The DOMOS HAIDOU (House of Hades) was the land of the dead–the final resting place for departed souls. It was a dark and dismal realm where bodiless ghosts flitted across the grey fields of asphodel. The Homeric poets knew of no Elysian Fields or Tartarean Hell, rather all shades–heroes and villians alike–came to rest in the gloom of Haides.
In the Iliad the realm is a damp and mouldy place hidden inside the hollows of the earth. The dead crossed a river, passed through gates guarded by the Hound, and presented themselves before the king and queen of the underworld, Haides and Persephone. The ghosts of the unburied were allowed to return to the realm above to visit the living in the form of dreams and demand a proper burial. The land of Haides was quite distinct from Tartaros– prison-house of the Titanes–which is described as lying as far beneath Haides as the earth beneath the heavens.
In the Odyssey the realm of Haides is described in greater detail. It was located at the ends of the earth, on the far shore of the earth-encircling river Okeanos (Oceanus), beyond the gates of the sun and the land of dreams. The land of the dead was enclosed by the Akherousian Lake and three rivers–the Styx, Kokytos (Cocytus) and Pyriphlegethon. A judge named Minos received the dead from Hermes Psykhogogos (Guide of Souls) and sentenced the most wicked to eternal torment.
Hesiod describes Haides in his Theogony. The realm lay at the farthest ends of the flat earth, beyond the river Okeanos and the Land of Evening. It was a cosmic meeting-place of the ways where the great sky dome descended to rest its edge upon the earth and, from below, the walls of the Tartarean pit rose to enclose the lower, hidden half of the cosmos. Haides and Tartaros were again quite distinct–Tartaros was the cosmic pit beneath the earth whereas Haides was the land of the dead on the gloomy, outermost edge of the earth. In his Works and Days and Catalogues, Hesiod introduces the Islands of the Blessed–a paradise realm reserved for the great heroes of myth.
Kharon (Charon), the ferryman of the dead, first appears in the lost epic of the Minyad, ponting souls across the Akherousian Mere in a skiff.
In the classical period, the mystic religions and prophets–such as the Orphics and Pythagoreans–, as well as the philosophers, modified the land of the dead to incorporate an Elysian paradise for the good and a Tartarean hell for the wicked. Souls were judged and assigned to a suitable afterlife and in some versions cast into a cycle of purgatory and reincarnation.
Domos Haidou is usually translated into English as “House of Hades” and indeed the god of the underworld is frequently described as a Homeric king living in a royal palace and possessing orchards, fields and herds of cattle. The dead passed through the pylai Haidou or “gates of Hades” to enter his realm. The adjective haidou, however, also means “unseen” or “invisible” and domos is simply a “dwelling-place,” “domain” or “realm.” So “the unseen realm” would also be a reasonable translation. The plural form domoi Haidou also needs to be rendered as something more than just “the house of Hades.”
The dead were often described roaming across the leimôn asphodelon or “fields of asphodel.” The asphodel is a pale-grey plant which is edible though very bland and the ancients regarded it as a food of last resort. (For a photo of the plant click here.) The term Erebos–meaning “the dark”–was sometimes used to describe the realm. However it was uncommon and for the most part purely descriptive. Later poets sometimes use Tartaros as a simile for Haides as well as the adjectives Akherousian and Stygian derived from the names of its rivers.