The Asphodel Meadows is a section of the Ancient Greek underworld where ordinary souls were sent to live after death.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives Homer as the source for the English poetic tradition of describing the meadows of the afterlife as being covered in Asphodel. In the translation by W. H. D. Rouse, the passage in question (from The Odyssey, Book 11) is rendered "the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel." In Book 24 in the same translation, the souls of the dead "came to the Meadow of Asphodel where abide the souls and phantoms of those whose work is done." Homer describes the experience of the dead souls and relates the meadow to its surroundings in these books and in Circe's brief description at the end of Book 10.
Asphodel flowers growing in the underworld is an idea that may predate Homer's writings, reflecting the influence of Minoan and Egyptian cultures whose afterlife was generally bright and fertile. Since the flower (ἀσφόδελος in Greek) was highly regarded throughout the ancient world it appears to have preserved its traditional positive role in the Greek afterlife. However Homer's meadows are not the place of perfect beauty they would become for post-Renaissance romantic English poets. In the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus sails to the very edge of the earth, beyond the place where Dawn rises (Odyssey 12.3), in that foggy place the sun never shines. There he sees a grove of trees, the junction of two rivers and a meadow of Asphodel. This landscape perhaps predates the Odyssey and would have identified to the readers that this is the gateway to the underworld. The description of existence in the meadows is disturbing "The dead approach him in swarms, unable to speak unless animated by the blood of the animals he slays. Without blood they are witless, without activity, without pleasure and without future". Only the ghost of the semi divine Teiresias is permitted by Persephone to retain the power to think independently, the rest "flit like shadows". Other references in the Odyssey to the meadows include the passage at 11.573 where the spirit of the hunter Orion herds together the spirits of his prey “through the Asphodel meadow”, and the spirits of the slaughtered suitors arrive, squeaking like bats in a cave, "at the Asphodel meadow" (Odyssey, 24.13).
The Asphodel Meadows is most probably where the souls of people who lived average lives remain, however its relationship to other places in the Greek afterlife remains uncertain.
For later Greek poets the very ancient pre-Homeric association of the Asphodel flower with a positive form of afterlife as well as the enlarged role of Elysium as it became the destination of more than just a few lucky heroes, altered the character of the meadows. Greek poets who wrote after Homer's time describe them as untouched, lovely, soft and holy. Such an evolutionary change is quite common: "Like most cultures throughout human history, both ancient and modern, the Greeks held complex and sometimes contradictory views about the afterlife".
Some depictions describe it as a land of utter neutrality. That is, while the inhabitants were in life neither good nor evil, so they are treated in the afterlife. Other depictions have also stated that all residents drink from the river Lethe before entering the fields, thus losing their identities. This somewhat negative outlook on the afterlife for those who make little impact was perhaps passed down to encourage militarism in Greek cultures as opposed to inaction. In fact, those who did take up arms and became heroes were rewarded with everlasting joy in the fields of Elysium.
Edith Hamilton suggests that the Asphodel of these fields are not exactly like the Asphodel of our world but are "presumably strange, pallid, ghostly flowers." Others suggest that they were actually narcissi.
- W.H.D. Rouse, trans. The Odyssey: The Story of Odysseus. New York: The New American Library, 1949.
- Reece, Steve (2007). "Homer’s Asphodel Meadow". Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (4): 389–400.
- Dietrich, Bernard (1997). "Death and Afterlife in Minoan Religion". Kernos 10: 19–38. Retrieved 2013-04-28.
- Cole, Susan (2003). Michael B. Cosmopoulos, ed. Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. p. 194. ISBN 0415248728.
- Edith Hamilton. Mythology. New York: Warner Books, 1999. Ch. 1, p. 40.
- Dweck, A. C. The folklore of Narcissus. pp. 19–29. In Hanks (2002)