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The God Hades in Greek Mythology

Updated on March 24, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Greek God Hades

In Ancient Greece, Hades was one of the most important gods, and was regarded as one of the “big three”, alongside his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon; at least when Hellenes religious rites became dominant.

Hades was of course the Greek god of the Underworld, and also Greek god of the dead, and so synonymous would he become with his domain, that the underworld itself would also be referred to as Hades.

The Birth of Hades in Greek Mythology

The Greek god Hades was born to the Titans Cronus and Rhea; and therefore brother to Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon and Zeus.

At the time of Hades’ birth, Cronus was the supreme ruler of the cosmos, with the Titans in charge of every aspect of life. A prophecy was made though, that stated that a child of Cronus would overthrow its father; so to circumvent this prophecy Hades was swallowed by Cronus when he was born.

Hades and the Titanomachy

Zeus was the only sibling to escape the imprisonment within the stomach of Cronus; and whilst his siblings grew inside their father, Zeus grew up on Crete. Helped by Gaia and Rhea, Zeus would commence an insurgency against Cronus, but to be successful Zeus would need allies.

The first allies were his imprisoned siblings, and Rhea would convince Cronus to drink a potion which caused the Titan lord to regurgitate Hades and his siblings. Hades and Poseidon would then join Zeus as the first of a fighting force.

Further allies would join the cause, and Zeus even went into Tartarus to release the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires. The Cyclopes were master craftsmen, and would manufacture the weapons of the gods, and so Zeus received his lightning bolts, Poseidon received his trident, and Hades was given a Helmet of Invisibility.

The war between the Titans and the gods based on Mount Olympus would last for ten years, and would be called the Titanomachy. Whilst there are no surviving works dedicated to the war itself, it is known that Hades was vital in bringing the Titanomachy to a close. Hades would don the Helmet of Invisibility and make his way into the camp of the Titans, and the god would destroy the armaments of the Titans, ending the war.

Hades God of the Underworld

Hades, in Greek mythology, is often referred to as an Olympian god, although he was not one of the 12 gods of Mount Olympus. After the Titanomachy, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades got together to divide the cosmos between them. Lots were drawn and as a result Zeus became lord of the heavens and earth, Poseidon’s domain would become the waters of the world, and Hades was given the Underworld.

Hades and Cerberus

Agostino Carracci (1557–1602) PD-art-100
Agostino Carracci (1557–1602) PD-art-100 | Source

Hades' Realm

It has been common to use the name Hades as a synonym for hell, but the domain of Hades in Greek mythology was not just hell, but was the whole of the afterlife. For in the realm of Hades was Tartarus (hell), the Asphodel Meadows (nothingness), and the Elysian Fields (paradise).

The physical geography of the underworld was not well recorded, but it was known to contain five rivers in Hades; Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (forgetfulness) and Styx (hate). river in hades

The Role of Hades in Ancient Greece

Hades was not Satan nor was he Death, and indeed the god of the Underworld was a rather passive figure in the whole process.

The souls of the deceased would be transported to the edge of Hades’ domain by a Psychopomp, the likes of Hermes and Thanatos (Death). At the banks of the Acheron, Charon would then row those that could pay into the underworld proper.

The deceased would then have their lives judged by the three judges of the Underworld, the kings Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthys. Those whose lives had been heroic would go into the Elysian Fields, those whose lives had been led with indifference spent eternity in the greyness of the Asphodel Meadows, and those that had been evil might find themselves in Tartarus.

Eternal punishment in Tartarus was not undertaken by Hades either, for prisoners were guarded by the Hecatonchires, and punishment was administered by the Erinyes (the Furies).

Lastly, Cerberus, the triple headed dog, was responsible for ensuring that no one ever left the realm of Hades.

Hades, as god of the dead, though, would observe all that went on in his domain from an ebony throne in his palace in the underworld. The role of Hades in Greek mythology was to simple preside over funeral rites, and defend the right for all the deceased to have a decent burial.

Hades Abducting Persephone

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100 | Source

Hades and Persephone

Hades did not want to rule alone though, and so sought out someone to become queen of the Underworld.

Hades decided that the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess Persephone would be the ideal consort. Zeus even agreed that Hades could take his daughter as his wife. Persephone would have little choice in the arrangement, for Hades ascended from the Underworld, and abducted Persephone whilst the goddess was picking flowers.

Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, especially when she could not find out where Persephone was. Demeter searched the earth, and whilst she searched she neglected the growth of plants, and a famine spread across the earth. Eventually Zeus had to intervene, and ordered Hades to return Persephone to her mother.

Having got the goddess of his desires, Hades was not going to quickly release her and so the god of the underworld tricked Persephone into eating some seeds of a pomegranate. By eating the seeds, Persephone was bound to the Underworld for a part of the year, normally said to be autumn and winter. During this period the crops ceased to grow, as Demeter was upset about being separated from her daughter, but every spring and summer, when Persephone returned to the surface world, crops would grow again.

So whilst Hades and Persephone were normally depicted together on their thrones, this situation was only true part of the time.

Hades' wife though, would bear her husband no children, for the god of the dead was generally considered to be infertile, as was in keeping with his position.

Hades and Persephone

Published: January 1864 PD-life-70
Published: January 1864 PD-life-70 | Source

Hades away from his Domain

The story of Hades and Persephone is one of the few tales where the god of the underworld leaves his domain; another story of Hades on the earth’s surface though, is the story of Heracles and the Siege of Pylos.

Heracles attacked Pylos after Neleus had refused to cleanse him of his sins. During the taking of Pylos, Hades was said to be present, either amongst the defenders of the city, for Hades was worshipped in Pylos, or as an observer of the dead.

In either case, Hades was injured by one of Heracles’ arrows, and the god of the dead was forced to retreat to Mount Olympus for the wound to be healed.

When Hades did leave his palace in the underworld, the god of the dead was said to travel on a black chariot, pulled by four black horses.

Stories of Hades in Greek Mythology

The stories of Hades in Greek mythology are few in number, especially compared with the number of tales of Zeus or Poseidon; this though, is hardly surprising of the god of the underworld rarely left his domain. There are a few other important stories though, often involving those who descended into the domain of Hades, and those who angered the god of the dead.

Asclepius -

It was written in Greek mythology that Hades, when in the underworld, was unaware of events on the earth or on Mount Olympus; although the god was aware of the actions of Asclepius.

Asclepius was a son of Apollo who became so skilled in medicine that he became known as the god of medicine. So skilled was Asclepius that he could even overcome death. This though infringed on Hades domain, for what good was a god of the dead if no-one died. Zeus would eventually have to kill Asclepius to prevent further discord.

Sisyphus –

Sisyphus was a mortal king who tried to overcome death and in the process greatly angered Hades. Firstly, Sisyphus would chain up Thanatos when Death came to collect the king, then the king, when in the underworld, would convince Persephone to allow him to return to the surface world to chastise his wife.

Eventually, Hades had to send Hermes to return the king to the underworld, where subsequently, Sisyphus would be punished in Tartarus.

Theseus and Pirithous –

Theseus and Pirithous would descend into the underworld, when Pirithous decided that he wished to make Persephone his bride. Hades though was well aware of why the came to his realm, and whilst seemingly welcoming the pair, and offering them a feast, the god of the dead would ensnare the pair in stone seats. Imprisoned in stone, Hades would plan to leave Theseus and Pirithous imprisoned for eternity.

The City of Thebes –

Hades angered was also raised against the city of Thebes, for the god would send a deadly plague against the city, when King Kreon refused to allow the burial of dead warriors during the war of the “Seven Against Thebes”.

Hades’ anger was only placated when the Coronides sacrificed themselves.

Hades though, could also show compassion and leniency on occasion.

Heracles –

For his 12th Labour, the Greek hero Heracles would descend into the Underworld, to bring back Cerberus. Heracles first asked the permission of Hades, before wrestling the gigantic hound; Hades agreed to the removal of his guard dog, as long as Cerberus was not hurt, and was afterwards released.

Heracles would also rescue Theseus during this time, and again Heracles and Theseus would ask forgiveness from Hades. Whilst Hades would allow Heracles to rescue Theseus, Pirithous was not released.

Oprheus –

Another hero who descended into the realm of Hades was Orpheus, who came to try and retrieve his wife Eurydice. Hades was actually so taken with the music of Orpheus that he agreed to release Eurydice, but only on the condition that Orpheus had to walk ahead and not look back. Orpheus of course looked back at his wife before he got to the surface, and so he lost Eurydice once again.

Hades and Orpheus

Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902) PD-art-100
Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902) PD-art-100 | Source

The Worship of Hades in Ancient Greece

Hades in Greek mythology was one of the most feared and revered of all Greek deities; but whilst there were cults of Hades across Ancient Greece, the worship of Hades was limited. This lack of worship was down to the fact that the Hades was viewed as immovable, and so any sacrifice made to Hades would not sway the god.

People in Ancient Greece would be wary about saying the name of Hades for fear that they would draw the attention of the god onto themselves. So Hades became known by other names, including Clymenus (notorious), Eubuleus (good guessing) and Polydegmon (receiver of many). One name often given to Hades though was Pluton (giver of wealth), for the god of the dead was also said to be the provider of all the metals that emerged from the earth.

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
    Author

    Colin Quartermain 3 years ago

    Many thanks for reading and commenting daydreamer

  • daydreamer13 profile image

    daydreamer13 3 years ago

    Well done. Impressive.

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