Hades the God of the Dead

Today many people enjoy the stories related to Greek mythology, and indeed film adaptations continue to be made on those same tales. Thousands of years have of course gone by since the gods of Mount Olympus were first worshipped, and yet the names of many of the hods of the Greek pantheon remain famous today. Zeus is of course the most famous of the Olympian gods, but the name of one of Zeus’ brothers, Hades, is almost as famous.

Hades was not an Olympian god, as his domain was in the underworld, a domain he was awarded after the Titanomachy, but as well as being one of the most feared Greek gods, he was also one of the most revered.

Hades was the son of the Titan’s Cronus and Rhea, and as such is the brother of Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon and Zeus. Upon his birth Hades was swallowed by Cronus, in order to prevent the completion of a prophecy. Cronus was the ruler of the older Greek gods but was in fear that one of his children would take over the throne. Zeus would have followed Hades into the stomach of Cronus but Rhea substituted a stone wrapped in baby clothes for him. With Zeus safely hidden on the island of Crete, Rhea tricked Cronus into taking an invincibility’ herb, that in fact made him regurgitate the other children; Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon.

A ten year war, known as the Titanomachy, ensued between the Titans and the siblings of Zeus. The three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, received weapons from the three Cyclopes to aid in the war. Zeus received the thunderbolt, Hades got the Helmet of Darkness and Poseidon got his Trident. By putting on his helmet, Hades became invisible and managed to slip in the camp of the Titan’s and destroy their armaments.

Zeus and the younger gods were victorious over the Titans, and Zeus banished the majority of the Titans to Tartarus in the deepest reaches of the Underworld. The three brothers then drew lots to see which section of the cosmos they would rule. Zeus took the sky and upper world, Poseidon received the sea and Hades was left with the Underworld as his domain.

The Underworld was not hell as in the Christian connotation of the word. Hades’ domain was initially shown as a land in the far west beyond the ocean; though over time it became a land under Greece itself. Whilst it was perceived as a misty and gloomy place, it was made up of several sections. The Elysian Fields, the Christian equivalent of Paradise or Heaven, were where the heroes resided after death. Tartarus, Christian Hell, was the deepest crevices of the Underworld, and was where those punished resided.

In the Underworld there were five rivers, although the Styx is the best known as it forms the boundary between upper and lower worlds. The five rivers are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (forgetfulness) and Styx (hate).

All deceased mortals would enter the Underworld by crossing the Acheron with the aid of Charon. On the far side of the river was Cerberus, who prevented any soul from making a return journey. In the forecourt of hades’ palace, sat three judges. Hecate’s sacred trivium of Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthys sat in judgement of the departed. In the Underworld there was no special punishment, all mortals were judged on their actions and either cursed or rewarded.

Hades was a passive figure in the process of death. Whilst he presided over funeral rites and defended the right of the dead to a decent burial, much of the work was left to his minions, Thanatos, Hypnos, Charon and Cerberus. Hades was not Death, as that role was taken by Thanatos, whilst Charon was the ferryman.

With his domain assured, Hades sought a wife to become queen of the Underworld. Hades asked Zeus for one of his daughters to become his consort. Zeus offered Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Persephone would not go willingly and so was abducted by Hades. Demeter though was distraught, and without her daughter by her side, cast a famine over the earth. Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to her mother.

Hades tricked Persephone to eat some pomegranate seeds before she returned to Demeter. The seeds bound Persephone to the Underworld for a part of each year. Persephone was said to live with Hades during autumn and winter, at which point Demeter would grieve causing a famine on the lands. Each spring and summer though Hades would return his wife to the land of the living, causing crops to grow, as Demeter was full of joy.

The story of Persephone is another example of Hellene Olympians replacing existing gods. Persephone was in older tales the sole queen of the Underworld, but just as with Hera and Medusa, the male dominated religion of the Hellenes downgraded the female gods.

Hades was feared by god and man, and people avoided speaking his name in case they were singled out by the god. As a result names were created to use in daily life. In particular he was called Clymenus (notorious), Eubuleus (good guessing) and Polydegmon (receiver of many). Hades was also known as Aides, Aidoneus, Haides or Plouton. This is the same as in Christianity, where Satan is Lucifer, Devil or Old Nick.

Feared as he was, Hades was the least worshipped of all gods. There was nothing thought to sway him so there was point in worshipping him, though it should be noted the Secular Games, one hundred year cycle festivals, were held in his honour. Sometimes sacrifices were made for special occasions, and on these occasions black animals, especially sheep were offered.

The modern image of Hades is linked to Satan, and is therefore often perceived as evil’. Often seen as a grim figure, his role in death was a passive one where he kept the balance of the afterlife. In art Hades is depicted in much the same way as his brothers, dark-bearded and regal.

In the Underworld, Hades would sit on an ebony throne with a sceptre in one hand. Hades weapon of choice was his two-pronged fork, which he would use when travelling on his black chariot. His chariot was drawn by four coal-black horses. His other symbols were the Keys to the Underworld, the Cornucopia and the narcissus and cypress plants. His most famous attribute though was his three-headed watchdog, Cerberus.

Unlike the other Olympian gods, Hades spent most of his time in his domain. He forbade any of his subjects to leave, and his anger would be aroused by any attempts to leave. His anger was equally harsh when anyone tried to cheat death or to trick him. The only living people who travelled into the Underworld were all heroes, either attempting rescues or seeking information. Even then there was only a handful who ventured in; Heracles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus, Theseus, Pirithous and Psyche.

Theseus and Pirithous travelled into Hades’ domain in order to abduct Persephone and make her Pirithous’ wife. Hades though realised their true aim, and as he was offering them a feast, he ensnared the pair. The stone they sat on entombed them as snakes coiled around their feet. Theseus was eventually released by Heracles, although Pirithous was left for all eternity.

Heracles entered the Underworld in order to complete his final labour. Heracles was required to capture Cerberus. Finding the entrance at Tanaerum, Heracles received help from the Athena and Hermes to make his way though the Underworld. Heracles asked Hades for permission to take his watchdog. Hades agreed as long as no harm came to Cerberus.

Hades was known to have shown mercy only once. The music of Orpheus was so good that Hades agreed to return Orpheus’ wife, Eurydice, back to the surface world. There was but one condition, Orpheus had to walk ahead of his wife and not look back until they had reached the surface. Orpheus though feared that Hades had given him the wrong soul, he therefore looked back and lost Eurydice until his own death.

Hades thus ruled his domain, and the underworld became known after its ruler. A feared god, but a fair one. Hades provided a balance to the afterlife, but in life he was also known to provide the hidden wealth of the earth.