Hades is probably the most elusive figure in the classical Greek pantheon: there are just a few myths about him and nowadays he's most known because of his two appearances, in both cases as a villain, in two mythological inspired movies: Percy Jackson and the Olympians and the Clash of the Titans, both released in 2010. In this page we'll deal exclusively with the Greek god and not with his later appearance and transformation.
To understand who this god is, let's begin from his name: according to the most commonly accepted etymology, Hades means "invisible". Actually, apart from the helm the Cyclops gave him while fighting the Titans along with Zeus and Poseidon, Hades is really a mythologically invisible god. There are just a few myths about him and his name is often and especially used to mean the realm of the dead. The god instead is usually called by his titles, like Plouton, that means "the rich". Not to be confused with Pluto, the god of wealth.
Hades is just a few times an active character in myths: only in Persephone's abduction, as many ancient authors told in different ways. Apart from that, Hades appears in some tale about the descent in the underworld by some hero and falls in love with some nymphs, like Minthe and Leuke, the former turned into the mint plant by the jealous Persephone and the latter turned into a white poplar by Hades himself, who later put her in Elysium. Sometimes he lends his helm, which makes its bearer invisible, to gods and heroes; sometimes he complains with Zeus about the continual coming and going from the Hades, the place he guards, for example when Asclepius began to call dead people back to life.
In the myths Hades never acts alone. Even when he abducts Persephone, he has the permission from Zeus to do so. It's Zeus who kills Asclepius because he brings too many people away from the realm of the Dead, breaking the balance of which Hades is warrantor, because he guards the doors of the realm of the Dead, and so he's called in the Ilias and in the Odyssey Pulartes, that means guardian of the door.
Attributes and images of this "invisible" god tell us something more about him. We know that he was depicted very similar to Zeus and Poseidon, with curly hair and a beard; Zeus can be recognized for the thunderbolt or the eagle; Poseidon always has a trident in his hand; Hades wears his helm, called with a Greek word kunee, that has the same origin of the Greek word for dog: the helm represents a dog's or a wolf's head and some scholars thought this was because Hades was originally a zoomorph god, that is animal shaped. I personally think this idea is too much influenced by the Egyptian god Anubis, because we don't have anything else similar in ancient Greek religion; also it's not clear why Hades should have retained the feature of zoomorphism, alone among other gods belonging to the same generation. Sometimes we can recognize Hades because he's depicted along with his three-headed hound, Cerberus, or with keys or the Cornucopia in his hands. He's depicted with Persephone by his side more often than alone, especially on the pinakes, tablets coming from Taranto and from Magna Graecia in general, where Hades and Persephone usually appear seated with a Cornucopia in their hands. Some plants like the mint, the white poplar, the cypress and the asphodel were considered sacred to him.
In the Ilias, he's invoked hitting the ground with the hands; in the Odyssey a black ram and a black sheep are sacrificed to him and his wife and the person accomplishing the sacrifice turns the face away from it. In the Elis there was a temple to Hades that was opened only once a year; in Athens Hades' temple was in a ground sacred to the Erinyes. We could talk a lot about the link between Hades, god of the realm of the Dead, and the Erinyes, especially in Athens where the Erinyes were also called the Eumenides (the benevolent ones) and related to the punishment the tribunal made provision for, according to Aeschylus' account. In Athens Hades shared his temple with Hermes, who was a messenger god but also brought the souls of the dead to the Styx, and with Gaea, the earth; in this temple people who received an acquittal on the Aeropagos used to made sacrifices as thanks. Obviously Hades was invoked in funeral ceremonies and in necromancy, and he was believed to have an ascendant on the dreams bearing messages from the dead ones. Strabo tells us about a shrine dedicated to Hades and Persephone in Caria, where these gods were invoked as healers and the incubatio was practiced: this practice was common to many ancient religions, when sick people used to sleep in sanctuaries or sacred precincts to receive healing dreams.
Sometimes Hades is called Zeus Katachtonios, Zeus of the underworld, and this adds confusion: is Hades the underworld counterpart of Zeus or do we have some versions of the myths in which Zeus takes Hades' place? According to the Orphic myths, Zeus, disguised as Hades, impregnates Persephone who gives birth to the Erinyes and to Melinoe. The myth of the division of cosmos bounds Hades more strictly to Zeus: according to the Ilias, the three brothers drew lots to divide the sovereignty on the cosmos: so Hades received "the lot of the mist and the darkness", Zeus the sky and Poseidon the sea, while the Olympus and the earth belong to all three. It's curious that the reign of Hades isn't said to be in the underworld but described through two atmospheric phenomena, the absence of light and the mist.
It could be a poetic way to describe things that mustn't be called by name: the ancient Greek didn't have a happy vision of the netherworld, which was a rotten place, where the shadows of dead people, even of good people, wandered without memory. The Elysium and the netherworlds described in mysteric philosophies came later: according to the Greek point of view there couldn't be happiness without life and the shadows who didn't face punishment in the Tartarus suffered all the same sad destiny, apart from what they did during their life. But Homer's way to describe the lot drawn by Hades could be a trace of the way the Greeks really conceived Hades.
Even though he's so strictly bound to Zeus, Hades is different for what concerns the number of his offsprings: there are few offsprings of Hades in mythology and usually they belong to a particular current in Greek religion, like the Orphic one that makes Hades to be Zeus' alter ego: in the Orphic hymns, underworld Zeus is the father of the Erinyes, who in the more famous classical myth are born from the blood of Uranus castrated by Chronos, and of Melinoe, a goddess of the netherworld in Orphic cults, later identified with Hecate. Hades himself is related to the mysteries, both the Eleusinian and the Orphic ones, since the importance given to the final passage, the death, by this kind of cults.
In spite of his link to the death and of his so intangible realm, Hades is called "the rich", because he owns the metals that hide in the underground, and because he's depicted with a cornucopia. Therefore, though he's not strictly a god of generation , Hades is somehow a god of the nourishment that comes from the earth when it's fertilized with dead organic things. He's the guardian of a door, the door of the realm of the Dead and so he's linked to the cycle of the nature, to the passage in which what is dead can't return as it was but can nourish what is still alive and so becomes richness: from this point of view we can interpret also the myth of Persephone, beyond sociological and psychological interpretations made in more or less modern times, as a myth of changing of what is dying into nourishment for preserving not one life but life in itself.
Adaptation of Fontes episode, first broadcasted in May, 2010
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