In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld, the kingdom of the dead. (The Romans called him Pluto.) Although the name Hades is often used to indicate the underworld itself, it rightfully belongs only to the god, whose kingdom was known as the land of Hades or house of Hades.
Hades was the son of Cronus* and Rhea, two of the Titans who once ruled the universe. The Titans had other children, the gods Zeus* and Poseidon* and the goddesses Demeter*, Hera*, and Hestia. When Hades was born, Cronus swallowed him as he had swallowed his other children at birth. However, Zeus escaped this fate, and he tricked Cronus into taking a potion that made him vomit up Hades and his siblings.
Together these gods and goddesses rebelled against the Titans and seized power from them. After gaining control of the universe, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus drew lots to divide it among themselves. Zeus gained control of the sky, Poseidon took the sea, and Hades received the underworld.
The Underworld Kingdom. The kingdom of the dead was divided into two regions. At the very bottom lay Tartarus, a land of terrible blackness where the wicked suffered eternal torments. Among those imprisoned there were the Titans, who were guarded by giants with a hundred arms. The other region of the underworld, Elysium or the Elysian Fields, was a place where the souls of good and righteous people went after death.
To reach Hades' kingdom, the dead had to cross the river Styx. A boatman named Charon ferried the dead across the river, while the monstrous Cerberus, a multiheaded dog with a serpent's tail, guarded the entrance to the underworld to prevent anyone from leaving. Four other rivers flowed through the underworld: Acheron
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
(river of woe), Lethe (river of forgetfulness), Cocytus (river of wailing), and Phlegethon (river of fire).
Hades supervised the judgment and punishment of the dead but did not torture them himself. That task was left to the Furies, the female spirits of justice and vengeance. Although portrayed as grim and unyielding, Hades was not considered evil or unjust. Still, the ancient Greeks rarely spoke his name aloud because it was thought to be unlucky. Moreover, they built no temples to honor Hades, and few Greeks or Romans worshiped the god of the underworld.
Hades and Persephone. Hades appears in very few myths. The best known concerns his kidnapping of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and the earth. Hades saw the beautiful Persephone while he was riding in a chariot on earth and fell in love with her. When Hades asked Zeus for permission to marry Persephone, Zeus told him that Demeter would never agree. However, Zeus did agree to help Hades seize her.
One day while picking flowers, Persephone reached for a fragrant blossom, and the earth opened up before her. Hades emerged in a chariot, grabbed Persephone, and carried her to the underworld. When Demeter discovered that her daughter was missing, she searched all over, causing drought and devastation wherever she went. After finally learning what had happened, she threatened to starve all mortals as punishment to Zeus and the other gods.
Fearing the consequences of Demeter's anger, Zeus sent word to Hades that Persephone must be returned to her mother. Before letting her go, however, Hades gave Persephone a piece of fruit to eat. Persephone ate the fruit, not realizing that anyone who ate food in the kingdom of the dead must remain there.
Zeus intervened again and arranged for Persephone to spend part of every year with her mother and part with Hades. During the growing and harvest season, she may live on earth, but during the barren winter months she must return to Hades' kingdom and reign there as queen of the underworld.