Hades Taretarus Styx Charon photo

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Charon, Styx, Hades and Tartarus

Charon from The Last Judgment (1537-1541), Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel,48x44 ft. In Dante’s Divine Comedy Charon beats reluctant sinners into his boat with his oar.



According to Greek mythology, when someone died they were judged by Zeus’ three sons (Rhadamanthus and Minos by Europa and Aeacus by Aegina) as to where they would go. (All three had been kings so renowned for their justice and wisdom that, when they died, Pluto made them judges of the dead.) Evil doers went to Tartarus below Hades; heroes went to the Elysian Fields; the remaining saints and sinners went to Hades.

The land of the dead is separated from that of the living by five rivers: Styx, the river of hate; Acheron, river of woe; Cocytus, river of lamentation; Lethe, river of forgetfulness, and Phlegethon, river of fire. The dead were ferried into Hades by the old boatman Charon (χάρων, from χαρωπός "of keen gaze"), not across the river Styx as is commonly believed, but rather across the river Acheron. There the three-headed, dragon-tailed dog Cerberus (page198) stood watch, allowing all souls to enter but none to leave. Charon only took those who had been properly buried with a coin (an "obol") placed in their mouths upon burial. It was said that if a god cemented an oath by swearing upon the river Styx, and the god then broke that oath, Zeus would force the god to drink from the Styx. The river was reputed to be so foul that the god would lose his or her voice for nine years upon doing so. Some say Thetis dipped her son Achilles into the Styx to make him impregnable to all weapons; but didn’t realize the water couldn’t touch his left heel where she held him; it was there he was later killed by Paris in the Trojan War.

Pope Paul III was Michelangelo's patron for The Last Judgment (from which Charon, above, is a detail) which became a 48x44 ft. fresco on the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo started on it three decades after having finished the chapel's ceiling. In The Last Judgment he not only drew heavily from mythology as well as from the Bible, but he also depicted naked subjects with exposed genitals. This did not go over well with the papal master Baigio de Cesena, who said the painting was more suited to a tavern than to a sacred place. So Michelangelo painted Baigio’s face on Minos, a judge of the underworld, complete with a donkey’s ears and a snake biting his genitals. When Baigio complained to Pope Paul III, the pontiff said he had no jurisdiction over hell and the portrait would have to remain.

This Charon-Styx-Hades-Tartarus page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.


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