Tartarus, also seen written as Tartaros, was not just believed (in Greek mythology) to have been a place of ultimate punishment, but also as one of the first Gods from which everything in the universe descended from. In ancient orphic sources Tartaros is also the unbounded first-existing “thing” from which the Light and the Cosmos is born.
Before the time of the elder Titan gods and the Olympian gods, there were five primordial gods that emerged from the void of creation. First Chaos (the Goddess of Emptiness) transpired into the universe. From her arose Tartarus (Primeval God of Hell) and his siblings Gaea (mother Earth), Eros (God of love, desire and fertility), and Erebus (God of Primordial Darkness). Little is known of the deity state of Tartarus, but it is said that he was a dour and depressing being. With time he sank into oblivion, giving his name to the darkest and most cruel place of punishment.
The location of Tartarus is described as being the lowest region within Earth, lying far beneath the disk of the world. It was a dank and wretched pit engulfed in murky gloom. In The Iliad, Zeus claims that Tartarus is “as far beneath Hades as heaven is high above the Earth.” Tartarus is a place so far from the sun and so deep in the earth that it is hemmed in by three layers of night, which surrounds a bronze wall in which Tartarus is encompassed. The Greek poet Hesiod claims that a bronze anvil falling from the heavens would fall nine days before it reached the Earth. The anvil would then take nine more days to fall from Earth to Tartarus.
According to the Greeks, there were three places in which the soul could rest for eternity. There was the Elysian Fields, the resting place for the blessed, heroic and virtuous. Then there was Hades, a place for the souls of mortal sinners. And finally there was Tartarus. Tartarus was known as being the prison for defeated gods. It was also a place where the punishment fit the crime.
The Titans, also known as the elder gods, were the first to rule the Earth. Kronos was the ruler of all the gods. Among him were Gaea (mother and wife of Kronos, their offspring were the first of the Olympians), Uranus (father of Kronos), Rhea (mother of Zeus, goddess of the Earth, mountains and forests), Oceanus (husband of Tethys and produced the rivers and the three thousand ocean nymphs), Tethys, Hyperion (Titan of Light, father of the sun, moon, and the dawn), Mnemosyne (Titan of memory and mother of the Muses), Themis (Titan of justice and order, the mother of the Fates and the Seasons), Iapetus (father of Prometheus, Epimetheus and Atlas), Coeus (Titan of Intelligence, father of Leto), Crius, Phoebe (Titan of the moon, mother of Leto), Thea, Prometheus (Wisest Titan, creator of man, name means “Forethought,” The only Titan not sent to Tartarus), Epimetheus (Dumbest of Titans, name means “Afterthought,” accepted Pandora from Zeus, which brought ills and sorrows into the world), Atlas (Lead the Titans into battle), and Metis.
In time the Olympians became power-hungry and challenged the Titans in a battle to rule the universe. Zeus, who led the Olympians, defeated his father Kronos and sent the Titans away to Tartarus where they were imprisoned in darkness for eternity.
Among the Titans in Tartarus were Otus & Ephialtes, Ixion and the Lapithes, Sisyphus, Tantalus, the Cyclopes, and the Hecatonchires. Otus and Ephialtes were two giants who warred with the Titans against the Olympians. They tried to reach heaven to overthrow the Olympians by piling Mount Ossa on Mount Olympus and Mount Pelion on Mount Ossa.
Ixion was King of the Lapithes and is also called the “first human to spill the blood of a relative”. He murdered his father-in-law to avoid paying a price for his bride. When no one on Earth would purify him, Zeus took Ixion to Olympus and purified him. While there Ixion tried to seduce Zeus’s wife Hera, but Zeus created a phantom of her and by it Ixion became the father of the Centaurs. As punishment for his sinful act, Ixion was chained eternally to a revolving, fiery wheel in Tartarus. The Lapithes were a fierce people of Thessaly, known for the battle with the centaurs, which resulted in the complete destruction of the Centaurs and the exile of the Lapithes to Tartarus.
Sisyphus was renowned for his cunning and was said to have even outwitted Death. For his disrespect to Zeus, he was condemned to push a heavy rock to the top of a steep hill in Tartarus for eternity, where it would always roll down only for him to push back up.
Tantalus was the King of Sipylos, the son of Zeus and father of Pelops and Niobe. He was admitted to the society of the gods, but his repulsive behavior provoked their anger, and Zeus damned him to suffer eternally in Tartarus. One legend says that he had divulged divine secrets and stolen the gods’ sacred food. Another tells that he had murdered his son Pelops and served his body to the gods to test their intuition. As punishment he was immersed up to his neck in cool water, which disappeared whenever he tried to satisfy his thirst, and the fresh fruits, which hung above him leapt up when he attempted to take a bite.
The Cyclopes were sons of Uranus and Gaea, and they were Arges, Brontes, and Steropes. They were giant beings with a single, round eye in the middle of their foreheads. They were so strong they could move mountains with their bare hands. In the battle between the Titans and the Olympians, the Cyclopes were overpowered by the Titan giants and were locked away in Tartarus. Years later, Zeus had found them one day visiting and smuggled in five jars of nectar, which refreshed them. Zeus then set them up with a prison workshop, including forge. Here they put together a helmet of invisibility for Hades, a missile trident for Poseidon and a stock of thunderbolts.
Lastly, there were the Hecatonchires. They were the sons of Gaea and Uranus, and their names are Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges. They were stronger, more overbearing and fierce than the mighty Cyclopes. They had one hundred arms and fifty heads, a truly awesome yet horrifying sight. Their father Uranus was so disgusted, he cast them into Tartarus.
Though it is the lowest, darkest and most evil place in Greek mythology, I found Tartarus to be very interesting and mysterious to study about. In today’s society, some believe that there are only two places in which your soul can travel to, Heaven or Hell. But in Greek mythology, your soul can be sent to one of three. To them, the afterlife was just as important as their mortal life on Earth.