. The graves, and even entire cemeteries, were often oriented to the West, where the land of the dead was said to lie.

The family then returned to the home of the deceased, which was marked by a particular kind of vessel, both as a warning to others that the house was unclean, and for use as a receptacle for pure water (often from the sea). Water and fire from the house were polluted, and had to be brought in from outside. The family purified themselves and put on garlands. Then they sat down to a funeral feast, called a perideipnon. At this feast, which in older times was held at the graveside, the dead man was said to be present, and the diners would speak only of praise for him. This was the last consecutive day of funeral rites for most people; the funerals of very important men sometimes ended in athletic contests.

On the third day after the funeral, food offerings were left at the grave, and again on the ninth day, which was commonly the end of the mourning period.

However, worship of the dead and especially one’s ancestors did not end at funerals; it was a lifelong duty, especially for a dead man’s oldest son. Centered around the grave spot, the commemoration of a particular deceased family member took place on the dead man or woman’s birthday, as well as the anniversary of his or her death. The latter was a very important occasion, which included a visit to the tomb and the offering of flowers and ribbons.

The thirtieth of each month marked a general feast of the dead, and there were also large festivals in Athens that were dedicated to the dead and ancestors. The Genesia, on the fifth day of Boedromion, was a day for people to gather together, each paying tribute to their own ancestors. And the Anthesteria, which took place on the three days before the full moon in the month of Anthesterion, was a festival of the dead associated with the chthonic aspect of the god Dionysus.

Ancestors were thought to be able to help give fertility of all kinds, and were often sacrificed to and prayed to for good crops and fertile wombs. However, the dead were also feared, and people would pass by graves silently, so as to avoid attracting the attention of the soul within. This custom, as well as the prevalence of rites performed at the graves themselves, seems to show that they believed at least some aspect of the psyche remained in the gravesite.

The final aspect of the cult of the dead was the worship of chthonic deities and spirits. Hades is the god of the dead, the lord of the underworld. Persephone is his kidnapped mistress, who rules with him for part of the year. Thanatos is death personified, and is often portrayed with his brother Hypnos, who is sleep. Ge, or Gaia, the earth, sometimes functions as a chthonic goddess. Hermes Psychopompos is the guide of souls to the underworld.

Offerings to these deities, and other spirits of the dead, included pomegranates, cooked vegetables and seeds, pigs, rams, and cocks, though only female or castrated animals were sacrificed. Food that fell to the ground was also left for them. Sometimes sacrifices were buried or thrown in pits or even graves, to be closer to the underworld. And offerings were sometimes “killed” or ruined before being given, because it was thought that everything was reversed in the underworld, and therefore a thing must be broken for it to be whole there.

And perhaps that is why there are so many captivating stories about mortals descending into Hades while still alive and just barely making it back to the upper world with some treasure. It is against the nature of things to go down to the other side a whole and living being. First our mortality must break, and then we may become whole again below the earth.