Hades is the oldest son of Cronus and Rhea, and also the brother of the gods Zeus and Poseidon. He is the king of the dead and God of the underworld. Due to his complete control over the realm of the dead, Hades’ name is also a synonym for the underworld itself, and in some sources, he is referred to as “The Zeus of the underworld”. However, it should be noted that Hades is not the god of death itself, that title goes to Thanatos.
Hades first becomes relevant in Greek mythology during the titanomachy. Along with the other Olympians, he played a vital role in overthrowing their parents, the titans, and gaining control over the world. At the end of the titanomachy, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades drew lots to divide the world among themselves. Zeus got the sky; Poseidon ruled the seas and Hades was left with the underworld.
During the titanomachy, Hades assisted Zeus with the release of the cyclopes. These were one-eyed giants who had been imprisoned by their father Uranus. The cyclopes were the creators of Zeus’ all-powerful thunderbolts. For Hades, they crafted the “Helm of Hades”, a c helmet that would make the wearer invisible. This cap of invisibility would later be used by other mythological figures such as Athena, Hermes and Perseus.
The Cycle of Seasons
Hades’ most significant myth is associated with the creation of the cycle of seasons. It begins with him kidnapping the nature goddess, Persephone, to take her as his wife. Hades did this with the implied consent of Zeus, and thus faced no consequences for his actions. The only Olympian who had an issue with Persephone’s kidnapping was her mother, Demeter.
Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and the harvest. Due to her immense sorrow, all crops on Earth wilted and a great famine began. The Olympians were worried, for if all mortals were wiped out, there would be no one to make them offerings. At this point, Zeus intervened and demanded that Hades return Persephone to Demeter.
Hades obeyed Zeus’ orders, but not before feeding Persephone a single pomegranate seed. Upon meeting her daughter, Demeter realized that Persephone had eaten the food of the underworld, and thus could no longer stay in the world above.
Demeter and Hades agreed to a compromise, where Persephone would spend one-third of the year in the underworld and the rest with Demeter. Whenever Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter neglects her duties once more, causing the season that we know as winter.
A God of Justice
In many ancient Greek traditions, Hades is portrayed as a god of justice. Unlike his brothers, he did not interfere with matters in the mortal world, preferring to pay attention to his subjects instead. In a way, Hades’ role as a source of divine justice in the afterlife was important, as courts were incapable of holding the rich and powerful accountable in ancient times. The prospect of eternal bliss in the Elysian fields or eternal torture in Tartarus would be the only things that could have incentivized kings and wealth merchants live morally.
One potential tale of Hades involving himself in mortal matters appears in the Iliad, where he intervenes when Heracles launches a siege on the city of Pylos. However, Hades is shot in the shoulder by one of Heracles’ arrows, and is forced to travel to Olympus to heal. Hades’ involvement in this battle is usually explained by the fact that Pylos was one of the only cities that worshiped Hades in ancient times.
While Hades is portrayed as being a fair judge, he was extremely harsh toward people who attempted to cheat death. This is seen in the example of Sisyphus who escaped death twice, tricking Thanatos on the first occasion and Persephone on the second. In the end, Hades sentenced Sisyphus to eternally push a boulder up a hill. Every time he reached the summit, the boulder would knock Sisyphus over and roll back down, forcing him to begin the task all over again.