The People vs Hades

Since this is the month of “March Madness,” I wanted to take a moment to talk about something that drives me, well, a little mad. (Yes, all puns are intended.) This is one of my ultimate pet peeves, a thing that set my metaphorical hackles on end and makes bile churn in my gut.

To get right to the point: we need to talk about the vilification of Hades.

Caveat emptor: I’m about to go into full-on Classicist mode, so you might want to grab a snack and settle in, because this could potentially take a while.

In the interest of making sure we’re all on the same page, I think it’d be best if I provided some necessary background information on the god. I hope that in illuminating Hades, from what we know of him through myth, I can better explain why modern treatment of the character vexes me so much while also putting forth a potential explanation as to why this trend of vilification has occurred.

 

“…qualis demissus curru laevae post praemia sortis umbrarum custos mundique novissimus heres palluit, amisso veniens in Tartara caelo.” (Thebaid, XI)

“…even as the Warden of the Shades [Hades], and the final heir of the world, after the lot’s unkind apportioning, leapt down from his chariot and grew pale, for he was come to Tartarus and heaven was lost for ever.”

ᾍδης (Háidēs or Hades) was born the eldest son of the Titans, Κρόνος (Kronos) and Ῥέα (Rhea); as such, he is one of the five children whom his father swallowed in order to protect his own power, though he was, too, the last one regurgitated (Iliad, XV). The other swallowed-children were, of course, the god Ποσειδῶν (Poseidon) and the goddesses Ἑστία (Hestia), Δαμάτηρ (Dāmā́tēr or Demeter), and Ἥρη (Hērē or Hera).

battle-giantsThese children of the Titans led a war against their elders under the lead of his youngest brother, Ζεύς (Zeus), and following his usurpation of Kronos in the climax of the Τιτανομαχία (Titanomakhia), the male Olympians drew lots amongst themselves as to who would rule the three kingdoms of the universe: sky/heavens (Zeus); sea (Poseidon); and the underworld (Hades).

Now, here’s where you’re thinking: yeah, I know this because Hades got tricked into the Underworld and then he got mad about it, so he tried to overthrow Zeus and proclaim himself king of the gods.

Gold star for you, good reader; you’ve clearly seen Disney’s Hercules and/or Clash of the Titans. Now sit back down and listen because not only are you oh-so-wrong, but you just might learn something along the way.

Let’s get something straight: so far as I know, there are no mythological texts that in any way suggest Hades begrudged his lot of the Underworld. I can’t imagine he was jumping for joy at the idea, but he neither verbally accused his youngest brother of deceit nor voiced a complaint at the lot he drew. And why should he? Sure, he ruled the dead, but he did so with absolute authority and relative autonomy. The Underworld — sometimes called the “House of Hades” — was described in Bullfinch’s Mythology as “full of guests,” and might as well have labeled Hades “the eternal host,” because he rarely ever left his domain. Furthermore, he never attempted any sort of revolt against Zeus.

image006That was actually Poseidon.

Pseudo-Apollodorus writes in his Βιβλιοθήκη (Bibliothēkē) a myth that Poseidon and his nephew Apollo once tried to convince the other gods in rebelling against Zeus. When Zeus became aware of the scheme, he temporarily stripped the two gods of their divine authority and sent them to serve Λαομέδων (Laomedon) for wages and build what would become the famous Walls of Troy. Part of this tale can also be found in the Fabulae of Gaius Julius Hyginus.

But where was Hades during all of this? Down in the Underworld, doing his job, not getting involved in rebellious schemes such as that one.

Hades was arguably the most loyal of Zeus’ siblings, perhaps of all the Olympians. Though his primary attention was spent in ensuring none of his subjects ever left the Underworld, when Zeus asked his eldest brother for assistance or a favour, the Lord of the Underworld did not hesitate to comply. Whenever there was a threat to Olympos, Hades was there for it. From the Titanomakhia, the Gigantomakhia (War of the Giants) — in which he lent Ἑρμῆς (Hermes) his cap of invisibility — and even to going up to personally escort the Greek king, Σίσυφος (Sisuphos), to the Underworld, Hades never broke his loyalty to his fellow Olympians, especially not Zeus.

So why the “bad brother” rap?

 

“..Ἀΐδης τοι ἀμείλιχος ἠδ᾽ ἀδάμαστος, τοὔνεκα καί τε βροτοῖσι θεῶν ἔχθιστος ἁπάντων.”

“Why do we loathe Hades more than any god, if not because he is so adamantine and unyielding?” (Iliad, IX)

Gregory Nagy talked in his article “The Name of Achilles: Etymology and Epic” about what are called “speaking names”: names that are crated in order to fit the character in question. The origin of Hades’ name in mythology is not entirely certain, though in his Κρατύλος (Kratylos), Plato argued that the etymology of Hades’ name was actually from his εἴδομαι (eidenai), or knowledge, of “all noble things.”pluto_ludovisi_altemps

Modern scholarship often links the etymology of the god’s name to his epithet as “The Unseen One,” resulting in some modern linguistics proposing the Proto-Greek form of his name as Awides, itself meaning “unseen” and from the earliest-attested form of the gods name, ΐδης (Aḯdēs) — though this is, again, under debate. It is important to note that Ancient Greece was not a single country, instead a land made up of multiple city-states, thus explaining the multiple variates of his names and the difficulty in nailing down a singular etymological origin.

There is, however, a clear shift around the 5th century BCE, in which the Greeks started referring to both Hades and his domain as Πλούτων (Ploútōn, or Pluto); in the first sense,it seems to first appear in the Εὐριπίδης (Euripides) tragedy, Ἡρακλῆς μαινόμενος (Hēraklēs Mainomenos), where the tragedian gives its titular hero the lines:

“…οὔ που κατῆλθον αὖθις εἰς Ἅιδου πάλιν, Εὐρυσθέως δίαυλον; εἰς Ἅιδου; πόθεν; ἀλλ᾽ οὔτε Σισύφειον εἰσορῶ πέτρον Πλούτωνά τ᾽, οὐδὲ σκῆπτρα Δήμητρος κόρης.”

“Surely I have not come a second time to Hades’ halls, having just returned from there for Eurystheus? To Hades? From where? No, I do not see Sisuphos with his stone, or Plouton, or his queen, Demeter’s child.”

The etymological root of this new name is the greek word,  πλούσιος (ploúsios), meaning “wealthy.” While this may seem an odd name/epithet for the ruler of the Underworld, it can be interpreted as wealth due to the fact that from beneath (or within/from) the earth come riches such as fertile crops, precious gems, metals, et al. I can be said that, as a result of this, Hades was the wealthiest of all the gods.tumblr_mesglkRurB1rmp4f6o1_500

I would, however, like to highlight a particular one of his many epithets: Πολυδέγμων (Poludektês), or the “Host of Many” — more literally, “the one who receives many” — which seems to first appear in the Εἲς Δημήτραν (Hymn to Demeter) by Ὅμηρος (Hómēros or Homer).

The implied connotation is not evil, but decidedly more altruistic. This should surprise no one, as this falls perfectly in line with Hades’ depiction within Classical mythology: that of the maintainer of balance, he who took in any soul who arrived at his gates, giving them all equal treatment in regards to his laws. Every soul stood before the judges of the dead and received their just reward or punishment, depending upon their actions in life. That being said, Hades never allowed a soul to leave. On this point, he earns Homer’s descriptor of “unyielding,” functioning much like a stern jailor in his role as the Lord of the Underworld.

There are several myths which emphasize Hades’ intensity upon this point, and his wrath towards those fool enough to try the steal the souls of the dead from his realm or cheat death in any way was quite terrible. Two myths that best highlight this were the fates of Σίσυφος (Sísuphos) and Πειρίθους (Peirithous).

sisyphusSisuphos was the king of Κόρινθος (Kórinthos) known mythologically for self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness that was on a level so intense that he was able to trick the Olympians, including Hades. Following a series of other incidents, Zeus grew so fed up with Sisuphos’ behaviour, that he asked Hades if he would be willing to go and collect Sisuphos himself so that the king could be chained in Τάρταρος (Tartaros) as punishment. Unfortunately for them, Sisuphos managed to chain Hades and, as long as he was tied up, no one could die. I’m sure that immortality sounds great, but it actually caused small havoc as it meant those who were old and/or sick were suffering, unable to achieve release in the form of death. Of course, the Olympians manage to convince Sisuphos to release Hades but, as a result of the king’s hubristic belief in his own cleverness, Hades devised for him a maddening punishment upon his death: Sisuphos was made to endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. I say endless because the Olympians enchanted the bouler to roll away from Sisuphos before he reached the top, consigning the king to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration.

8221detail.jpgPeirithous, too, suffered divine punishment for some sort of hubristic belief; in the case of this king, he believed that he could steal Περσεφόνη (Persephone), the Queen of the Underworld and wife of Hades. The King of the legendary Λαπίθαι (Lapithai or Lapith) people in what is now modern-day Θεσσαλία (Thessalía or Thessaly), Peirithous is known from myth as both the husband of Ἱπποδάμεια (Hippodamia) and a friend of fellow Greek-hero Θησεύς (Theseus); it was his and Hippodamia’s wedding that devolved into the Κενταυρομαχία (Centauromakhia). But it was a (in this author’s opinion completely ridiculous) pledge between Theseus and Peirithous that landed him in trouble: a pledge that the two heroes carry off daughters of Zeus. My own opinions of this blatant stupidity aside, Peirithous decided upon Persephone as his prize and so took Theseus along with him to the Underworld in order to claim her.

Guess how well that over?

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Remorse_of_Orestes_(1862)Yeah, not at all. Peirithous and Theseus managed to get about as far as the entrance to the Underworld, where they stopped to rest. When they attempted to stand up from the rocks, they found themselves physically unable to do so; and as an added bonus from Hades, the Ἐρῑνύες (Erinyes) appeared before the two heroes to torture them just as they would the souls in Tartaros. Just so that we’re all on the same page, the Erinyes were χθόνιος (khthonios, meaning “beneath the earth”) goddesses of vengeance who tortured those condemned to Tartaros like a cherry on-top of the divine punishment sundae. When Herakles arrived at the gates of Hades to perform one of his labours, he took pity upon the heroes and manage to free Theseus. However, when he attempted to liberate Peirithous, the earth shook in protest: the Lapith king had committed to great a sin in daring to covet the wife of Hades as his own.

In both of these cases, Hades is both swift and unyielding in administering divine punishment, but in both cases, one could argue the punishment in just — he is, rather, administering divine justice. Hades does nothing more than uphold his reputation as a stern god, but not as an evil one. And certainly not as one who takes malicious delight in torturing humankind, given that these are two isolated instances that represent exceptions, not the rule. I should note that beyond this well-noted stern, unpitying, and unyielding disposition, there are little Classical references to other aspects of his personality as it appears the Greeks tried to refrain from giving Hades much thought to avoid attracting his attention. Who would wish, after all, to court the attention of death?

 

“αἰ]εί, καὶ ὅταν θανάτοιο κυάνεον νέφος καλύψῃ…”

“When the dark-blue cloud of Thanatos covers them…” (Bacchylides, Fragment 13)

07_104.15.11Except, Hades isn’t Death —  he is the god of the Underworld and, therefore, Lord of the Dead. But he isn’t Death itself. The Greeks had their own mythological personification of death called Θάνατος (Thánatos). Yes, that’s the etymological derivation of Marvel’s Thanos, as well as why he has believes himself to be in a relationship with death. Clever stuff, right? Well, if you are not familiar with Thánatos, it’s likely because he is relegated to being a relatively minor player in Greek mythology. In his Θεογονία (Theogonía), the Greek poet Ἡσίοδος (Hēsíodos or Hesiod) established Thánatos as one of the sons of Νύξ (Nyx), the night, and Ἔρεβος (Erebos), the darkness, alongside his twin brother Ὕπνος (Hypnos), sleep, writing:

“ἔνθα δὲ Νυκτὸς παῖδες ἐρεμνῆς οἰκί᾽ ἔχουσιν, Ὕπνος καὶ Θάνατος, δεινοὶ θεοί: οὐδέ ποτ᾽ αὐτοὺς Ἠέλιος φαέθων ἐπιδέρκεται ἀκτίνεσσιν οὐρανὸν εἲς ἀνιὼν οὐδ᾽ οὐρανόθεν καταβαίνων. τῶν δ᾽ ἕτερος γαῖάν τε καὶ εὐρέα νῶτα θαλάσσης ἥσυχος ἀνστρέφεται καὶ μείλιχος ἀνθρώποισι, τοῦ δὲ σιδηρέη μὲν κραδίη, χάλκεον δέ οἱ ἦτορ νηλεὲς ἐν στήθεσσιν: ἔχει δ᾽ ὃν πρῶτα λάβῃσιν ἀνθρώπων: ἐχθρὸς δὲ καὶ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσιν.”

“And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods.”

This makes Thánatos a primordial deity, older even than Hades and regarded both as merciless and indiscriminate in his mortal victims. He was equal parts hated by and hateful towards mortals and the gods. Perhaps this is why he remains a minor figure in mythology, often spoke of, but rarely appearing and speaking with even less frequency — that and his eventual transition to association with a gentle passing.

Yet there is a universality to death that Hades could likely not escape through his association with the Underworld. There is a fantastic line from Disney’s 1991 film, Beauty & the Beast that says, “We don’t like / What we don’t understand / In fact it scares us,” and I think this is one of the roots of the modern fictional approach to Hades. Death is perhaps one of the greatest and most common certainties of life that also remains, ultimately entirely mysterious due to the question of the “after.” What happens after we die? There are no answers to this question; there are many answers to this question. Fear of death is enough to make one fear a god so closely associated with the idea — but to hate him? To vilify him so intensely?

3206173The Ancient Greeks may have feared Hades, but they did not hate him. One of the few known temples to Hades was in the Greek city, Ἦλις (Elis); they actually erected numerous temples to his name and worshipped him with relative frequency. In his Ἑλλάδος περιήγησις (Hellados Periegesis), a lengthy compilation of firsthand observations of Ancient Greece, Παυσανίας (Pausanias) describes Ἦλις as such:

“ὁ δὲ ἱερὸς τοῦ Ἅιδου περίβολός τε καὶ ναός—ἔστι γὰρ δὴ Ἠλείοις καὶἍιδου περίβολός τε καὶ ναός — ἀνοίγνυται μὲν ἅπαξ κατὰ ἔτοςἕκαστον, ἐσελθεῖν δὲ οὐδὲ τότε ἐφεῖται πέρα γε τοῦ ἱερωμένου. ἀνθρώπων δὲ ὧν ἴσμεν μόνοι τιμῶσιν Ἅιδην Ἠλεῖοι κατὰ αἰτίαντήνδε.”

“The sacred enclosure of Hades and its temple — for the Eleans have these among their possessions — are opened once every year, but not even on this occasion is anybody permitted to enter except the priest. The Eleans worship Hades; they are the only men we know of to do so.”

Thus far in this examination of Hades, I have yet to find a stain upon the god’s character. He was neither traitorous nor covetous towards his brother, Zeus, or the other Olympians; he carried out consistent justice to the souls of the dead, whether or not they were considered Greek heroes; and he was not even the manifestation of the aspect that humanity fears so deeply.

So I think this means we need to talk about Persephone.

 

“Δήμητρ᾽ ἠύκομον, σεμνὴν θεόν, ἄρχομ᾽ ἀείδειν, αὐτὴν ἠδὲ θύγατρα τανύσφυρον, ἣν Ἀιδωνεὺς ἥρπαξεν, δῶκεν δὲ βαρύκτυπος εὐρύοπα Ζεύς…” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter)

“I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awful goddess —of her and her trim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus [Hades] rapt away, given to him by all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer…

The oldest-known record of the myth of what is popularly called “The Rape of Persephone” comes, once again, from the anonymous Homeric HymnsThey’re named after the Greek poet primarily for their use of dactylic hexameter, utilized in both of his epics, as well as ancient scholars such as Θουκυδίδης (Thoukudídēs or Thucydides) attributing the works to him. Whatever the case, the second of these hymns, Εἲς Δημήτραν (To Demeter), is devoted the abduction of Persephone by Hades and describes the incident in great detail.

f8806a90887fd7312c5aaf315ef967d4Hades fell in love with Persephone and went to her father, Zeus, to ask permission to make her his queen in the Underworld. Zeus permitted Hades to carry off Persephone, but made it clear that Demeter should, in no way, be told about this plan, as she would strongly object to the idea of Persephone marrying anyone. One myth actually has Apollo, Ares, Hephaistos, and Hermes all as previous suitors to Persephone, only to be turned away by Demeter, who then moved her daughter from Olympos. A little helicopter mom-like? Absolutely, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt at least on the reputation of two of those four gods as notorious flirts (Apollo and Hermes), and one of being a serial adulterer with the other god’s wife (Ares).

The day arrives in which Hades decides he will bring Persephone down to the Underworld as his queen. It is said in the Homeric Hymn that Persephone was gathering flowers with the Ὠκεανίδες (Okeanides or Oceanids) as her attending nymphs. According to the Theogonía, Oceanids were considered patronesses of particular springs, seas, rivers, lakes, ponds, pastures, flowers, or clouds. Zeus had the earth bloom an array of flowers, one of note being the νάρκισσόν (narikissos or narcissus), what we often call a daffodil. Why am I taking the time to single out one flower out of six listed by Hesiod? It’s because the name rings a bell to anyone familiar with Greek mythology, or just linguistic etymology.

Narcissus_GeraniumMythologically, the narcissus flower is often linked with the Greek hunter of the same name, Νάρκισσος (Narkissos or Narcissus), who was so proud of his own beauty that he disdained any who loved him, including the Ὀρεάδες (Oreades or Oread) nymph, Echo. Echo has her own tragic tale, but the short version of her interaction with Narcissus is that she fell deeply in love with him and, cursed to forever only repeat the words of others, eventually revealed herself to Narcissus, only to be spurned and told to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but the sound of her voice remained of her, something which triggered the attention of the goddess of revenge, Νέμεσις (Nemesis), who immediately decided to punish Narcissus. She attracted Narcissus to a pool of perfectly still, mirror-like water, where he fell in love with his own reflection, never realizing it was just an image. Narcissus lost the will to live and stared at his own reflection until he died. As you can well gather, this is also the origin of the term, narcissism, which is a fixation with oneself.

From a linguistic perspective, the narcissus plant is also often linked to the Greek word ναρκῶ (narkō), meaning “to make numb.” There is also the Greek word ναρκωσις (narkosis), which was the term used by Ἱπποκράτης (Hippokrátēs or Hippocrates) for the process of numbing or the numbed state, though this was admittedly long after the writing of the Homeric Hymns. This flower was “made to grow at the will of Zeus…to be a snare for the bloom-like girl (Persephone),” according to the Hymn, and given the flower’s etymological history, this comes as little surprise. One can argue that (a) Zeus willing roofies his daughter and her attending nymphs in order to make Persephone easier to carry off, or (b) plays upon the seemingly inherent vanity of the Olympians and their natural greed associated with demanded the best and most beautiful of everything — hence, a natural lure in the form of a “marvelous, radiant bloom.”

The lure works, and Hades bursts out of a cleft in the earth on his immortal horse-drawn chariot, caught up Persephone  and bore her away back into the earth to be his queen. Demeter was understandably upset upon discovering that her beloved daughter had disappeared, and searched for her all over the earth, all the while, dependent upon the myth, either forbidding the earth to produce, or neglecting the earth and in the depth of her despair she causes nothing to grow.Ἠέλιος (Hēlios), the sun, does eventually tell Demeter the truth of what he saw, saying:

“Ῥείης ἠυκόμου θύγατερ, Δήμητερ ἄνασσα, εἰδήσεις: δὴ γὰρ μέγα σ᾽ ἅζομαι ἠδ᾽ ἐλεαίρω ἀχνυμένην περὶ παιδὶ τανυσφύρῳ: οὐδέ τις ἄλλος αἴτιος ἀθανάτων, εἰ μὴ νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς, ὅς μιν ἔδωκ᾽ Ἀίδῃ θαλερὴν κεκλῆσθαι ἄκοιτιν αὐτοκασιγνήτῳ: ὃ δ᾽ ὑπὸ ζόφον ἠερόεντα ἁρπάξας ἵπποισιν ἄγεν μεγάλα ἰάχουσαν. ἀλλά, θεά, κατάπαυε μέγαν γόον: οὐδέ τί σε χρὴ μὰψ αὔτως ἄπλητον ἔχειν χόλον: οὔ τοι ἀεικὴς γαμβρὸς ἐν ἀθανάτοις Πολυσημάντωρ Ἀιδωνεύς, αὐτοκασίγνητος καὶ ὁμόσπορος: ἀμφὶ δὲ τιμὴν ἔλλαχεν ὡς τὰ πρῶτα διάτριχα δασμὸς ἐτύχθη, τοῖς μεταναιετάειν, τῶν ἔλλαχε κοίρανος εἶναι.”

“Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rhea, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Hades, her father’s brother, to be called his buxom wife. And Hades seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly: Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honour, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 75-87)

There are a few key points in what Hēlios says. First being that he lays the blame upon Zeus, not Hades. Had Hades taken Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, without asking his brother first, this story would have likely been an entirely different narrative and exposes one of the most difficult problems of analyzing the “Rape of Persephone” with a modern perspective. This is an overtly patriarchal mythological system, with Persephone treated, especially by Zeus, as little more than property that can be given away in marriage without her own consent or say in the matter. I’d be remiss not to mention this, but for the sake of this argument, I must try to put myself in a relative Classical perspective and, thus, treat the entire betrothal as rather par the course, but also interesting for a defense of Hades.

bernini_proserpina2The importance of Hades’ asking Zeus for Persephone’s hand is that it further illustrates his deference and loyalty to his younger brother. Given the ease with which Hades runs off with Persephone, it’s suffice to say that he potentially could have carried out this plan with or without the consent of his sibling. As noted above with Apollo and Poseidon, it doesn’t bode well even for the Olympians to cross Zeus, and Hades doesn’t even seem to consider an alternative route besides properly asking Zeus, Persephone’s father, for permission to make her his bride and queen.

The second line of note is that Hēlios makes a point of saying Hades is a good match for Persephone, from a fairly objective level, at least: Hades is a son of Kronos, ergo one of the most powerful of the Olympians, and he has a realm over which he (and he alone) rules, just like his (and her) brothers, Zeus and Poseidon. But even beyond the power that Hades brings to such a union, he is still probably one of the best choices for Persephone for another reason: he was the only one of the Olympians to remain wholly monogamous in his marriage. This might sound like a small, almost silly thing to mention, but consider that fact that he is the only one of the married gods to remain faithful. What does this say about his loyalty and belief in the sanctity of an oath?

tumblr_majrpnytGB1r7z9p8.jpgNow, Persephone was not Hades’ only lover — he was said to have a relationship with the nymph, Μίνθη (Minthe), prior to his marriage to Persephone, with whom he did not resume his relationship after his marriage to Persephone. It probably didn’t help that Minthe argued herself more beautiful and seductive than the now-Queen of the Underworld and that Hades would return to her bed, forsaking his wife. Persephone or Demeter, dependent upon which version of the myth you read, heard this and metamorphosed Minthe into a plant as punishment.

While there is another lover of note, Leuke, I am not going to speak about her, as the earliest source of this myth that I have found is, in fact, Roman, coming from Servius’ commentaries on Vergil’s Eclogae, and I want to keep as much of a Greek perspective as possible. While the white poplar (leuke) is mentioned in Pausanias’s Description of Greece as being that from whose leaves Ἡρακλῆς (Herakles) made himself a crown upon his reemergence from the Underworld during his twelfth labour, the myth of the nymph does not appear to emerge until later. But even taking Leuke into account, I argue that it, too, appears to have occurred prior to Hades’ marriage to Persephone, as the Queen of the Underworld was said to have a grove of willows and poplars near the entrance to the Underworld that were specifically sacred to her.

As for Persephone? Well, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Does Hades fight this? Nope. He turns to Persephone and says:

“ἔρχεο, Περσεφόνη, παρὰ μητέρα κυανόπεπλον ἤπιον ἐν στήθεσσι μένος καὶ θυμὸν ἔχουσα, μηδέ τι δυσθύμαινε λίην περιώσιον ἄλλων: οὔ τοι ἐν ἀθανάτοισιν ἀεικὴς ἔσσομ᾽ ἀκοίτης, αὐτοκασίγνητος πατρὸς Διός: ἔνθα δ᾽ ἐοῦσα δεσπόσσεις πάντων ὁπόσα ζώει τε καὶ ἕρπει, τιμὰς δὲ σχήσησθα μετ᾽ ἀθανάτοισι μεγίστας. τῶν δ᾽ ἀδικησάντων τίσις ἔσσεται ἤματα πάντα, οἵ κεν μὴ θυσίῃσι τεὸν μένος ἱλάσκωνται εὐαγέως ἔρδοντες, ἐναίσιμα δῶρα τελοῦντες.”

“Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me: be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods, that am own brother to father Zeus. And while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.”

Okay, I’ll be honest: yes, there is some sneakiness involved in Hades’ easy willingness to part with Persephone. You see, she’s already eaten some of the food of the Underworld — a pomegranate seed — and, thus, cannot leave Hades forever. As a result of her eating the food of the dead, Persephone is required to spend one-third of the year with Hades in the Underworld.

The abduction of Persephone is, most certainly, a stain on Hades’ record, but I cannot help but look more at Zeus than Hades for the incident. Had Zeus refused Hades’ suit, I can only surmise that, given Hades’ track record of never crossing his brother, the abduction of Persephone would not have occurred. Tacking onto that Hades’ devotion and fidelity to his wife and her eventual “coming into one’s own” in terms of being the Queen of the Underworld — as exhibited by later myths of heroes who descended into the Land of the Dead — means that their marriage was not as unhappy as it could have been. They had, arguably, the most stable marriage of all the Olympians.

 

And here I pound the earth thrice
May he who dwells below hear my voice

Why do I feel the need to defend Hades? Why does the vilification of this god bother me to such an extent? I think it’s the pervasive proliferation of the image of Hades as the villain. Whether it be Disney’s HerculesClash of the Titans and its sequel, or, more recently, a novel by Jordanna Max Brodsky entitled, The Immortals, which featured a particularly insulting sequence in the Underworld that put Hades and Persephone both in such a light as made me want to vomit. (To be fair, all three of those examples are such mythological disasters, that I could write dissertations for each of them in turn, but their treatment of Hades pushes my buttons the most.)

Unfortunately, poor treatment of Hades isn’t something unique to that book or those films. Hades seems perpetually saddled with a bad rap, cast as either the antagonist or a power-hungry dick, and it irks me. It’s lazy writing, because it seems to imply a causation of “Lord of the Dead” = bad guy, which is so against the mythology that I cannot help but shake my head.

And my defense of Hades should not be mistaken for romanticism of a villain — first off, I freely admit that Hades wasn’t exactly cuddly. When you’re a god whose descriptors are “unyielding” and “grim,” I’m assuming you’re not going to be fun at parties. Secondly Hades is not a villain. I wrote an entire post on the romanticism of the villain, and Hades is not a villain in his own mythology, and I don’t think he should forever be cast in such a negative light by modern adaptation. As my mum joked to me the other day, “He’s just the introvert who got the short end of the stick,” and while that might be stretching it just a little bit, it comes across as far more accurate than what is put forth in modern adaptation.

Hades was a character who was unyielding and grim, sure, but he was also loyal and just. I’d rather see that side of the god in my fiction instead of the phoned-in, cheap-shot antagonist. Hades, as a character, deserves better and I, as an audience, deserve better.

 

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2 thoughts on “The People vs Hades

    • Thanks a bunch! Glad to see there are more of us out there — it’s something that’s long overdue for a shift.

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