Hades, God of the Underworld and His Unsung Powers
In Greek mythology , Hades was the god of the dead and the ruler of the Underworld. Thus, he was an important god in the Greek pantheon . Nevertheless, he is not considered to be a member of the Twelve Olympians, as he resided not on Mount Olympus, but in the Underworld instead.
As Hades’ domain is located beneath the earth, the Greeks also believed that he was the god of the earth’s hidden wealth. As one of the major Greek gods, Hades is featured in a number of myths, normally as a supporting character, but sometimes as a main one as well.
Titanomachy Brings a New Generation of Gods
The ancient Greeks believed that Hades belonged to the first generation of Olympian gods. His father was the Titan Cronus, while his mother was Rhea. Fearing that one of his own children would eventually overpower him and replace him as king of the gods, Cronus devoured his children, including Hades, as soon as they were born.
Cronus’ youngest son, Zeus, however, was saved by his mother and raised in secret. When Zeus grew up, he returned to Cronus, freed his siblings, and challenged the Titans for supremacy. The resulting war between the two generations of gods is known as the Titanomachy. In the end, the younger generation of gods, who became known as the Olympians, triumphed over the Titans.
During the Titanomachy, the Cyclopes, who had been freed by the Olympians, made powerful weapons for the gods. Zeus was given the lightning bolt, Poseidon the trident, and Hades the helm of darkness. This headgear allowed its wearer to become invisible.
Some believe that after the Titanomachy, the helm became even more powerful and gained the ability to control the dead. Hades is known to have lent his helm of darkness to the other gods.
For instance, during the Trojan War, Athena wore this helm when she aided the Greek hero Diomedes. The helm of darkness was also lent to the hero Perseus during his quest to slay the dreaded Gorgon Medusa.
Following the defeat of the Titans, the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, divided the universe among themselves by drawing lots. Zeus was given rulership of the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the Underworld. As the ruler of the Underworld, Hades’ name is commonly said to mean ‘Unseen / Invisible One’.
How Hades is Viewed
As death was considered to be a taboo subject, Hades was also given several euphemistic epithets, such as Plouton, meaning ‘Of Wealth’, and Theon / Zeus Khthonios, meaning ‘God / Zeus of the Underworld’. Other epithets given to Hades include Polysemantor (Ruler of Many), Polydegmon (Host of Many), and Nekrodegmon (Receiver of the Dead).
Despite being a major god, Hades does not appear as often as the other Olympians in Greek art . This is not surprising, considering that death was a subject that people would normally avoid. Hades is so infrequently depicted in art that there are no strict rules as to how this deity ought to be represented.
Nevertheless, there are certain attributes that allow one to identify this god, including a scepter and key, both of which are symbols of his dominion of the Underworld, and a cornucopia (horn of plenty), which points to his role as a god of wealth. It may be mentioned that Hades’ role as a god of wealth is often overshadowed by his role as the god of the dead.
Hades, god of the Underworld, the dead, and riches.( Archivist / Adobe Stock )
The Greeks believed that Hades’ rulership of the Underworld meant that the god also had access to the secret wealth that is hidden in the earth. This includes precious metals, as well as fertile soil necessary for the growing of crops. In this role, Hades is viewed as a generous and benevolent god.
Hades’ Trusted Companion - Cerberus
Another unmistakable attribute of Hades is Cerberus, his three-headed dog. Incidentally, the poet Hesiod mentions that Cerberus had 50 heads. Apart from his multiple heads, Cerberus is noted also for the snakes that grew on his back and his serpent tail.
Cerberus was a fearsome monster indeed, though unsurprising considering his parentage. In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the offspring of the monsters Typhon and Echidna, whose other children included Orthrus (the two-headed dog who guarded the Cattle of Geryon), the Lernaean Hydra, and the Chimera.
The Greeks believed that Cerberus guarded the gates of the Underworld , devouring anyone who attempted to leave, while preventing the living from entering Hades’ realm. A well-known myth in which Cerberus appears is that of the Twelve Labours of Heracles.
The hero’s 12th and final labor was to capture Cerberus, and to present the creature before Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns. In most versions of the myth, the hero overpowers Cerberus with brute force.
Hades’ dog Cerberus guards the Underworld. (Raul654 / Public Domain )
It was also during his journey in the Underworld that Heracles encountered the heroes Theseus and Pirithous, who were kept there as punishment by Hades. Pirithous wanted to make Persephone, the wife of Hades, his bride, and therefore traveled with Theseus to the Underworld.
In one version of the myth, the two heroes sat on a rock to rest, and realized that they were not able to get up when they saw the Furies coming for them. In another version, they were outwitted by Hades himself.
The god of the Underworld invited Pirithous and Theseus to sit on a special chair. Little did they know, however, that it was the Chair of Forgetfulness, which caused anyone who sat on it to forget everything. It was by this means that Hades was able to keep them in the Underworld.
When Heracles traveled to the Underworld to capture Cerberus, he rescued the two heroes. In some versions, both Theseus and Pirithous were rescued, while in others, Heracles only managed to rescue Theseus. Yet in another version, Heracles could save neither and both heroes continued to be held in the Underworld.
Hades’ dog Cerberus and Hercules. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain )
Cerberus could be overcome by other means as well, as seen in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this tragic tale, the hero Orpheus manages to charm Cerberus with his music, thus allowing him to enter the Underworld. The legendary musician had traveled to the land of the dead in order to bring his deceased wife, Eurydice, back to life.
Orpheus made his way to Hades, and his music and grief so moved the lord of the Underworld that he was allowed to take Eurydice back to the land of the living. Nevertheless, Orpheus was warned not to look back until he and Eurydice had passed the gates of the Underworld.
Unfortunately, as Orpheus stood just a few steps away from the gates of the Underworld, doubt began to fill his mind, since he did not hear his wife’s footsteps during the journey. Thus, he turned back to check if Eurydice was indeed behind him.
In another version of the myth, Orpheus, as he saw the sun, was so excited that he forgot Hades’ warning, and turned back to share his delight with his wife. As a consequence, Eurydice’s shade disappeared instantly and Orpheus returned to the mortal realm alone.
Orpheus and Eurydice try to escape Hades and the Underworld. (Anne-Sophie Ofrim / Public Domain )
Hades ‘Takes’ a Wife
As mentioned earlier, Persephone was the wife of Hades. The queen of the Underworld was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture. The abduction of Persephone is arguably the best-known myth involving Hades and one of the few in which he is a major character.
In this myth, Hades made a petition to his brother Zeus to grant him one of his daughters to be his wife. Zeus chose Persephone, despite knowing that Demeter would not agree to this arrangement.
One day, Persephone was picking flowers in the plain of Nysa with the daughters of Okeanos. She wandered away from the group and came upon a sweet scent of a fragrant flower.
As Persephone reached out to pluck the flower, the ground below her opened up, and Hades, on a gold chariot drawn by four horses, emerged. The god of the Underworld snatched Persephone and brought her to his kingdom to be his queen.
Hades abduction of Persephone who became his wife. (Missinglinkantiques / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The abduction of Persephone caused great sorrow to Demeter, who set out to search for her. For nine days, the goddess wandered over the earth with torches in her hands, though nobody would tell her what had happened to Persephone.
On the 10th day, Demeter met the goddess Hekate, who told her that she had heard Persephone’s voice, but did not see what had happened. Shortly after, the two goddesses went to Helios, the god and personification of the sun, as he would have seen all that happened on earth.
Having been questioned by Demeter, Helios revealed that it was Zeus who allowed Hades to take Persephone as his wife. Furious at what Zeus had done, Demeter vowed neither to set foot on Mount Olympus, nor to allow crops to grow until she had seen her daughter.
When Zeus heard of this, he was worried that Demeter’s actions would spell the end for humanity, and therefore sent Hermes to bring Persephone out of the Underworld. Hermes, known for his diplomatic skills, succeeded in persuading Hades to release Persephone. Before allowing Persephone to leave, however, Hades gave her a pomegranate seed as a parting gift.
As a consequence of eating this seed, which is a food of the dead, Persephone was bound to remain in the Underworld. At this point, Zeus intervened and proposed a compromise. For two thirds of the year, Persephone would remain with Demeter, while the remaining would be spent in the Underworld. All parties involved agreed to Zeus’ arrangement.
Persephone is returned to Demeter but she has to go back to Hades and the Underworld every year. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain )
This has been traditionally taken to explain the changes in the seasons. It was believed that during the months when Persephone stayed with Hades, Demeter would leave Mount Olympus for her temple in Eleusia to mourn the absence of her daughter, thus causing winter in the land.
Hades Was Not the Judge of the Dead
While Hades was the ruler of the Underworld, he did not judge the souls of the dead. The Greeks believed that the souls of the just were rewarded with entrance to the Isles of the Blessed, while the wicked were condemned to Tartarus.
During the time of Cronus, as well as the early reign of Zeus, judgment was made by living judges on the day a person breathed his/her last. Mistakes were made and the wicked were found entering the Isles of the Blessed.
This was due to the fact that the wicked cladded themselves in rich clothing when they were judged, which made them look as though they had lived good lives. Therefore, Zeus decided that from that moment on, the dead were to be judged stripped of all their worldly belongings.
Moreover, Zeus appointed three judges – Rhadamanthys, Aeacus, and Minos. The first tried those who came from Asia, the second those from Europe, and the third had the privilege of making the final decision.
The judges of the dead, Minos, Aiakos (with the scepter), Rhadamanthys sit on the throne bench and question the shadows about their lives and their deeds. (Gerd Leibrock / Public Domain )
Lastly, it may be said that Hades was not Death either. Hades did not have the power to take people’s lives, and the personification of Death in Greek mythology was Thanatos. In the myth of Asclepius, Hades was the god most affected by the demi-god’s healing abilities.
Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal prince. Asclepius’ mother had died during childbirth, and Apollo rescued him by cutting him out of his mother’s womb. The child was later placed under the tutorship of the centaur Chiron and learned the art of medicine.
In time, Asclepius’ medical skills surpassed even that of Chiron’s and Apollo’s. He was able to cure all people and even had the power to bring the dead back to life. While Asclepius was viewed by mankind as a hero, the gods were not pleased with him.
Hades was especially angry at Asclepius, since, thanks to his healing abilities, less and less people were dying. This in turn meant that there were fewer souls entering the Underworld.
Eventually, Hades brought the case up with Zeus and urged him to kill Asclepius so that the status quo could be restored. Zeus had his own grudge against Asclepius – the healer had been raising the dead without first obtaining his permission, which Zeus perceived as an insult to his position as king of the gods.
Although Apollo tried to intercede for his son, Zeus refused to budge and struck Asclepius down with a bolt of lightning. After his death, Asclepius’s body was placed in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus, meaning, ‘Serpent-bearer’.
Top image: Hades, god of the underworld and Cerberus, his dog. ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
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