Hades: Ruler of the Greek Underworld
Hades: Ruler of the Greek Underworld
Was Hades a place or a god? Read on to find out all about the Greek underworld and the mysterious god who ruled it.
When you think of Hades, you might not think of a god at all. Many people associate the name Hades with a place, the land of the dead, instead of a specific deity.
More often people are familiar with Pluto, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of the underworld.
So how did Hades give his name to the underworld, and why do we know him as Pluto instead?
Read on to find out more about the secretive and mysterious ruler of the underworld!
Hades and the Underworld
Hades was one of the six children of Chronus and Rhea, the Titans. Along with Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera he was swallowed by his father who believed that one of his children would one day bring an end to his rule.
Zeus was the only one of the divine siblings to escape this fate when their mother hid him from Chronus. When he was grown, he returned to challenge his father for supreme power.
With the help of the Titaness Metis, Zeus disguised himself as a cup bearer. They gave Chronus wine laced with a purgative that forced him to vomit up the children he had swallowed.
Freed from their father, Hades and the other siblings joined their brother Zeus in open rebellion against the rule of Chronus.
The war that followed was called the Titanomachy. Lasting ten years, it divided the ancient gods and the new in a fight for power over the universe.
After many years of fighting, Zeus and his allied received help from Gaia, the Mother Earth who had given birth to the original twelve Titans. Her other children, the three Cyclopes and the three Hecatonchieres, had been imprisoned long before by their father, Zeus and Hades’ grandfather, Uranus.
Uranus had hated these six children of Gaia, who were more monstrous than the divine Titans. She had hoped Chronus would free her children, but when he refused as well she turned to the new gods for help.
They freed the monsters, who were eager to fight against the Titans who had oppressed them. The Cyclopes, in particular, were skilled craftsmen and gave the three leaders of the rebellion great gifts.
Zeus received his famous thunderbolts. Poseidon got a trident that could cause earthquakes. Hades was given a helmet that had the power to make the wearer invisible.
With these great gifts the new gods were able to defeat their father and his allies. The Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, the underworld, with the Hecatonchieres as their guards.
The three brothers then turned their minds to ruling the universe they had conquered. They drew lots to determine which god would receive which realm.
Zeus was recognized as their ruler and received the sky as his domain. Poseidon drew the sea and retreated beneath the waves to build his palace.
Hades received rulership of the underworld. While the victorious gods established their new home on Mount Olympus, Hades retreated to the underworld to rule over the dead.
His rule over the realm of the dead was so complete that his name became synonymous with it. The physical world of the Greek afterlife was Hades’ realm, eventually referred to simply as Hades.
The Lands of the Dead
To the ancient Greeks, the underworld as a realm that was as concrete and complex as the earth they walked on.
They believed that when a man or woman died, their souls were pulled from their bodies. The soul has the appearance the person did in life but, like everything else associated with the afterlife, was invisible to living people.
The soul was transported to the entrance to Hades’ kingdom. There they would have to walk under the watchful eyes of many of the most feared beings in Greece.
The entrance was not only guarded by the pains of human life, including Diseases, War, and Hunger, but is also watched by the Furies, Famous monsters like the Gorgons, Harpies, Chimera, and Hydra also waited by the entrance.
Once inside, the dead would have to pay the ferryman, Charon, to cross the River Styx. Anyone not buried with a coin to pay his fee risked being stranded on the banks, forever wandering in limbo.
On the other side of the river, the great three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the gates of the underworld. Once through those gates, the souls of the dead faced their judgement.
Seated at a meadow before a forked road were the judges of the souls. While many other religions had a god judge the dead, Zeus chose three of his mortal sons to decide the merits of their fellow humans.
Rhadamanthys judged those from Asia, while Aeacus judged those from Europe. If they could not make a decision, Minos held the final vote.
The dead approached the judges naked so that there would never be a risk of judging someone based on their wealth or status instead of their merits.
Those deemed evil or otherwise undeserving were banished to Tartarus. This realm sat below the rest of the underworld and was a place of darkness and despair.
The Titans had been banished there after the war and some claimed that Chronus had taken kingship in this dreadful place. There, sinners were punished for eternity for their crimes.
Exceptional people were granted access to Elysium, also called the Elysian Fields. While some residents were particularly good or righteous people, most of those sent to Elysium were heroes and demigods who had close relationships with the Olympians.
Elysium was an idyllic land with no labor or hardship. The righteous souls there could enjoy the pleasures they most loved in life in a blissful meadow with perfect weather and fresh air.
In later years, the concept of the Isles of the Blessed emerged. Should a soul choose to be reincarnated and remain so pure that they achieved entrance to the Elysian Fields three times, they could enjoy the paradise of the islands.
Most people, however, ended up in neither Tartarus nor Elysium. For the ordinary people of Greece, the afterlife would be spent in the Asphodel Meadows.
The Asphodel Meadows was not a place of pleasure or of pain. Like the people whose souls ended up there, it was a neutral place.
Souls wandered the plains without purpose. There was no suffering there, but there was no joy either.
The dead in Greek thought were insubstantial, unthinking souls who could neither influence nor react to the world around them.
There was no consensus on how the dead spent their time in the Asphodel Meadows. Some believed they could partake in simple past times like playing dice or eating meals, while others believed they were truly lost souls who wandered the fields without thought or purpose for eternity.
Those with a more optimistic view left offerings of food and clothing for their deceased loved ones to enjoy in the realm of Hades. Others poured libations and said prayers only to avoid angering the thoughtless spirits of the dead.
Some ancient thinkers believed that souls sent to the Asphodel Meadows drank from the River Leithe before entering. The water of the river made anyone who drank it forget everything they knew, so these souls lost their identities in this mediocre afterlife.
In later Greek and Roman thought, the Asphodel Meadows became a more pleasant place. For most of Greek history, however, the average person expected to have a dreary, joyless afterlife.
There was no idea of progression or mobility in the Greek afterlife. The soul was frozen at the moment of death, remaining unchanged for eternity.
Those who died in battle wore blood and sweat forever, while those who had a peaceful death would feel that way for eternity.
Over this world of the dead, Hades reigned.
Hades had little interest in what happened in the world above, and just as little concern for the affairs of the other gods. He rarely left his realm.
Unlike many of the creatures and demigods under his control, Hades was not explicitly evil. His main concern was maintaining balance.
Outside of their spheres of influence, Hades was very much like his brother Zeus. Both were mature, serious gods who were primarily concerned with law.
He was described, like the lands he ruled, as stern and remorseless. He was constant and unchanging.
While his anger could be aroused, particularly by those trying to steal souls from his realm or cheat him, he was generally an even-tempered deity. His rages were rare and he never displayed particular joy, sorrow, or jealousy.
He was a gloomy god ruling over a gloomy realm.
The Marriage of Hades
Unlike his brothers, Hades was not known for his love affairs. Arguably the most popular myth about him, however, is the story of his marriage to Persephone.
When Hades decided he wanted to be married, he went to his brother Zeus for help. As king of the gods, Zeus could arrange the marriage of any eligible goddess.
Zeus offered his niece Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, to be his brother’s bride. Most sources claim that Persephone was also Zeus’s own daughter, giving him full authority in Greek culture to arrange her marriage.
Hades was happy with the match, but knew Persephone herself would object. The god of the underworld would hardly be the first choice of husband for a beautiful maiden associated with fertility and life.
More importantly, they knew Demeter would never consent to her daughter being taken to the underworld.
Instead of given the two goddesses an option, Zeus and Hades plotted to kidnap and abduct Persephone. Once in Hades’ realm, she would have little choice but to marry him.
They waited until the goddess was away from her mother, picking flowers in a field with a company of nymphs. The earth opened up and Hades appeared on a golden chariot to snatch her away.
Persephone cried out for her father to help her, but Zeus ignored her pleas. Of the other gods, only Hecate heard the girl’s cries and only Helios saw her being taken away.
When Demeter realized her daughter was missing, she frantically searched for her. For nine full days she scoured the earth without finding any answers.
Finally, Hecate approached her and said that she had heard Persephone cry out as she was taken away, but the goddess of witchcraft had not seen the man who took her.
They went to Helios, knowing that from his position high in the sky the god of the sun could see everything that happened during the day.
And the Son of Hyperion [Helios] answered her: ‘Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rheia, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Aides, her father’s brother, to be called his buxom wife. And Aides seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly: Aidoneus Polysemantor (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 honour, 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 2 to Demeter (trans. Evelyn-White)
Despite assurances that Hades was a good match for her daughter, Demeter was not consoled. Instead, she grew angry with Zeus for allowing her daughter to be taken to the land of the dead.
The goddess swore that she would not set foot on Olympus or the earth until she could see her daughter.
As the goddess of grains and fertility, this was a terrible threat. When she retreated from the earth the plants that men depended on for survival began to die off.
To keep mankind from starving, Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld with a message for Hades. He was to bring Persephone back to Olympus so that her mother could speak to her.
Hades had no choice but to obey the king of the gods, but he was also reluctant to send his new bride away. There was always the risk that Persephone, who was still unhappy in the marriage, would refuse to come back when the visit had ended.
Hades assured the younger goddess that he had no intention of treating her as a captive. He intended to be an honorable husband, and through marriage to him Persephone would gain great power as the queen of his realm.
As a token of affection, he gave his new wife a pomegranate seed to eat on her journey back to Olympus. Some say she ate it willingly, while others claim she was tricked or forced into swallowing it.
He took her back to the world above, where she was reunited with her mother. Demeter was overjoyed to have her daughter back.
Almost immediately, the worried mother offered her daughter the opportunity to stay forever. Persephone could leave Hades and resume her life with Demeter under the condition that she had not eaten any food from the land of the dead.
Persephone was trapped, as Hades had known she would be. By eating the pomegranate he had given her, the goddess had forever tied herself to the underworld and death.
Zeus knew, however, that Demeter would once again allow the grains to fail if she suffered losing her daughter to Hades forever. He devised an agreement that would keep all parties satisfied.
Persephone would remain with her mother for two thirds of the year. During that time plants would grow and grain would be harvested.
The remaining third of the year, Persephone would spend with her husband in the underworld. Then Demeter mourned and the fields once again died.
This legend explained how the cycle of seasons came to be. When Persephone was in the world of the living plants grew, but in the winter when she returned to Hades life withered.
In time, Persephone settled into her role as queen of the underworld. As a goddess who represented the regeneration of life in the spring as well as death, she was a more inviting deity than her stern husband.
Persephone was worshipped with her mother as a goddess that gave life, and with her husband as one who ruled over death. She became one of the most important figures in Greek religion.
As a god of death, Hades is usually shown in myths as incapable of producing children. Only a few sources say that he had offspring at all.
Children born to Persephone were usually said to have been fathered by Zeus, sometimes in disguise as her husband. These myths too, are rare.
Visiting the Land of the Dead
As the wife of Hades, Persephone was one of the few beings allowed to travel freely between the lands of the living and the realm of the dead.
Hades was a careful guardian of his domain, and one of his chief concerns was making sure that none of the souls in the afterlife ever left. Even among the gods, only Hermes had the ability to come and go from there.
Gates to Hades’ realm were typically guarded by fierce monsters who kept the living out and the dead inside. Very few people ever entered the land of the dead and emerged again, and even fewer died and found a way to leave.
Probably the most famous tale that illustrates the difficulties faced by those attempting to traverse the land of the dead is that of Orpheus. The famous musician appears in many tales, but is largely remembered for attempting to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from death.
Eurydice was killed by vipers on their wedding day. The songs Orpheus wrote in her memory were so touching that the nymphs who heard them urged him to go to the underworld to find her.
He played his songs before the throne of Hades and, with talent far beyond any living musician, actually moved the stern god to pity.
Hades and Persephone agreed to allow Eurydice to leave their realm. Orpheus could lead her back to the land of the living, but they cautioned him not to look back until they were both safely out of the underworld.
Orpheus did as they commanded and led his wife through Hades’ realm. When he stepped into the sunlight on the other side of the gate, he turned back to take his wife’s hand.
Eurydice had not yet stepped through the gate. Because she was still in the underworld and a subject of Hades, this violated the rules the god had set forth.
Eurydice vanished just a few feet from regaining her life, and Orpheus would never see her again.
Like Orpheus, most of the people said to have entered and left the underworld again were great heroes. Among them were:
- Heracles – The famous hero who later became a god journeyed to the underworld as the last of his twelve labors, the capture of Cerberus. He used the souls of the dead to convince Hades to let him pass, as long as he could overpower the dog without the use of weapons.
- Theseus – When his friend Pirithous tried to abduct Persephone, Theseus unwisely joined him. He was affixed to a rock in the underworld, immobilized until he was rescued by Heracles. He apologized to the goddess and was allowed to return to life, but Pirithous remained behind.
- Psyche – The wife of Eros was sent on an errand to Persephone by her unhappy mother-in-law, Aphrodite. The goddess of love caused her to fall under a sleeping spell, but she was rescued by her husband and raised to immortality.
- Odysseus – During his long journey home from the Trojan War, Odysseus was instructed to consult the dead prophet Tiresias to learn how to appease Poseidon and reach Ithaca again. He also spoke to the spirits of a fallen crewman, his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon, and other famous figures.
- Aeneas – In later Roman accounts, Aeneas made a similar journey to consult his father after the Trojan War. He learns much about the afterlife and receives the knowledge that his descendants will build a great empire.
Others tried to leave the underworld, but were punished for their attempt.
Sisyphus famously cheated death not once, but twice. He even bound Hades himself to escape, resulting in the disruption of the natural cycle of life and death.
As a punishment, he was consigned to Tartarus where he would forever push a boulder up a great hill. The word sisyphean is still used to describe an impossible and laborious task.
Hades as a Fertility God
Even though he was the god of death, Hades took on a role in fertility and life as well.
The Greeks recognized that life and death were intertwined. Seeds were nourished by decaying material, and the roots of the plants that fed humanity extended deep below the surface of the earth.
As the ruler of the realm that lay below the living earth, Hades was linked to the place that life began. Seeds grew in the dark and brought life-sustaining food from a place of death and decay.
His marriage to Persephone emphasized the role Hades played in the cycle of life and death. She returned from his realm every spring just as seemingly dead grains sprouted new life.
One of his symbols was a cornucopia, representing the wealth of the earth.
In fact the most common name given for him in Greece, Plouton, was linked to their word for wealth, ploutos. Plato theorized that the name was given because the god allowed wealth, in the form of food, to come up from his realm and enter the land of the living.
The Unspoken God
Plouton was just one of the names the Greeks gave Hades.
As the god of the underworld and death, it was taboo to say his name or speak of him too often. The Greeks avoided mentioning Hades so as to not attract his attention.
The name Plouton, which was changed to Pluto by the Romans, was a way to speak of Hades in positive terms and avoid his association with death.
In different regions and eras, Greeks came up with a variety of epithets to avoid saying a name that could bring misfortune. He was called Agesilaus (“attracting,” for the fact that all people were eventually drawn to him), Hegetes (“conductor”), Moiragetes (“guide of the Fates”), and more.
Chthonios, or “of the lower world,” was another epithet given to him. In the modern study of mythology, chthonic now refers to deities of any culture that are associated with death and the underworld.
His wife, too, was not called by her name when referenced in association with him. Persephone was Kore, “the maiden.”
Just as infrequent as his true name was the depiction of Hades in art. Only a few ancient pieces are thought to represent the god, and of those almost none have inscriptions or attributes that make the identification definite.
There may be as few as two surviving statues of Hades from Greece. One is labeled with the name of an Egyptian god, but stands next to Cerberus.
Because of the caution that surrounded him, there were fewer shrines to Hades in ancient Greece than there were to many of the more popular gods and goddesses.
Like many underworld figures, however, there is strong evidence for cults and mysteries devoted to the god.
Thesprotia was the center of his cult in Northern Greece. There, a necromantic oracle connected the living to the dead.
Hades also played a role in one of the ancient world’s most famous cults, the Eleusinian Mysteries. This cult, devoted to Demeter and Persephone, based their most important festivals and rituals around the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades.
Hades, however, was most often prayed to during funerals and at gravesides. It was said that he had laid out the rituals of burial himself.
Modern historians believe that sacrifices to Hades followed some very specific rules. Unlike burnt offerings given to the other gods, the smoke of which would waft upward toward the heavens, animals sacrificed to Hades were bled out into the earth.
Those giving the sacrifice averted their eyes, fearing him even in worship. They were said to bang their hands on the ground before offering prayers to ensure that the god would hear them.
As the ruler of the dead, the Greeks were hesitant to bring too much attention to Hades. Unlike other gods, he did not help them in life.
Even in death, devotion to Hades meant little. The god was known for being unmoved by the pleas and promises of those who went before him.
For the Greeks, it was better to avoid talking about Hades at all.
As a result, there is little record of the god from the ancient world. There are stories in which he influences other popular figures, like Persephone or Heracles, but the mythology around the god himself is less complex.
There is little art or architecture showing him. Unlike the very obvious traits of some other gods, the Greeks seemed to have little consensus for how to visually represent him.
Worship of Hades seemed to have been limited to funeral rites and a few scattered cults. Even then, many shrines and cults were devoted to his wife, Persephone, as much as him.
Veneration of Hades was so rare that in the 2nd century AD, Pausanius wrote in his Description of Greece that he knew of only one town in which the people worshipped Hades in the same way that other gods were worshiped throughout the country.
Hades: The Forgotten God
It’s important to remember that Hades was not actually the god of death. Thanatos was the personification of the end of life.
Hades was more than just death. He ruled over it. Hades represented the finality and mystery of dying.
Like many people, the Greeks preferred not to think too much about the fact that they and everyone they knew would someday die. In a religion that did not have a beautiful and joyous vision of life after death, Hades represented something daunting and terrifying.
The Greeks had a very good reason to avoid thinking too much about their own end. At death they would become subjects of Hades, a dour and merciless god who made no promises of joy or love in the hereafter.
So Hades was pushed to the side, spoken of only in whispered epithets, excluded from art and devotion. By ignoring him, the Greeks hoped to be ignored by him for as long as possible.
Later, the Romans began offering a more hopeful version of the afterlife. They expanded on the idea of Elysium and presented a more positive version of the Asphodel Fields.
Their Pluto was still a fearful figure, but less so than his Greek predecessor.
Hades’ most common epithet lived on in its Latin form, but his actual name was remembered more in connection to the place than the god.