Hadēs ("the unseen") was the ancient Greek god of the underworld. In Greek mythology, Hades is the oldest male child of Cronus and Rhea. According to myth, he and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon defeated the Titans and claimed rulership over the cosmos, ruling the underworld, air, and sea, respectively; the solid earth, long the province of Gaia, was available to all three concurrently. Because of his association with the underworld, Hades is often interpreted in modern times as the personification of death, even though he was not.
Hades was also called "Plouton" (meaning "Rich One"), a name which the Romans latinized as Pluto. Symbols associated with him are the Helm of Darkness and the three-headed dog, Cerberus. The term hades in Christian theology is parallel to Hebrew sheol (grave or dirt-pit), and refers to the abode of the dead. The Christian concept of hell is more akin to and communicated by the Greek concept of Tartarus, a deep, gloomy part of hades used as a dungeon of torment and suffering.
In Greek mythology, Hades (the "unseen"), the god of the underworld, was a son of the Titans, Cronus and Rhea. He had three sisters, Demeter, Hestia, and Hera, as well as two brothers, Zeus, the youngest of the three, and Poseidon, collectively comprising the original six Olympian gods. Upon reaching adulthood, Zeus managed to force his father to disgorge his siblings. After their release the six younger gods, along with allies they managed to gather, challenged the elder gods for power in the Titanomachy, a divine war. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades received weapons from the three Cyclopes to help in the war: Zeus the thunderbolt, Hades the Helm of Darkness, and Poseidon the trident. The night before the first battle, Hades put on his helmet and, being invisible, slipped over to the Titans' camp and destroyed their weapons. The war lasted for ten years and ended with the victory of the younger gods. Following their victory, according to a single famous passage in the Iliad, Hades and his two brothers, Poseidon and Zeus, drew lots for realms to rule. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the seas, and Hades received the underworld, the unseen realm to which the dead go upon leaving the world as well as any and all things beneath the earth.
Hades obtained his eventual consort and queen, Persephone, through trickery, a story that connected the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries with the Olympian pantheon in a founding myth for the realm of the dead. Helios (like Apollo, a sun god) told the grieving Demeter that Hades was not unworthy as a consort for Persephone:
"Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells."(Homeric Hymn to Demeter)
Despite modern connotations of death as evil, Hades was actually more altruistically inclined in mythology. Hades was often portrayed as passive rather than evil; his role was often maintaining relative balance. Hades ruled the dead, assisted by others over whom he had complete authority. He strictly forbade his subjects to leave his domain and would become quite enraged when anyone tried to leave, or if someone tried to steal the souls from his realm. His wrath was equally terrible for anyone who tried to cheat death or otherwise crossed him, as Sisyphus and Pirithous found out to their sorrow. Besides Heracles, the only other living people who ventured to the Underworld were all heroes: Odysseus, Aeneas (accompanied by the Sibyl), Orpheus, Theseus with Pirithous, and, in a late romance, Psyche. None of them were pleased with what they witnessed in the realm of the dead. In particular, the Greek war hero Achilles, whom Odysseus conjured with a blood libation, said:
"O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the perished dead."
(Achilles' soul to Odysseus. Homer, Odyssey)
Hades, god of the dead, was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him, they were reticent to swear oaths in his name, and averted their faces when sacrificing to him. Since to many, simply to say the word "Hades" was frightening, euphemisms were pressed into use. Since precious minerals come from under the earth (i.e., the "underworld" ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well, and was referred to as (Plouton, related to the word for "wealth"), hence the Roman name Pluto. Sophocles explained referring to Hades as "the rich one" with these words: "the gloomy Hades enriches himself with our sighs and our tears." In addition, he was called Clymenus ("notorious"), Polydegmon ("who receives many"), and perhaps Eubuleus ("good counsel" or "well-intentioned"), all of them euphemisms for a name that was unsafe to pronounce, which evolved into epithets.
Hades and Cerberus
Although he was an Olympian, he spent most of the time in his dark realm. Formidable in battle, he proved his ferocity in the famous Titanomachy, the battle of the Olympians versus the Titans, which established the rule of Zeus.
Feared and loathed, Hades embodied the inexorable finality of death: "Why do we loathe Hades more than any god, if not because he is so adamantine and unyielding?" The rhetorical question is Agamemnon's. He was not, however, an evil god, for although he was stern, cruel, and unpitying, he was still just. Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself — the actual embodiment of Death was Thanatos.
When the Greeks propitiated Hades, they banged their hands on the ground to be sure he would hear them. Black animals, such as sheep, were sacrificed to him, and the very vehemence of the rejection of human sacrifice expressed in myth suggests an unspoken memory of some distant past. The blood from all chthonic sacrifices including those to propitiate Hades dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person who offered the sacrifice had to avert his face.
Tne ancient source says that he possessed the Cap of invisibility. His chariot, drawn by four black horses, made for a fearsome and impressive sight. His other ordinary attributes were the Narcissus and Cypress plants, the Key of Hades and Cerberus, the three-headed dog. He sat on an ebony throne.
The philosopher Heraclitus, unifying opposites, declared that Hades and Dionysus, the very essence of indestructible life zoë, are the same god. Amongst other evidence Karl Kerenyi notes that the grieving goddess Demeter refused to drink wine, which is the gift of Dionysus, after Persephone's abduction, because of this association, and suggests that Hades may in fact have been a 'cover name' for the underworld Dionysus. Furthermore he suggests that this dual identity may have been familiar to those who came into contact with the Mysteries. One of the epithets of Dionysus was "Chthonios", meaning "the subterranean."
The consort of Hades was Persephone, represented by the Greeks as the beautiful daughter of Demeter. Persephone did not submit to Hades willingly, but was abducted by him while picking flowers in the fields of Nysa. In protest of his act, Demeter cast a curse on the land and there was a great famine; though, one by one, the gods came to request she lift it, lest mankind perish, she asserted that the earth would remain barren until she saw her daughter again. Finally, Zeus intervened; via Hermes, he requested that Hades return Persephone. Hades complied,
"But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter."Demeter questioned Persephone on her return to light and air:
"...but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods."This bound her to Hades and the Underworld, much to the dismay of Demeter. It is not clear whether Persephone was accomplice to the ploy. Zeus proposed a compromise, to which all parties agreed: of the year, Persephone would spend one third with her husband.
It is during this time that winter casts on the earth "an aspect of sadness and mourning."
Theseus and Pirithous
Hades imprisoned Theseus and Pirithous, who had pledged to kidnap and marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen and together, they kidnapped her and decided to hold onto her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus' mother, Aethra and traveled to the Underworld. Hades knew of their plan to capture his wife, so he pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast; as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Theseus was eventually rescued by Heracles but Pirithous remained trapped as punishment for daring to seek the wife of a god for his own.
Heracles' final labour was to capture Cerberus. First, Heracles went to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. He did this to absolve himself of guilt for killing the centaurs and to learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive. He found the entrance to the underworld at Taenarum. Athena and Hermes helped him through and back from Hades. Heracles asked Hades for permission to take Cerberus. Hades agreed as long as Heracles didn't harm Cerberus. When Heracles dragged the dog out of Hades, he passed through the cavern Acherusia.
According to Ovid, Hades pursued and would have won the nymph Minthe, associated with the river Cocytus, had not Persephone turned Minthe into the plant called mint.
The Realm of Hades
In older Greek myths, the realm of Hades is the misty and gloomy abode of the dead (also called Erebus), where all mortals go. Later Greek philosophy introduced the idea that all mortals are judged after death and are either rewarded or cursed. Very few mortals could leave his realm once they entered: the exceptions, Heracles, Theseus, are heroic. Even Odysseus in his Nekyia calls up the spirits of the departed, rather than descend to them.
There were several sections of the realm of Hades, including Elysium, the Asphodel Meadows, and Tartarus. Greek mythographers were not perfectly consistent about the geography of the afterlife. A contrasting myth of the afterlife concerns the Garden of the Hesperides, often identified with the Isles of the Blessed, where the blessed heroes may dwell.
For Hellenes, the deceased entered the underworld by crossing the Acheron, ferried across by Charon (kair'-on), who charged an obolus, a small coin for passage placed in the mouth of the deceased by pious relatives. Paupers and the friendless gathered for a hundred years on the near shore according to Vergil's Aeneid. Greeks offered propitiatory libations to prevent the deceased from returning to the upper world to "haunt" those who had not given them a proper burial. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog defeated by Heracles. Passing beyond Cerberus, the shades of the departed entered the land of the dead to be judged.
The five rivers of the realm of Hades, and their symbolic meanings, are Acheron (the river of sorrow, or woe), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (oblivion), and Styx (hate), the river upon which even the gods swore and in which Achilles was dipped to render him invincible. The Styx forms the boundary between the upper and lower worlds.
The first region of Hades comprises the Fields of Asphodel, described in the Odyssey, where the shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats. Only libations of blood offered to them in the world of the living can reawaken in them for a time the sensations of humanity.
Beyond lay Erebus, which could be taken for a euphonym of Hades, whose own name was dread. There were two pools, that of Lethe, where the common souls flocked to erase all memory, and the pool of Mnemosyne ("memory"), where the initiates of the Mysteries drank instead. In the forecourt of the palace of Hades and Persephone sit the three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus. There at the trivium sacred to Hecate, where three roads meet, souls are judged, returned to the Fields of Asphodel if they are neither virtuous nor evil, sent by the road to Tartarus if they are impious or evil, or sent to Elysium (Islands of the Blessed) with the "blameless" heroes.
From Men, Myths & Minds
Hades, Greek God of The Underworld
Hades, like his brothers and sisters, was swallowed at birth by his father, the Titan ruler Cronus, to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy that one of his offspring would grow up to replace him on the throne. Years later his younger brother Zeus (who had been hidden away by their mother to prevent him from also being swallowed) made Cronus vomit up his siblings, and then led them in a battle to overthrow the Titans.
Knowing they would need armor, weapons, and troops to win the war, the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, traveled to the Underworld to release the Cyclopes from their captivity.
The Cyclopes were a tribe of one-eyed giants who were fine metal smiths. Cronus had imprisoned them in Tartarus, a region in the Underworld that functioned both as a prison and as a place of exile and punishment, rather like our modern vision of hell. The Cyclopes, grateful for their release, crafted gifts for the brothers - thunderbolts for Zeus, a trident (three pronged spear) for Poseidon, and a magic helmet that rendered the wearer invisible for Hades.
The war was long and bloody, and Hades fought ferociously on the battlefront and proved himself a valiant warrior. The younger generation finally won when Hades, wearing his helmet of invisibility crept up on Cronus, Poseidon pinned him down with his trident, and Zeus rendered him unconscious by striking him with a thunderbolt.
Once the battle with the Titans was over, the brothers drew lots to determine which regions each of them would rule. Poseidon won the oceans, Zeus the sky (which made him the supreme ruler over all the gods and goddesses as well), and Hades drew the Underworld.
This seemed to suit Hades just fine. The Greek god Hades, ruler of the Underworld, spent little time with his Olympian siblings, preferring instead to withdraw to his own space and to mind his own business, so to speak.
And surely his divine responsibility was large -- the management of the Underworld, an underground kingdom wherein lived the spirits of those who had died, those who slept and dreamed, and others who, for whatever reason, had been banished from the earth. With his dark, somewhat morbid nature, the Greek god Hades was undoubtedly well-suited to his career. Nonetheless, at times he was bound to be lonely.
And so he decided that he needed a wife, and the adolescent goddess Persephone unwittingly attracted his eye. One can hardly blame Hades because the Underworld probably needed some “brightening up”, and the young Persephone's radiance would certainly liven up the place.
Hades, however, did not bother to woo the young Persephone. After asking for (and receiving) the approval of her father Zeus for Persephone's hand in marriage, Hades simply abducted her one bright sunny day when she stooped to pluck a narcissus from a field of wildflowers growing near her home. The meadow was suddenly rent open, and Hades simply reached out and snatched Persephone away, taking her to his underworld kingdom and making her his Queen.
Persephone remained lonely for her mother and the life she'd known on earth. Meanwhile her mother, the goddess Demeter, began an intensive search for Persephone. After learning how Zeus had betrayed their daughter, and consumed by grief and sorrow, Demeter refused to allow the crops to grow until Persephone was returned to her. Mankind was facing a dreadful famine. Zeus finally relented and sent the god Hermes to bring Persephone back to her mother.
Part of Persephone missed her mother horribly, but another part had grown rather fond of the god Hades. And Persephone was rather enjoying her role as Queen, even if it was in the Underworld.
While preparing to return to the earth with Hermes, Persephone accepted a pomegranate offered to her by Hades. She knew full well that anyone who had eaten while in the underworld would not be allowed to return, even a goddess -- but Persephone went ahead and ate seven of the seeds. Her choice prevented her from ever being fully restored to Demeter, but did open up the possibility of a compromise.
Hermes was able to negotiate an agreement between Hades and Demeter. Persephone would be allowed to stay with Hades in the underworld for four months each year (winter) and would return to the earth and her mother the remaining months. Each year as Persephone left to join her husband in the Underworld, Greek mythology tells us that the goddess Demeter would begin to grieve, bringing on the cold, barren winters. But a few months later Persephone would return, bringing spring with her.
Like most of the other gods, Hades wasn’t especially monogamous. And like the other gods’ wives, Persephone wasn’t usually very sympathetic and tended to vent her anger on his lovers instead of her husband.
When Persephone discovered Hades’ affair with the beautiful wood nymph Mintha, she simply trod her underfoot, turning her into the plant that we now call Mint.
More than any of the Greek gods, Hades seemed to respect women and was willing to participate in a marriage of equals, sharing his decision-making powers with his wife. The two of them functioned well as a team.
Given his lengthy absences from world affairs and his famous helmet of invisibility, it is understandable that Hades was called the “Unseen One” and the “Invisible One”. Hades is often depicted wearing the helmet, holding a cornucopia (horn of plenty) full of precious metals and jewels . . . not surprising since they are to be found underground, that is, in the realm of Hades.
Before proceeding with the myths of Hades, it would be a good idea to paint a clearer picture of his kingdom . . . it wasn’t all bad! Of course there was the aforementioned Tartarus, a place of profound misery where political prisoners and the most outrageous criminals were sent to endure unending punishments.
By some accounts the Underworld also contained the Elysian Fields, where those who were notably heroic or noble would go for their reward after death. But, for the most part, the Underworld was a place where anyone’s shade, or soul, could go after death.
The price of admission was one coin (of any denomination) to pay Charon, the ferryman, to take the shade across the River Styx that separated the earth from the Underworld. This led to the practice of placing a coin under the tongue or on the eyelids of the recently deceased . . . a way to be sure that the departed could pay the ferryman. Otherwise, without the coin, the spirit would have to restlessly wander the earth for more than a hundred years. Those whose shades entered the Underworld could rest there forever, or choose to be reborn, hopefully perfecting their lives so they could qualify for admission to the Elysian Fields after their next death. Everyone got three lives.
Hades appears to have had three major responsibilities in running the day-to-day operation of the Underworld. The first was to prevent escapes, or returns to the earth, by the dead. In this he was assisted by a ferocious three-headed dog named Cerberus, who actually belonged to the goddess-sorcerer Hecate who had her home in the Underworld.
Since the rule was that once you entered the Underworld you were not allowed to leave, very few ever visited the kingdom (or cared to). Two notable exceptions to that rule were Zeus’ messenger Hermes and the goddess Hecate, who lived in the Underworld, but often left to walk around on the earth visiting the shades who had to wander the earth, bringing them comfort. She was often accompanied by her dog Cerberus on these visits. The other permanent guests who had responsibilities both in the Underworld and on earth, and therefore could come and go freely, were: Thanatos (Death), Hypnos( Sleep), and Morpheus (Dreams).
Others visited only by special invitation. Psyche was allowed to enter the Underworld to pick up a jar of beauty ointment from Persephone for her mother-in-law Aphrodite. Another visitor, Orpheus, who was grieving the death of his wife Eurydice, played and sang so movingly for Hades and Persephone that, touched by his performance, Hades agreed to let Orpheus take his wife back with him to the land of the living. He set only one condition - that Orpheus could not look at her until they reached the sunlight of the earth. Unfortunately Orpheus couldn’t resist the impulse, and the shade of Eurydice returned instantly to live with the dead. Hades refused to allow Orpheus a second chance.
The only visitor who ever entered without Hades’ permission was the great hero Heracles (Hercules) who had been sent to rescue Theseus as a test, the Twelfth Labor of Heracles. Theseus’ best friend had become infatuated with Hades’ wife and had persuaded Theseus to him kidnap her and bring her back to earth so he could marry her. Hades became suspicious and invited them to dinner. The two, naturally, agreed thinking this would be the perfect opportunity to whisk Persephone away. But Hades was prepared for them and had the forge god Hephaestus make him some magical “Chairs of Forgetfulness”. The two set down to dine and promptly forgot what they had come to do.
At any rate, Heracles, managed to rescues Theseus away from Hades, dragging Cerberus to the surface and wounding Hades as they struggled.
Another responsibility of Hades was meting out punishment. While Hades was naturally fearsome to behold because of his association with death, and was not a particularly merciful god, he was perceived as being just and fair.
Finding just the “right” punishment to fit the crime was not a job that most would have envied, but Hades did it well, coming up with countless creative sentences that enliven Greek mythology. Perhaps the most famous was the punishment of Sisyphus.
Zeus was enamored with the daughter of a river god and was romancing her in a wooded valley when he father started looking for her and ran into King Sisyphus who told him that Zeus had fallen in love with his daughter and was in the process of abducting her. The enraged father found them walking in the woods and, brandishing a large club, raced toward the unarmed Zeus (who had hung his thunderbolts in a nearby tree while he courted). The startled Zeus quickly turned himself into a rock, confusing the father, and this allowed Zeus time to retrieve his weapons and “shoot” him in the leg with a thunderbolt.
Even though he’d escaped, Zeus felt humiliated and was furious with the king and his big mouth! Zeus ordered Hades to capture and imprison the king and to administer the severest of punishments possible.
So Hades went to fetch Sisyphus. The king not only refused to go quietly but also tricked Hades into handcuffing himself, then kept Hades in captivity for over a month, walking him around the palace on a leash and making fun of him. Needless to say, the somber and dignified Hades was not at all amused!
Ares, the god of war, currently bored with the endless petty wars of the Greeks decided to rescue Hades and came to his assistance, threatening to decapitate Sisyphus if he didn’t release him and turn himself in as Hades’ prisoner.
The rescue was successful, but the wily Sisyphus had another trick up his sleeve. Once they had arrived in the Underworld, Sisyphus pleaded his case in front of the Queen, arguing that he could not be retain in the Underworld because he was not yet dead, nor had he ever paid the ferryman. Persephone allowed him to leave, but with instructions to return the next day, suitably dead and with a coin under his tongue to start his sentence.
Sisyphus laughed all the way home, thinking that there was no way that he would go back . . . but the next day Hermes showed up on his doorstep announcing that Fates had decreed that it was his time to die….and Hermes escorted him into the Underworld to face his fate.
Once they reached the Underworld, Hades’ Judges of the Dead pronounced his sentence -to push a heavy rock over the top of the mountain in Tartarus and each time the rocks rolls back (which it always did, of course) to start all over again. Hades added an extra touch and had the rock shaped just like the one Zeus had transformed himself into, just in case Sisyphus missed the point!
Like most of the other gods, Hades wasn’t especially monogamous. And like the other gods’ wives, Persephone wasn’t usually very understanding and tended to vent her anger on his lovers instead of her husband. When Persephone discovered Hades’ affair with the beautiful wood nymph Mintha, she simply trod her underfoot, turning her into the plant that we now call Mint.
More than any of the gods, Hades seemed to respect women and was willing to participate in a marriage of equals, sharing his decision-making powers with his wife. The two of them functioned well as a team.
In his role as “Good Counselor,” Hades was responsible for helping those who had died to make a successful transition into the afterlife, introducing them to the riches of a life lived subjectively and internally, away from the distractions of the external world. Hades teaches us to be quiet at times, listening carefully to the inner voices that direct us to the hidden riches buried deeply within the soul.
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