A Biography of the Greek God Hades

Fragment of Terracotta Depicting Hades abducting Persephone.
Paula Chabot, 2000

Hades, called Pluto by the Romans, was the god of the underworld, the land of the dead. While modern people typically think of the underworld as Hell and its ruler as the incarnation of evil, the Greeks and Romans felt differently about the underworld. They saw it as a place of darkness, hidden from the light of day, but Hades was not evil. He was, instead, the keeper of the laws of death; his name means "the unseen one." While Hades may not have been evil, however, he was still frightening; many people avoided speaking his name so as not to attract his attention.

The Birth of Hades

According to Greek mythology, the first great gods were the Titans, Cronus, and Rhea. Their children included Zeus, Hades, 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.

Myths of the Underworld

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. It is described as a mournful place of mists and darkness. 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. Cerberus would not prevent souls from entering 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 spent eternity in the wonderful Elysian Fields. Those judged to be bad people were sentenced to eternity in Tartarus, a version of Hell.

Hades and Persephone

Perhaps the most infamous story about Hades is his abduction of Persephone. Hades was the brother of Persephone's mother Demeter. While the girl Persephone was playing, Hades and his chariot emerged briefly from a crack in the earth to seize her. While in the Underworld, Hades tried to win Persephone's affections. Eventually, Hades tricked her into staying with him by offering her a tempting pomegranate to eat. Persephone ate just six pomegranate seeds; as a result, she was forced to spend six months of each year in the underworld with Hades. While Persephone is in the underworld, her mother grieves; the plants wither and die. When she returns, the spring brings the rebirth of growing things.

Hades and Heracles/Hercules

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.

Theseus Attempts to Abduct Persephone

After seducing a young Helen of Troy, 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.