Pluto: The Ruler of the Dead
Pluto: The Ruler of the Dead
You’ve probably heard that Pluto is the Roman god of the dead, but is there more to his name than you know?
Pluto is the name often given to the Roman god of the Underworld. It comes from the Greek Ploutos, which was an alternative name for Hades.
While many Greek gods were given Roman names, Pluto retained a more Greek-sounding one. The truth of the god’s identity is more complicated than this, however.
Just as Plouton was an epithet for Hades, Pluto was not properly the name of the Roman Underworld deity.
Instead, Pluto was an alternative name, just as Plouton had been. In Rome it applied to not one, but two gods of death.
If Pluto was not the true name of the god of death in either culture, what was? And what did Pluto’s alternative names have to do with his role as the king of the Underworld?
Pluto and the Gods of the Underworld
“Pluto” appears in both Greek and Roman mythology, but it is not actually the name of an Underworld god.
In Greek, the ruler of the Underworld was Hades. In Rome two gods, Dis Pater and Orcus, shared the domain.
The Greek “Plouton” was sometimes used in place of Hades’s name, however.
Plouton comes from the Greek word for wealth. It was used as a more positive way to reference the god of the dead.
This was because names and words were thought to have great power in the ancient world. By speaking a thing out loud one could make it manifest.
Naming the god of death, therefore, carried a great risk. Saying the name of Hades could make him manifest and draw his attention.
Instead, he was often called by an epithet. One of the most common of these was Plouton.
When the Romans adopted this convention they retained the familiar epithet. Pluto was a name given to the god of the dead, although it was still not precise.
The Romans actually had two gods who fell under the term Pluto. The first was Orcus who came to be most closely associated with a punitive version of the afterlife.
The other Roman chthonic god was Dis Pater. This, too, cannot be properly called a name.
Dis Pater translates as “The Father of Wealth.” Like Plouton, this gave a positive title to a god with negative connotations.
The Romans sometimes used Pluto to refer to their god, following Greek tradition. Just as often, however, they used Dis Pater, Dis, or Orcus.
The popular conception that Pluto was the Roman equivalent of Hades is thus not entirely accurate. Both cultures used similar names to refer to the god of the Underworld without the risk of invoking him.
My Modern Interpretation
The traditional interpretation of the death god’s epithet is that it was meant to appease him and disguise references to him. By referencing him in terms of something positive, like wealth, the people of Greece and Rome could hope to flatter him or obscure his name so entirely that he paid no attention to them.
The mythology of Hades and Dis Pater, however, provides an alternative explanation.
In classical mythology, the Underworld is intrinsically linked to the concept of growth and rebirth. The name Plouton or Pluto could refer to the chthonic god for this role in fertility.
This association is not unique to Greece and Rome. Many ancient cultures recognized that new life was not possible without death.
Like many cultures, the Greeks imagined that the land of the dead lay below their own. The realm of Hades was deep below the surface of the Earth.
Burial both symbolically and literally sent the soul to the afterlife. Placing bodies in the Earth literally moved them toward the Underworld.
The same soil that sent bodies to the Underworld also provided nourishment. Decay and dead material fertilized the soil to produce abundant crops that fed both humans and their livestock.
Each spring new crops and other plants pushed out of this soil. It was easy to imagine them coming up from the land of the dead itself; the Underworld sending forth the plants that sustained life.
The growing cycle in agricultural societies was one of life and death.
In the fall seeds were harvested from food crops before the plants died in the winter. When they were replanted in the spring they were dormant, seemingly dead, but came back to life in the space between the Underworld and the surface.
Hades/Dis Pater can be literally seen as gods of wealth, therefore. Without death, the rebirth of spring would not be possible.
This is well-illustrated in the story of the god’s marriage, which was adopted into Dis Pater’s mythology by the Romans.
The god of the dead married Persephone, called Proserpina by the Romans. She was the daughter of Demeter/Ceres and, like her mother, was associated with vegetation.
Pluto abducted the young goddess and dragged her into the Underworld. After a long search by her mother, Persephone was allowed to return to the surface for two thirds of the year but had to spend four months in her husband’s realm.
Persephone’s myth explained the seasons, with the four months she spent in Hades/Dis being the barren season of winter. The most important part of her story, however, was not that plants died when she was away.
Persephone was associated with the spring and the rebirth of life after winter. She was revered as the queen of the Underworld but was considered a friendly and helpful deity because she brought new life with her each spring.
Pluto’s wife represents the cycle of death and rebirth in mythology. Like a seed, she is lifeless through the winter, but when she reemerges from the ground she brings wealth and abundance.
The Roman Dis Pater highlights the connection between life and death just as clearly. He is referred to not only as a god of wealth, but as its father.
In the mythological cycle of life and death, Pluto does not only represent the force of death. He also represents the means by which new life, the ultimate form of wealth, returns.
Pluto is a name for the Roman god of the Underworld. It comes from the Greek Plouton, “Bringer of Wealth,” an alternative name for Hades.
Like the Greeks, the Romans used this epithet to avoid referencing death directly. This gave the god a more positive connotation to avoid attracting his attention or anger.
The Romans used Pluto to refer to two gods. Orcus was sometimes called Pluto, but the mythology and characteristics of Hades were given to Dis Pater.
Like Plouton, Dis Pater was a name that referenced the god in connection to wealth. He was still sometimes called Pluto, however, in keeping with Greek tradition.
The name Plouton/Pluto is usually interpreted as a way to appease the god by falsely associating him with something positive. In fact, the classical ideas of death and rebirth may have made the epithet more fitting than it seems at first glance.
In the ancient understanding of the world new life was not possible without death. Plants grew from the direction of the Underworld and dead plant and animal matter fertilized the soil.
This idea was so central that Hades was married to Persephone, a goddess of spring and growth. The land was barren when she spent winters in her husband’s realm but came back to life each spring when she re-emerged from the Underworld.
As both Plouton and Dis Pater, ancient people used wealth to describe their king of the Underworld. This may actually be because he had a hand in providing the wealth of food crops that came from the soil.