Today, I thought I would let loose a bit about one of the things that most irritates me about the way Greek myths and gods are treated in the modern age, especially by Hollywood. In particular, I’m going to be talking about the way Hades is treated. You know what I mean: he’s often treated as being the equivalent of the Christian Devil, and his realm is treated as equal to Hell, with the Elysian Fields (or the Isles of the Blessed or the White Island) being the equal of Heaven. None of this is the least bit accurate.
I’ll start with Hades himself. As most people know, he was one of the six children of Kronos and Rhea, the other five being Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter and Hestia. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Hades was the eldest, and Zeus the youngest, but in the Iliad it’s stated that Zeus is the eldest brother, so traditions varied across Magna Graecia. Following the defeat of Kronos and the Titans, the three brothers split the world between them; Zeus received the air and the sky, Poseidon the water, and Hades all that was below the earth’s surface. While this did primarily mean the deep darkness filled with the souls of the dead, it also meant crops before they had sprouted, and metals and precious stones yet to be mined, leading to one of his Greek epithets, Ploutos or Plouton, “the Wealthy.” (Whence his Roman name Pluto.) There is no standard explanation of how the division was achieved; some sources say they drew lots, others that they chose by age, and others still that Zeus was awarded the chief position and rule over the skies as reward for being the one who threw down their tyrannical father.
One of his other names is “the chthonic Zeus,” that is “Zeus of the earth.” It’s especially used by Hesiod, but similar names also crop up in Euripides, and Aeschylus also calls him “the other Zeus,” and “the earthly, the much-visited Zeus of the dead,” and “Zeus who is beneath the earth.” This is perhaps the most indisputable reason I believe that Zeus and Hades were originally different aspects of the same god. Such a combination is not unheard of; Osiris filled similar roles in Egypt, and there were many other gods who traveled from the underworld to the heavens regularly, throughout the beliefs in the region. Now, keep in mind that this is largely only my opinion, and I refer mostly to very early times, Mycenaean or even pre-Mycenaean. However, I came to this opinion based on good authority: Timothy Gantz, in Early Greek Myth says “Thus it appears that at times Zeus and Hades represented simply different facets of a single extended divine power.” (Pg 72, also the source of the Aeschylus quotes.)
One of the other reasons I think that is the connection between Hades and the fertility goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and their role in the growth of plants. Zeus is often called the “cloud-gatherer” by the Greek poets, because in his role as a sky god, he was responsible for causing storms. (Though by literary times, he seems to largely delegate that responsibility to lesser deities, but I think it’s safe to say that in earlier times, he still played the more traditional role of a storm god, and it was the higher post assigned to him in Mycenaean times that freed him of the more mundane tasks of that role.) So plants could not grow without the aid of Zeus and his rain. But they couldn’t grow without the fertile earth that was the realm of Hades, either, and there is surviving artwork depicting Hades assisting Demeter in making crops grow. And on top of that, Hades is married to Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. (Eew, double uncle!) Persephone’s role was to a large extent the same as her mother’s, and the two were usually worshipped together in ancient times, so Persephone may well be only an extension of Demeter, a new(er) goddess to go with the new(er) god. (Again, that last part is purely my own speculation.) For the most part, there is little to speak of the marital relations of Hades and Persephone, except that some later writers assigned Hades the same wandering lust that plagued his brothers and nephews…and made Persephone just as jealous a wife as her Aunt Hera. And despite the famed allegory for the changing seasons of Persephone coming and going from the underworld, it may not always have been the case that she was such an inconstant wife: the mentions of Persephone in the Odyssey make it sound as if she remains in her husband’s realm all year round.
A final connection between Hades and Zeus before I move on. There aren’t many myths involving Hades apart from the tale of how he came to marry Persephone, but one of the few there are is that of Pirithoos and his mad desire for Persephone. I’m going to go into detail on the myths themselves later (in other posts), so I won’t say too much now, except that it involved Pirithoos entering Hades’ home as a guest, though he intends to make off with his host’s wife. This is a connection to Zeus for two reasons. One, Zeus once had a mortal guest named Ixion who attempted to have his way with Hera…and in vengeance, Zeus went and got Ixion’s wife pregnant (in addition to sending Ixion down to Tartaros to suffer in eternity) with a son…who just happened to be that very same Pirithoos. (I’d say “like father, like son” if Ixion was actually Pirithoos’ father, but since he wasn’t…) Two, the bond between host and guest, called xenia or “guest-friendship,” was the special province of Zeus himself, allegedly having been invented by him. (The actual practice dates at least back into the Late Bronze Age, and is known to have been in general practice all throughout the Aegean area.)
Now, as to the realm of the dead, it was nothing like the Christian afterlife. Most dead people went to the same common darkness below the earth, which was not called Hades, despite the modern misconception. It had no specific name, but was often referred to as “the house of Hades,” but as that was long and unwieldy, it was sometimes shortened, and the “house” part was implied, so that all that was actually written was “Hades” in the genitive case, hence the confusion in modern minds. The afterlife was also sometimes called Erebos, or “darkness,” as in the Odyssey. Of course, that’s the common afterlife, the one where all real people could expect to go. (Unless they were members of a cult with another version of the afterlife, such as the Orphic cults, but that’s another matter entirely, and one that I have only a smidgen of knowledge about.)
There were two other types of afterlife. For the most evil and wicked, there was Tartaros. The realm where the Titans were kept imprisoned, where they themselves had previously imprisoned the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handed Giants. For the most part, the only mortals said to have been sent to Tartaros were those who had committed crimes against the gods themselves, as Ixion had. (There are also the Danaids, but…I chalk that up to extreme misogyny on someone’s part. Particularly when you consider that the women of Lemnos suffered no penalty for slaughtering their husbands.) No matter how terribly a real person behaved, it was unlikely to match up to, for example, Tantalos killing his own son and serving the corpse to the gods at a feast, or trying to steal ambrosia from Olympos, so you don’t see much in the way of real people being said to have fallen into Tartaros upon their deaths. It isn’t entirely clear if Tartaros is under Hades’ rule, or the rule of some other god, or perhaps all of them; different regions probably had different traditions in that regard, most of which never made it into any surviving writing.
For the greatest and finest heroes, there were better afterlives. I use the plural because there are three different versions. The Elysian Fields of Homer and the Isles of the Blessed of Hesiod were probably the same paradisaical afterlife, merely given a different name due to the different local traditions. The third, the White Island, was very different, and yet also somewhat the same. Like the other two, it was an afterlife only for the greatest heroes, a place where real people could never hope to spend their eternity. Unlike the other two, it was also a real place. It was an island off the coast of Scythia, ruled over by Achilles after his death, and there was a temple built in his honor on the island. (Though only men were allowed to go there to offer sacrifices in his honor.) Other than Achilles, Patroclos, Aias and Antilochos, I don’t know off-hand of any heroes specifically said to have gone to the White Island rather than the Elysian Fields and/or the Isles of the Blessed. (Iphigenia was said to have been Achilles’ wife there, though.) The Elysian Fields/Isles of the Blessed may have been under the control of Hades, Aiakos or Rhadamanthys; as with Tartaros, there isn’t much information in surviving sources, and even what information there should be assumed to be only a fraction of the beliefs that once existed.
A Christian-like concept of the afterlife can be found described in some ancient Greek writings, however, which has probably led to some of the irritating misconceptions of the modern age. I came across one such description in the mouth of Nestor in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica, which I thought was the Christian influence on Quintus, but according to the translator’s notes on the new(ish) translation, it isn’t. Quintus was echoing Plato’s Republic, and given what I know of Socrates’ and Aristotle’s beliefs, that does make perfect sense. However, that Christian-like afterlife was utterly without the presence of the traditional Greek gods, or at least without their strong presence. (That was, after all, the excuse used by the Athenians to put Socrates to death, saying that he taught the worship of gods other than those of Athens.) So while the Platonic concept of the afterlife may have contributed to the modern malignant reputation of Hades and his realm, it’s unlikely to have been the primary factor.
The primary cause is most likely interference by the Medieval and Renaissance scholars who were passing along the mythic material in the intervening years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern era. (Similar to what happened to Loki’s reputation, when the illiterate Vikings converted to Christianity, and some few versions of the old tales were written down with alterations and amendments by the priests recording them.) That and Hollywood’s tendency to dumb down everything to make it more easily understood by the stoned monkeys the executives think the masses are. (Okay, maybe that was a little harsh…)
Okay, I feel like there’s still more I need to say here, but it’s getting quite late, and I’m starting to lose focus. (Literally and figuratively; my eyes need a rest….) So if I think of the way this should have ended, I’ll come back to fix it up later. Otherwise, I’ll leave it here for now, except to say that I plan to return to the topic of Hades in later posts, not just discussing his primary myths, but actually writing them out. (I actually wrote most of the first one yesterday. It’s got a bit of a children’s book tone to it, unlike my usual writing.)