In the tales of the ancient Greeks, the god of the underworld has always remained a bit of an enigma. He is sometimes referred to as Aidoneus which means "Unseen One" and to the Romans he was often called Dis. It was not common for mortals to utter his name outloud, for they were afraid of attracting the attention of the Dark Lord. It was much safer to speak of Hades as the god Pluto, whose name was a form of the word wealth. This was because along with the title of Lord of the Dead, the god also acquired all of the riches found buried beneath the earth. Though Hades had many treasures, it was said that his prize possession was a mysterious helmet of invisibility given to him by the Cyclopes during the great war of gods and titans.
There is not a lot of information about Hades, and as with Hermes he usually plays a small background role in the midst of a much larger drama. The most well known story concerns the god's abduction of Demeter's daughter Persephone, and how she became his wife and Queen of the Underworld. You can read more about this by clicking the link leading to the page I have dedicated to Persephone . Below is a peek into the mysterious world of the Lord of the Dead.
Hades was one of the many children of Cronus and Rhea. Because an oracle once predicted to Cronus that one of his offspring would defeat him and steal his throne, the Titan decided to swallow all of his children alive the moment they came into the world. Rhea, who yearned for a baby of her own, soon grew tired of this and decided to fool her husband. After giving birth to her youngest son Zeus she wrapped a stone in a baby's blanket and gave it to Cronus to devour. She then quickly hid the infant safely away on the isle of Crete. Just as was promised by the priestess, Zeus grew to manhood and returned to overthrow his father. Cronus was given a magic potion which caused him vomit up the other siblings. Out popped Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter and Hera.
The universe was then divided among the three brothers by the act of drawing lots. Zeus was granted the sky, Poseidon the sea and Hades dominion over the underworld. Though Olympus and earth were considered neutral territory belonging to all, Hades preferred to spend most of his time residing in his own dark domain.
Usually having no first hand knowledge of events happening in the world of the living, Hades would instead piece together bits of information provided by mortals taking oaths and invoking curses in his name.
However, there are a few instances when the beauty of a female caused the usually grim spirited god to venture into the light of the upper world. One such woman was a nymph known as Minthe. The maiden was dazzled by the sight of Hades' chariot of gold and the four powerful steeds that were guiding it. The god was having no problem attracting attention to himself, and would have succeeded in seducing the impressionable young girl had not Queen Persephone showed up to intervene. She immediately turned the unfortunate nymph into the fragrant plant that we know today as mint.
On another lustful pursuit, Hades tried to take the nymph Leuce by force. When she resisted she was transformed into a white poplar and taken into the depths of the undeworld. There she would be destined to remain forever, sadly standing beside the pool of memory.
The traditional location of the realm of Hades was underground. Though many regions across Greece claimed possession of the entryway, the main entrance to Tartarus was said to lie between a group of black poplar trees found running beside the River Oceanus. It was here the newly departed were met by Charon the ferryman. For the price of an obol, Charon would carry the spirits across the River Styx in his ship of the dead. The unlucky ghosts who were laid to rest without a penny were left to remain stranded forever on the river bank. Their only recourse was to sneak away from their guide Hermes and make their way down a back entrance.
The land of the dead was protected by Hades' three headed dog Cerberus. His duty was to bar all tresspassers from the land of the living, while allowing the shades to pass by freely. Cerberus also kept watch over the gates, making sure that once a soul entered, it remained for eternity. Before being led to their permanent places of residence, the newly deceased were required to drink from the Pool of Lethe. Just one taste of this water of forgetfulness would leave the spirit void of all memories of his former life on earth. After drinking from the Pool of Lethe, the souls were next led before Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus, the three judges of the underworld.
The three judges could be found in the sacred area where three roads meet. Here they sat and methodically decided the fate of all the new arrivals. Each spirit was then directed to travel down the path that best corresponded to the way he conducted his life on earth.
Those who were neither virtuous or evil were sent back to the Fields of Asphodel. It was here that the joyless souls of heroes languished without purpose, their only release being the libations of blood that were poured to them by the living.
It was just past this meadow that the palace of Hades and Queen Persephone could be found. Somber it sat beside the Pool of Lethe, both beneath the perpetual shade of a white cypress tree. From the palace one could watch the newly departed as they drank from the Pool of Forgetfulness. Afterwards, the virtuous souls were sent to reside in the Elysium Fields. The Elysium Fields were made up of beautiful orchards that were located near the Pool of Memory.
Elysium, ruled by Cronus, was a happy place filled with everlasting daylight, music and games. Those living here were given the chance to be reborn on earth anytime they desired. Shades who were virtuous enough to reach Elysium three times were sent to the Fortunate Islands, a domain filled with glorious beasts and the ghosts of celebrated heroes.
The realm of Tartarus was located deep beneath the surface of the earth. The roots of both land and sea grew above it, and it was said an anvil would have to fall nine days before ever reaching it's shores. It was here, behind a prison of bronze fencing and iron gates that one would find the souls of those sentenced to eternal punishment.
Deep within the blackness of Tartarus could be found the Titans, who were cast there after fighting a ten year war with the the Olympian gods. All residing here were under the guard of the Hundred-handed; three giants with fifty heads and one hundred arms who were the half brothers of Zeus. Along with their brothers the Cyclopes, the Hundred-handed found favor with Zeus by coming to his aid during the great war and were rewarded justly by being set free from this vast prison.
Another famous soul condemned to the prison of Tartarus was Sisyphus, who prior to his imprisonment was a king of Corinth. It seems that Aegina, the daughter of the river god Asopus was carried off by none other than Zeus himself. When the angry father came to Corinth to search for her, Sisyphus promised to tell all he knew if only the god would bless his city with a perennial spring. Asopus agreed and created a beautiful fountain behind the temple of Aphrodite. Sisyphus kept his word and told the river god that it was Zeus who was responsible for the kidnapping of his daughter. As punishment for divulging the god's secret, Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to be imprisioned forever in the pit of Tartarus.
Because he was blessed with an excessively cunning mind, Sisyphus gave Hades a run for his money. He tricked the Lord of the Dead into trying on a pair of handcuffs and then immediately locked them once they were around the god's wrists.
Sisyphus kept Hades a prisoner in his home for days, during which time no one was permitted to die. It was Ares that finally intervened, freeing Hades and delivering his captor to Tartarus.
Determined to evade his sentence, Sisyphus soon devised another plan. Before descending into the abyss, he left instructions for his wife Merope not to bury him. When he finally entered into the realm of the dead, Sisyphus marched before Queen Persephone and announced that there had been a mistake. He continued by saying that as an unburied person he had no business there, but instead should have been left upon the banks of the River Styx. He declared that he should be allowed to return to the upper world and avenge this disgrace before arranging for a proper burial. He made Persephone a solemn promise that he would return again to Hades in three days.
Believing Sisyphus to be sincere, the queen granted his request and allowed him to return home. But Zeus who was all knowing, was able to see through the trickster's ruse. He called upon his messenger Hermes to capture Sisyphus and return him to his rightful place in Tartarus.
For his punishment, Sisyphus was doomed to spend eternity trying to push an enormous boulder up the side of a steep hill. The act proved to be futile, for each time the stone would reach the top, it would roll backwards and Sisyphus would have to start all over again.
Another tale that involves Hades is that of the journey of Theseus and his friend Peirithous into the realm of the dead. It seems that Peirithous was in search of a bride, and he fancied for himself the already spoken for Persephone. Though he knew the plan was dangerous, Theseus agreed to accompany his friend on his mission.
The two entered the underworld by way of the entrance at Taenarum and made their way to the palace of the dead. Without any sign of emotion, Hades quietly listened as Peirithous explained the purpose of his visit.
The Lord of the Dead invited his guests to sit down and rest and then called for refreshments to be brought to his chamber. The two heroes took a seat but in a moment it became apparent that their flesh had become permanently attached to the back of their chairs.
Here the two would have remained forever if not for the help of Heracles. While performing one of his twelve labours, Heracles traveled to the the underworld to capture the dog Cerberus.
The strong man first released Theseus from his chair, but when he tried to pry Peirithous free the ground trembled with such force that Heracles was afraid to continue. He had no other choice but to leave him behind, where he remains to this day, forever doing penance to the Lord of the Dead.
Medea's Lair Of Greek Mythology © 1999-2012.