Before I go any further, I need to re-emphasize this one point from the first half of this sermon: as a rule, mortal souls are bound for Hell. There’s nothing you can do about that, so I hope you’re handling the adjustment in your own way (I recommend getting really drunk and giving all of your money to strippers). However, every rule has exceptions. Most of them are named “Athena”, but this one in particular is actually specific to us lowly mortals:
On the rarest of rare occasions, a mortal soul will manage to catch the eye of the gods in a way that they cannot ignore. This is a double-edged sword: when one god notices you, there’s at least one other god who will want to make your life miserable, simply because they’re petty. Read the tale of Odysseus in The Odyssey, or about how Hera tormented Heracles prior to his deification, and you’ll understand what I mean.
For those souls who have earned the unfettered rage of Olympus, they will be sent to Tartarus. However, the most badass of souls could potentially earn their way into Elysium, which is essentially your pre-existing idea of Heaven.
Both of these destinations are borderline impossible to get into, but of the two, it’s way easier to get yourself sent to Tartarus. You might remember this as the place you thought of when I first told you that you were going to Hell – it’s underground, extremely dark, the frozen river Cocytus and the flaming river Phlegethon run throughout the place, and there’s magma everywhere (which should be expected, since all of this is literally underground).
I’d like to take a moment to compare Tartarus to the version of Hell popularized in Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). In the section titled Inferno, he’s obviously taking inspiration from the Greeks in designing his Hell. For shit’s sake, the man gets into the afterlife by crossing a subterranean river on a ferry navigated by a man named Charon. The river they cross is the Acheron, which you’ll remember is the same river the same ferryman pilots in the Greek myths. The bottommost depths of Hell are in a pit, which is literally how Tartarus appears in the Greek, and in that pit there’s a frozen lake called Cocytus, which is just an altered version of a river that branches off from the Acheron in the original stories
The obvious question here is how “evil” you really need to be in order to get sent here. The honest truth is that Tartarus is a place of punishment for anyone who the gods see as a legitimate threat, or who they just *really* hate. This is going to need some explaining, so let’s delve into some examples: specifically, Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Ixion.
Sisyphus was already in hot water for killing some houseguests of his and generally just being a greedy liar, but his trouble really started when he told the river god Asopus where to find his daughter, who Zeus had kidnapped and was attempting to sleep with. Zeus was furious at being ratted out, and tasked Thanatos with shackling Sisyphus down in Tartarus for having cock-blocked him. However, when Thanatos arrived at Sisyphus’ house, the clever man asked the god to demonstrate how the shackles worked, tricking and trapping him. With the literal embodiment of death chained up in Sisyphus’ basement, nobody could die.
Ares, bloodthirsty psychopath that he is, was the first to notice. He found it incredibly dull to watch battles in which nobody died, and he found the boredom positively infuriating.
It’s worth noting that in addition to his cruelty and prowess in combat, Ares is known to the gods as a coward and is frequently blonde when he shows up in popular culture today.
The god of war freed the captive Thanatos, presumably chewing him out for being so damned gullible, and then gave him Sisyphus to take back to the underworld.
However, Sisyphus simply wasn’t done fucking with the cosmic order. He knew that he’d be found out eventually, so shortly after he outwitted Thanatos, Sisyphus instructed his wife to throw his naked corpse into the middle of the town square if he should happen to die. Even in ancient Greece, this was considered to be “bad taste”, and at first she refused based solely on that. However, he persisted in telling her that this was a “test of love”, and she eventually agreed.
So at this point, Sisyphus had been caught by Ares and returned to Thanatos, who promptly killed him and took his soul to the Underworld. However, being a right crafty little bugger, Sisyphus had also instructed his wife to ignore the coin-under-the-tongue tradition, meaning that he would be unable to pay Charon’s fare to cross the Acheron into Hell.
The dead have no need for titles, but in life Sisyphus had been a king; that he was unable to pay the fare was a curious thing indeed. He was counting on this; when Persephone came over to ask him what was going on, Sisyphus proceeded to whine about the disrespectful way that his wife had treated his body. In an unprecedented show of compassion, Persephone permitted his spirit to return to the realm of the living, temporarily, so that he might chastise his wife for her shameful show of disrespect.
And, of course, he refused to return to the land of the dead after he finished doing so. When they finally realized that the little bastard had managed to escape his fate (again), the gods sent Hermes to drag him back down, where Zeus had him consigned to Tartarus as punishment. Specifically, he was made to push a boulder up a hill… but Zeus had enchanted that boulder to roll back down to the bottom every time he had almost reached the top. Not quite how I’d like to spend my eternity, but it does beat the hell out of being gutted daily by an eagle that eats your liver.
The case of Tantalus is far more straightforward: when he was invited to dine with the gods, he killed, cooked, and served his son Pelops. Then he attempted to steal the food and drink of the gods (known as “ambrosia” and “nectar”, respectively) which is rumored to be the source of the gods’ immortality, and then tried to give it to mortals. Zeus sent him to Tartarus, made to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree, where the fruit above and water below him would pull away when he reached for them, never being able to eat or drink again.
In stark (and welcome) contrast to the kin-slaying cannibalism of Tantalus, a prince named Ixion killed his father-in-law by pushing him onto a bed of burning coals and wood.
Huh, that’s… not really much better.
Understandably, other princes were less than pleased with this move and denied him any sin-cleansing. Zeus took pity on Ixion for some reason and invited him to dinner, which marks the beginning of yet another series of terrible decisions. While dining on Olympus with the gods, Ixion became enamored with Hera and started feeling her up under the table in full view of Zeus. Being a good host, Zeus didn’t kill the man on the spot, but instead found Ixion somewhere to sleep following dinner. He then created a copy of Hera out of clouds, which he sent into Ixion’s room to test him.
Too stupid to realize that he was being set up, Ixion slept with the Hera-clone, after which Zeus flew into a rage and chased his guest off of Olympus before spearing him with a thunderbolt. Ixion was sent to Tartarus and strapped to a spinning winged wheel that was wreathed in flame.
There are other stories, but they all generally follow this theme: as long as you’re not committing unspeakable atrocities or actively antagonizing the gods (the Nazis did both, those fucking over-achievers), then you’re golden. But so far, all we’ve done is discuss the negative side of death. Onward to Elysium!
Elysium is the actual name for the place that the Christians simply called “Heaven”. But here’s the thing about their version of Heaven that I never quite got: you spend your entire life being this pure, uptight little worship machine so that you can… what, spend eternity sitting on clouds surrounded by people who are just as boring as you are? That’s barely an improvement over the whole blue-balls scenario, don’t you think?
Don’t get me wrong, piety and moral fortitude never actually hurt anyone’s chances to get in. You just need to understand the reality of Elysium: the picture we have of a kingdom in the clouds is actually the Aether, the realm of Zeus where the Olympians themselves reside. It is in no way connected to the underworld, and the gods get endless amounts of entertainment out of the confusion we go through when we’re told that we’re going to Heaven only to find ourselves on the island from “Lost”.
Yes, the real Elysium is actually a series of tropical islands. The few details that we’re given is that the inhabitants know no labor or bad weather, that they’re constantly refreshed by a cool western breeze, and that they enjoy all of the same activities that gave them pleasure in life. It should go without saying that these lucky people get to keep their memories, and their bodies are returned to their physical prime.
Here’s why you’re not getting in: originally, Elysium was nothing more than the post-mortem destination for the mortal children of the gods. This sums up about ninety percent or so of our classical heroes, but excludes pretty much everyone else. This restriction was changed when Cronos reconciled with Zeus, who tasked his father with running the place so that Rhadamanthus, the former ruler of the realm, could focus on judging souls full-time.
Now, let’s explore why simple piety isn’t enough with a fictional guy that we’ll call “Chuck”.
Chuck is in the church every day at dawn, reciting his favorite prayers from memory and honoring the gentle nature of his Lord, and would give you the shirt off of his back if he saw you without. He’s a great guy, right?
Sure he is; nobody can argue that. The man’s a damn saint, but I guarantee that if you want to have a party, you’re calling your loudmouth friend who gets a little too drunk, sings along to every song he knows (and most of the ones he doesn’t), ends up breaking things whether he means to or not, gets into fights, associates with sketchy people, and
has a major drinking problem. If you want to have a good time, you look for a goddamn hedonist… not a priest. Chuck is a nice guy and all, but he’s not even getting an invitation because you just KNOW that guy’s going to kill the vibe with his disapproval. probably
So, unfortunately for the Chucks of the world, just being nice isn’t enough. The only way in is to have one or more gods vouch for you.
Yes: just like in life, this is all about networking.
The good news is that there are a bunch of gods, so there isn’t just one path there. Heracles completed twelve trials that were created specifically to be impossible. Socrates may have been the most influential thinker in all of Western history. Depraved though he was, I’m pretty sure Caligula made it in simply for being hilarious. It’s really difficult to get yourself noticed over the other seven billion or so voices crying out for the gods’ attention, but it’s technically not impossible to do.
Of course, I need to interrupt here to offer a word of warning: you really don’t want the gods to know who you are. Seriously, you’re much better off dying in obscurity. Consider this: gaining the favor of one god means that *at least* one other god will hate you just on principle, usually for things that you have no control over.
Has Aphrodite taken a shine to you? Well, Hermes just made a joke about the “Judgment of Paris”. You had nothing to do with that, but instead of inciting an Olympus-wide war, Hera and Athena are going to vent their reignited frustrations by making your life miserable.
Did Aphrodite bless you with a hot girlfriend? Well, Hera’s going to make sure that you two argue about everything. Suddenly find yourself in the middle of a bar fight? It would be a real shame if you forgot to keep your hands up, wouldn’t it? Athena actively sabotaged your defense. Good luck finding all of your teeth! Oh, and to add insult to injury, it looks like somebody broke into your car. Nothing is missing, but your glove compartment is just, like, *packed* with poop (courtesy of Aphrodite’s jealous husband, Hephaestus, who just assumed she was sleeping with you).
In case you think that having a more powerful patron would make you immune to this kind of dickery, consider that if the god at your back is powerful, the other gods won’t be able to attack them directly. So, it becomes infinitely more likely that your life will get ruined. Take the case of Heracles, who was favored by Zeus before he was even conceived. Hera set herself against the child immediately after his birth, sending two serpents to his crib to kill him while he slept. Fortunately, Heracles grabbed both snakes in his tiny fists and wrung their necks with his prodigious strength. This is insanely impressive even when you consider that an infant couldn’t possibly have had any idea what was going on.
After presumably tormenting the poor boy throughout his childhood, Hera set upon him again after he had started a family of his own: she sent Lyssa, the Fury of madness, to warp his mind. He mistook his own children for his enemies, killing both of them and his wife. So began the Twelve Labors of Heracles, which bear little resemblance to the Disney film allegedly based on them. We’ll go into detail on all of this in a later sermon.
Now here’s the final point: some of you are sitting there, laughing, because you think that heavens and hells, by whichever name you choose to refer to them, are total hogswash. You know that reincarnation is the natural order of things.
That is a really dumb belief. Like, honestly… how gullible are you?
You don’t just get a free second chance at life, dude! Much less a third and a fourth! What are you freaking thinking? Give a new soul a turn, will you? Besides, Hades is just *insanely* greedy. Once he has a soul, he’s simply not going to give it back – he already feels like he was shafted when he drew the underworld as his domain, so he’s not in a rush to make himself feel even less important. No, you just don’t *get* a second chance at living.
You have to *earn* that.
How does that happen? Simple: Elysium really has two parts. Think of it like a night club: you have the bar and the dance floor, but then there’s the damn VIP room (known in the original stories as the “Isle of the Blessed”). Sure, you’re in the club, but you’re still not hanging out directly with the celebrities and their rich kid friends. You’ll see them, sure, and maybe even talk to them. But, just sit down to chill? Dine with them? Bang Aphrodite while Hephaestus drinks away the memory of being her husband? Even Achilles didn’t get that honor handed to him, and Zeus almost got rid of Hera to marry his mother!
Now, don’t tell anyone I told you… but you don’t just have to hope you can see past the curtain separating you from that VIP lounge. There is a way for us normal schmucks to get in there.
You’ve made it into Elysium, so you’ve already done the impossible. If living a luxurious afterlife on the beautiful island paradises of normal Elysium with the most awesome people who ever lived isn’t enough for you, you get this privilege: you can choose to be reincarnated.
You’re awesome, right? And you know you deserve to get in to hang out in the Isle of the Blessed with Zeus and Cronos and all of the other gods who occasionally hang out there. And since you were able to earn your way in once, you’ve already proven that you’re something special. They’re willing to take a chance on you, and if you can pull this off, they’ll happily give you unrestricted access to the full potential of awesomeness that only they usually get to enjoy.
So you get reincarnated. How does this help you get in? Simple: they wipe the slate clean. You need to earn your way back into Elysium.
In a row.
And in case you haven’t guessed, there’s a reason most people don’t try this.
They don’t tell you what happens if you fail. Do they judge you based on that failure and refuse to let you back into regular Elysium, or does your past life’s awesomeness still count? And if that’s the case, do you get to try again? Nobody seems to know. I’m trying to find out, but Dionysus isn’t saying.
But I think, for now, we have to assume that if you fail, there are no second chances.
So, on the off chance that we run into each other up there… you better be sure.
Keep in mind, all of this is only an option if you reach legendary hero status in the first place. So don’t live your life ordinarily.
Zeus wants you to be a badass. Don’t disappoint him.