The Greek God Hades

Hades is the ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology. Image by Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty

In Greek mythology and legend, Hades is known as the god of the underworld. A brother of Zeus, when the world got split up into portions after the overthrow of their father, the Titan Cronos, Hades didn’t exactly get the best deal. While Zeus became king of Olympus, and their brother Poseidon won domain over the sea, Hades got stuck with the land of the underworld. Because he’s unable to get out much, and doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with those who are still living, Hades focuses on increasing the underworld’s population levels whenever he can.

Although he is the ruler of the dead, it’s important to distinguish that Hades is not the god of death  – that title actually belongs to the god Thanatos.

Hades’ best-known legend may well be his role in the tale of Persephone and her mother, the grain goddess Demeter. Persephone caught the eye of Hades, who took her back to the underworld, and Demeter's grief caused the crops on earth to die. By the time Persephone got back to her mother, she had eaten six pomegranate seeds, and so was doomed to spend six months of the year in the underworld. In a few modern, more sanitized versions of the story, Persephone is not held against her will but chooses to stay there for six months each year so that she can bring light to the souls doomed to spend eternity with Hades. This rendering of the tale, however, does not seem to have much scholarly or academic evidence supporting it.

Hades also features prominently in the adventures of Hercules, or Herakles, and they battled each other several times.

Hades presides over funeral rites, and those who are laid to rest with the proper rituals and ceremonies are welcome in the underworld. After death, the souls of those who have died must meet the ferryman, Charon, at the River Styx. Once they have paid Charon for passage, they cross the Styx, and the Acheron, known as the river of woe, on their way to the underworld.

Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay Charon – or whose bodies were not properly prepared and buried - were doomed to wander the land of the living, haunting the shores of the river for a hundred years.

Of note, Hades’ name has become a synonym for the realm of the underworld. So we have Hades the god, who rules Hades the place. The name, Hades, actually means invisible – in one legend, Hades was given a helmet of invisibility by the Cyclops, to use in the battle against the Titans. He is typically portrayed as a dark, bearded man holding a pickaxe or staff that he uses to drive shadows ahead of him, as well as the key to the underworld. Hades is often accompanied by the black horses who pull his chariot, and his loyal watchdog, the three-headed Cerberus.

Interestingly, in addition to being a god of the underworld, Hades is also associated with the treasures held within the earth itself – gold, silver, and other mined bounty, as well as the seed-crops that flourish in the soil. Because of this, he is sometimes seen as a god of wealth and riches. Plato refers to Hades as Pluton, the giver of wealth. In Roman mythology and legend, Pluto has similar aspects to Hades.

References in pop culture include the role of Hades, as hilariously voiced by James Woods, in the Disney animated film Hercules, and the portrayal of Cerberus as a very large dog named Fluffy in the Harry Potter films.

In the Percy Jackson movies, Hades is played by British comedian Steve Coogan, and he also makes a brief appearance in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, in the book Skin Game. Hades appears in countless video games, including the God of War franchise, the Final Fantasy series, and Age of Empires.