Hades refers to both the ancient Greek underworld and to the deity that presided over the spirits of the deceased. This dual use was, however, a relatively late development in classical writing, as the term originally referred only to the god—as attested to in the writings of Homer. In these sources, the only term used for the underworld itself was Haidou (the genitive of the word), which literally meant “the house of Hades.” With time, the nominative case also came to designate the abode of the dead.

The term Hades, in its cosmological sense, has sometimes been used in Christianity to refer to the abode of the dead, where the deceased would await Judgment Day in either peace or torment.

Hades was also known as Pluto (from Greek Ploutōn), and it was by this name (translated as “the unseen one” or “the rich one”) that he came to be known in Roman mythology; the corresponding Etruscan god was Aita. The symbols associated with him are scepter and cornucopia.

Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small Macedonian royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, c. 340 BC

Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small Macedonian royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, c. 340 BC

Hades, abode of the dead

Main article: Greek underworld

See also: Elysium and Tartarus

In older Greek myths, Hades is the “misty and gloomy” abode of the dead, which is the ultimate destination of all mortals. In this conception, there was no reward or special punishment for the deceased, making it somewhat akin to the early Hebrew conception of Sheol. In later Greek tales and writings, this view evolved to include the notion of a segregated afterlife, where mortals would be assigned to either reward or punishment based on posthumous judgment.

In this elaborated understanding, Hades was divided into several sections, including the Elysian Fields and Tartarus (which could be fruitfully compared to the Christian conceptions of Heaven and Hell). However, the Greek mythographers describing these realms were not consistent about the geography of the afterlife, as evidenced by contrasting mythic accounts that describe fallen heroes taking up residence on the Isles of the Blessed.

The deceased were said to enter the underworld by crossing the Acheron (“Woeful”) (the “river of woe”) in the ferry of Charon, the undying boatman who charged them each an obolus (a small coin) for passage. On the far side of the river, the gates to Hades were guarded by Cerberus, the demonic three-headed dog who simultaneously prevented the living from entering and the dead from leaving. Once past this dire watchman, the shades of the departed entered the land of the dead proper, where they awaited judgment.

The Field of Asphodel was known as the first region of Hades wherein deceased mortals hovered in pathetic imitation of their incarnate lives. As Rose summarizes, it was “a tasteless and colorless life, with a sort of shadowy continuance of [the departed’s] former occupations in this world.” The second region was the House of Hades, the sepulchral palace of the god of the dead. In the forecourt of this grim castle sat the three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus. There, in front of the thrones of these three ultimate arbiters, three roads met: the first, which led back to the Fields of Asphodel, was followed by souls who were neither virtuous nor evil; the second, which led to the eternal tortures of Tartarus, was the path of those who were impious or evil; the third, which led to the paradisaical Elysian Fields (or the Isles of the Blest), was reserved for the heroic or others who were particularly dear to the gods.

In the Sibylline Oracles, a curious hodgepodge of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian elements, Hades again appeared as the abode of the dead. The peculiar admixture of these two traditions is attested to in a folk etymology preserved within the text, where the name Hades was derived from “Adam” (the first man), saying that it was because he was the first to enter there.

Hades in Christianity

Main article: Hades in Christianity

See AlsoHell (in Ancient Greek Religion)

Like other first-century Jews literate in Greek, early Christians used the Greek word hades as the translation for the Hebrew word Sheol. This use appears in Luke’s story of Lazarus and the rich man. Both underworlds had originally been dark and gloomy places with no concept of posthumous rewards or punishments. Since the writing of the Hebrew Bible, however, the popular concept of Sheol had come to include moral judgment. Thus, Hades came to be seen as a place of comfort for the righteous (in the “bosom of Abraham”) and torment for the wicked. Here the dead awaited the universal resurrection on Judgment Day. This view was defended by many of the early Church Fathers, including Tertullian (c. 155-230 C.E.) and Hippolytus (d. 235 C.E.).

The early Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian described Hades in the following way:

By ourselves the lower regions (of Hades) are not supposed to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world, but a vast deep space in the interior of the earth, and a concealed recess in its very bowels; inasmuch as we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40), that is, in the secret inner recess which is hidden in the earth, and enclosed by the earth, and superimposed on the abysmal depths which lie still lower down. Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, “He died according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and “according to the same Scriptures was buried.” With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself (1 Peter 3:19). (This being the case), you must suppose Hades to be a subterranean region, and keep at arm’s length those who are too proud to believe that the souls of the faithful deserve a place in the lower regions. …You have a treatise by us, (on Paradise), in which we have established the position that every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord.

Hippolytus offers the following description:

[W]e must speak of Hades, in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained. Hades is a place in the created system, rude, a locality beneath the earth, in which the light of the world does not shine; and as the sun does not shine in this locality, there must necessarily be perpetual darkness there. This locality has been destined to be as it were a guard-house for souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, distributing according to each one’s deeds the temporary punishments for (different) characters. And in this locality there is a certain place set apart by itself, a lake of unquenchable fire, into which we suppose no one has ever yet been cast; for it is prepared against the day determined by God, in which one sentence of righteous judgment shall be justly applied to all.… But the righteous shall obtain the incorruptible and un-fading kingdom, who indeed are at present detained in Hades, but not in the same place with the unrighteous.… And that place brings no toils to them. There, there is neither fierce heat, nor cold, nor thorn; but the face of the fathers and the righteous is seen to be always smiling, as they wait for the rest and eternal revival in heaven which succeed this location. And we call it by the name “Abraham’s bosom.” But the unrighteous are dragged toward the left by angels who are ministers of punishment, and they go of their own accord no longer, but are dragged by force as prisoners. And the angels appointed over them send them along, reproaching them and threatening them with an eye of terror, forcing them down into the lower parts. And when they are brought there, those appointed to that service drag them on to the confines or hell.

Hades, the lord of the Underworld

Mythological accounts

In Greek mythology, Hades (the “unseen”) was also known as the god of the underworld, the son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. He had three older sisters, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera, as well as an older brother, Poseidon, and a younger brother, Zeus: together, they accounted for one half of the Olympian gods.

Aeneas's journey to Hades through the entrance at Cumae mapped by Andrea de Jorio, 1825

Aeneas’s journey to Hades through the entrance at Cumae mapped by Andrea de Jorio, 1825

According to legend, Zeus and the other Elder Olympians (who had been egregiously mistreated by their father), challenged their parents and uncles for power in the Titanomachy, a war between the two generations of divinities. In this conflict, the Olympians received the aid of many other mythical beings, including the monstrous Hecatonchires (“hundred-handers”), who fought alongside them, and the Cyclopes, who presented them with magical weapons: to Zeus, a thunderbolt; Hades, the helmet of invisibility; and Poseidon, the trident. In the darkest hour before the commencement of hostilities, Hades put on his helmet and crept unseen into the Titan’s camp, destroying their weapons and providing a decisive edge to the upstart gods. Even with this advantage, the war raged on for ten years, though it finally concluded with the victory of the younger gods.

Following their assumption of divine authority, Hades and his two younger brothers, Poseidon and Zeus, drew lots for realms to rule. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the seas, and Hades received the underworld, the unseen realm to which the dead go upon leaving the world, as well as any and all things beneath the earth.

Because of his dark and morbid personality, Hades was disliked by the gods or feared by mortals. As he embodied the inexorable finality of death, human attitudes toward him were often particularly negative, as evidenced by Agamemnon’s rhetorical question in the Illiad: “Why do we loathe Hades more than any god, if not because he is so adamantine and unyielding?” (Iliad ix). He was not, however, an evil god, for although he was stern, cruel, and unpitying, he was understood to be just. Also, although he was associated with the termination of life and was feared by men, he was not Death itself—its embodiment in the Greek myths was Thanatos.

Hades and Persephone

See also: PersephoneDemeter

One of the few mythic tales (besides the accounts described above) where Hades plays a prominent role is the account of his marriage to Persephone. In this tale, the god obtains his eventual consort and queen, Persephone, through physical abduction and trickery. The myth, especially in the detailed record of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, connected the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries with the Olympian pantheon.

The youthful Persephone is frolicking in the Grecian fields picking flowers and enjoying the sunshine with her friends, some beautiful young nymphs. Suddenly, Hades, who noted the young maiden’s attractive qualities from afar, appeared and carried the unwilling young goddess back to his twilight realm. Demeter, the girl’s mother, began a panicked search for her missing child, frantically beseeching the gods to aid in her investigation. When the gods finally did discover the fate of the goddess, Zeus ordered his brother to return her to the world of the living. Unwilling to relinquish his prize, the lord of the underworld tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds, knowing that she would be bound to him if she consumed the food of the dead. With that, he released her.

When Persephone emerged from the darkened realm, she was joyously received by her mother, who suddenly perceived that something was amiss:

But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once: “My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honored by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.”

Realizing Hades’s trickery, the gods decided that the only solution was for Persephone to spend one third of the year beneath the earth and two thirds among the other Olympians. Following this unhappy compromise, Helios consoled the grieving Demeter by expostulating on the reasons that Hades was not an unworthy consort for her daughter:

“Aidoneus (a lengthened form of Aides) (Hades) the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.”

In the classical world, this important myth (with its religious connections to the Eleusinian mysteries) also served an etiological function, as it was seen to describe the realities of agricultural productivity in the Hellenistic world, with the eight months of fertile growing season corresponding to Persephone’s time with the Olympians, and the four months of unsuitable growing conditions represented by her descent to the underworld.

Hades and the Heroes

In addition to his association with Persephone, Hades plays a subsidiary role in some of the heroic epics—often because the bravery of these characters was tested by asking them to venture into his chthonic halls. Some examples include the final labor of Heracles, which required him to descend to the depths of underworld and to capture Cerberus; the kidnapping of Theseus by Hades, a retaliation for the abduction of Persephone by Theseus’s friend Pirithous; and, the plea of Orpheus, the legendary musician, who descended to Hades to beseech the Dark God for the freedom of his beloved Eurydice. None of them was especially pleased with what they witnessed in the realm of the dead. In particular, the Greek war hero Achilles, who Odysseus met in Hades (although some believe that Achilles dwells in the Isles of the Blest), said:

“Do not speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose to serve as the hireling of another, rather than to be lord over the dead that have perished.”

Cult of Hades

When the Greeks propitiated Hades, they banged their hands on the ground to be sure he would hear them. Black animals, such as sheep, were sacrificed to him, and it is believed that at one time even human sacrifices were offered. The blood from sacrifices to Hades dripped into a pit so it could reach him. The person who offered the sacrifice had to turn away his face. Every hundred years festivals, called the Secular Games, were held in his honor.

Epithets and other names

Hades, god of the dead, was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him, they were reticent to swear oaths in his name. To many, simply to say the word “Hades” was frightening, such that many euphemisms and pseudonyms came to be common. Since precious minerals come from beneath the earth (i.e. the “underworld” ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well, and thus was referred to as Πλούτων (Plouton, related to the word for “wealth”), which is the origin for the Roman name Pluto. Sophocles explained referring to Hades as “the rich one” by suggesting that “the gloomy Hades enriches himself with our sighs and our tears.” In addition, he was called Clymenus (“notorious”), Eubuleus (“well-guessing”), and Polydegmon (“who receives many”). This phenomenon is also attested to in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which describes the god as “the son of Cronos, He who has many names.”

Some other monikers include:

  • Aides
  • Aiidoneus
  • Chthonian Zeus
  • Haides
  • Pluton
  • Plouton
  • The Rich One
  • The Unseen One

Roman mythology

  • Dis
  • Dis Pater
  • Pluto

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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