Lord of the Underworld
The Greeks called him the Unseen One, the Wealthy One, Pluoton, and Dis. But few considered the god Hades lightly enough to call him by his name. While he is not the god of death (that’s the implacable Thanatos), Hades welcomed any new subjects to his kingdom, the Underworld, which also takes his name. The ancient Greeks thought it best not to invite his attention.
The Birth of Hades
Hades was the son of the titan Cronos and brother to the Olympian gods Zeus and Poseidon.
Cronos, fearful of a son who would overthrow him as he vanquished his own father Ouranos, swallowed each of his children as they were born. Like his brother Poseidon, he grew up in the bowels of Cronos, until the day when Zeus tricked the titan into vomiting up his siblings. Emerging victorious after the ensuing battle, Poseidon, Zeus, and Hades drew lots to divide up the world they had gained. Hades drew the dark, melancholy Underworld, and ruled there surrounded by the shades of the dead, various monsters, and the glittering wealth of the earth.
Life in the Underworld
For the Greek god Hades, the inevitability of death ensures a vast kingdom. Eager for souls to cross the river Styx and join fief, Hades is also the god of proper burial. (This would include souls left with money to pay the boatman Charon for the crossing to Hades.) As such, Hades complained about Apollo’s son, the healer Asclepius, because he restored people to life, thereby reducing Hades’ dominions, and he inflicted the city of Thebes with plague probably because they weren’t burying the slain correctly.
Myths of Hades
The fearsome god of the dead figures in few tales (it was best not to talk about him too much). But Hesiod relates the most famous story of the Greek god, which is about how he stole his queen Persephone.
The daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, Persephone caught the eye of the Wealthy One on one of his infrequent trips to the surface world.
He abducted her in his chariot, driving her far below the earth and keeping her in secret. As her mother mourned, the world of humans withered: Fields grew barren, trees toppled and shriveled. When Demeter found out that the kidnapping was Zeus’ idea, she complained loudly to her brother, who urged Hades to free the maiden. But before she rejoined the world of light, Persephone partook of a few pomegranate seeds.
Having eaten the food of the dead, she was compelled to return to the Underworld. The deal made with Hades allowed Persephone to spend one-third (later myths say one-half) of the year with her mother, and the rest in the company of her shades. Thus, to the ancient Greeks, was the cycle of seasons and the yearly birth and death of crops.
Hades Fact Sheet
Occupation: God, Lord of the Dead
Family of Hades: Hades was a son of the Titans Cronos and Rhea. His brothers are Zeus and Poseidon. Hestia, Hera, and Demeter are Hades’ sisters.
Children of Hades: These include the Erinyes (the Furies), Zagreus (Dionysus), and Makaria (goddess of a blessed death)
Other Names: Haides, Aides, Aidoneus, Zeus Katachthonios (Zeus under the earth). The Romans also knew him as Orcus.
Attributes: Hades is depicted as a dark-bearded man with a crown, scepter, and key.
Cerberus, a three-headed dog, is often in his company. He owns a helmet of invisibility and a chariot.
God of the Underworld
The origin of Hades’ name is uncertain, but has generally been seen as meaning “The Unseen One” since antiquity. An extensive section of Plato’s dialogue Cratylus is devoted to the etymology of the god’s name, in which Socrates is arguing for a folk etymology not from “unseen” but from “his knowledge (eidenai) of all noble things”. Modern linguists have proposed the Proto-Greek form *Awides (“unseen”). The earliest attested form is Aḯdēs (Ἀΐδης), which lacks the proposed digamma. West argues instead for an original meaning of “the one who presides over meeting up” from the universality of death.
In Homeric and Ionic Greek, he was known as Áïdēs. Other poetic variations of the name include Aïdōneús (Ἀϊδωνεύς) and the inflected forms Áïdos (Ἄϊδος, gen.), Áïdi (Ἄϊδι, dat.), and Áïda (Ἄϊδα, acc.), whose reconstructed nominative case *Áïs (*Ἄϊς) is, however, not attested.The name as it came to be known in classical times was Háidēs (Ἅιδης). Later the iota became silent, then a subscript marking (Άͅδης), and finally omitted entirely (Άδης).
Perhaps from fear of pronouncing his name, around the 5th century BC, the Greeks started referring to Hades as Pluto (Πλούτων, Ploútōn), with a root meaning “wealthy”, considering that from the abode below (i.e., the soil) come riches (e.g., fertile crops, metals and so on).Plouton became the Roman god who both rules the underworld and distributed riches from below. This deity was a mixture of the Greek god Hades and the Eleusinian icon Ploutos, and from this he also received a priestess, which was not previously practiced in Greece. More elaborate names of the same genre were Ploutodótēs (Πλουτοδότης) or Ploutodotḗr (Πλουτοδοτήρ) meaning “giver of wealth”.
Epithets of Hades include Agesander (Ἀγήσανδρος) and Agesilaos (Ἀγεσίλαος), both from ágō (ἄγω, “lead”, “carry” or “fetch”) and anḗr (ἀνήρ, “man”) or laos (λαός, “men” or “people”), describing Hades as the god who carries away all. Nicander uses the form Hegesilaus (Ἡγεσίλαος). He was also referred to as Zeus Katachthonios (Ζευς καταχθονιος), meaning “the Zeus of the Underworld”, by those avoiding his actual name, as he had complete control over the Underworld.
Greek god of the underworld
In Greek mythology, Hades, the god of the underworld, was a son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. He had three sisters, Demeter, Hestia, and Hera, as well as two brothers, Zeus, the youngest of the three, and Poseidon. Upon reaching adulthood, Zeus managed to force his father to disgorge his siblings. After their release, the six younger gods, along with allies they managed to gather, challenged the elder gods for power in the Titanomachy, a divine war. The war lasted for ten years and ended with the victory of the younger gods. Following their victory, according to a single famous passage in the Iliad (xv.187–93), Hades and his two brothers, Poseidon and Zeus, drew lots for realms to rule. Zeus received the sky, Poseidon received the seas, and Hades received the underworld, the unseen realm to which the souls of the dead go upon leaving the world as well as any and all things beneath the earth. Some myths suggest that Hades was dissatisfied with his turnout, but had no choice and moved to his new realm.
Hades obtained his wife and queen, Persephone, through abduction at the behest of Zeus. This myth is the most important one Hades takes part in; it also connected the Eleusinian Mysteries with the Olympian pantheon, particularly as represented in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which is the oldest story of the abduction, most likely dating back to the beginning of the 6th Century BC. Helios told the grieving Demeter that Hades was not unworthy as a consort for Persephone:
Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.
— Homeric Hymn to Demeter
Despite modern connotations of death as evil, Hades was actually more altruistically inclined in mythology. Hades was often portrayed as passive rather than evil; his role was often maintaining relative balance. That said, he was also depicted as cold and stern, and he held all of his subjects equally accountable to his laws. Any other individual aspects of his personality are not given, as Greeks refrained from giving him much thought to avoid attracting his attention.
Hades ruled the dead, assisted by others over whom he had complete authority. The House of Hades was described as full of “guests,” though he rarely left the Underworld. He cared little about what happened in the Upperworld, as his primary attention was ensuring none of his subjects ever left.
He strictly forbade his subjects to leave his domain and would become quite enraged when anyone tried to leave, or if someone tried to steal the souls from his realm. His wrath was equally terrible for anyone who tried to cheat death or otherwise crossed him, as Sisyphus and Pirithous found out to their sorrow. While usually indifferent to his subjects, Hades was very focused on the punishment of these two people; particularly Pirithous, as he entered the underworld in an attempt to steal Persephone for himself, and consequently was forced onto the “Chair of Forgetfulness”. Another myth is about the Roman god Asclepius who was originally a demigod, fathered by Apollo and birthed by Coronis, a Thessalian princess. During his lifetime, he became a famous and talented physician, who eventually was able to bring the dead back to life. Feeling cheated, Plouton persuaded Zeus to kill him with a thunderbolt. After his death, he was brought to Olympus where he became a god.Hades was only depicted outside of the Underworld once in myth, and even that is believed to have been an instance where he had just left the gates of the Underworld, which was when Heracles shot him with an arrow as Hades was attempting to defend the city of Plyus.After he was shot, however, he traveled to Olympus to heal. Besides Heracles, the only other living people who ventured to the Underworld were also heroes: Odysseus, Aeneas (accompanied by the Sibyl), Orpheus, who Hades showed uncharacteristic mercy towards at Persephone’s persuasion, who was moved by Orpheus’ music, Theseus with Pirithous, and, in a late romance, Psyche. None of them were pleased with what they witnessed in the realm of the dead. In particular, the Greek war hero Achilles, whom Odysseus conjured with a blood libation, said:
O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the perished dead.
— Achilles’ soul to Odysseus. Homer, Odyssey 11.488-491 (Lattimore translation)
Hades, as the god of the dead, was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him, they were reluctant to swear oaths in his name, and averted their faces when sacrificing to him. Since to many, simply to say the word “Hades” was frightening, euphemisms were pressed into use. Since precious minerals come from under the earth (i.e., the “underworld” ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well, and was referred to as Πλούτων (Plouton, related to the word for “wealth”), Latinized as Pluto. Sophocles explained the notion of referring to Hades as “the rich one” with these words: “the gloomy Hades enriches himself with our sighs and our tears.” In addition, he was called Clymenus (“notorious”), Polydegmon (“who receives many”), and perhaps Eubuleus (“good counsel” or “well-intentioned”), all of them euphemisms for a name that was unsafe to pronounce, which evolved into epithets.
He spent most of the time in his dark realm. Formidable in battle, he proved his ferocity in the famous Titanomachy, the battle of the Olympians versus the Titans, which established the rule of Zeus.
Feared and loathed, Hades embodied the inexorable finality of death: “Why do we loathe Hades more than any god, if not because he is so adamantine and unyielding?” The rhetorical question is Agamemnon’s. He was not, however, an evil god, for although he was stern, cruel, and unpitying, he was still just. Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself — the actual embodiment of Death was Thanatos, although Euripides’ play “Alkestis” states fairly clearly that Thanatos and Hades were one and the same deity, and gives an interesting description of him as dark-cloaked and winged; moreover, Hades was also referred to as “Hesperos Theos” (“God of Death and Darkness”)
When the Greeks propitiated Hades, they banged their hands on the ground to be sure he would hear them. Black animals, such as sheep, were sacrificed to him, and the very vehemence of the rejection of human sacrifice expressed in myth suggests an unspoken memory of some distant past. The blood from all chthonic sacrifices including those to propitiate Hades dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person who offered the sacrifice had to avert his face.
One ancient source says that he possessed the Cap of invisibility. His chariot, drawn by four black horses, made for a fearsome and impressive sight. His other ordinary attributes were the narcissus and cypress plants, the Key of Hades and Cerberus, the three-headed dog.In certain portraits, snakes also appeared to be attributed to Hades as he was occasionally portrayed to be either holding them or accompanied by them. This is believed to hold significance as in certain classical sources Hades ravished Kore in the guise of a snake, who went on to give birth to Zagreus-Dionysus. While bearing the name ‘Zeus’, Zeus Olympios, the great king of the gods, noticeably differs from the Zeus Meilichios, a decidedly Chthonian character, often portrayed as a snake, and as seen beforehand, they cannot be different manifestations of the same god, in fact whenever ‘another Zeus’ is mentioned, this always refers to Hades. Zeus Meilichios and Zeus Eubouleus are often referred to being alternate names for Hades.
The philosopher Heraclitus, unifying opposites, declared that Hades and Dionysus, the very essence of indestructible life (zoë), are the same god. Among other evidence Kerényi notes that the grieving goddess Demeter refused to drink wine, which is the gift of Dionysus, after Persephone’s abduction, because of this association, and suggests that Hades may in fact have been a “cover name” for the underworld Dionysus. He suggests that this dual identity may have been familiar to those who came into contact with the Mysteries. One of the epithets of Dionysus was “Chthonios”, meaning “the subterranean”. The role of unifying Hades, Zeus and Dionysus as a single tripartite god was used to represent the birth, death and resurrection of a deity and to unify the ‘shining’ realm of Zeus and the dark underworld realm of Hades
Hades was depicted so infrequently in artwork, as well as mythology, because the Greeks were so afraid of him. His artistic representations, which are generally found in Archaic pottery, are not even concretely thought of as the deity; however at this point in time it is heavily believed that the figures illustrated are indeed Hades. He was later presented in the classical arts in the depictions of the Rape of Persephone. Within these illustrations, Hades was often young, yet he was also shown as varying ages in other works.Due to this lack of depictions, there weren’t very strict guidelines when representing the deity.On pottery, he has a dark beard and is presented as a stately figure on an “ebony throne.” His attributes in art include a scepter, cornucopia, rooster, and a key, which both represented his control over the underworld and acted as a reminder that the gates of the Underworld were always locked so that souls could not leave. Even if the doors were open, Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, ensured that while all souls were allowed to enter into The Underworld freely, none could ever escape. The dog is often portrayed next to the god as a means of easy identification, since no other deity relates to it so directly. Sometimes, artists painted Hades as looking away from the other gods, as he was disliked by them as well as humans.
As Plouton, he was regarded in a more positive light. He holds a cornucopia, representing the gifts he bestows upon people as well as fertility, which he becomes connected to.
Persephone and Hades: tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440–430 BC
The consort of Hades was Persephone, represented by the Greeks as the beautiful daughter of Demeter.
Persephone did not submit to Hades willingly, but was abducted by him while picking flowers in the fields of Nysa. In protest of his act, Demeter cast a curse on the land and there was a great famine; though, one by one, the gods came to request she lift it, lest mankind perish, she asserted that the earth would remain barren until she saw her daughter again. Finally, Zeus intervened; via Hermes, he requested that Hades return Persephone. Hades complied,
But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter.— Homeric Hymn to Demeter
Demeter questioned Persephone on her return to light and air:
…but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods.
— Homeric Hymn to Demeter
This bound her to Hades and the Underworld, much to the dismay of Demeter. It is not clear whether Persephone was accomplice to the ploy. Zeus proposed a compromise, to which all parties agreed: of the year, Persephone would spend one third with her husband.
It is during this time that winter casts on the earth “an aspect of sadness and mourning.”
Theseus and Pirithous
Theseus and Pirithous pledged to kidnap and marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen and together they kidnapped her and decided to hold onto her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus’ mother, Aethra, and traveled to the Underworld. Hades knew of their plan to capture his wife, so he pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast; as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Theseus was eventually rescued by Heracles but Pirithous remain
ed trapped as punishment for daring to seek the wife of a god for his own.
Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small Macedonian royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, c. 340 BC
Heracles’ final labour was to capture Cerberus. First, Heracles went to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. He did this to absolve himself of guilt for killing the centaurs and to learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive. He found the entrance to the underworld at Taenarum. Athena and Hermes helped him through and back from Hades. Heracles asked Hades for permission to take Cerberus. Hades agreed as long as Heracles didn’t harm Cerberus. When Heracles dragged the dog out of Hades, he passed through the cavern Acherusia.
The nymph Minthe, associated with the river Cocytus, loved by Hades, was turned into the mint plant, by a jealous Persephone.
Realm of Hades
In older Greek myths, the realm of Hades is the misty and gloomy abode of the dead (also called Erebus) where all mortals go when they die. Very few mortals could leave Hades once they entered. The exceptions, Heracles and Theseus, are heroic. Even Odysseus in his Nekyia (Odyssey, xi) calls up the spirits of the departed, rather than descend to them. Later Greek philosophy introduced the idea that all mortals are judged after death and are either rewarded or cursed.
There were several sections of the realm of Hades, including Elysium, the Asphodel Meadows, and Tartarus. Greek mythographers were not perfectly consistent about the geography of the afterlife. A contrasting myth of the afterlife concerns the Garden of the Hesperides, often identified with the Isles of the Blessed, where the blessed heroes may dwell.
In Roman mythology, the entrance to the Underworld located at Avernus, a crater near Cumae, was the route Aeneas used to descend to the realm of the dead. By synecdoche, “Avernus” could be substituted for the underworld as a whole. The di inferi were a collective of underworld divinities.
For Hellenes, the deceased entered the underworld by crossing the Styx, ferried across by Charon kair’-on), who charged an obolus, a small coin for passage placed in the mouth of the deceased by pious relatives. Paupers and the friendless gathered for a hundred years on the near shore according to Book VI of Vergil’s Aeneid. Greeks offered propitiatory libations to prevent the deceased from returning to the upper world to “haunt” those who had not given them a proper burial. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog defeated by Heracles (Roman Hercules). Passing beyond Cerberus, the shades of the departed entered the land of the dead to be judged.
The five rivers of the realm of Hades, and their symbolic meanings, are Acheron (the river of sorrow, or woe), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (oblivion), and Styx (hate), the river upon which even the gods swore and in which Achilles was dipped to render him invincible. The Styx forms the boundary between the upper and lower worlds. See also Eridanos.
The first region of Hades comprises the Fields of Asphodel, described in Odyssey xi, where the shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats. Only libations of blood offered to them in the world of the living can reawaken in them for a time the sensations of humanity.
Beyond lay Erebus, which could be taken for a euphonym of Hades, whose own name was dread. There were two pools, that of Lethe, where the common souls flocked to erase all memory, and the pool of Mnemosyne (“memory”), where the initiates of the Mysteries drank instead. In the forecourt of the palace of Hades and Persephone sit the three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus. There at the trivium sacred to Hecate, where three roads meet, souls are judged, returned to the Fields of Asphodel if they are neither virtuous nor evil, sent by the road to Tartarus if they are impious or evil, or sent to Elysium (Islands of the Blessed) with the “blameless” heroes.
In the Sibylline oracles, a curious hodgepodge of Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian elements, Hades again appears as the abode of the dead, and by way of folk etymology, it even derives Hades from the name Adam (the first man), saying it is because he was the first to enter there. Owing to its appearance in the New Testament of the Bible, Hades also has a distinct meaning in Christianity.
N.S. Gill Published On ThoughtCo
Ancient sources for Hades include Apollodorus, Cicero, Hesiod, Homer, Hyginus, Ovid, Pausanias, Statius, and Strabo.