A Biography of the Greek God Hades

Hades Abducting Persephone

Yann Forget/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Hades, called Pluto by the Romans, was the god of the Greek underworld, the land of the dead in Greek and Roman mythology. While some modern-day religions deem the underworld as Hell and its ruler as the incarnation of evil, the Greeks and Romans saw the underworld as a place of darkness. Although hidden from the light of day and the living, Hades himself was not evil. He was, instead, the keeper of the laws of death.

Key Takeaways: Hades

  • Alternate Names: Zeus Katachthonions (Zeus of the Underworld),
  • Epithets: Aïdes or Aïdoneus (The Unseen One, The Invisible), Plouton (the Wealth-Giver), Polydegmon (The Hospitable), Euboueus (Wise in Counsel) and Klymenos (the Renowned) 
  • Culture/Country: Classical Greece and Roman Empire
  • Primary Sources: Homer  
  • Realms and Powers: The Underworld, ruler of the dead
  • Family: Son of Kronus and Rhea, brother of Zeus and Poseidon, husband of Persephone

Origin Myth

According to Greek mythology, Hades was one of the sons of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Their other children included Zeus, Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera. Upon hearing a prophecy that his children would depose him, Cronus swallowed all but Zeus. Zeus managed to force his father to disgorge his siblings, and the gods embarked on a war against the Titans. After winning the war, the three sons drew lots to determine which would rule over the Sky, Sea, and Underworld. Zeus became the ruler of the Sky, Poseidon of the Sea, and Hades of the Underworld. Zeus also maintained his role as King of the Gods.

After receiving control of his realm, Hades withdrew, and living an isolated existence, had little to do with the world of the living humans or gods. 

Appearance and Reputation

Although rarely appearing in Greek art, when he does, Hades carries a scepter or key as a sign of his authority—the Romans illustrate him carrying a cornucopia. He often looks like an angry version of Zeus, and the Roman writer Seneca described him as having "the look of Jove when he thunders." Sometimes he is illustrated wearing a crown with rays like the sun or wearing a bear's head for a hat. He has a cap of darkness that he wears to become dark. 

Hades has a number of epithets, because Greeks, in general, preferred not to speak directly of death, particularly concerning their family and friends. Among them are Polydegmon (also Polydektes or Polyxeinos), all meaning something like "the receiver," the "host of many" or "the hospitable one." The Romans adopted Hades for their mythology, calling him "Pluto" or "Dis" and his wife "Proserpina."

Role in Greek and Roman Mythology

In Greek and Roman mythology, Hades is the ruler of dead, grim and mournful in his character, and severely just and unyielding in the performance of his duties. He is the jailer of the souls of the dead, keeping the gates of the netherworld closed and ensuring that dead mortals who entered his dark kingdom never escape. He only left the kingdom himself to abduct Persephone as his bride; and none of his fellow gods visited him except for Hermes, who ventured in when his duties demanded it. 

He is a frightening but not a malevolent god, with few worshipers. A handful of temples and sacred sites are reported for him: there was a precinct and temple at Elis, which was open one day during the year and even then only open to the priest. One place associated with Hades is Pylos, the gate-place of the setting sun. 

Realm

While the underworld was the land of the dead, there are several stories including The Odyssey in which living men go to Hades and return safely. When souls were delivered to the underworld by the god Hermes, they were ferried across the River Styx by the boatman, Charon. Arriving at the gates of Hades, souls were greeted by Cerberus, the terrible three-headed dog, who would let souls enter the place of mists and darkness, but would keep them from returning to the land of the living.

In some myths, the dead were judged to determine the quality of their lives. Those judged to be good people drank of the River Lethe so that they would forget all bad things, and spend eternity in the wonderful Elysian Fields. Those judged to be bad people were sentenced to eternity in Tartarus, a version of Hell.

Hades, Persephone, and Demeter

The major myth associated with Hades is how he obtained his wife, Persephone. The most detailed is recounted in the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter." Persephone (or Kore) was the only daughter of Hades' sister Demeter, the goddess of corn (wheat) and agriculture.

One day, the maiden was gathering flowers with her friends, and a wonderful flower sprang from the ground on her path. When she reached down to pluck it, the earth opened up and Hades emerged and took her away in his golden chariot driven by swift deathless horses. Persephone's cries were only heard by Hekate (goddess of ghosts and pathways) and Helios (god of the sun), but her mother grew anxious and went looking for her. Using two torches from the flames of Etna and fasting all the way, she searched fruitlessly for nine days, until she met Hekate. Hekate took her to see Helios, who told Demeter what had occurred. In grief, Demeter abandoned the company of gods and hid among mortals as an old woman. 

Demeter remained absent from Olympus for a year, and during that time the world was infertile and famine-stricken. Zeus sent first the divine messenger Iris to instruct her to return, then each of the gods to offer her handsome gifts but she adamantly refused, saying she would never return to Olympus until she had seen her daughter with her own eyes. Zeus sent Hermes to talk to Hades, who agreed to let Persephone go, but he secretly fed her pomegranate seeds before she left, ensuring that she would remain bound to his realm forever.

Demeter received her daughter and, forced to compromise with Hades, agreed that Persephone would remain one-third of the year as the consort of Hades and two thirds with her mother and the Olympian gods (latter accounts say the year was split evenly—the references are to the seasons of the year). As a result, Persephone is a dual-nature goddess, queen of the dead during the part of the year she resides with Hades and a goddess of fertility the rest of the time. 

Other Myths

There are a few other myths associated with Hades. As one of his labors for King Eurystheus, Heracles had to bring Hades' watchdog Cerberus back from the Underworld. Heracles had divine help—probably from Athena. Since the dog was only being borrowed, Hades was sometimes portrayed as willing to lend Cerberus—so long as Heracles used no weapon to capture the fearsome beast. Elsewhere Hades was portrayed as injured or threatened by a club and bow-wielding Heracles.

After seducing a young Helen of Troy, the hero Theseus decided to go with Perithous to take the wife of Hades—Persephone. Hades tricked the two mortals into taking seats of forgetfulness from which they could not get up until Heracles came to rescue them.

Another from a late source reports that Hades abducted an ocean-nymph called Leuke to make her his mistress, but she died and he was so distressed that he caused the white poplar (Leuke) to grow in her memory in the Elysian Fields

Sources

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Harrison, Jane E. "Helios-Hades." The Classical Review 22.1 (1908): 12-16. Print.
  • Miller, David L. "Hades and Dionysos: The Poetry of Soul." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46.3 (1978): 331-35. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904. Print.