A mysterious and ominous character, Hades, the god of the underworld, was an imposing figure in the Greek Olympic pantheon of gods. Ruler of the shades, the levels of hell as well as the heavens of the afterlife, Hades was the keeper of the dead, ruler of the material earth and its nutrients and minerals, defender of the afterlife and the giver of wealth. He bears a striking and majestic persona with his dark beard and dark eyes and a gloomy, foreboding personality with an often sullen expression about him.
Hades roles are among the better defined of the ancient Olympian gods. He was the god who presided over funeral rites and mourning. He presided over necromancy, communication between the living and the dead, ghosts, spirits, spectral summoning and the oracles of the dead. Hades was also worshiped as a fertility god though he himself was often regarded as infertile, siring children through unusual means and surrogates. He had charge of the earth’s fertility which he controlled through his wife Persephone. Being god of the underworld, the rich materials hidden in the earth naturally fell within Hades domain. He was regarded as the god of the earth’s wealth as well as its fertility, patron of miners and mining, he decided who would receive rewards from their efforts.
He was the brother of Zeus, supreme lord of the Olympic Gods. When he was born during the Titan era, his father Kronos, ruler of the Titans had swallowed him and his brothers and sisters whole because of a prophecy of the fates which said one of Kronos’s own sons would overthrow him. When Zeus, the youngest of the clan liberated his siblings from Kronos’s wrath, Hades, Zeus and Poseidon drew straws to divide the heavens, seas and earth. Hades drew the lot of the earth and inherited the underworld as his realm.
His worship is steeped in the occult. Necromancy, dark arts and divination were among many of his gifts to his followers. Being charged with the souls of the dead, Hades was often called upon in funeral rites and secret magic rituals, leading to his association with the world of the dark arts, curses and witchcraft. He presided over the Erinyes or Furies, horrifying creatures which exacted vengeance upon perpetrators of especially heinous crimes like patricide and struck fear into the hearts of mortals at the mere sound of their screeches. He was also the master of dreams and nightmares which were sent forth from his realm into the mortal world.
Probably the most well known myth concerning this god is the rape and abduction of Persephone, daughter of Demeter the goddess of the harvest. Persephone was forced into marriage with Hades after the abduction, and was required by the god Zeus to spend a third of the year in his realm. In mourning for her daughter, Demeter deprives the earth of her harvest during the time Persephone is away from her and winter falls on the world.
As one of the great kings of the gods, subject to only the rule of Zeus, Hades possesses many magnificent and magical treasures. He drives a golden chariot pulled by four massive sable black horses. He possesses a magical helm which bestows invisibility to the wearer, rendering him undetectable even by the other gods. He carries a great royal scepter capable of striking a passage between the earth and the underworld with its usage. He holds the keys to Hades, the realm of the dead, keeping the gates between the living and the afterlife secure from intruders and those who would try to escape. He lives in a golden palace, protected by the ferocious three headed dog Kerberos, and resides over his subjects from a throne of ebony encrusted with fine jewels. His estate includes a magnificent pomegranate orchard and possesses a herd of immortal, sable black cattle.
Items held sacred to Hades include the mint plant, the white poplar, and the screech owl, a harbinger of death. The Cypress tree, used for making coffins and often called the tree of mourning because its bent over branches produced leaves that looked like tear drops was also considered sacred to Hades. Supplicants sacrificed black sheep and cattle to him, ever fearful of the Lord of Death, they would keep their eyes averted from the ritual while performing it.
Among his many minions and supplicants are an array of demons and minor death gods. Askalaphos was Hades orchard tender and transformed into the screech owl when sent on missions to the world of the living. The Erinyes or the Furies, vengeful and hateful creatures, oversaw Hades dungeons and mitigated punishment and torture to the damned. The Keres, demons of violent death were noted among his attendants as well as Tahantos, the Demon of Death who was Hades minister. Kharon, another well known Greek mythical creature was the ferry man of the river Styx over which the dead must travel to reach the afterlife. He barred anyone from entry who had not received proper burial rites. His price was one obolos placed in the mouth of the dead. The Menoites were the herdsmen of Hades and protected his magic cattle. Hades also ruled over the Oneroi, the weavers and givers of dreams. Among his royal court could be found the Fates, three sisters who decided the fates of all mortals and immortals alike, the Three judges of the dead, who decreed the fate of the dead once they entered Hades court and the personifications of the rivers of the underworld.
Hades was known by other names as well. His Roman counterparts were Pluto (from the Greek word for Hades Pluton), Dis Pater and Orcus. He was worshipped as the God Aita by the Etruscan’s. Some scholoars have related Hades to the Greek God Dionysus, suggesting that Hades was a sudenym for the duel nature of the God Dionysus and was worshipped in his “eternally undying” perspective as the Lord of the Underworld. Indeed references and comparisons of the two reveal many similar aspects. Hades was so feared by the living that even to speak his name was a bad omen and resulted in many alternatives being derived for common usage. The entymology of his name is described by early Greek philosphers and speculate that rather than the meaning of death, his name refers to such concepts associated with the god including “the unseen” (the invisibility of death), “the knowing one” (one who sees all, he is the final judge of the dead and their life works), and “the one who presides over meet ups” (inferring to the belief that he ruled the place where all souls eventually went and resided in the afterlife). Common euphamisims for the god include: Pluton “the rich one”, Clymenus “notorious”, Polydegmon “who receives many” and Eubuleus “good counsel” or “well intentioned”.
The introduction of Hades to Greek worship is obscured in antiquity, but it is known he was a much honored and feared God. When invoking Hades or aspects associated with death in their rituals, the Greeks would pound their hands on the ground so that he would be sure to hear their pleas and prayers. Being so greatly feared, it is speculated that the reason Hades rarely appears in classical art and literature is because the superstitious were loathe to depict him, fearful of invoking his ire or merely bringing themselves to his attention. Though Hades role was not that of the bringer of death himself, he was regarded as Lord supreme of all things of the after life and between earth and the underworld. He seems to have played a mainly passive role, focused on maintaining the balance between life and the after life, though he was a jealous and vengeful god when anyone meddled in his affairs or tried to cross him.
Being the god of the dead and death didn’t exactly make Hades popular among the living. Although he was honored and feared by many, he had very few shrines or temples dedicated to him. The main center of his cult seems to have been in Thesprotia in Greece where there was an oracle dedicated to him. Not much is known of the rituals which surrounded his worship though there are accounts of several oracles of healing where only the sick were allowed to enter with the priests of Hades for healing and many places in and around ancient Greece which purported to possess the actual places that were associated with different adventures surrounding the ominous god.