Pluto, Lord of the Ancient Underworld

Pluto carrying off Persephone
Pluto carrying off Persephone, detail from funerary urn, relief in alabaster, Etruscan civilization. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Pluto is often considered King of the Underworld in Roman mythology. How did we get from Hades, Greek god of the underworld, to Pluto? Well, according to Cicero, Hades had a bunch of epithets (pretty common for an ancient god), which included "Dis," or "the rich," in Latin; in Greek, that translated to "Plouton." So basically Pluto was a Latinization of one of Hades's Greek nicknames. The name Pluto is more common in Roman mythology, so it is sometimes said that Pluto is the Roman version of the Greek god Hades.

Pluto was a god of riches, which is etymologically connected with his name. As Cicero notes, he got hs money "because all things fall back into the earth and also arise from the earth." Since mining digs up wealth from under the earth, Pluto came to be associated with the Underworld. This made it possible to refer to a god Pluto ruling a land of the dead called Hades, named for its Greek overlord.

Like many deities associated with death, Pluto received his moniker because it was one associated with the more positive aspects of his character. After all, if you had to pray to a god of the underworld, would you really want to invoke death over and over again? So, as Plato has Socrates recount in his Cratylus, "People in general appear to imagine that the term Hades is connected with the invisible (aeides) and so they are led by their fears to call the God Pluto instead."

This nickname became increasingly popular in Greece thanks to the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiation rites into the cult of the goddess Demeter, mistress of the harvest.

As the story goes, Hades/Pluto abducted Demeter's daughter, Persephone (also called "Kore," or "maiden") and wound up keeping her as his wife in the underworld for most of the year. In the mysteries, Hades/Pluto becomes a personification of his mother-in-law's bounty, a benevolent deity and protector and a possessor of great wealth, rather than an evil uncle/abductor.

His riches wound up including not only the stuff under the Earth but the stuff on top of it - i.e., Demeter's bountiful crops!

-Edited by Carly Silver