The modern view of Hades shows him as a fairly one-dimensional character. He was merciless and even cruel, with no regard for life or emotion.
While the Greeks saw the god of the Underworld as a stern deity, they did not necessarily think that he was as malicious as he’s sometimes shown today. The Greek view of Hades was far more balanced than many modern readers assume.
The god of death was to be respected and feared, but he was really no more temperamental than Zeus, Poseidon, or Athena. And like them he was also capable of showing favor and love to those he chose.
Hades could even be moved to acts of great mercy.
The following facts about Hades show that he was as complex and multi-faceted as any of the other gods of Greek mythology.
Because of inscriptions and written records, we know that the ruler of the Greek Underworld was named Hades. In ancient Greece, however, you would have rarely heard his name.
The people of the ancient world believed that saying a name would attract the attention of the person or deity it belonged to. Just as most people would turn to look if they heard someone call their name behind them, the gods would focus their attention on someone they believed might be invoking them.
As the ruler of the Underworld, no one wanted to invoke Hades unintentionally. They worried that attention from the god of death might hasten their own demise.
To avoid this, people avoided saying the god’s name. They used an epithet for him instead.
The most common name used for Hades was Plouton, a word for wealth.
This name not only avoided the taboo of referring to the chthonic god directly, but it also sought to appease him. By giving the god an epithet with positive connotations, people hoped that they could keep the god from becoming angry with them.
This name passed into Latin as Pluto, the most commonly-used name for the Roman god of death. There were several other euphemistic names given to Hades, though.
Agesilaus meant “The Attractor.” It referred to the fact that all people were eventually attracted to his realm. Pindar called him Agetes, or “The Conductor.”
The Romans had even more numerous and creative names for the god of the Underworld. They referred to his quietness, his power over fire, and the fact that all things returned to him.
Just as Hades was rarely spoken of directly, he was rarely pictured directly either.
The Greeks believed that images could have the same power as words. By creating a painting or sculpture of a god, they could attract its attention.
Worse, they could attract its anger. An Unflattering representation ran the risk of angering the god that was shown.
Because images had such power, images of Hades were avoided just as his name was. Unlike other Greek gods, therefore, Hades did not develop a set iconography.
The images that do depict him show the god in a variety of ages. Some depict a venerable ruler, similar to the bearded Zeus or Poseidon, while others show a younger or clean-shaven god.
In pottery, he is most often shown with a dark beard and is often seated on an ebony throne. Some archaeologists believe, however, that other images may depict Hades but have not been identified because there is little to compare them to.
One thing that was used to identify the god of the dead in art was his faithful guard dog, Cerberus. The three-headed dog is often shown next to the god of the dead, and in some images its inclusion is the only element that allows for a definite identification.
Hades can also sometimes be identified by the fact that he is looking in the opposite direction of the other gods. He is often pictured alone, to the side of a larger group.
The implication was that the gods had no more affection for Hades than the human artists that painted him did. In many images, the most identifying feature of the Underworld’s ruler is that no one wanted his attention focused on them.
A few characters in Greek mythology, however, were more receptive to the attention of Hades.
Although, as a god of death, he is usually portrayed as infertile, Hades did have some stories in which he fell in love. While he did not have as many affairs as his brothers, it was noteworthy that the god of death showed such emotion.
The most famous love of Hades, of course, was his wife Persephone. While the daughter of Demeter was initially taken to the Underworld against her will, her position as its queen made her an important figure in Greek mythology.
Hades and Persephone were often depicted side by side. In written legends, they have a much more peaceful and cordial relationship than many other couples in Greek mythology.
That is not to say that Hades was entirely faithful to his bride. There are at least two legends that claim that the god of the dead had mistresses among the nymphs.
The more well-known of these was Minthe. She was a beautiful river nymph who fell deeply in love with the god of the Underworld.
According to one legend, Minthe never actually became Hades’ mistress. When Persephone learned that the nymph planned to seduce her husband, she quickly thwarted her plan.
Another version of her story claims that she had already begun her affair when Hades took Persephone to the Underworld to marry her.
As Demeter searched for her missing daughter, Minthe mocked her anguish. She said that Hades’ love for her was so great that he would soon tire of his wife.
In this version of the story, it was Demeter who silenced Minthe. Both stories ended with the nymph being changed into a mint plant to keep her away from Hades.
The god of the Underworld did bring one of his mistresses to his realm, though.
Leuce was a daughter of Oceanus that Hades fell deeply in love with. Like Persephone, he abducted her to the Underworld.
Leuce lived out the rest of her life in the realm of Hades. She was a mortal nymph, however, and she eventually died after many years with Hades.
In death, Leuce was still in the Underworld but was no longer able to be Hades’ lover. Like the other souls that died, she became a vaporous spirit with no real personality or memories.
Thus, Hades mourned her death just as the gods of Olympus did when they lost someone. He decided to create a memorial for her in the Underworld that would celebrate their love.
In the Elysian Fields, where the most pious and honorable people spent their afterlife, he created a white tree in memory of Leuce. It was the only truly living thing in the Underworld.
In the modern world and the ancient one alike, Hades is often depicted as stern and fearsome. People were afraid to even say his name.
But Hades was not an evil or malicious character. He was known to be stern, but also fair and unbiased.
It was notable, then, that there were stories in which Hades showed mercy to those he felt were deserving.
When a plague hit Boeotia, the people consulted the Oracle of Delphi to learn how to stop the disease. They were told that they had to make an appeal to the gods of the Underworld.
Hades and Persephone were angry with the people, and the only way to appease them was by sending two young maidens to them as a sacrifice.
The girls that were chosen were Metioche and Menippe, the daughters of Orion. Although they were young, the girls faced their fate bravely and willingly approached the altar to save their people.
Hades and Persephone were both moved by this display of courage and selflessness. Before Orion’s daughters could be sacrificed, Hades transformed them into comets.
The most famous example of Hades being moved to mercy is the tragic tale of Orpheus and his wife, Euridice. She had tragically died of a snakebite on the day of their wedding.
Broken-hearted, the musician decided to go to the Underworld himself to ask Hades for mercy.
Orpheus reached the thrones of Hades and Persephone and pleaded his case. He played them a song to tell his story.
As the child of Apollo and one of the Muses, Orpheus was the most skilled musician to ever live. His song was so sad and so beautifully played that not even Hades could be unaffected by it.
Hades agreed to let Eurydice leave the Underworld, something that had never been allowed before. There were strict rules, however, for her departure.
Orpheus was told to walk in front of his wife and not look back at her until they had reached the surface.
Orpheus did as he commanded and led Euridice through the Underworld. He kept himself from looking back though the entire trek.
When he reached the surface, Orpheus was overwhelmed with joy. His music had softened the heart of Hades and achieved a seemingly impossible goal.
In his joy, he turned around to celebrate with his wife. He had forgotten, however, that Euridice was walking several paces behind him.
Orpheus had reached the surface, but Euridice was still a few steps away. Because he looked at her before she had emerged into the world of the living, she disappeared forever.
Hades, the ruler of the Underworld, is often portrayed as a frightening and malevolent force. While the people of ancient Greece certainly feared death, there was more to the god of the Underworld than evil.
People believed that they could avoid Hades’ attention, or at least his anger, if they avoided invoking him. His name was rarely said and several epithets were used.
Some of these even sought to flatter the god. If Hades was happy with them, people hoped, he might spare him.
Despite the fear people felt, Hades was not an evil or uncaring figure. He was stern, but did not act out of malevolence toward those who did not wrong him.
In fact, Hades could even be caring.
Compared to many of the other gods, he seemed to have a good relationship with his wife. Although Persephone had been taken to the Underworld without her consent, she became a capable and involved queen.
Hades also felt deep love for certain nymphs, most notably Leuce. He erected a white tree in her honor, the only living plant in the Underworld.
He also, on rare occasions, showed mercy to those that impressed him. He spared the daughters of Orion from being sacrificed and was so moved by Orpheus’s lyrical poetry that he gave him permission to take his wife back to the world of the living.
While the view of him is sometimes one-dimensional, Hades was as complex of a character as any of the other Olympian gods. He was a being to be feared and respected, but he was also capable of great love and mercy.