Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld. That made him the king of the dead, but it also made him a god of all the wealth that came from mines and other places under the ground. He was a complicated god, but delving into the details about him can show us a lot about ancient culture.
All About His Name
Gods have many names, and those names can change over time. Pluto was not the first name for the lord of the dead. In fact, it most likely started as a title that people could use to avoid saying his name!
Pluto comes from a Greek word, plouton. Greeks could use that word as either an adjective, which meant wealthy, or as a title, which roughly meant “The Gentleman.”
The Greeks used it as a title for Hades because they thought it was unlucky to call on the god by name. The Romans picked up the name when they came into contact with the Greeks and started to adopt Greek culture. Their underworld god was originally known as Dis Pater, which is roughly the “Rich Father.”
In general, the ancients called their god Pluto when they were talking about his nicer aspects. They tended to use the older name to talk about their god when he was being wrathful or dangerous. It was the same god either way, and they share the myths.
How Pluto Got His Throne
Pluto rules the underworld. That is the land of the dead, but it is important to remember that he has power over everything that is underground. The ancients had a story that explained how he got that power.
The three brothers decide that they should share power over the world, and divide it up as fairly as they can. One would get the sky, one would get the sea, and one would get the underworld. They drew lots to decide who would get each, and so Pluto became lord of the underworld completely by chance.
The Persephone Myth
Pluto doesn’t have many myths because the ancients were more concerned with gods that could help them in life than ones that mostly mattered after death. He does show up as a supporting character in some myths, but he does take the lead in one story.
Once upon a time, there was a goddess named Persephone. She was a daughter of Ceres (Demeter), who lived apart from the other gods and took care of plants. Hades fell in love with her, and got permission from Zeus to kidnap her to be his wife.
Ceres searched for her daughter, and she neglected the world while she did, so nothing could grow. That was horrible for everyone, so Zeus eventually relented and made Pluto return Persephone. However, she had eaten in the underworld, and so she had to return there for part of the year. That makes Ceres sad, and so nothing grows while Persephone is there. That is why winter exists.
This is fundamentally a farming myth. Ancient farmers often stored their seeds in pots underground, which matches with Persephone going underground when nothing could grow. When she comes back, farmers pull the seeds out of their underground pots so they can plant them again.
This myth also ties in with Pluto being a god of wealth from the ground. Farming was the single most important part of the ancient economy. Pluto’s association with Persephone gives him a connection to farming and the fertility of the ground even though he himself is not a fertility god.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
Ancients rarely spent much time worshiping Pluto, but there is a big exception. He, along with Persephone, was a major figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Scholars don’t know much about the mystery cult because they were forbidden from leaving records or sharing details with outsiders, but a few things are clear.
Most ancient religion focused on getting blessings in life, but the mysteries were a way to get a good afterlife. Initiates learned how to get to the good parts of the underworld, and possibly how to get Pluto and Persephone to like them. The initiates respected Pluto as a wise judge, and Persephone as the perfect bride. They were received worship together as a divine couple rather than as individuals.
There was one other thing that Pluto could do for the living. He was one of the best gods for handing out curses. Archaeologists have found several tablets that are inscribed with a prayer to Pluto to curse an enemy, along with a promise to make a sacrifice if he comes through for them. Some of these also invoke Persephone, which further shows that the two gods had incredibly strong links, especially when used for magic.
Things to Remember
- Pluto was the lord of the underworld.
- He had power over the dead and anything that came out of the ground.
- People worshipped him less often than other gods, but some people still prayed to him.
- He has a strong connection to Persephone, a fertility goddess.