Who were Tartarus’ parents?
According to the common tradition, Tartarus had no parents: he came into existence spontaneously, like Chaos, Gaia, and Eros. But some said that Tartarus was born to Gaia and Aether.
Was Tartarus a god or a place?
Both. Tartarus was a primordial entity who emerged at the dawn of creation. But Tartarus was also the name of a part of the Underworld.
Where was Tartarus located?
Tartarus was located in the deepest part of the Underworld, even lower than the realm of Hades inhabited by the dead. It was said that the most wicked sinners were punished by the gods in Tartarus.
Murky Tartarus was one of the first entities to come into existence, together with Chaos, Gaia, and Eros. He was one of the mysterious primordial gods and represented the deepest part of the Underworld. Located far below even Hades, Tartarus was a dreaded place of darkness and punishment reserved for only the most nefarious sinners—sinners like Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Ixion. Tartarus’ son with Gaia, Typhoeus, was a monster worthy of his dreaded father.
The etymology of “Tartarus” (Greek Τάρταρος, translit. Tartaros) is unknown.
Τάρταρος (translit. Tartaros)
/ˈtɑr tər əs/
Though technically a distinct part of the Underworld, the name “Tartarus” was sometimes used interchangeably with other names for the Underworld, such as “Hades” or “Erebus.”
Titles and Epithets
The darkness of Tartarus was sometimes emphasized through its epithets, which included words like ēeroeis, “murky.”
Tartarus was a primordial god but also a location. Dark and grim, Tartarus was said to be far below the earth—lower even than Hades.
According to Homer, Tartarus was located in “the deepest gulf beneath the earth…as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth.”1 Hesiod similarly located Tartarus “in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth,”2 so remote that “a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth: and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth.”3
Far below the roots of the earth, Tartarus was surrounded by a bronze wall with iron gates.4 Some said it was further separated from the rest of creation by the fiery river Phlegethon.5 These barriers helped to enclose the monsters and sinners imprisoned in Tartarus.
In addition to imprisoned monsters and sinners, Tartarus was inhabited by a handful of grim gods associated with the Underworld, including Nyx (“Night”), Hemera (“Day”), Hypnos (“Sleep”), Thanatos (“Death”), Hades, and Persephone.6
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Tartarus did not have any parents. Instead, he came into existence spontaneously at the beginning of the cosmos, together with Gaia and Eros (and after Chaos).7 But in another version of the cosmogony, Tartarus was the child of Gaia and Aether (“Upper Air”).8
The children of Tartarus were fittingly terrifying. In the Theogony, Tartarus mated with Gaia and fathered Typhoeus, a vast monster who battled Zeus himself.9 According to some sources, Tartarus and Gaia were also the parents of the snake-monster Echidna,10 Thanatos (“Death”),11 the eagle of Zeus,12 and the belligerent Giants.13 One source made Tartarus and Nemesis (the personification of retribution) the parents of the four Telchines—Actaeus, Megalesius, Ormenus, and Lycus—ancient inhabitants of the island of Rhodes.14 Finally, the Orphics seem to have regarded Tartarus as the father of Hecate, goddess of witchcraft.15
Tartarus, a dark primordial landscape below the earth and even Hades, was the home of a handful of sinners and hated enemies of the gods. Zeus, for example, cast his defeated foes into Tartarus—first Cronus and the Titans,16 and later the monster Typhoeus (Tartarus’ own son, perversely enough).17
In some traditions, the practice of using Tartarus as a prison can be traced back even earlier, almost to the dawn of creation: Uranus, the first ruler of the cosmos, cast his children into Tartarus, where they remained for some time before finally breaking free and castrating him. Later, Uranus’ son Cronus imprisoned the terrible Hecatoncheires and the Cyclopes (his brothers) in Tartarus until they were freed by Zeus and helped defeat Cronus. Finally, Zeus imprisoned Cronus and the other Titans in Tartarus, posting the Hecatoncheires as their guards.18
Eventually, Tartarus came to be seen as the place where the gods punished the most wicked sinners. In the philosophical dialogue Gorgias, Plato wrote that Zeus selected three of his mortal sons—Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus—to judge the dead after they themselves had died. These three judges were said to determine who would suffer eternal punishment in Tartarus.19
Among the eternal sinful residents of Tartarus were Tantalus, an impious king (his crime varied depending on the source) who was tortured with insatiable thirst and hunger; Sisyphus, who tried to cheat death and was therefore forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top; and Ixion, who tried to seduce Zeus’ queen and was punished by being bound to a perpetually-spinning wheel.
Tartarus continues to feature in modern adaptations of Greek mythology, including Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians novels and the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. It tends to be represented as a typical hellish landscape, complete with “fire and brimstone” and damned sinners groaning beneath the burden of eternal punishment.
Homer: There are references to Tartarus in the Iliad and Odyssey (eighth century BCE). In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus describes seeing the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus in the Underworld, but they are mixed in with the other dead in Hades rather than relegated to the more remote Tartarus.
Hesiod: The origins and location of Tartarus are outlined in Hesiod’s Theogony (seventh century BCE).
Aristophanes: The parodic (or semi-parodic) cosmogony in the comedy Birds (414 BCE) agrees with Hesiod in making Tartarus one of the first beings of the cosmos.
Plato: Gorgias (fourth century BCE) describes Tartarus as a separate part of the Underworld reserved only for sinners. There are also references to the afterlife and the punishments of the wicked in other Platonic dialogues, including Phaedo and the Republic.
Apollodorus: The Library, a mythological handbook of the first century BCE or first few centuries CE, describes Tartarus as a primordial god as well as a place of confinement for enemies of the gods and human sinners.
Virgil: In Book 6 of the Aeneid (29 BCE), the hero Aeneas visits the Underworld, where he meets the blessed dead of Elysium but also glimpses sinners suffering eternal punishment in Tartarus.
Statius: The epic Thebaid (late first century CE) begins with Tisiphone (one of the Furies) leaving Tartarus in order to sow discord in Thebes.
Hyginus: The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE), mentions the origins of Tartarus.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Hornblower, Simon. “Tartarus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1433. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Schlapbach, Karin. “Tartaros.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1201170.
Smith, William. “Tartarus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed October 15, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DT%3Aentry+group%3D2%3Aentry%3Dtartarus-bio-1.
Theoi Project. “Tartarus.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Tartaros.html.