Weekly Deity: Hades


Hades is the Greek god of the dead and the underworld.  His Roman counterpart is actually Dis, not Pluto, though over time the two Roman gods became associated with each other and soon Dis was lost in favor of Pluto, who took over his attributes and responsibilities.  Hades’s name means “the unseen.”  Another name for Hades is Polydegmon, which means “receiver of many guests”, for the number of souls he received in the Underworld.  The name Hades refers to both the god and to the Underworld itself.  His Roman name, Pluto, is associated with another Greek name for him, “Plouton”, which means “giver of wealth”.

Attributes

A middle aged man who look a great deal like Zeus, Hades was often shown as a muscular god with a full beard.  He tended to be a very grim-looking god.  Sometimes he was depicted with Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, at his side.  He carried a staff and drove a chariot with four horses.  Being a god of things beneath the earth, the Greeks, like the Romans with Dis and Pluto, associated Hades with wealth, and he was sometimes shown wearing fine garments or eating fine food, or surrounded by treasures.

Mythology

Hades was the brother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia, and third most powerful god in the pantheon (below Zeus and Poseidon).  He was the son of Cronos and Rhea.

Probably his most famous myth is that of his marriage to Persephone.  There are likely many versions of this story, but the most prevalent one is that Persephone, the goddess of Spring and daughter of Demeter and Zeus, was picking narcissus flowers (a flower associated with Hades) in a field.  Hades saw her and wanted her for his own.

He quickly got his chariot and broke through the surface of the earth and kidnapped Persephone.  Demeter, of course, protested the abduction of her daughter.  Zeus dragged his heels, reluctant to intervene since in his mind Hades was acting in an acceptable manner.  Demeter threw a fit and refused to grow things.  This went on for long enough that humans and animals began to starve, and the gods weren’t getting their sacrifices at all, which left them in a poor mood.  Finally, Zeus sent Hermes, the messenger god, to Hades telling him he had to give Persephone back.  By that time, Persephone had been with Hades for a number of months and had been tricked into eating of the food of the dead.  She had eaten pomegranate, and because of this Persephone had to return to the underworld for a third of the year.  Demeter was upset but had to relent.  Thus, Hades got a wife for a third of the year.

However, it is believed this version of the myth was intentionally twisted to be an abduction and rape.  An earlier version records similar events but implies that Persephone went of her own free will, and was not abducted or raped by Hades, which places both of these deities in a very different light.

Hades taking Persephone away in his chariot

Another myth, though short, involves how Hades gained his kingdom in the first place.  After Zeus had defeated his father and the Titans and become ruler of the gods, he and his brothers agreed to split the world into domains for each.  They agreed to draw lots.  Zeus got the sky as his realm, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.

Herakles (aka Hercules) was also involved in a Hades myth.  As part of his Twelve Labors, Herakles needed to capture Cerberus.  The versions vary, but the widely accepted one is that Herakles went to Hades to ask him if he could take Cerberus for a while.  Hades agreed on the proviso that Herakles not harm Cerberus at all, and return him.  Herakles agreed and took Cerberus and eventually returned him at the completion of this Twelfth Labor.

Hades is known to be a grim and unforgiving god.  However, in one instance, he did show mercy.  When Orpheus journeyed to the Underworld in search of his wife, Eurydice (pronounced “your-id-ih-key”), the famous musician who was able to make even stones weep with the skill of his playing played his music for Hades and asked him for a second chance for Eurydice.  Hades, moved to feel by the emotion of Orpheus’s music, allowed Eurydice’s soul to return with Orpheus.  But he added the condition that Orpheus must not look back at Eurydice to see if she was there until both had reached the sunlight again.  Orpheus almost made it, but looked back when he had almost reached the top, and Eurydice returned to Hades.

A final myth is that of Minthe.  Hades, usually a devoted husband to Persephone, ended up chasing a nymph called Minthe.  He had almost won her when Persephone found out about it and turned the nymphe into a mint plant.

Light Side

Hades is the king of the dead but he is not death itself.  He does not cause people to die, he only watched over their souls and makes sure none return to life and that all are given their punishment of reward as they deserve (meaning whether they go to the Elysian fields or if they suffer a punishment like Tantalus or Sisyphus).  Hades is lord of all beneath the earth, and so is a god of wealth as well as death.  He actually seems to be more of a neutral god than anything else–he doesn’t help much, but he doesn’t actively work against anyone either.  He can be moved to feel emotion, but only in one exceptional circumstance–still, that speaks well of him, for he could have refused Orpheus even after hearing his song, yet he didn’t (which could also point to a slightly romantic side of him, especially if the original version of the abduction of Persephone is taken into account).

Dark Side

Hades only gets his bad reputation because he and his stories had been twisted around to put him in a bad light by those trying to suppress the old beliefs.  Yes, he is a grim god, but it is necessary to him to be so.  If he were more light-hearted and easy-going, he would be more susceptible to giving in to souls who wanted to return to life.  Other than his dour nature, he isn’t a bad guy at all.  On the contrary, when stories of his personality are actually studied closely, he seems like the quiet kid in the back of the classroom who doesn’t really do anything wrong but people don’t like him because he keeps to himself most of the time.  Also, it is more likely that he did not abduct or rape Persephone if the original version is counted as having more weight than the altered version, which, if it is, Hades loses the traits of being a rapist and kidnapper.  Which definitely puts him in a more positive light.  I suppose his only “dark” side is that he deals with the dead and lives in darkness, since most of the Underworld is likely dark, and many people are afraid of death and the dead.  Sounds more like a grave misunderstanding of Hades to me, though…I think he’s more a neutral god than Light or Dark.

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One response to “Weekly Deity: Hades

  1. I’d just like to point out that ‘rape’ in the context of the myth refers to the abduction itself. It meant ‘to carry off’. Most classical accounts I’ve read either refer to that alone, or add that he tried to win her affection (though after he kidnapped her). Also, though it wasn’t a very conscientious act, he did obtain Zeus’ permission which at the time was considered the thing to do.

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