I was having a conversation with Joonas where we were pondering a three-headed Cerberus with three pairs of sunglasses. I joked that the sunglasses would protect him from the UV rays in Hades, which are stronger than the UV rays up here on earth. But Joonas countered that we don't know how fiery Hades is, since it's not the same hell as described in the Christian tradition.

That got us thinking. What's the most thorough description of Hades from Greek or Latin sources? (Preferably from the Classical Era or before.) Does it include a fiery inferno the way Christian traditions describe Hell? Or is this inaccurate?

  • 3
    The most complete instance I can think of is in the Aeneid, though that's quite heavily influenced by Greek sources (especially the Odyssey).
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 19:43
  • Is the earliest fiery hell in Plato's 'Phaedo,' lake of fire (explicitly identified with Tartarus)? Also Pre- Christian is Daniel 7:11, (?200 BCE) 'Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.' [echoed in Revelation 20:14 (?140CE)Death and Hades thrown into the lake of fire.]
    – Hugh
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 2:41

4 Answers 4


Theseus's description in Seneca the younger's Hercules furens (lines 662ff.) (English translation, Latin text) is quite detailed in terms of geography/topography, architecture, atmosphere, vegetation, and the various figures one would encounter there. There's no inferno.


Book VI of the Aeneid is over 900 lines of dactylic hexameter describing a catabasis to the Underworld. (Out of those 900-some, about 600 lines actually describe the Underworld; the remaining 300 are spent on preparations and travel to get there.) Many English translations are available, but this one stays relatively close to the Latin.

Starting at line 548 is a description of Tartarus, where the wicked are punished for eternity. Mainly it's described as an enormous chasm, twice as deep as the distance between heaven and earth, and in the depths of that chasm the various punishments take place (ranging from Tityus, chained down while a vulture devours his constantly-regenerating liver, to Theseus, stuck to a bench until Hercules eventually frees him). There is, however, some fire:

Respicit Aeneas subito et sub rupe sinistra
moenia lata videt triplici circumdata muro,
quae rapidus flammis ambit torrentibus amnis,
Tartareus Phlegethon, torquetque sonantia saxa.

(Translation mine:)

Suddenly Aeneas looks back, and beneath the cliff to the left he sees fortifications surrounded by triple walls, around which a deep and swift river of roaring fire flows and flings up echoing boulders: the Tartarean Phlegethon.

This description in general is quite heavily inspired by Book XI of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus describes his own necromantic rituals and experience in the Underworld. But the Odyssey has no mention of any sort of fire: Homer's Underworld is a dark, empty, lifeless place.

"Phlegethōn" is a transcription of the poetic Greek word φλεγέθων, "blazing", which is a pretty good indication that this detail came from a Greek source. However, I don't know what this source might have been: Homer mentions in passing a river named Pyriphlegethōn "blazing with fire", but it's never described and Odysseus never encounters it.

  • 1
    The Greek source must be Phaedo. There is a fiery river. It is used for destroying the deliberately wicked. It is used to punish the impetuously wicked until their victims haul them out. Phaedo 113.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 3:04
  • 1
    @Hugh That would make a good answer on its own!
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 3:10
  • 2
    @Hugh (If you're interested in posting another answer, by all means feel free to take that, as you deserve the credit. Otherwise, I'll look at the Phaedo tomorrow!)
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 4:57

As Hugh pointed out in comments on my other answer, Plato goes into significant detail on the River Pyriphlegethon, in his Phaedo dialogue (specifically section 113).

τρίτος δὲ ποταμὸς τούτων κατὰ μέσον ἐκβάλλει, καὶ ἐγγὺς τῆς ἐκβολῆς ἐκπίπτει εἰς τόπον μέγαν πυρὶ πολλῷ καόμενον, καὶ λίμνην ποιεῖ μείζω τῆς παρ᾽ ἡμῖν θαλάττης, ζέουσαν ὕδατος καὶ πηλοῦ:

ἐντεῦθεν δὲ χωρεῖ κύκλῳ θολερὸς καὶ πηλώδης, περιελιττόμενος δὲ τῇ γῇ ἄλλοσέ τε ἀφικνεῖται καὶ παρ᾽ ἔσχατα τῆς Ἀχερουσιάδος λίμνης, οὐ συμμειγνύμενος τῷ ὕδατι: περιελιχθεὶς δὲ πολλάκις ὑπὸ γῆς ἐμβάλλει κατωτέρω τοῦ Ταρτάρου:

οὗτος δ᾽ ἐστὶν ὃν ἐπονομάζουσιν Πυριφλεγέθοντα, οὗ καὶ οἱ ῥύακες ἀποσπάσματα ἀναφυσῶσιν ὅπῃ ἂν τύχωσι τῆς γῆς.

(Trans. mine)

The third river flows out from between [the other rivers mentioned], and near its origin, it falls off into a large place burning with quite a lot fire, and it makes a pool larger than our own [Mediterranean] sea, boiling with water and mud.

From there it flows in a circle, turbulent and muddy, and at one point on its winding course it actually comes right up to the edge of the Acherusian lake, though the waters don't mix. After twisting around many times under the earth, it flows into a lower part of Tartarus.

This is the river called Pyriphlegethōn ["blazing with fire"], and the volcanoes that appear across the world are offshoots of it.

Given that Homer mentioned the name Pyriphlegethōn, I doubt Plato was the first to make it a literal river of lava. But he certainly goes into more detail than Homer does.

Fortunately for Cerberus's eyesight, however, Plato also mentions that the Pyriphlegethon is opposite the Styx, on the other side of the Acherusian Lake, and pouring into Tartarus from the other side.


BL Harley 2253 (folio132) is a 13thC. copy of a document from Much Wenlock Abbey, Shropshire, UK. The Legend of Etfridus the Priest was composed around CE 1000, in the Ramsey Abbey style (i.e. polysyllabic, with classical allusions). Unlike the Aeneid this is not written as an eyewitness account; Etfrid describes (in rhymed prose) what would have happened to the King whose dream he interpreted.

v. Rex desierit loqui/ subinsert assecla servus "Rex gratulare tuae visionis et... "

v. The King had no sooner stopped talking than Christ’s humble servant began: ‘Take cheer from your vision... '

'Teterrimi canes/ et immanes/
sunt sulliginosi Plutonis satellites/ vite et salutis tue mortiferi hostes /
quorum tu faucibus ut praemium et devoratio[nem] daberis /
ubi devoratus semper devorandus eris /
ut si usque moriens/ et numquam morte finiens/
perpetuis terroribus /sulphureis fetoribus /
dentium stauribus/ ignium ardoribus/
poenis immanibus / et intolerabilibus /
cum ijmis in tartaris/ medio crucieris/
nisi funditus abnegaveris paganismum /
et ex toto tue corde converteris ad XPum /
dei unius filium// '

'Those terrifying and brutal dogs [pitch-black thegns of Pluto] are mortal enemies of your life and salvation, into whose jaws you will be given as a reward and a morsel, where the devoured will always be ripe for devouring, to be at the point of dying but never achieving death, in unremitting terror, with sulphurous stench, with the rasping of teeth, with brutal and unendurable punishments. With the wicked in the centre of hell you will be tortured, unless you completely turn away from paganism, and are converted with all your heart, to Christ the son of the only God.’

  • 1
    This (text) is the worst kind of proselytizing! That aside, I'm more interested in the pre-Christian traditions of Hades, since texts from the Common Era might be colored by Christian notions of hell. In my question, I should have specified Greek and Latin sources from the Classical Era or before. I just edited my question to reflect this.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 22:22
  • @ktm5124 Yes, deplorable. But it is well crafted; and noteworthy because it contains almost nothing about the landscape: Dante and Milton are much closer to Virgilius: 'vacuas et inania regna.'
    – Hugh
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 2:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.