In Greek mythology, Elysium (Greek: Ηλύσια πεδία) was a section of the Underworld (the spelling Elysium is a Latinization of the Greek word Elysion). Elysium is an obscure and mysterious name that evolved from a designation of a place or person struck by lightning, enelysion, enelysios. Alternately, scholars have also suggested that Greek Elysion may instead derive from the Egyptian term ialu (older iaru), meaning "reeds," with specific reference to the "Reed fields" (Egyptian: sekhet iaru / ialu), a paradisiacal land of plenty where the dead hoped to spend eternity.
The Elysian fields, or sometimes Elysian plains, were the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. Two Homeric passages in particular established for Greeks the nature of the Afterlife: the dreamed apparition of the dead Patroclus in the Iliad and the more daring boundary-breaking visit in Book 11 of the Odyssey. Greek traditions concerning funerary ritual were reticent, but the Homeric examples encouraged other heroic visits, in the myth cycles centered around Theseus and Heracles.
The Elysian Fields lay on the western margin of the earth, by the encircling stream of Oceanus, and there the mortal relatives of the king of the gods were transported, without tasting death, to enjoy an immortality of bliss (Odyssey 4.563). Lesser spirits were less fortunate: an eerie passage describes the twittering bat-like ghosts of Penelope's slain suitors, led by Hermes
- "down the dank
- moldering paths and past the Ocean's streams they went
- and past the White Rock and the Sun's Western Gates and past
- the Land of Dreams, and soon they reached the fields of asphodel
- where the dead, the burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home"
(Odyssey 24.5-9, translation by Robert Fagles).
Hesiod refers to the Isles of the Blessed (makarôn nêsoi) in the Western Ocean (Works and Days). Pindar makes it a single island. Walter Burkert notes the connection with the motif of far-off Dilmun: "Thus Achilles is transported to the White Isle and becomes the Ruler of the Black Sea, and Diomedes becomes the divine lord of an Adriatic island."
In Elysium were fields of the pale liliaceous asphodel, and poplars grew. There stood the gates that led to the house of Ais (in Attic dialect "Hades").
In Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas, like Heracles and Odysseus before him, travels to the underworld. Virgil describes an encounter in Elysium between Aeneas and his father Anchises. Virgil's Elysium knows perpetual spring and shady groves, with its own sun and lit by its own stars: solemque suum, sua sidera norunt (Aeneid, 6.541).
- Tartarus (Greek hell)
- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1948.
- Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, 1994.