Ancient Greek depictions of the afterlife are far different from modern ideologies. While they share similarities, most Greek portrayals of the afterlife involved a single place: The Underworld. The Underworld was a place where all human souls went after death. Contrary to popular belief, humans didn’t go the Greek equivalent of heaven. Elysian Fields, also known as Elysium, was for heroes like Perseus and Achilles.
In “The Iliad,” the Underworld dominion was between “Secret place on Earth.” However, the Homeric hymn, “The Odyssey,” described it as only accessible by crossing the ocean. Either way, the realm was separate from the land of the living, and one god resided over it. That god was Hades.
Hades is the god of the Underworld and the dead. In ancient Greece, few dared to utter his name. If they did, many were referring to his realm, which many called “Hades” as well. The god was a brother to the Twelve Olympian gods. Though he was born at the same time and shared the same lineage as the other Olympian guardians, his realm was far below Mount Olympus.
The Origins of Hades
Hades was the child of Cronus and Rhea. He was born after Hestia, Demeter, and Hera. But like his siblings before him, Hades was swallowed by Cronus upon birth. The Titan god feared that one of his offspring would take his throne. He ate them whole to prevent that prophecy from happening.
This act of swallowing his children continued until Rhea gave birth to his brother Zeus. Instead of giving Cronus the baby, Rhea swaddled a rock. Cronus swallowed it instead, allowing Zeus to grow to maturity.
When he was of age, Zeus forced Cronus to disgorge his siblings. Interestingly enough, Hades was the first son of Cronus and Rhea. However, he was the last to be regurgitated. As a result, he’s both the oldest and youngest son.
The freeing of the Olympians kicked off a divine war called the Titanomachy. The ten-year war raged between the Titans and the new generation of gods, the Olympians. Zeus ended up freeing the Titans’ beastly siblings from Tartarus. The Hecatoncheires and the Cyclops fought among the Olympians, eventually leading to the fall of the Titans.
Thus, a new era was born, and the Titans were imprisoned in Tartus.
Becoming Ruler of the Underworld
The end of the Titanomachy left many of the realms open for rule. Zeus took the mantle on Mount Olympus and was declared King of the gods. However, the Olympians had to decide who would rule over what realm. So, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus drew lots to determine what domains they ruled.
Zeus became the god of the sky, Poseidon became the god of the sea, and Hades became the god of the Underworld, an unseen realm where human souls go after death. The Earth remained with the primordial goddess Gaia.
Hades took to the role quite well. He resided in his kingdom and rarely left. Instead, he spent most of his time within the boundaries created by the Rivers Acheron, Styx, Cocytus, Phlegethon, and Lethe. He interacted with very few but was close with figures that resided in the Underworld. For example, he had a connection to the Cerberus and the ferryman of the River Styx, Charon.
While he was heavily feared, Hades was more altruistic in nature than most ancient Greeks realized. He defended the rights of the dead and focused his attention on his domain only.
While he does appear in some legends, Hades cared very little about what happened in the land of the living. However, he did exercise his authority when heroes and gods entered his realm. The god of the Underworld strictly forbade any soul from leaving his dominion.
His anger and wrath would come out when anyone attempted to leave or when someone tried to steal souls. Two famous figures, Sisyphus and Pirithous, found out about his dedication the hard way. Hades spent much of his time punishing and torturing the two figures for their sins of attempting to bring souls back to the living realm.
Depictions of Hades
Because Hades rarely left his realm, stories of his wrath spread through ancient Greece. He became a feared figure, so much so that humans didn’t dare speak his name. Greeks used a myriad of epithets to describe the deity.
Some popular names include:
“Zeus of the Underworld”
“The Other Zeus”
“The Infernal Zeus”
“The Grisly God”
“The Host of Many”
“The Attractor of Man”
Some also referred to Hades as “Plouton” and “Giver of Wealth.”
Those nicknames are a product of Hades’ other title. In addition to being the god of the Underworld, Greeks saw him as the god of hidden wealth. This reputation likely came due to the fact that precious metals and gems came from the Earth below. Not surprisingly, the name “Plouton” would eventually evolve into his Roman name: Pluto.
Depictions of Hades were rare. To ancient Greeks, he was a ghastly figure worth fearing. Not only did they not utter his name, but they did their best to avoid portraying him in art.
In the rare instances when artists braved the perceived taboo, Hades was usually shown as a bearded regal god. To reflect his nature, artists often portrayed him as solemn and mournful.
Sculptors frequently put Cerberus, the three-headed guardian dog of the Underworld, by his side. He often wore a helmet, too. It was known as the “Helm of Darkness” or the “Cap of Invisibility.”
Later works added a unique weapon presumable crafted by Hephaestus, a bident. It was similar to the three-pronged trident of Poseidon. However, it only featured two prongs. Some scholars believe that it inspired the pitchfork shown in modern Christian depictions of the devil. Sometimes, the bident was a simple scepter.
As Plouton, this god had more flattering depictions. He usually held a cornucopia called the “Horn of Plenty.”
Hades had many symbols. They most often included items related to his myths. For example, the god had a connection to pomegranates, snakes, dogs, chariots, and more. However, symbols like white poplar and cypress trees also represented the god of the Underworld.
Hades and Persephone
There aren’t too many stories involving Hades directly. He’s a central figure in Greek mythology, but he’s most often mentioned in passing or shown whenever a hero enters the Underworld.
However, there is one famous story. It involves the abduction of Persephone.
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture. According to this legend, the only time Hades entered the land of the living was to watch Persephone. He fell in love with her and wanted to take her as his bride.
Some versions of the tale are a little less “romantic.” Instead of falling in love, Hades reportedly petitioned Zeus to give up a daughter to be his bride.
Either way, Haded knew that Persephone wouldn’t want to go willingly. So, he devised a plan to take her. As she frolicked at Nysian Plain, Hades appeared to her in his golden chariot. Some versions say that Hades caused a flower to bloom and distract Persephone. Others say that he simply whisked her away while her maidens focused on something else.
Whatever the case may be, Hades abducted Persephone and took her into the Underworld.
That caused a great deal of pain for Demeter. She searched the ends of the earth for her daughter. Eventually, Hecate informed her of Hades’ abduction. Helios, the all-seeing sun god, confirmed the events. That only enraged Demeter more.
She abandoned her divine duties, and the land became barren and infertile. The Olympians feared that her effect on the world would wipe out humanity entirely. So, Zeus sent god after god to beg Demeter to return to her duties. But, she refused.
Zeus sends the messenger god Hermes to the Underworld to retrieve Persephone in a last-ditch effort.
The Creation of the Seasons
How Hades responded is different from one iteration to the next. Some say that the god agreed, but only on the condition that Persephone eats a single pomegranate seed. In doing so, she would be bound to his realm.
In other versions, Persephone already ate the seed or had to escape Hades. Regardless, Persephone was now the Queen of the Underworld. She couldn’t leave completely. With Demeter and Hades wanting Persephone to themselves, Zeus had to intervene.
He established rules for Persephone. She had to spend a third of the year with her mother, a third of the year with Hades in the Underworld, and a third of the year with whomever she chose. Persephone ultimately chose to spend the latter third of the year with Persephone. As a result, she only had to spend one-third of the year in the Underworld with Hades.
That third represents the winter season. The spring and summer are fruitful times of the year full of life and beauty. But according to the mythos, Demeter leaves Mount Olympus to grieve the absence of Persephone at her temple in Eleusis. During that time, the land goes barren as winter takes over.
Children of Hades and Persephone
There are some conflicting accounts about how many children the unorthodox couple had. Some poets say that the two didn’t have offspring at all! However, most accounts agree that there were at least a couple of children. They could have been Zagreus and Macaria.
Melinoe, Plutus, and the Erinyes may have been born from Hades and Persephone as well.
Melinoe was a nymph invoked in one of the Orphic hymns. She was a bringer of nightmares and madness, which is fitting for the offspring of the King of the Underworld.
Plutus was the god of wealth. While some call him the progeny of Hades, he’s most likely the son of Demeter and Iason.
The Erinyes, also known as the Furies, are called the daughters of Pluto in Virgil’s “Aenid.” The Furies are deities of vengeance.
Hades in Greek Myths
The story of Persephone is one of the most famous Hades tales. But, the god appears several times when other figures enter his domain.
Orpheus, the legendary musician and prophet, reportedly encountered Hades on his quest to find his wife. He wanted to bring Eurydice back from the dead. He pled Hades and Persephone, even going so far as to play his lyre to appease them. It worked, and Hades let them make their way out of the Underworld. The only stipulation was that the two could not look back.
But as Orpheus crossed the opening to the land of the living, he looked back with joy at Eurydice. But because she was a few steps behind him, she had not crossed the threshold. She vanished into the Underworld.
Theseus and Pirithous
This pairing entered the Underworld to kidnap Persephone. They were on a quest to marry the daughters of Zeus. Theseus had already kidnapped Helen and left her with his mother. The two went to the Underworld to take Persephone for Pirithous.
Hades was well aware of their plan. Upon seeing them, he offered hospitality as a ruse. When the pair sat down for a feast, snakes wrapped around their feet. Hades punished them, with Pirithous remaining trapped for all eternity. The god Hades reportedly forced Pirithous to sit on the “Chair of Forgetfulness.” Theseus was eventually saved by Heracles (Hercules).
Sisyphus was a mortal king who crossed Zeus. Zeus sent Thanatos, the god of death, to kill him. But Sisyphus was too cunning and ended up trapping Thanatos. In the meantime, no one could die. Ares, the god of war, had to free Thantanos and punish Sisyphus.
Yet again, Sisyphus found a way to “rig” the system. After his death, he instructed his wife not to perform funeral rites. In doing so, he disrupted the procession of the Underworld. Hades instructed him to go back to the land of the living to punish his wife. But of course, Sisyphus never returned as he was supposed to.
When he eventually died of old age, Hades tortured Sisyphus by forcing him to roll a boulder up a hill in the Underworld for all of eternity. If the boulder got close to the top of the hill, it would roll back down and force Sisyphus to try again.
Heracles famously entered the Underworld during the last of his Twelve Labors. He was instructed to take the guardian Cerberus. After learning how to enter and exit the Underworld alive, he went to Hades to ask if he could take Cerberus. Surprisingly, Hades agreed as long as Heracles did not harm the three-headed dog.
Hades is the Greek god of the Underworld and the god of the dead.
Hades was also known as Haides, Aidoneus, Plouton, Pluto, and Dis.
The god of the Underworld also had a connection to the Earth’s riches. According to Greek mythology, he presided over hidden wealth.
The name “Hades” is also the name of the god’s realm.
Hades is a child of Titans Cronus and Rhea.
Hades is most known for kidnapping and marrying Demeter’s daughter, Persephone.
Hades and Persephone had at least two children. However, some accounts say they had more.
Hades had a couple of consorts outside of Persephone. They included Leuce, a nymph daughter of Oceanus, and Minthe, a nymph of the River Cocytus.
Hades presided over funeral rites and the right to due burial.
The god of the Underworld is often depicted alongside the guardian of his realm, the Cerberus.
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