Hades was the ancient Greek god of the dead, and he ruled the Underworld, which was often called Hades. His name means “The Unseen One,” and he was also called Aidos or Plouton. Under the latter name, he was sometimes described as the god of wealth, for precious metals had to be dug out of the ground. The Greeks believed that Hades could control anything that was buried.
The ancient Romans called him Pluto, a Latinized version of Plouton. They also called him Dis Pater or Orcus. Hades was not, however, Death itself, which was a being the Greeks knew as Thanatos.
Who was Hades?
Hades was a first-generation Olympian, and he was usually described as the eldest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea.
When Cronus heard a prophecy that one of his own children would overthrow him much as he’d overthrown his own father Uranus, he decided to slay any children that he had. To that end, he swallowed each child immediately after it was born. Rhea was able to protect Zeus by spiriting him away to Crete and giving Cronus a rock to swallow.
After Zeus reached maturity, he battled Cronus and forced him to regurgitate his five siblings. Hades and the others then joined Zeus in a decade-long war against the Titans called the Titanomachy. During the war, the siblings freed the Cyclopes that the Titans had kept captive. In gratitude, the Cyclopes made weapons for the brothers including a Helm of Invisibility for Hades.
After establishing a new seat of power on Mt. Olympus, the brothers drew lots to determine which of them would rule a given realm. Zeus became lord of the sky, Poseidon became lord of the sea, and Hades became lord of the Underworld. As befits a king, he had a palace there.
Hades and Persephone
The best-known story about Hades is his abduction of Persephone. The ancient Greeks used the myth to explain the changing seasons. Persephone was Demeter’s daughter and the goddess of spring. Hades didn’t visit the surface world very often. On one such trip, he saw Persephone and fell madly in love with her.
The exact details of the abduction vary. Some versions of the myth, for example, say Hades had Zeus’ permission to take her. Many say he used beautiful magical flowers to lure Persephone into a trap and then grabbed her. He then bore her away on his chariot back to the Underworld. The only witnesses were two other gods, Hecate and Helios.
Demeter left Olympus to look for her missing daughter. Eventually, Hecate and Helios told her what they had seen, and Demeter was furious. As the goddess of fertility, she was in charge of making plants grow. In her rage, she caused a drought followed by a famine. One by one, the other gods tried to persuade her to stop the drought, but she wouldn’t listen. Eventually, Zeus realized he needed to get Demeter’s daughter back.
He sent Hermes, the gods’ messenger, to talk to Hades and persuade him to send Persephone back. Hades agreed, but he tricked or talked Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed before leaving. He knew that if Persephone ate or drank anything in the Underworld, she would have to come back to him. Zeus eventually decreed that Persephone would spend a third of the year with Hades and the remaining two thirds with her mother. During winter, Persephone stayed with Hades, and Demeter would grieve and not let anything grow.
Other myths involving Hades
Hades did appear as a supporting character in a few other myths. For example, the hero Heracles (Hercules) had to perform Twelve Labors to make amends to the gods for some offense. The last Labor required him to capture Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed dog, and bring him to the surface. Heracles wisely asked Hades’ permission, and Hades gave it – providing Heracles could wrestle the beast into submission.
Hades also appeared in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Orpheus was the world’s greatest musician, and he deeply loved Eurydice. When she died, he went to the Underworld to try to retrieve her. Hades was so moved by Orpheus’ music that he gave the musician permission to take her back.
What did Hades look like?
The ancient Greeks greatly feared Hades, so there aren’t too many works of art depicting him. His age could vary. For instance, artists portraying his abduction of Persephone often depicted him as looking like a young man, while other artists portrayed him as appearing somewhat older. Regardless of his age, he was typically shown as having a dark beard, wavy hair, and a somber expression. Some artists depicted him with Persephone or with Cerberus.
Was Hades evil?
The Greek gods do sometimes turn up in modern popular culture, and Hades is no exception. While some works do portray him in a neutral or even sympathetic fashion, others, like Disney’s “Hercules,” portray him as an antagonist or villain.
While the ancient Greeks greatly feared Hades, they did not consider him to be evil. He was stern and grim, but he was a just ruler of the Underworld. The main things that made Hades angry were people trying to leave his realm, people trying to take ghosts out of his realm, or doing anything else that could be considered cheating death.
While his marriage to Persephone got off to a horrible start, Hades proved to be a better husband than either of his brothers. While Zeus and Poseidon both shamelessly cheated on their wives, Hades was largely faithful to Persephone. There are only one or two myths that depict him straying. In one such story, Hades fell for a nymph called Minthe. When Persephone found out, she angrily transformed Minthe into the mint plant.
What was the Underworld like?
The Underworld was dark and gloomy, and it was divided into several sections. The Asphodel Meadows may have been the largest section, for it housed the souls of ordinary people who had been neither extremely good or extremely wicked. Tartarus was the deepest section, and the wicked people were sent there. Elysium or the Elysian Fields was the home of the heroes and other good and noble sorts.
The Underworld had five rivers: Styx (hate), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (forgetfulness), Cocytus (lamentation), and Acheron (woe). The Styx formed the boundary between the Underworld and the surface world. The souls of the recently deceased had to cross it, and they had to pay the skeletal ferryman Charon to do so.
The Ancient Greeks thus had a custom of putting a coin in the mouth of the deceased, so they could pay Charon. After disembarking, the souls passed through a gate guarded by Cerberus. He let everybody in, but he would relentlessly hunt down anybody who tried to leave. The souls then had to face three judges: Aeacus, Minos, and Rhadamanthus.
They would decide a soul’s final destination.