Tartarus was one of the first primordial deities that came out of the yawning void that was Chaos, apart from Gaia, Eros, and Erebus. In the myth, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in Greek mythology that has existed since the beginning of time. Tartarus is a primordial force and the deep abyss situated far below the realm of Hades.
In ancient Greek mythology, Tartarus, when referred to as a primordial god, is one of the first generations of Greek gods. The primordial gods existed long before the gods who resided on Mount Olympus.
As with all of the primordial deities of the ancient Greeks, Tartarus is the personification of a natural phenomenon. He is both the deity that presides over the infernal pit where monsters and gods are imprisoned to suffer for eternity and the pit itself.
Tartarus is described as a pit beneath the Underworld where monsters and gods are banished. In later mythology, Tartarus evolves into a hell pit where the most evil mortals are sent for punishment.
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Tartarus in Greek Mythology
According to ancient Orphic sources, Tartarus is both a deity and a place. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod describes Tartarus in the Theogony as the third primordial god to emerge from Chaos. Here he is a primordial force like the Earth, Darkness, and Desire.
When referred to as a deity, Tartarus is the god who rules over the prison pit situated at the lowest point of the Earth. As a primordial force, Tartarus is viewed as the pit itself. Tartarus as a primordial god does not feature as prominently in Greek mythology as Tartarus the misty pit.
Tartarus the Deity
According to Hesiod, Tartarus and Gaia produced the giant serpent monster Typhon. Typhon is one of the most frightening monsters to be found in Greek mythology. Typhon is described as having one hundred snake heads, each emitting terrifying animalistic sounds, and is depicted with wings.
The sea serpent is considered to be the father of monsters in Greek Mythology, and the cause of hurricanes and storm winds. Typhon wanted to rule the heavens and the Earth as Zeus did, and so he challenged him. After a violent battle, Zeus defeated Typhon and cast him into wide Tartarus.
The Greek poet Hesiod describes Tartarus as being the same distance from Hades as the Earth is from the Heavens. Hesiod illustrates the measurement of this distance by the use of a bronze anvil falling through the sky.
The bronze anvil falls for nine days between the Heavens and the flat sphere of Earth and falls for the same measure of time between Hades and Tartarus. In the Iliad, Homer similarly describes Tartarus as being a separate entity from the Underworld.
The Greeks believed the universe was egg-shaped, and that it was divided in half by the Earth, which they thought was flat. The Heavens made up the top half of the egg-shaped universe and Tartarus was situated at the very bottom.
Tartarus is a misty abyss, a pit that is found at the lowest point of the universe. It is described as being a dank place, full of decay and a gloomy prison that even the gods feared. A home for the most frightening monsters in Greek mythology.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the prison is described as being surrounded by a bronze fence, from which night ripples outwards. The gates to Tartarus are bronze and were placed there by the god Poseidon. Above the prison are the Earth’s roots, and the unfruitful sea. It is a dank, gloomy pit where deathless gods reside, hidden away from the world to decay.
Monsters were not the only characters that were locked away in the misty pit in early myths, deposed gods were trapped there too. In later tales, Tartarus is not only a prison for monsters and defeated gods, but also where the souls of mortals considered to be the most wicked received divine punishment.
READ MORE: Ancient Gods of Death and the Underworld
Gaia’s Children and Tartarus
Before the Olympian gods dominated the Greek pantheon, the primordial gods ruled the cosmos. Uranus the primordial god of the Sky, together with Gaia, the primordial goddess of the Earth, created the twelve Greek gods called Titans.
The Greek Titans were not the only children Gaia bore. Gaia and Uranus created six other children, who were monsters. Three of the monstrous children were one-eyed cyclopes named Brontes, Steropes, and Arges. Three of the children were giants that possessed one hundred hands, the Hecatoncheires, whose names were Cottus, Briareos, and Gyes.
Uranus was repulsed and threatened by the six monstrous children and so he imprisoned them in the pit of the universe. The children remained locked away in the prison beneath the Underworld until Zeus freed them.
Tartarus and the Titans
The primordial deities of Gaia and Uranus created twelve children known as the Titans. In Greek mythology, the Titans were the first group of gods to rule over the cosmos before the Olympians. Uranus was the supreme being who reigned over the cosmos, at least, until one of his children castrated him and claimed the heavenly throne.
Gaia never forgave Uranus for imprisoning her children in Tartarus. The goddess conspired with her youngest son, the Titan Cronus, to depose Uranus. Gaia made Cronus promise that if they dethroned Uranus, he would release his siblings from the pit.
Cronus successfully dethroned his father but failed to release his monstrous siblings from their prison. The Titan Cronus was dethroned by his children, Zeus, and the Olympian gods. This new generation of gods who resided on Mount Olympus went to war with the Titans.
The Titans and the Olympian gods were at war for ten years. This period of conflict is called the Titanomachy. The war only ended when Zeus freed Gaia’s monstrous children from Tartarus. With the help of the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires, the Olympians defeated Cronus and the other Titans.
The Titans who had fought against the Olympians were banished to Tartarus. The female Titans remained free as they were not involved in the war. Tartarus’ former inmates and their siblings, the Hecatoncheires, guarded the Titans.
Cronus did not remain in Tartarus forever. Instead, he earned Zeus’ forgiveness and was released to rule Elysium.
Tartarus in Later Mythologies
The idea of Tartarus gradually evolved in later mythologies. Tartarus became more than the place where those who challenged the Olympian gods would be imprisoned. Tartarus became a place where mortals who angered the gods, or who were considered to be impious were sent.
Once mortals could be imprisoned and tortured in Tartarus, it was not just the impious mortals but criminals. Tartarus became a hell pit where the most wicked members of society would be punished for all eternity.
Tartarus evolves and is considered a part of the Underworld rather than separate from it. It is the opposite of Elysium, the realm of the Underworld where the good and pure souls dwell.
In the later works of Plato (427 BCE), Tartarus is described as not just the place in the Underworld where the wicked would receive divine punishment. In his Gorgias, Plato describes Tartarus as the place where all souls were judged by the three demi-god sons of Zeus, Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus.
According to Plato, wicked souls judged to be curable were purified in Tartarus. The souls of those who were judged curable would eventually be released from Tartarus. The souls of those considered incurable were eternally damned.
What Crimes Sent a Mortal to Tartarus?
According to Virgil, several crimes could land a mortal in the most feared place in the Underworld. In The Aeneid, a person could be sent to Tartarus for fraud, beating their father, hating their brother, and not sharing their wealth with their kinsmen.
The most serious crimes that a mortal could commit to find themselves tormented in Tartarus in the afterlife were: men who were caught committing adultery and were killed and men who took up arms against their own people.
The Famous Prisoners of Tartarus
The Titans were not the only gods to be banished to Tartarus by Zeus. Any god who angered Zeus enough could be sent to the gloomy prison. Apollo was sent to Tartarus by Zeus for a time for killing the Cyclopes.
The Gods Imprisoned in Tartarus
Other gods, such as Eris and Arke were banished to Tartarus. Arke is a messenger goddess who betrayed the Olympians during the Titanomachy by siding with the Titans.
Eris is the ancient Greek goddess of discord and chaos, most famous for her role in the events leading up to the Trojan War. Eris was snubbed by the Olympians and so she dropped the golden Apple of Discord into the wedding party of Peleus and Thetis.
Eris in the works of Virgil is known as the Infernal goddess, who dwells within the deepest depths of Hades, Tartarus.
The Kings Forever Imprisoned in Tartarus
Many famous characters in Greek mythology found themselves imprisoned in Tartarus, the Lydian King Tantalus for instance. The Lydian King found himself imprisoned in Tartarus for attempting to feed the gods his son, Pelops. Tantalus murdered his son, chopped him up, and cooked him into a stew.
The Olympians sensed something was not right with the encounter and did not eat the stew. Tantalus was imprisoned in Tartarus where he was punished with eternal hunger and thirst. His prison was a pool of water, where he was made to stand underneath a fruit tree. He could not drink or eat from either.
Another king, the first King of Corinth, Sisyphus was imprisoned in Tartarus after cheating death, twice. Sisyphus was a cunning trickster whose story has many different retellings. One constant in the story of the cunning king of Corinth is his punishment from Zeus in Tartarus.
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Zeus wanted to make an example to the mortals of the consequences of trying to disrupt the natural order of life and death. When King Sisyphus arrived in the Underworld for the third time, Zeus ensured he could not escape.
Sisyphus was doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain in Tartarus for all time. As the boulder neared the top, it would roll back down to the bottom.
The King of the legendary Thessalian tribe of Lapiths, Ixion was banished to Tartarus by Zeus where he was tied to a burning wheel that never stopped spinning. Ixion’s crime was lusting after Zeus’ wife, Hera.
The King of Alba Longa, Ocnus was imprisoned in Tartarus where he would weave a straw rope that would be eaten by a donkey immediately upon completion.
Punishments in Tartarus
Each prisoner of Tartarus would receive a punishment befitting their crime. The torment of the residents of the hell pit differed per inmate. In The Aeneid, the Underworld is described in great detail, as are the goings on of Tartarus. Every resident of Tartarus was punished, except for the first prisoners. The cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires were not punished while in Tartarus.
The inmates of Tartarus are described as carrying out their sentences and their punishments are plenty according to Virgil. The punishments ranged from rolling boulders to being flayed spread-eagled on the spokes of a wheel.
The siblings of the Titans were not the only imprisoned giants in Tartarus. The giant Tuityos was imprisoned in Tartarus when he was killed by the gods Artemis and Apollo. The giant’s punishment was to be stretched, and his liver to be fed upon by two vultures.
The punishments received in Tartarus were always humiliating, frustrating, or excruciating.