One of the most dreaded and fearsome deities Greek mythology had to offer, Hades was king of the underworld (also called Hades) and ruler of the dead. He was known by an unusually large number of epithets, including Agesander and Agesilaus (meaning “he who leads away all”), Clymenus (meaning “the notorious”), and Eubuleus (meaning “giver of good advice.”)1 Hades was also described by Hesiod and Homer as “pitiless,” “loathsome,” and “monstrous.”

Hades was a shadowy figure both literally and metaphorically, thanks in part to a helm of invisibility fashioned for him by Hephaestus. The only major deity to not inhabit Mt. Olympus, Hades lived alone in a dark palace within the underworld, a subterranean region of mist and gloom. An unusually solitary figure, Hades seldom took part in the feuds that constantly occupied other Olympian deities. Despite his distance from mythological drama (or perhaps because of it), Hades was a figure universally dreaded by the Greeks, who feared to even utter his name.

Hades and Cerberus, the Museum of Archaeology, Crete, Greece.

Etymology

The earliest documented version of the name “Hades” was Áïdēs, from the Homeric age (ca. 800 BCE), meaning “unseen,” or more likely “the unseen one.” This name origin could be seen as another indication of Hades’ distance from historic and mythological events.

By the Classical era (ca. 500 BC), Hades’ name had evolved from Áïdēs to Háidēs, which carried the same meaning. Fearful of speaking his name, however, the Greeks of the Classical era took to calling him by the epithets described above, as well as by the quasi-formal Plouton, from the word for “wealthy.” Hades may have been given this name thanks to the great horde of treasure he had accumulated from the coins the dead brought him to secure passage across the river Styx. Another explanation was that, since Hades lived under the earth, the name was a way of crediting him for the life-giving properties of soil. The name Plouton was inherited by the Romans, whose god Pluto possessed the same characteristics as Hades.

Family

Hades was the first male child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Like his brothers and sisters—Demeter, Hera, Hestia, and Poseidon—Hades was swallowed shortly after his birth by Cronus, the lord of the universe, who had received prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. Like his siblings, Hades was rescued by Zeus, who forced Cronus to regurgitate the children and took the mantle of ’ruler of the universe’ for himself.

Though Hades never married, he was famously accompanied by Persephone during certain months of the year. Hades may have fathered several mythical figures, including Plutus, the god of wealth, Melinoe, a chthonic (subterranean) nymph, and Zagreus, another chthonic deity about whom little is known. Persephone was mother to all three of the aforementioned children. Hades was also linked—albeit loosely—to the Erinyes (also known as the Furies), the female chthonic beings who carried out Hades’ punishments and did his bidding.

Mythology

The Titanomachy and the Aftermath

Led by the mighty Zeus, Hades and his siblings took part in the Titanomachy—a cataclysmic struggle between the old gods, the Titans, and the new gods, the Olympians. According to Homer’s Iliad, the victorious brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades took advantage of their male privilege and distributed power among the gods and goddesses. They also distributed power amongst themselves, drawing lots to determine their domains. Zeus drew the sky, Poseidon the seas and all waters, and Hades the gloomy underworld buried deep within the earth. Hades was generally thought to have selected the worst of the choices. While his realm was not necessarily a place of outright suffering or overt horrors, it was a still a bleak and lifeless place. In the Odyssey Achilles spoke to Odysseus during his journey to the underworld, famously claiming:

No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.2

In the underworld, Hades ruled over a minor pantheon of chthonic beings and built a palace called the House of Hades. There he lived with Persephone (for several months of the year) and his “guests,” the countless dead who had made the journey to the underworld successfully.

Others were not so lucky. Those who failed to pay their toll to the ferryman Charon were left to wail on the far bank of the river Styx. Those judged to have lived wickedly, as well as those who had attempted to elude death and deprive Hades of their soul, were consigned to dreadful Tartarus, a region below Hades that was little more than a place of misery and torturous punishments. One famous example of what awaited in Tartarus involved Sisyphus, a mortal king, who tricked Thanatos (god of death) by chaining him up when he came to claim Sisyphus’ life. For this deed, Hades cast Sisyphus into Tartarus and assigned him the impossible task of rolling a boulder to the top of a hill that he would never reach. Every time he had nearly reached the top, the boulder would roll back down.

Hades and Persephone

The central myth of Hades involved his abduction of Persephone. Hades was visiting earth (a rare occasion) when he noticed the beautiful Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, picking flowers in the fields of Nysa. Smitten, Hades flew from the gates of his gloomy palace and, riding in his black chariot, seized the young goddess, carrying her away to the underworld.

Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, searched far and wide for her missing daughter, but her searching was in vain. Her hunt eventually leading her to Eleusis where, in a temple built in her honor, she withdrew from the world. Demeter was so stricken with grief following the abduction of her daughter that, in her sorrow, she cursed the ground so that nothing would grow. Seeing the damage and destruction she had wrought, the other gods grew restless and eventually appealed to Zeus to intervene. He eventually agreed to send Hermes to the underworld to command Hades to release Persephone. The Hymn to Demeter captured Hades’ reaction:

[Hades], ruler over the dead, smiled grimly and obeyed the behest of Zeus the king. For he straightway urged wise Persephone, saying:
“Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me: be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods, that am own brother to father Zeus. And while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.”3

According to most versions of the myth, Hades acquiesced to Zeus, albeit with a minor stipulation. If Persephone had refused all food while she was in the underworld, he would allow Persephone to go freely. If she had eaten something, however, she would be forced to return to him during certain times of the year. During her time in Hades, Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds. It was these seeds that would force her to return to the underworld each year for a four to sixth month period.

According to some interpretations, the time of Persephone’s absence from Demeter coincided with the most dire and life-threatening times of the season—either the hot and dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life was endangered—or autumn/winter, when cold temperatures and frosts temporarily halted agricultural growth. The story of Persephone’s abduction became the central element of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the annual rites performed by votaries of the cult of Demeter and Persephone.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, *Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld* (1861). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. A modern depiction of the story in which Orpheus attempts to rescue his wife, Eurydice, a nymph and daughter of Apollo from death. At the threshold of Hades, Orpheus turned to gaze upon his lover, only to see her vanish into the mists.

Hades and the Heroes

While Hades was seldom the main character in mythological drama, he did appear in stories of heroes who journeyed to the underworld. One story involved the two adventurers Theseus (the legendary founder of Athens) and Pirithous, who conspired to kidnap Persephone from the underworld. Hades learned of the plot and invited the two a grand banquet. When they sat down, they were instantly fastened to their chairs. According to Apollodorus’ Epitome, the rock that the adventurers sat on grew into their flesh and held them fast.4

Hades also appeared in a tale of Hercules. During one of his labors, Hercules was forced to kidnap the “hound of Hades,” Cerberus, the three-headed dog-like beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld. There were many versions of the story—Hercules beating Cerberus with a club, Hercules fighting Hades first and wounding him with an arrow, Hercules defeating the hell hound with a shield, etc.—in each case, the result was always a victory for Hercules. In these stories, Hercules usually rescued Theseus from his rocky prison while poor Pirithous was left in stone for all eternity.

Hades and the Greeks

Hades was not the object of worship by ancient Greeks. He had few votaries or temples, though the Greeks did offer sacrifices. During these rituals, the blood of the sacrificial beast was allowed to sink into the ground and appease the lord of the underworld. Despite the lack of outright worship, Hades was nevertheless held in a kind of reverential awe. He was a reminder for the Greeks, as for all others, that silent, mysterious, implacable death was always waiting.

Some of this sense of awe was reflected in the Greeks’ refusal to utter the name “Hades.” Eventually, the Greeks came to call him by a host of other names, especially Plouton, “the wealthy.” With this particularly name, one wonders if the Greeks were not trying to allay their own fears about death by recasting the one who takes away all as a giver of life. On the other hand, perhaps they simply recognized—as they did with their tales of Demeter and Persephone—that death was inseparably bound to life in a great cycle.

Pop Culture

Though Hades has often appeared in popular culture, many of his appearances featured him as a villainous antagonist, a portrayal at odds with his ancient persona. He made regular appearances in the book and film series Percy Jackson & the Olympians, being portrayed on film by Steve Coogan and Ralph Fiennes. Hades was also a fixture of the Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess television series.

In video games, Hades appeared as a recurring character in the God of War series (the palace of Hades was a featured level in God of War III), as well as in the Age of Mythology and Age of Empires video game series. Hades was often portrayed as conniving and evil in modern depictions, such as Disney’s Hercules, where his character, voiced by James Woods, attempted to overthrow Zeus and the Olympians due to his resentment at being stuck in the dark underworld.

References

Bibliography

  1. Apollodorus. Epitome. Translated by J. G. Frazer. Theoi Classical Texts Library. https://www.theoi.com/Text/ApollodorusE.html

  2. Homer. “Homeric Hymn II, to Demeter.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by G. Hugh Evelyn-White. Project Gutenberg. Last modified February 4, 2013. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm#link2H_4_0035.

  3. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Viking, 1996.

  4. Wikipedia contributers. “Hades.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hades.

Footnotes

  1. For a long list of his epithets, featuring dozens of names and titles, see the very thorough and well researched Wikipedia entry for “Hades.” 

  2. Fagles, The Odyssey, 11.555–558. 

  3. Homer, “Homeric Hymn II, to Demeter,” 357–369. 

  4. Apollodorus, Epitome, 1.24.