The Greek God Hades, Lord of the Underworld

The Life and Times of the Ruler of the Dead

Lord of the Underworld
Lord of the Underworld. Getty Images/Duncan Walker

The Greeks called him the Unseen One, the Wealthy One, Pluoton, and Dis. But few considered the god Hades lightly enough to call him by his name. While he is not the god of death (that's the implacable Thanatos), Hades welcomed any new subjects to his kingdom, the Underworld, which also takes his name. The ancient Greeks thought it best not to invite his attention.

The Birth of Hades

Hades was the son of the titan Cronos and brother to the Olympian gods Zeus and Poseidon.

Cronos, fearful of a son who would overthrow him as he vanquished his own father Ouranos, swallowed each of his children as they were born. Like his brother Poseidon, he grew up inside the bowels of Cronos, until the day when Zeus tricked the titan into vomiting up his siblings. Emerging victorious after the ensuing battle, Poseidon, Zeus and Hades drew lots to divide up the world they had gained. Hades drew the dark, melancholy Underworld, and ruled there surrounded by the shades of the dead, various monsters, and the glittering wealth of the earth.

Life in the Underworld

For the Greek god Hades, the inevitability of death insures a vast kingdom. Eager for souls to cross the river Styx and join fief, Hades is also the god of proper burial. (This would include souls left with money to pay the boatman Charon for the crossing to Hades.) As such, Hades complained about Apollo's son, the healer Asclepius, because he restored people to life, thereby reducing Hades' dominions, and he inflicted the city of Thebes with plague probably because they weren't burying the slain correctly.

Myths of Hades

The fearsome god of the dead figures in few tales (it was best not to talk about him too much). But Hesiod relates the most famous story of the Greek god, how he stole his queen, Persephone.

The daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, Persephone caught the eye of the Wealthy One on one of his infrequent trips to the surface world.

He abducted her in his chariot, driving her far below the earth and keeping her in secret. As her mother mourned, the world of humans withered: Fields grew barren, trees toppled and shriveled. When Demeter found out that the kidnapping was Zeus' idea, she complained loudly to her brother, who urged Hades to free the maiden. But before she rejoined the world of light, Persephone partook of a few pomegranate seeds. Having eaten the food of the dead, she was compelled to return to the Underworld. The deal made with Hades allowed Persephone to spend one-third (later myths say one-half) of the year with her mother, and the rest in the company of her shades. Thus, to the ancient Greeks, was the cycle of seasons and the yearly birth and death of crops.

In Elis stood a temple to Hades, but this was unusual.

Hades Fact Sheet

Occupation:

God, Lord of the Dead

Family of Hades:

Hades was a son of the Titans Cronos and Rhea. His brothers are Zeus and Poseidon. Hestia, Hera, and Demeter are Hades' sisters.

Children of Hades:

These include the Erinyes (the Furies), Zagreus (Dionysus), and Makaria (goddess of a blessed death)

Other Names:

Haides, Aides, Aidoneus, Zeus Katachthonios (Zeus under the earth). The Romans also knew him as Orcus.

Attributes:

Hades is depicted as a dark-bearded man with a crown, scepter and key. Cerberus, a three-headed dog, is often in his company. He owns a helmet of invisibility and a chariot.

Sources:

Ancient sources for Hades include: Apollodorus, Cicero, Hesiod, Homer, Hyginus, Ovid, Pausanias, Statius, and Strabo.