Ancient Greek Mythology: Hades

Producer: Jacopo Caraglio
Pluto standing naked holding a fork with both hands, Cerberus the three headed dog sits behind him | By Jacopo Caraglio | 1526 Engraving | Courtesy of The British Museum

More often than not, ancient Greek mythology (religion) served to explain a series of legends. Different from modern religions such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, ancient Greek religion was an anthropomorphic polytheism, meaning that ancient Greeks believed in a multitude of individual divine figures that took on human forms and emotions.1 Furthermore, ancient Greek mythology lacked much of the asceticism and mystical enthusiasm that is more commonly seen in modern religions. Most of the highly developed anthropomorphic and comparative rationalism of the ancient Greek religious thought can be accredited to Homer with the aid of his Iliad and Odyssey.2

The people of the ancient Greek civilization were often in a state of weakness under the power of nature; therefore, they relied heavily on the divine individuals of Olympus. Why? They believed that the forces of nature were under the control of their gods. In short, the relationship between humans and divine beings was that of a retribution justice.3 If humans did anything to offend the gods, then those gods would strike back in some sort of fashion to restore justice.4 Therefore, humans were constantly looking to please the gods in fear of their wrath.

Out of the ancient Greek mythology came the god of the dead and the underworld, Hades. Hades had five other siblings: Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia, and they were all children of Cronus and Rhea.5 After defeating their parents (the Titans), Hades drew lots with Zeus and Poseidon to gain their respective domains. Hades was commonly thought to be a cold god, but he was never considered to be an evil divine figure. Furthermore, it is important to note that his realm, the underworld, should not be associated with the hell of Christianity.6 However, Hades was for the most part feared by all. Another name for the ancient Greek god was Ploutos and later adopted by the Romans as Pluto.7

Print made by: Antoine Jean Duclos, Gravelot
A representation of Hades, with the three judges Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus sitting before the doors leading to Elysium at left, and Tartarus at right; Cerberus lies on the right | Print by Antoine Jean Duclos, Gravelot | Courtesy of the British Museum

The god of the underworld was the husband of Persephone (Zeus’s and Demeter’s daughter). Although she was Hades’ wife, she only lived with him during the winter time.8 Persephone was the divine goddess of agriculture and fertility. Therefore, the ancient Greeks accredited the change in nature (winter) to Persephone moving to the underworld. Persephone was unable to stay with Hades at all times due to interference from her mother Demeter. Zeus, however, was okay with the marriage of Hades and Persephone. Therefore, in order to set up the marriage, Zeus had to trick Persephone, so she could be abducted by Hades.9 However, Demeter interfered, and that is why Persephone spends half of the year with Demeter and the other half with Hades.

Furthermore, it is important to note the Greek perspective of the afterlife. Perspectives about the afterlife varied from each other based on their region in Greece as well as their time period in Greek history. The consensus was that the underworld was neither heaven nor hell.10 The sense that exists within Christianity, for example, was not present during the time of the ancient Greeks. Although Tartarus was present as a location within the underworld, the Greeks would not compare it to the equivalent of Christian hell. The way the Greeks saw it, the underworld was a place that everyone ended up after death.11 However, there were a few, including the philosopher Epicurus, that believed that the underworld did not exist at all. He believed that when the body died, the soul died with the body as well.12 A good portion of Greeks refused to believe such a pessimistic perspective of the afterlife. However, even the Greek traditional perspective of the underworld was not as popular despite many Greeks believing in it.

  1.  Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016 s.v., “Greek Religion and Mythology.”
  2. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016 s.v., “Greek Religion and Mythology.”
  3. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016 s.v., “Greek Religion and Mythology.”
  4. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016 s.v., “Greek Religion and Mythology.”
  5.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015,  “Hades (deity),” by Joseph, Michael, DMin.
  6. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015,  “Hades (deity),” by Joseph, Michael, DMin.
  7. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015,  “Hades (deity),” by Joseph, Michael, DMin.
  8. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015,  “Hades (deity),” by Joseph, Michael, DMin.
  9. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015,  “Hades (deity),” by Joseph, Michael, DMin.
  10. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, 2007, s.v. “Underworld,” by  Robert B. Kebric.
  11. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, 2007, s.v. “Underworld,” by  Robert B. Kebric.
  12. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, 2007, s.v. “Underworld,” by  Robert B. Kebric.
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160 Comments

  • Within your article you explained ancient Greek mythology while making sure to remind the audience to not compare it to modern religions. I think that was a fantastic way to write. Often, we look at the past through a 20th century lense and not in the historical context. Prior to reading your article I did not know that Hades was considered neither heave nor hell. It is portrayed as being the Greek equivalent of hell.

  • This article is awesome in that it offers more insight and perspective on shades. The most I knew about Greek mythology was through the Percy Jackson books, and most of the time and he was given a cold demeanor. Now I know that he was just a god who minded his own business and kept to himself. A lot of people would associate Haded with the Devil and hell, but he was actually a god who never contributed to chaos.

  • This article was interesting but hard to follow along. some things did not make sense. The topic is of course interesting . I did not know that Hades was different from the devil. I thought as well that with him being associated with the underworld he would be associated with hell. I have always been interested in Greek Mythology but at the same time I find it hard to follow along. Thank you for the Article!

  • This is a well written and informative article. Greek Mythology has always been interesting to me because it made me want to learn more about other cultures. In stories I have read Hades and the Underworld had a bit of a negative connotation but that was not the case. Hades kept to himself and did not cause any problems. One misconception that I am glad you addressed in your article was the Underworld. The Underworld itself is not hell but just a place for the after life that also multiple parts to it. Overall, great article.

  • This was very insightful. You can’t help but compare Hades to what we know as the Devil but it is good to be informed that that’s not the case. The Greeks didn’t see Hades as someone to make sure you never think of but rather everyone would end up in his kingdom in their after life. I had no idea about this until I read this article.

  • Nice article. Hades is much different than our idea of the devil today. Even though he was ruler of the underworld. He was still a feared figure in much of ancient Greek society because he was associated with the underworld. It is interesting that the ancient Greeks had such a strange relationship with their gods. Divine retribution is quite a scary thing, it is no wonder that the ancient Greeks constantly sought to appease their gods and goddesses

  • I have been studying Greek mythology since I was 8 years old, and Hades has always been one of my favorite gods. Out of the original five gods that descended from Cronos and Rhea, Hades always struck me as the most mature and responsible. He never really caused any trouble he did his job of ruling the underworld (not an easy or nice job) without much fuss. I always felt that people misinterpreted Hades role in Greek mythology as a villain, but Hades was actually was one of the few gods that existed somewhat peacefully.

  • Very interesting article about Greek Mythology. It gives an insight to how people in ancient times thought and how they rationalized nature and the unknown by making a god or deity in charge of each one. I found it interesting how the underworld sounds bad from a Christian point of view, but, it was just their thought on after life.

  • That last sentence made no sense to me… how can something not be popular despite a lot of greeks believing in it? If a lot of the people believe in it then that means it is popular. Besides that, I liked the article because it has a really interesting topic that I think a lot of people are interested in.

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