All posts tagged Persephone

G is for Gwyn ap Nudd

Published April 8, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


In the land of Annwn, the Otherworld of the Tylwyth Teg, ruled Gwyn, a powerful warrior with a dark face.  He was often to be found out riding through the woods of his own realm or that of the mortals, on a wild hunt with frenzied followers.

Perhaps it was on one of these rides that he first spotted Creiddylad.  She was a beautiful girl — no, the most beautiful girl! — and the daughter of Lludd of the Silver Hand, a powerful and important king in his own right.  Creiddylad was staying at the court of King Arthur as a guest when her father decided to betroth her to Gwythyr ap Greidawl, one of Arthur’s knights.

For such a beautiful woman, the daughter of a king, to marry a mere knight was an outrage to Gwyn — though, in truth, the idea of her marrying anyone other than himself would have outraged him just as much, even if her intended had been a king among kings.  Rather than see her married to man unworthy of her, Gwyn set out to save her from that fate.  He and his men rode up and snatched her away from Gwythyr, taking her back to Annwn where Gwyn could make her his own bride, proud of himself for having thus rescued her.

Of course, Gwythyr told the tale not as a rescue, but as an abduction.

He told all his kin, and raised a great army to set out and rescue his purloined bride.

But what could an army of men do against the fey?  They were defeated, captured, tortured…it was a brutal and horrifying bloodbath, and it had done nothing to make Creiddylad desire to become Gwyn’s queen.

With no other recourse, Gwythyr turned to King Arthur for help.  After all, even Gwyn ap Nudd respected Arthur’s crown!

The king did not make his feelings known on the bitter contest between the two rivals for Creiddylad’s hand.  (If he had dared to do so, who knows what he might have done or said:  he might have sighed in disgust and told them both to go to the devil!  He had to deal with this sort of thing all too often, after all…)

What he did make clear was that he didn’t want to see this sort of behavior taking place in his kingdom.

They would have to come to an arrangement that everyone could agree to, and until that time, Creiddylad would be returned to her father.

So, that May Day, Gwyn and Gwythyr fought a duel over Creiddylad.

But Gwyn wasn’t using any of his powers as King of Annwn, only the skills of his blade, so he was unable to defeat his opponent.  And yet his opponent was unable to defeat him.

The duel inconclusive, the girl remained in her father’s castle, and the rivals agreed to fight again the following May Day.

But that, too, turned out in a draw.

As did the next duel.

Every year on May Day, until Judgement Day itself, Gwyn and Gwythyr will renew their battle in their desire to wed the beautiful Creiddylad.  Only then, when the final trumpets have sounded, will one of them finally manage to defeat the other, and make her his bride.

Yup, the comparison is just screaming out:  Gwyn is Hermes!

Okay, no, that’s not it.  (But I did see a bit in one of my sources that said Gwyn ap Nudd can act as the Welsh psychopomp, so that does make him Hermes as well as Hades.)

The problem, of course, with this being an Arthurian tale is that it’s hard to say how much contamination there is.  The Arthurian stories — no matter when they originated — were first being written down in the Middle Ages.  And while classical Greek and Roman myths were largely repressed, they were never fully forgotten, as the bastardized Medieval Ovid texts prove quite handily.  (That, among other reasons, is why I would have preferred to avoid Arthurian myths for these purposes.  But this one was just too beautiful a comparison to pass up!)

So, someone had to assemble and write these stories down.  Did that person know the tale of Hades/Pluto stealing away Persephone/Proserpine in order to make her his wife?

It’s not really a question that can be handily answered.  (Unless one has a time machine.  So if there’s any time travelers out there, let me know!)

I think there’s a good chance, however, that it’s not all late influence.  There may be some late influence, but the basic idea of an embodiment of warmth and growth that constantly passes underground and comes back out again is to be found in a lot of different cultures across the world (though often it’s a male figure who’s dying and being revived), including some that pre-date the Greeks, so…I’d call it a pretty basic motif of human civilization.

Macedonian tomb fresco, Vergina. Wikimedia Commons.

Hades abducting Persephone.  Macedonian tomb fresco, Vergina. Wikimedia Commons.

There is one additional note here, and that’s incest.  My sources are not sure if Nudd and Lludd might be the same person; apparently the name Nudd is an archaic version of Lludd.  If they are the same person, then Gwyn and Creiddylad are brother and sister, in much the way that Hades and Persephone are uncle and niece.  (Though she’s his double-niece, so she might as well be his sister.  Or his daughter.  Actually, it’s kind of disgusting.)  In both cases, any consanguinity seems entirely ignored as irrelevant, perhaps because as one of the fair folk, Gwyn is not entirely a creature of flesh and blood, just as the Greek gods were not ruled by blood the same way human beings are.

However, it’s very possible that the conflation of Nudd and Lludd is the late interpretation:  just because the one has an archaic version of the other’s name, that doesn’t make them the same person!  (I can name lots of Greek mythic characters whose names were also used for very different people.)  It seems to me that modern interpreters of the myth may actually want Gwyn and Creiddylad to be siblings, to increase the strength of the comparison to Hades and Persephone.

And I’m editing this almost ten days later because I just found another great parallel.  (And yes, I should have found it sooner.  Actually, I should have found it soon enough to do something else for G, and go with this other one, but…)

Among the Iroquois people, there’s a tale of the corn goddess Onatah goes like this:

Onatah, daughter of Eithinoha, Mother Earth, was out gathering dew on one beautiful morning when she was suddenly seized by the ruler of the underworld, and carried off to his underground realm.  Her mother searched and searched for her, and during her frantic search, nothing could grow and the world became cold.  Eventually, the sun figured out what had happened to Onatah, and rescued her by splitting the ground open.  With Onatah’s return, Eithinoha rejoiced, warmth returned, and plants began to grow once more.  But the spirits of the underworld pined for Onatah as much as her mother had during her absence, and so they waited until the sun fell asleep in the autumn, and stole her away again.  The people had to perform many ceremonies each year to re-awaken the sun so that he could once more rescue Onatah.

That one’s so like Hades and Persephone (aside from the fact that there’s no mention of marriage) that it’s even the sun who finds the missing maiden.  (Although, in truth, it’s not always Helios who tells Demeter where Persephone is.  Sometimes it’s Hecate.)  In theory, it’s possible there could be some corruption by European influence, since Native American tales weren’t written down until the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, but it seems unlikely, unless the corruption was literally added in the process of being written down.

K is for Kore

Published April 13, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Technically, I could use any name usually Romanized with a C, since there is no C in Greek, and the names therefore start with kappa, unless they start with “Ch” in which case they start with chi.  But I thought I’d go with Kore, one of the only ancient Greek names that is pretty much never spelled with a C in English.  (Well, they don’t want people confusing it with the English word “core,” right?)

So, Kore just means “maiden.”  It’s often used to describe a certain kind of statue from the Archaic Period.  But since I’m talking about mythology, I’m using it to mean Persephone.  Kore was, essentially, her cultic name, particularly in cults worshiping her in concert with her mother, Demeter.  (As opposed to those worshiping her in concert with her husband, Hades.  Those, to the best of my knowledge (which admittedly isn’t very much) never called her Kore.  Though much of the worship involving both Demeter and Persephone still had a strong focus on her abduction by Hades.)  So, in this case, Kore might more accurately be translated as “Daughter.”

The most famous cult worshiping Kore was the one at Eleusis, just outside of Athens.  Their Mysteries are still famous, and a subject of constant study.  Despite that we know almost nothing about them.

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Admetos and Alcestis

Published February 12, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Y’know, it occurs to me that there’s still one more Hades-related myth I need to tell after this one:  the death of Orpheus.  So I guess that one’s up for next week, then I can get to the other stories I’ve touched on but not told yet.  It’s going to be tricky to figure out when to place that in relation to this one, though.  Admetos, like Orpheus, is an Argonaut (well, Admetos may not always be an Argonaut, but as he’s from Thessaly and a son-in-law of Pelias, it makes more sense for him to be an Argonaut than someone like, say, Telamon, who has no particular connection to Thessaly or Iolcos), but…hrmm.  Depending on how I handle the…uh…ack.  There’s a reason these myths are not usually coordinated in a strictly chronological manner.  Yeah, so I guess I’m just going to have to live with the fact that some of the stories overlap, chronologically.  Or rather, that stories like this one, with multiple parts, have other stories take place in the middle.

It all began with Asclepios.  He was the son of Apollo, and the most skilled of all mortal healers.  He was even so skilled that he once managed to bring a dead man back to life.

But that was the where the trouble started.  Zeus was enraged at the offense against the natural order, and he struck Asclepios dead with a thunderbolt.

A furious Apollo wanted to avenge his favorite son, but he could never turn against his own father.  Instead, Apollo began slaughtering the Cyclopes who had forged the thunderbolts.  This only made Zeus even more angry, since the Cyclopes were his uncles.  He grabbed Apollo and began dragging him down to Tartaros, swearing he would subject the rebellious god to everlasting torment.

Zeus found Hades awaiting him just outside the entrance to Tartaros, with several of the Hundred-Handed Giants.  Zeus remanded Apollo to the custody of the giants, and stepped aside to speak to his brother.

“Do you really think that this is a good idea?” Hades asked coldly.  “He’s already angry at you, and you want to place him in company with Titans who still want vengeance on us for ousting them from power?  Have you forgotten why you swallowed Metis?”

“Do you want to let him get away with what he’s done?” Zeus countered, still burning with anger.

“There are other ways to punish him,” Hades pointed out.  “Find one that can’t lead to us becoming the ones locked away in torment for eternity.  I have no desire to end up like our father.”

Zeus was still angry, but he knew his brother was right.  So he dragged Apollo back up to the surface, and forced him into a disguise so that he looked like an ordinary mortal man.  Then he took him to Pherae in Thessaly, and gave him to its king, Admetos, as a slave.

Apollo was horrified to end up as the slave of a mortal man, but Admetos was very kind to him, even though he had had no idea that his new slave was actually a god.  Apollo’s main task was to watch over the cattle as they grazed on the plains of Thessaly, and he played his lyre and sang the whole time he was at work, making the animals docile and cooperative.  In fact, the cows were so happy to listen to Apollo’s singing as they grazed that all of the heifers gave birth to twins that spring.  Realizing that his new cowherd had to be somehow responsible for the miracle, Admetos began to treat the disguised Apollo even more kindly, earning the god’s friendship and gratitude.

Soon afterwards, Admetos fell madly in love with the beautiful Alcestis, one of the daughters of Pelias, the King of Iolcos.  But Alcestis was Pelias’ favorite daughter, and he did not want her to get married, and so he declared that no man should have his daughter’s hand in marriage unless he arrived at Pelias’ palace in a chariot drawn by a lion and a boar.  Admetos despaired of ever winning his beloved’s hand, but Apollo assured him that it could be easily done, as even the most savage beasts could be tamed by music.  Then, without another word, Apollo walked off into the forest, and found a wild boar.  He sang to it and played his lyre, and it became as meek and gentle as a lamb, and followed him gladly back to the stable, where the chariot was waiting.  Apollo gently hitched the boar to the chariot, and then went into the forest in the other direction, where he found a savage lion.  After a song from radiant Apollo, the lion became as docile as a sleepy kitten, and followed the god back to the stable, batting playfully at the hem of his tattered slave robes.  Once the lion, too, was hitched the chariot, Apollo mounted the chariot as charioteer, and called to Admetos to ride behind him.

Admetos had seen many strange things in his time, so he was not afraid to ride in a chariot pulled by a lion and a boar, especially not with his uncanny slave handling the reins.  Pelias was dismayed to see Admetos arrive in such a manner, but he was essentially a man of his word, and he was afraid of what other miracles such a young man might be capable of, so he agreed to allow Admetos to marry Alcestis, and soon the boar and the lion were taking the young couple back to Pherae, where Apollo released the wild beasts back into the forests.

After Apollo had been a slave in Pherae for an entire year without misbehaving–or even seducing any mortal maidens–Zeus forgave his son, and allowed him to return to Mt. Olympos.  Apollo went to Admetos and shed his disguise, then promised Admetos that he would always watch over his house, and as an added gift of friendship, he told Admetos that he knew the king’s Fate.  Admetos was to live another ten years, at which time he would fall ill and die.  But, in gratitude for all of Admetos’ kindness, Apollo gave him a special gift.  Once Admetos fell ill, if he could find any other mortal who was willing to die in his place, then Admetos’ life would be spared, and he would live on…but it had to be voluntary:  if they didn’t want to die to save him, if they were doing it because they were ordered to, then it wouldn’t work.

Admetos thanked the god and promised to make lavish sacrifices in his honor every year for the rest of his life.  Satisfied, Apollo returned to his father’s palace on Mt. Olympos.

A few years after Apollo’s departure, soon after Alcestis became heavy with child, Admetos heard that Jason of Iolcos was preparing a voyage to far distant Colchis, in search of the Golden Fleece.  Knowing that he could not die for another eight years, Admetos eagerly signed on to join the expedition, promising his beloved wife that he would return safe and sound.

And indeed he did return, uninjured and bearing both gifts and many tales of heroism, both his own and that of his companions, who included not only local heroes like Peleus of Phthia but also more distant heroes like Castor and Polydeuces, and even the mighty Heracles himself, the most famous of all the mortal sons of Zeus.  But that’s another story.

Admetos and Alcestis and their new son, Eumelos, lived many years in happy peace in Pherae.

At first, when Admetos fell ill, he didn’t worry, because he was so used to knowing that it wasn’t yet his time to die.  But then he stopped and counted the years, and realized that it now was his time to die.  He struggled out of bed and went to see his aged parents, asking if one of them would sacrifice the few years they had left so that he could live on.

But they refused.

He went to see his soldiers, all the men who had sworn to fight and die for Pherae, and asked if one of them would sacrifice their lives that he might live.

But they refused.

He went to the slaves in the palace, whose lives were surely worse than death.  They, surely, would have no reason to want to keep living, Admetos thought.  He told them about Apollo’s promise to spare his life if someone would choose to die in his place.

But they refused.

Desperate to find someone who would die for him, Admetos had heralds make proclamations throughout his lands.  They said that if any man or woman chose to die to save their king, then their family would be richly rewarded.

But still no one came forward to give up their lives for him.

Giving up at last, Admetos returned to bed and felt his strength begin to wane away.  As he realized the end was near, he called for his son, and began to make his last farewells.  Once he had said goodbye to his weeping son, Admetos called for his dear wife, who had run off in tears on seeing Admetos embracing Eumelos for the last time.

But she did not answer.

As Admetos became more and more distraught that his wife would not show her face to him one last time, to let him see her again before his end came, he began to grow agitated.  He began to fear that Alcestis actually wanted him to hurry up and die so that she could take another husband.  He rose from the bed and began to pace his bedchamber in his worry.  He had been pacing for some time when his son spoke.

“Papa, aren’t you dying?” he asked.  “Shouldn’t you do that in bed?”

Admetos stopped and looked at his confused son.  Then he realized something chilling.  He was no longer ill.  He no longer felt the shadow of Thanatos hovering above him.

Terrified, he ran from his bedchamber, and hurried through the town, calling for his wife.

He found her, at last, collapsed before the altar in the massive temple that Admetos had built in honor of Apollo’s kindness.  No matter how Admetos cried and wept and called her name, she did not stir, for she had herself given her life to allow him to continue living, and no number of sacrifices to Apollo caused her to revive.

Alcestis was laid in state in the palace, to be wept and mourned, until a fitting tomb could be built outside the city.  The king ordered the whole city to go into mourning for its beautiful queen, and retreated into his chamber, unwilling to see anyone.

Early the next day, one of Admetos’ old comrades from the Argo arrived in Pherae.  Great Heracles, son of Zeus himself, arrived in Pherae, and found himself quite surprised to see everyone in mourning.  He called at the palace, and was shocked to find that Admetos was not in the throne room awaiting his guest.  Shouting and shouting until the servants were afraid that the palace itself might fall on their heads, Heracles wandered through the palace, looking for his old friend.

Eumelos was the one who approached Heracles, and began to explain the calamity of his mother’s death, weeping all the while, as he led the son of Zeus to see Admetos.  Admetos finished his son’s tale, leaving Heracles both mournful and enraged at once.  He was sad to hear of the lovely lady’s passing, but he was ourtraged that she had been forced to give up her life in such a manner.

After pondering it some while, Heracles declared that he would not stand for it, and that he would see to it that the situation was remedied at once!  He told Admetos to hold off from the funeral, and set off from Pherae, headed towards the nearest cavern that led down beneath the crust of the earth and into the depths below.

As Heracles arrived at the entrance to the underworld, the three-headed dog Cerberus at first began to bark and snarl, but then whined and slunk away, his tail between his legs.  Heracles laughed at the dog’s fear, and strode up to the cowering animal.

“Where’s your master, then?” he chortled.  “I have business with the old stiff!”

Cerberus whimpered, and backed away a moment longer, then turned and began to run through the swirling shades of the underworld.  Heracles ran after the hound until he found himself once more facing Hades, and for the first time also facing the cold yet beautiful Persephone.  Standing between Heracles and the rulers of the afterlife was the weeping shade of the very woman Heracles had come for.

“As if it weren’t noisy enough in here already,” Hades sighed, on sighting his nephew approaching.  He glanced over his shoulder at Cerberus, as the three-headed dog hid behind the god’s throne, then looked back at Heracles.  “Do make it quick.  I can’t face dealing with your raucous presence right now.  It’s bad enough that this woman won’t stop crying long enough to explain her untimely death…”

“I don’t see why Hermes ran off without explaining for her,” Persephone added, shaking her head.  “He’s usually so good about that, when he brings the souls down here.”

“He probably spotted some mortal maiden on his way down,” Hades grumbled, shaking his head.

“I’m here for her,” Heracles said, indicating Alcestis.  “My friend Admetos doesn’t want to lose his wife so soon.”

Alcestis stopped crying, and looked at the hero with wonder.  “You’ve spoken to my husband?” she asked.

“Do you really think you can come down here any time you please and return the dead to life?” Hades asked.  “Even if you were my brother’s favorite son, as you seem to imagine yourself to be, I cannot allow such chaos.”

“Just this one time, I promise,” Heracles said, and then explained how Alcestis had given up her life so her husband could live.

By the time he finished, Persephone was weeping, and her husband was frowning.  “That irritating little…if Apollo is going to make a deal like that, he should have the sense to tell me about it!” Hades exclaimed.  “No wonder Hermes didn’t want to stay to explain…”

“We’ll let her return to the surface, won’t we?” Persephone asked, her eyes pleading through their tears.

“Of course we well,” her husband assured her, “though a wretch who would ask his wife to die in his place doesn’t deserve such a fine woman by his side.”

“He never once asked that of me,” Alcestis assured the god.  “He asked everyone in the kingdom other than me or our son.  I chose to die because I couldn’t face life without him.”

Hades sighed deeply.  “Very well, then.  You may take her back up, Heracles, and I won’t even ask you to kill her husband in recompense.  But if you ever set foot in my domain again, you’re staying!”

Heracles laughed.  “We’ll see,” he replied, then began to lead Alcestis back out of the throne room.  But halfway across the room, he noticed the bench where Theseus and Pirithoos were sitting.  “Hey?  What are you doing here?”  He walked over to his old friends.  Theseus smiled wanly at him, but Pirithoos only looked blankly ahead, seeing nothing.

“The one is suffering his eternal punishment for attempting to steal my wife,” Hades answered coldly.  “The son of Aegeus is being punished for helping him, and being too stupid to give up on his shameless friend.”

Heracles turned back to Theseus, who nodded his head sadly, and explained that he didn’t want to leave Pirithoos behind to suffer alone.  “But I would gladly return the girl to Tyndareos with repayment for our transgression, if we were both allowed to return to the surface!” he added, trying to gain Heracles’ sympathy.

“Theseus…Helen’s brothers already rescued her,” Heracles told him.  “Years ago.”

“Years?  I thought I had only been here a few days…”

Heracles laughed.  “Good gods, man, open your eyes!  I was barely more than a boy last time I saw you!  Now I’m heralded across the world as the greatest hero ever born!”  Heracles ignored the scoffing noise his uncle made behind him.

“Then…what about my kingdom?  What about my family?”

“Well, Castor and Polydeuces conquered all of Attica to get Helen back.  Don’t hold it against them, okay?  They’re good friends of mine, too, you know.  They left Menestheus in charge of Athens.  He’s not a bad fellow, but your sons fled to Euboea, just in case.”  Heracles paused uncomfortably.  “I think your mother’s still with Helen…as her slave.”

“What?!  My mother enslaved, and my sons in hiding?!”  Theseus tried to rise, but was still stuck fast to the bench.  “Please, let me rescue them!”

“You are free to go at any time, so long as you understand that your friend will never leave this place,” Hades informed him.

Theseus was still hesitating, so Heracles made the decision for him.  Gripping the smaller man by his arms, he yanked him up off the sticky seat.  Theseus screamed in agony–part of his buttocks remained on the seat!–but he was free.  Leaning heavily on Heracles, Theseus accompanied his friend and Alcestis back to the surface, and to Pherae.

While Admetos and Alcestis were enjoying their tender reunion, Heracles asked Theseus what he was going to do about his kingdom.  “I’ll need an army to reclaim it,” Theseus said, frowning.  “Will you help me retake it?”

“If I do, Castor and Polydeuces might take offense,” Heracles replied, shaking his head.  “Besides, I’ve got a family of my own to get back to.  Deianeira starts to get antsy when I’m away too long.”

Theseus sighed sadly, but agreed that he could not ask his friend to do more than he had already done.  Instead, he set out for Scryos, an island near Euboea, in the hopes that its king, Lycomedes, would help him retake Athens from Menestheus.  Once his kingdom was restored to his hands, he could send for his sons to rejoin him, and send whatever gifts and treasures it would take to convince Tyndareos to return his mother.

Taking their leave of the reunited royal family of Pherae, the two heroes went their separate ways.

Okay, so technically I’m unaware of any story in which Hades talked Zeus out of throwing Apollo into Tartaros.  However, the whole bit with the death of Asclepios, Apollo killing the Cyclopes, and and Zeus punishing him for that act is all genuine.  Oh, and those Cyclopes really are the uncles of Zeus and the other first generation gods:  like the Titans, they’re the children of Gaia and Ouranos.

I need to make a running tally of all the men in these myths who don’t want to let their favorite daughters get married.  It always smacks of incestuous desire, you know?  (In fact, said desire is sometimes stated outright.)  Pelias makes creepy father number one.

For all those who have read the book The Neverending Story, I apologize for lifting the line “But that’s another story.”  Because that got used insanely often in the book.  It was only used the once in the movie, but in the book…hoo boy, was that everywhere!  It’s just that I needed some kind of “don’t expect that here; it’s elsewhere” line here, and…I couldn’t help myself.

It will be a very long time before I ever get back to Scyros in any of these stories–if I ever do–but in case you don’t know what happened, I’ll just say that it didn’t go well for Theseus…

The Death of Sisyphus

Published January 26, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

The second of my retellings of myths involving Hades.

Sisyphus was the son of Aeolus, one of the sons of Hellen.  When he was young, he set out to forge a new home for himself, and founded the city he called Ephyra, though later generations would come to call it Corinth.  He married the beautiful Merope, one of the Pleiades, the immortal daughters of Atlas.

One day, Sisyphus witnessed something incredible:  Zeus, the king of the gods, was carrying off Aegina, the daughter of the river god Asopus.  Some time later, Asopus came to Ephyra, seeking his daughter.  Sisyphus saw an opportunity to help himself out, so he told the river god that he knew where his daughter was, and that he would pass along the information in exchange for a fresh water spring in his beautiful city.  Asopus obliged, so Sisyphus shared the information that Zeus had taken Aegina to a nearby island for some romantic isolation.

The enraged river god went to retrieve his daughter, angering Zeus greatly by his presumption.  But Zeus had already fathered Aiakos on Aegina, so he turned aside from the river god’s interference, and instead focused his fury against Sisyphus for daring to tattle on the greatest of the gods.

Zeus contemplated hurling a thunderbolt at Sisyphus to put an end to him, but decided that was too fine a death for such a double-dealing wretch.  Instead, he sent Thanatos to kill Sisyphus and drag his shade down to the house of Hades.  When Thanatos arrived in Ephyra and entered the palace of Sisyphus, he did not find the king in his throne room, but found only a mournful-looking Merope sitting on the throne.

“Where is your husband, daughter of Atlas?” Thanatos asked her.  “I have business with him.”

Merope sighed sadly.  “I know; he’s been expecting you.  He’s hiding in our bedroom,” she said, then rose to lead Thanatos to the royal bedroom.  The bedroom was up on the second floor, and Merope stopped just outside the door.  “It’s through here,” she told him, gesturing towards the door.  “Sisyphus is hiding behind the bed.”

Thanatos opened the door, and stepped through it into the darkened room beyond.  “Surrender yourself to me, as all mortals must, son of Aeolus.  For I am death, and I have come for you.”

There was no reply but a quiet whimper from the far corner of the room.  Thanatos followed the sound through the darkness until he found himself suddenly tripping over something hard.  He tumbled head over heels, landing face down in something narrow, metal and constrictive.  There was a clanging of metal against metal and Thanatos found himself trapped.

Having closed the lid of the bronze pot, Sisyphus quickly began to bind it shut with many heavy ropes.  “I’ve done it!” he called out to his wife.

She opened the door, letting a bit of light into the dark room.  “Sisyphus…are you serious?” Merope asked, staring at him in disbelief.

“Of course I am!” he laughed.  “I’ve caught Thanatos, death himself!”

“The gods aren’t going to let you get away with that for long,” she told him.  “You must know that.”

“Of course I do,” he agreed.  “But don’t worry, my dear.  I already have a plan.”

Sisyphus quickly explained his plans to his uncertain wife.

In the mean time, all over the world, mortals stopped dying.  Murderers found their victims getting back up and trying to take vengeance for themselves, and sailors could not drown, no matter how long they spent floundering beneath the waves.

The first god to notice was Ares.  He was in Thrace, fighting alongside the Amazons against their enemies, trying to impress their beautiful queen.  But no matter how many times he pierced a mortal’s chest with his spear, the mortal would get back to his feet and flee, in agony but very much alive.  The more his victims got up and escaped, the more the Amazons laughed at Ares, infuriating and humiliating him.  Eventually, he turned on them in his anger, but was no more able to kill the Amazon warriors than he had been able to kill the Thracians.

Furious, Ares stormed down into the underworld to confront his uncle, Hades.  “What’s wrong with you?!” Ares demanded.  “Why aren’t you doing your job?!”

“What do you think gives you the right to storm into my throne room and berate me like this?” Hades asked coldly, getting to his feet.  “Have more respect for an elder god!”

From her own throne, Persephone laughed quietly.  “You know my brother is just impetuous,” she told her husband.  “It’s his way to yell all the time.”

Grimacing, Hades sat down on his throne again.  “Very well,” he sighed.  “I assume your complaint has to do with the way my kingdom has ceased to grow.”

“Of course it does!  What kind of war can I conduct, if the mortals I kill don’t stay dead?!”

Hades grimaced.  “If you weren’t so eager to practice your ways, maybe I would have more time to spend with my bride,” he grumbled.

Persephone set her hand on his, and squeezed it gently.  “And yet you were worried that the lands above might become overcrowded if the mortals couldn’t die,” she reminded him.

“So is it your doing or not?” Ares asked, a little unsettled by the affectionate display.  He didn’t know how to handle those, except when he was part of them.

“Of course not,” Hades replied, shaking his head.  “Thanatos never returned from Ephyra.  Something must have happened to him there.  If his failure to do his duty is so angering you, why don’t you go after him?”

Ares nodded, and returned to the surface, determined to find Thanatos and give him a piece of his mind for being so negligent of his duties.  When he arrived there, he heard the news being sung gladly from every corner of Hellas:  “King Sisyphus has captured Thanatos, and now we’ll all live forever!”  Ares struck down a few of the mortals who were so excited about their new immortality, but of course it didn’t do any good, and the mortals simply scattered in terror.

Making his way to Ephyra, Ares stormed into the palace of Sisyphus, and demanded that the king explain what had happened to Thanatos.  Sisyphus gladly showed him the bronze pot that sat beside his throne, bound tightly shut.  “I’ve trapped Thanatos in this pot,” he told him proudly.

“Oh, is that so?  No wonder you’re so famous for your wit,” Ares responded, laughing as if he was on Sisyphus’ side.  Certain that he had outwitted the cunning trickster, Ares leapt at the pot, sliced apart the ropes with his sword, knocked off the lid, and then used his sword to slay Sisyphus.

Thanatos dutifully led the soul of Sisyphus down to the house of Hades.  The god was initially inclined to be lenient, since he had enjoyed his brief vacation, but when he checked, he found that the king’s widow had not yet buried her husband’s corpse.  Merope had simply left the body where it had fallen, and was going about her daily activities, seemingly uncaring that her mortal husband had died.

Hades frowned.  “Just what kind of woman ignores her husband’s death?” he asked.

“Maybe she doesn’t know he’s dead yet?” Persephone suggested.  “If she hasn’t been around mortals very long, perhaps she doesn’t know how it works?  Or she might not realize that Thanatos has been freed.”

“She was in the throne room when Ares freed me,” Thanatos told her.  “The daughter of Atlas saw her husband being killed.”

“Inexcusable!” Hades bellowed, then turned to look at Sisyphus.  “Go back up to the surface, and tell your wife to give you a proper burial!  I won’t have any soul in my realm who hasn’t received the proper memorial rites.”

Sisyphus bowed to the god.  “As you wish,” he answered.  The soul returned to the surface, and once more inhabited its body.  Then he left the throne room, walked up to Merope, and gave her a passionate kiss.  “It worked beautifully, my dear,” he told her.  “I’m back.”

Merope sighed.  “But for how long?” she asked.

“I’m sure Thanatos will be too busy cleaning up the mess from his brief time off to bother coming after me any time soon,” he chuckled.

Sisyphus resumed his old life, and continued to reign over Ephyra for many years.  But eventually Thanatos returned for him, and this time Merope performed the proper burial rites for her husband.

But this time, Hades was not so forgiving when Sisyphus was brought before him.  “You thought you could deceive the gods and escape death.  Can you make any excuses for your behavior?”

“Every mortal wants to escape death,” Sisyphus answered.  “I’m just the only one who thought of a way to do so.”

“Arrogance.  To be mortal is to die,” Hades answered, shaking his head.  “Your transgressions can never be forgiven.  Briareos!”  The hundred-handed giant entered the throne room, and laid seven or eight of his hands on the shade of Sisyphus.  “Take him to Tartaros.”

The giant nodded, and dragged the shade into the pit of Tartaros, where he set it to eternal punishment.  Sisyphus was forced to roll a massive boulder up a tall hill, but as soon as he got it to the top, it would roll down the other side, and Sisyphus had to chase it and then attempt to roll it back up again, over and over again, for all time.

Yeah, that one didn’t work too well.  I guess there’s a reason this story isn’t normally told with any fullness.  There’s no official tradition regarding just how Sisyphus managed to trap Thanatos, so I just tried to make something up.  The bronze pot detail was meant to be humorously ironic, because Ares at one point hid in (and was then trapped in) a bronze pot to get away from some giants.

I avoided any mention of Hermes here, because I’m not totally clear on when this story takes place in relation to the birth of such a young god as Hermes.  Especially since his mother, Maia, is a sister of Merope, so even if he’s been born by this point, he might not have taken on his duties as psycopompos yet.  In fact, it would make sense that this incident with Thanatos would be the reason he was given the task of guiding souls down into the underworld upon their deaths.

BTW, Aiakos, son of Zeus and Aegina, is the father of Peleus, the father of Achilles.  (Also, in some versions, the father of Telamon, father of Aias.)  That just goes to prove the chronological improbability of the Athenian stage tradition that had Sisyphus being the father of Odysseus, rather than Laertes being his father.  Also, one of Sisyphus’ sons was Glaucos, father of Bellerophon, who was the grandfather of the Glaucos who traded armor with Diomedes, and then later was killed by Telamonian Aias during the battle over the corpse of Achilles.  Presumably, that means that the earlier Glaucos was already a young man by the time his father witnessed the abduction of Aegina.  Or something.  Also, Peleus was fairly old when he fathered Achilles (he already had a married daughter, whose son accompanied Achilles to Troy as one of the commanders of the Myrmidons).

Also, this didn’t really involve Hades as much as I originally meant it to.



Hades and Persephone

Published January 20, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

The first installation in my narration of the few myths that strongly involve Hades.  I’m not sure why I ended up writing it in a children’s storybook style…particularly considering the whole incest thing.  (I really need to have a look at D’Aulaire’s and see how they glossed over the Olympian incest issue there.)


One day, Zeus went down into the darkness of the underworld to speak to his brother, Hades.  The gloom was so thick that by the time he reached the throne, Zeus already wanted to leave.  “You’re going to have mushrooms growing on your head if you don’t get out into the light once in a while,” he told his brother.

“Don’t be absurd,” Hades replied.  Surrounded all day long by the whining dead, he had little sense of humor.

“Or maybe you need a wife to keep you company, cheer you up.”

“Judging by your example, I wouldn’t think that was a wife’s primary duty,” Hades said, with the closest to a chuckle as he could muster.

“You know, I have a beautiful daughter in need of a husband,” Zeus commented.  “Persephone needs to get married before she can decide to emulate her sisters Athene and Artemis.  I don’t want three perpetually unwed daughters.”


“Since she needs a husband and you need a wife…” Zeus prompted.

“I doubt that I am the husband my niece would choose,” Hades replied sourly.  “I’m sure she would prefer a younger, more lively god.  Someone more like Apollo.”

“He’ll never agree to take a wife,” Zeus laughed.  “No, it is my firm conviction that you and she are perfectly suited to each other.  You rule the soil itself, and all that is beneath it, and she makes things grow from that soil.  What could be more ideal than that?”

Hades nodded slowly.  “Perhaps so,” he admitted, “but I have never thought of taking a wife.”

“You don’t want her, then?”

Hades cleared his throat.  “I didn’t say that…”

“You do think her beautiful, then?” Zeus prompted.

“…of course.”

“Then what could your complaint be?”

“There is no complaint,” Hades explained.  “I simply cannot make such a momentous decision so lightly.”

“Of course,” Zeus agreed.  “I wouldn’t want you to make my mistake.  I’ll send her down to play in her favorite poppy fields, in one week’s time.  If you want to make her your wife, take her then.  If you don’t, then I’ll find her some other husband.”

Hades nodded his agreement, and Zeus quickly returned to the bright splendor of Mt. Olympos.  Although his brother had fully intended to refuse his niece’s hand, the longer Zeus was gone, the more Hades could not stop thinking about the offer.  He had often looked up through the soil and seen Persephone playing in the fields of brightly colored flowers, dancing and singing with nymphs.  Persephone had outshone the nymphs as much as the moon outshone the stars; she had been so bright that it almost hurt Hades’ eyes to look on her.  And yet he had still looked.  And after he knew that she could be his, he had looked all the more eagerly, watched her all the more intently.

By the time the week was up, he had decided to accept his brother’s offer.  Hades hitched up his horses to his chariot personally, and rode up to the surface, opening a crack in the earth so that he and his bride could ride away together in proper style.

The nymphs screamed and ran away at his arrival, which he found to be most rude indeed.  When he offered Persephone his hand, she just stared at it in confusion.

Irritated by the delay, and having no idea what the proper procedure was, Hades stepped off his chariot, lifted Persephone in his arms, and began to carry her back to the chariot.

To his surprise–and consternation–the girl began to scream, calling for her mother and father to come and save her.  Save her?  From what?  Did she find the notion of marriage that unappealing?  Hades hesitated for a moment, then set her in the chariot and urged the horses back down below.  It was just nerves, he was sure.  She was nervous, and panicking, even as mortal girls did on first meeting their husbands.  It would pass.  Of course it would pass.

But to his dismay, it didn’t pass.  Persephone gave up screaming after a while, and began instead to weep.  She wept and wept until it was starting to make even Hades’ eyes hurt.  He certainly didn’t want to hold their wedding celebration with her crying, so Hades asked her what was wrong, because he could find nothing else to ask.

“Please, let me go back to the surface,” Persephone said, looking up at him with her big eyes swollen and bloodshot.  “My mother will be worrying about me, and the flowers will miss me, and I’m too young to die!”

“How could you die?” Hades replied, altogether confused.  “Goddesses don’t die.”

“Then why have you brought me to the land of the dead, uncle?”

“Because this is where I reside,” he told her.  “Did you think husband and wife would not share one abode?”

“Husband and wife?” Persephone repeated.  “What do you mean?”

Hades stared at her for a moment, then scowled.  “He didn’t tell you.”  He shook his head.  “He didn’t tell you.  He must have seen some pretty mortal girl and forgotten all about me…”

“What didn’t my father tell me?”

“He promised me your hand in marriage,” Hades explained.  “To be granted today.”

“Marriage?!  But–no!  I won’t!  I won’t live in this terrible, dank, dreary place!  I won’t!”  Persephone didn’t wait for Hades to reply.  Instead, she ran away into the darkness.

Hades sighed.  He was tempted to follow her immediately, but decided it was better to wait.  Let her see just how dark his realm could be, so she would better appreciate the light in his home.  But when he approached her the next day, she was still refusing him, and ran off again into the darkness.  The third day produced no different results.

In the mean time, up on the surface, Demeter was in a dreadful panic over her missing daughter.  But the terrified nymphs who had been Persephone’s playmates didn’t know who had taken her, as they had never seen Hades before.  Mournful and bewildered, Demeter began to roam all through the land, calling out for her lost daughter.  Ashamed that he had forgotten to tell his sister and their daughter about the planned marriage, Zeus took a sudden trip to the most distant lands he could find, far to the north, taking all his rain clouds with him.  Without Zeus’ rain clouds and Demeter’s cooling love, the land began to sizzle and scorch, and nothing would grow.

Persephone was no happier, wandering through the darkness, miserable and alone, but constantly refusing her uncle’s protestations of love and requests for a proper marriage.  She missed the warmth of the sun, the light of the moon, the feel of the grass beneath her feet, and the taste of sweet fruit in her mouth.  That was what she missed most of all, after a month had passed, and she began to feel very hungry, but there was nothing to eat in the underworld, as there was nothing outside Hades’ palace other than the swirling shades of dead mortals.

Hades, in desperation, had ordered the Hundred-Handed Giants and Cyclopes to plant him a garden that might attract Persephone’s attention, but the only thing they could make grow in it were a few malnourished pomegranate trees.  Still, he hoped it would show the girl how far he was willing to go for her, and as soon as the garden was ready, he led her by the hand and took her on a tour of it.  She was pleased to see something striving to live in that dark, dank region, but refused to smile, lest she encourage him, and thereby lose any chance of ever getting to go home again.

Once Hades had returned to his throne in defeat, Persephone set her hand on the trunk of one of the pomegranate trees, and spoke words of gentle love to it.  The tree grew and grew, spouting leaves, flowers and fruit all at once.  After she had thus encouraged all the trees, Persephone found the garden quite pleasant indeed, though she still wanted to see the sky, and once more wave at the horses pulling Helios’ chariot.

The longer she spent in that garden, though, the more Persephone’s hunger began to gnaw at her.  It had been so long since she had eaten, and the pomegranates looked so tempting and tasty, hanging upon their branches…but she had to stay strong!  If she ate anything, then she would no longer be able to call herself a prisoner, and would be acknowledging herself as a guest instead.  That was the first step towards giving up her maiden status and becoming a wife, and that was completely unacceptable!

After that, Hades came to speak to Persephone in the garden every day.  He always began and ended their conversations by asking her to give in and be his wife as her father had promised, but since she was no longer running away from him, he had to find other things to say to her as well.  He didn’t know what to say, so he would tell her about his work.  He would tell her what mortals had died that day, who they were, how their loved ones had mourned them, or how they hadn’t, and how their souls had accepted their new existence, whether with decorum or with tears or attempts to bribe their way into a better life.  Persephone found it amusing that some mortals thought they could tempt the god who controlled the gold within the soil by offering him his own gold back again, but she always wept to hear of lamenting widows, or mourning parents bereaved of their children.  She could never have admitted it, but she began to look forward to his daily visit.

Eventually, the land above became so dry and desolate that Helios began to feel sorry for the mortals who could no longer make their crops grow.  He landed his chariot near Demeter, and told her where she could find Persephone.  Demeter was so grateful to learn where her precious daughter was that she couldn’t summon up any words of thanks, and could only hug Helios briefly before hurrying down through a cave to reach her brother’s throne room, where she demanded the return of her daughter.

Persephone was overjoyed to see her mother again, and lavished hugs and kisses upon her.  But Hades wasn’t willing to give up his bride.

“Zeus promised her to me,” he reminded his sister, “to be my wife.  Are you going to disobey his commands?”

“He made no mention of that to me,” Demeter countered angrily, “and I have just as much right to choose my daughter’s husband and he does, even though he is the king of the gods!”

“Among the mortals–” Hades started, but was allowed to go no further than that.

“I don’t care what the mortals do!” Demeter snapped at him.  “We are goddesses; we have our own rules, and don’t have to obey the rules imposed on mortal women!”

“Be reasonable.  It is cruel to stand in the way of love,” Hades tried to reason with her.

“What love?” Demeter countered.  “This is abduction and imprisonment!  She doesn’t care for you one bit, no matter what you claim to feel for her!  She’s been miserable the whole time she’s been down here!”

“Those are your feelings, not hers,” Hades said.  “If that is truly how Persephone feels, then I will accept it.  But she must swear on the River Styx that she has felt herself only a prisoner, and never once at home.”  He gestured towards the Briareos, the Hundred-Handed Giant he trusted most.  The giant presented him with a chalice filled with the waters of the Styx.  An oath over those waters was so powerful that not even Zeus himself would dare break it.

Persephone stared at the chalice with fearful eyes, and shook her head.  “I shouldn’t have to do that!” she exclaimed.  “I just want to go home!”

“Then go ahead and take the oath,” her mother prompted her.

Persephone bit her lip, and shook her head again, and wouldn’t take the chalice.  Demeter tried and tried to cajole her into taking the oath, but the girl was intransigent.

“Then you admit that you’ve begun to feel at home here?” Hades asked hopefully.  He had a secret that had been revealed to him by Briareos, but he didn’t want to have to use it…

“No!” Persephone shrieked.  “I want to go back up to the surface, into the light of the sun!”

Hades frowned, and picked up the dish beside his throne.  He showed it to his sister and her daughter.  Persephone blanched at the sight.  “This is one of the pomegranates from my garden,” he explained to Demeter.  “It had been hidden at the base of one of the trees.”

“So?” Demeter asked coldly.

“Three of the seeds within have been eaten,” Hades told her, showing the spot where the fruit had been opened, and the seeds removed.

“Anyone could have eaten them,” Demeter insisted.

“No one is allowed into my garden other than myself, Persephone, and Briareos,” Hades said, “and neither he nor I have tasted this fruit.  We will swear to it if you like?”

Demeter looked at Persephone uncertainly, and the girl began to cry.  “But I was hungry!” she wailed.

“You’re a goddess; you don’t need to eat!” Demeter objected.

“Taking and eating food without telling anyone is not the action of a guest,” Hades went on.  “It is either that of a thief, or of a person in their own home.”

“Just what do you want?” Demeter asked.

“I want a wife.”

“I will never allow it!” Demeter shouted.  “I won’t let my daughter live down here away from the light!  I’ll never allow so much as a single blade of grass to grow on the land above if my daughter is forced to live in this darkness!  Do you want to be overrun by the shades of all the mortals on earth all at once?”

“Mother, that’s awfully cruel,” Persephone pointed out.  “You shouldn’t punish the mortals.  They didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Persephone, just keep quiet and let Mother handle this.”

Demeter’s instruction made Persephone sigh sadly, but she didn’t think it wise to argue back, not while her mother was in such a foul temper already.  The argument between Demeter and Hades resumed and quickly escalated.  Demeter screamed and bellowed and uttered terrifying curses and threats, shocking her daughter terribly.  Hades remained calm, but his voice carried the fury of hundreds of generations of fallen warriors.

The argument might have gone on for all of time, if Helios had not informed Zeus of what was going on.  Zeus immediately returned to Hades’ throne room, and quieted his enraged sister.  After he had been told all the details, Zeus nodded.

“Then let us work out an arrangement that will suit everybody,” he said.  “Since she ate three seeds, Persephone must spend three months of the year with her husband, but she may spend the rest on the surface with her mother.  That is my decision, and there will be no further arguments.”

Not one of the gods was pleased with the arrangement–except Zeus himself–but they knew better than to argue with the king of the gods.

A wedding feast was quickly held, and Persephone accepted her new role as queen beneath the surface.

When it was time for her to return to her mother, up in the light, Persephone kissed her husband warmly, and promised to think of him while she was away.

Well, that was ridiculously long.  Sorry.  I had trouble finding a way to make the ending work.  No, let me rephrase that.  I had trouble finding a way to handle the ending, and since I couldn’t find one that worked, I had to go with this one.  Hopefully, I’ll come up with a better way in the future.  Also, I apologize for letting a little Beauty and the Beast sneak in there.  But…actually, when you think about it, there’s probably a correlation there; even if the versions actually being passed about by storytellers weren’t inspired by Hades and Persephone, I bet Perrault was.  (Or maybe not.  How would I know?)


The Truth about Zeus and Hades

Published January 19, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

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.)

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