The Judges and the Judged: Symbolism in the Underworld

The Judges of the Dead decided the destinies of those who dwelled in the Underworld. Although the Judges were symbolically important to the Underworld, they didn’t have much real power. The gods themselves decided whether a person had been wicked enough to send to Tartarus or brave and good enough to spend eternity in Elysium. That meant that the Judges usually sent shades to the Asphodel Fields without much consideration.


Aeacus, son of Zeus and Aegina, was considered to be the most pious of all Greeks. Aegina left her son on a deserted island, which Zeus populated to give the boy companions. He grew up to become the ruler of the island, which was called Aegina after his mother.

Aeacus fathered three sons: Peleus, Telamon, and Phocus. When Phocus grew into a great athlete who was adored by all, his two older brothers grew jealous and murdered him. Aeacus discovered what had happened and banished his two remaining sons from the island, leaving him without an heir.

Because Aeacus prized justice over family and lived a pious, upright life, Zeus decided to honor him after his death, and made Aeacus a Judge of the Dead. As an added honor, Aeacus was named the keeper of the keys to the Underworld.


Minos was another son of Zeus, born of Europa. He was a king of Crete and, much like his father, ruled with justice and equity. It is said that his laws were so well considered and so well written that they stayed in force for a thousand years.

However, Minos wasn’t the ultimate good guy. He fought with Poseidon, had numerous adulterous affairs, and banished his own brother out of jealousy. Despite some bad personal behavior, he was still renowned for his leadership and dedication to justice. So Minos, too, became a Judge of the Dead after his own death. Among the Judges, he had power to make the final decision.


Yet another son of Zeus, Rhadamanthys was Minos’s brother. Some myths say that Rhadamanthys ruled Crete before Minos came to power. As ruler, Rhadamanthys established a code of laws that became so popular it found its way into Sparta. Rhadamanthys lost his position as ruler of Crete when he and Minos got into a dispute over the affections of a young boy. Minos was stronger than his brother and drove Rhadamanthys off the island.

After leaving Crete, Rhadamanthys made his way to the Aegean Islands, where his reputation as a great ruler preceded him. He ruled over these islands until his death.Rhadamanthys also became one of the Judges of the Dead. Some myths claim that he was responsible for settling disputes among the shades. Other myths say that he ruled Tartarus and participated in punishing the inhabitants.