Category Archives: Key
Etymology: Old Norse logi “flame”, possibly “tangler” Possibly the Old Norse word luka meaning “close,” Indo-European -leug meaning “to break”, Indo-European -luk meaning: “to close,” “lock,” “lid,” “end,” to light,” and “lightning.”
Alternate Spellings: Loge, Lokki (Faroese), Lokkemand (Danish), Loke, Lokke (Norwegian), Luki, Luku (Swedish), Lukki (Finnish), Loder, Lokkju, Lopti, Loki-Laufeyjarson
Other Names and Epithets: Hveðrungr “Roarer” (Old Norse), Loptr (Air), Loftur, “Father of Lies,” “the Sly God,” “the Sly One,” “Sky-Traveler”
Loki is best known in Norse mythology as a trickster deity. Like any trickster figure, Loki often questions and more accurately, challenges the status quo among the gods with the trouble and chaos he often causes. At the same time, for all the trouble and mischief that Loki creates, he will also help the other gods with fixing the mess. Just even studying and looking up the mythology for Loki has been fairly difficult to pin down this figure and try to say just who he is has been somewhat difficult. I could lay it down to Loki’s trickster nature and the fluid mythological change of the times as scholars try to figure out scraps of ancient sagas and runes.
Animal: Spider, Salmon, Mare, Seal, Flies
Day of the Week: Saturday
Element: Air, Fire
Sphere of Influence: Magic, Mischief, Lies, Deceit, Chaos, Thievery
Symbols: knots, loops, fishing nets
Some sagas describe Loki as being male with a slim build with red hair. He has a curly mustache and possibly a pointed beard. Other descriptions of Loki will mention that he has a twisted smile, owing to his misadventure and encounter with some dwarves who sowed his mouth shut and tied him to a tree.
In his Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturlson describes Loki as being “beautiful and comely to look upon, evil in spirit, very fickle in habit.” Well if that’s not an apt descriptor of Tom Hiddleston’s portrayl of Loki in the Marvel Cinema Movies.
When looking at the main sources of Norse Mythology that mention Loki, the main source is the Icelandic Scholar and Historian Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda from the 13th century. Loki shows up in some earlier Viking Sagas from the 9th to 11th century. However, tracking back to the earlier Nordic Sagas of Vafþrúðnismál and Grímnismál, Loki is absent from these tales.
A contemporary of Snorri Sturlson is Saxo Grammaticus, who in his Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes,”) largely leaves out mention of Loki. This absence has been noted by scholars to point out that Loki may have only been a regional deity known among the most northern Germanic lands. Many of the other Norse deities like Odin and Thor can be found to have regional variant names and very similar corresponding myths.
What’s In A Name? Lock & Key
Just what Loki’s name means and which etymology to use for it has been debated for quite a while by various scholars.
Often it is suggested that the Old Norse word: logi, meaning “flame” is the source for Loki’s name. The Icelandic use of Loki’s name has it meaning: “knot” or “tangle.”
Other Scandinavian names have put forth ranging from the Faroese Lokki, the Danish Lokkemand, the Norwegian Loke and Lokke, the Swedish Luki and Luku to the Finnish Lukki. All of these names have a commonality in the Germanic root word of luk- which corresponds with loops, especially for knots, hooks, closed-off rooms and even locks. Further etymological evidence is pointed out in the Swedish word: “lokkanät” and the Faroese word: “Lokkanet” that translate to mean “cobweb” or “Lokke’s web.” Even the Faroese word for Daddy-Long Leg spiders is: “lokki~grindalokki~grindalokkur.” That could make sense and certainly adds a new understanding to just what Loki’s name might really mean.
Another take is some of the Scandinavian dialects where the root word luk- corresponds to words like nokke and nøkkel that mean “key.” Some of the Western Scandinavian words that translate to key are: loki~lokke and lykil.
What a tangled web we weave….
These etymological connections in mind, has led some to conclude that this is how Loki fits into the narrative for the events of Ragnarök. After-all, Loki creates all these problems and entanglements. So much so, that people believed Loki to cause knots, tangles and looks to occur or to be one, at least symbolically.
Germanic Origins & Worship
Loki is not a deity who was exactly worshiped among the ancient Germanic, Norse, Scandinavian tribes or others.
There is a lot of debate on just how to interpret Loki’s place in Norse Mythology. Jacob Grimm introduced the idea of Loki as a god of fire in 1835. Next, Sophus Bugge in 1889 put forward the idea of Loki being a variation of Lucifer in Christianity. That aspect makes sense if you’re trying to equate every trickster figure and outright evil figure in the black & white box of Christian theology.
Shortly after World War II there are four theories regarding Loki that have prevailed. The first of these is in 1956, Folke Ström who suggests that Loki is as an aspect of Odin, much like the godhead in Christianity. The second, in 1959 is from Jan de Vries that says Loki represents a trickster figure. At current, I think everyone who knows about Norse mythology pretty much agrees with that idea. Third, in 1961, Anna Birgitta Rooth made a conclusion of Loki being a spider, which seeing the etymology of the name, makes sense too. Than, in 1962, an Anne Holtsmark said that no conclusions about Loki can be made. Maybe so, if we’re agreeing to the idea of a trickster figure, they can be pretty hard to pin down.
Christianity & Norse Religion
When Christianity was being introduced to Europe, many of the Nordic or Scandinavian countries, including Denmark and Sweden continued to practice their Heathenism or Paganism up until the 13th century when there was a mass forced conversion as the then King decided to convert. The process began about 900 C.E. as the Vikings began interacting with Christians and of course, while all similar, different regions and countries would have different oral or written traditions for the Norse gods.
Divine Trinity – In Christianity, many are familiar with the Godhead of God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Where Norse paganism and religion is concerned, those who’ve studied the myths and then tried to equate with Christianity seem to have come up with a Triad that’s Odin, Hœnir and Loki. An idea supported in the sagas and ballads: Haustlöng, a prologue to Reginsmál and Loka Táttur. This idea works if you accept the scholar Ursula Dronke’s theory that Lóðurr, the Norse deity who created the first humans is another name for Loki and that Lóðurr is a third name for Loki along with Loptr.
You’re not alone if you reject this idea of Loki and Lóðurr being the same being. After all, Lóðurr is only really mentioned twice in the Völuspá and only in a couple other places where they describe Odin as “Lóðurr’ friend.” Still enough people have glommed on to the idea and argue that much of the Poetic Edda was forgotten around 1400 C.E. when it began to be written down and possibly poor etymology studies of trying to make similar sounding words and name mean and be the same thing.
Since a lot of the mythology has been lost, it’s likely the 14th & 15th century poets, namely Snorri and Saxo were doing the best they could to preserve an oral history. Snorri followed mostly the Icelandic traditions of myths he wrote down and Saxo followed the Danish traditions of myths. A difference seen in the Death of Baldr where Snorri includes Loki’s involvement and Saxo leave it out of the myth.
Many scholars who have looked at Loki’s place in Norse mythology haven’t found any evidence of any cult for Loki.
Followers and Worshipers of Loki seem to be more of a modern phenomenon with modern Wicca and Pagan religions. As he is considered a Trickster deity and God of Fire, this shouldn’t be done lightly or on a lark.
Parentage and Family
Father – Fárbauti (“Crue-Striker,”) a frost giant or jotunn.
Mother – Laufey, a frost giant or jotunn.
In the Prose Edda, an alternate for Laufey’s name is Nál, meaning: “Needle.”
Angrboða – “Anguish-Boding,” a jotunn, by her, Loki is the father of Hel, Fenrir the wolf and Jormungandr, the world serpent.
Sigyn – Loki’s wife, with her, he is the father of Narfi or Nari.
Svaðilfari – Keeping things interesting for the time Loki turned into a mare, he is the mother of Odin’s eight-legged horse Slepnir.
Býleistr (“Bee-Lightning”) and Helblindi (“All Blind” or “Hel-Blinder”) are brothers of Loki as given in the Prose Edda.
Fenrir – A monstrous wolf.
Hel – The goddess of the Underworld. Given the similarity of the name Hel with the Christian name Hell for the Underworld, it has been suggested that Hel is a Christian addition to the Norse myths.
Jormungand – The great world serpent.
Nari – Also spelled Narfi, meaning “corpse.”
Slepnir – The famous eight-legged horse of Odin.
Váli – In the Prose Edda, Loki is mentioned as the father. This Edda also mentions Odin as the father, twice to Loki’s one reference.
Hati and Skol – a pair of monstrous wolves who kill Odin and begin the events of Ragnarök.
Well, sort of… Loki, being the son of frost giants or jotunns isn’t really a member of the Aesir tribe of gods in Norse mythology.
Blood Brother – Loki does, however, gain membership with the Aesir and is counted among their number when Odin makes him a blood brother. Also, by Loki being a blood brother, it would fit some theological views where Loki is seen as Odin’s opposite or his darker half.
Outsider – Even getting accepted as an Aesir, for all the trouble and mischief that Loki causes, he is still seen as an outsider to the Norse pantheon. Mischief, problems, fights and often times he’s the one who goes right in and fixes the mess he created in the first place.
God Of Air & Fire
Being a trickster deity, many people tend towards associating Loki with the element of fire as many trickster figures often are.
In Scandinavian folklore, there are a number of phrases and folk sayings such as: “Loki is reaping his oats” or “Loki is herding his goats: that refer to during springtime, when mist is raising off the ground. The mist rising in places like Jutland create a shimmering effect, especially over flat ground. The same shimmering is observed with hot steam over a kettle or fire.
Logi The Fire Giant – Thanks to Wagner’s Opera and etymological confusion, many people will confuse Loki with the Fire Giant Logi. Which adds to further identifying Loki as a fire god.
They’re two separate beings.
Still those who equate Loki and Logi together, will then try to add Glut to the list of spouses for Loki and add on Esia & Einmyria as two additional children and daughters of Loki’s.
God Of Mischief & Trickster
Loki is most prominently known as a trickster figure in Norse mythology. Like any trickster, Loki sometimes is the cause of rather callous and malicious pranks. For as often as he causes trouble, Loki also ends up helping to resolve the messes he’s created.
Hero Or Villain – Looking at the oldest known poems and sagas to mention Loki from the 9th to 11th centuries, Loki is portrayed more as a friend to the gods and helping them out on many occasions. These notable works are the Ynglingatal, Haustlǫng, Húsdrápa and Þórsdrápa.
When we get to later sagas and Snorri’s Prose Edda, Loki has taken on a more malicious or evil bend who will have a leading role and part in Ragnarök.
Maybe his pranks were getting more and more out of hand to the point the gods weren’t taking any more or it’s a clear influence of Christianity upon the myths. Either way, Loki’s tricks and cunning do go from helpful to outright malicious and evil.
Not helping of course is when numerous articles continue to glom on to the idea that a Trickster figure must be counted as evil. Or some scholars like Georges Dumézil in their studies of folklore equate Loki with a demonic figure like Syrdon from Caucasian Legends.
Fishnets & Spider Webs
As mentioned earlier, there are etymological connections of Loki’s name to knots and loops. This connection makes sense that Loki is also credited as being the inventor of fishnets as these contain many knots and loops.
Spiders also get associated with the name loki, lokke, lokki, loke, luki as they spin and make spider or cobwebs.
Cunning – As a god of cunning, Loki’s connection to fishnets and spider webs works very well on the metaphorical and spiritual sense for the complex, intricate, even elaborate schemes that catch everyone up in his well, mischief. He’s the source in many causes of tying all the gods together and brings about their end with Ragnarok.
This aspect seems to be a staple of many trickster figures within myth. Loki is noted for having changed into a salmon, a mare, a falcon, a fly and likely an old woman by the name of Þökk (whose name in Old Norse means: “thanks.”)
When Loki’s children with Angrboða were born, it was foretold to the Aesir how they would cause a great evil in the world. Odin decreed that Loki’s children should be retrieved from Jötunheim and brought to Asgard.
Odin threw Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent into the where it would wrap itself around the whole of the earth. Jormungand would grow so big he could bit his own tail. As to Hel, Odin sent her down to the Underworld, Niflheim. Hel would create her own realm here called Helheim. The third child, Fenrir, a monstrous wolf was kept in Asgard and chained up, bound to a rock.
The Treasures of the Gods
In yet another of Loki’s many pranks, he goes and cuts off all of Sif’s hair while she’s sleeping and leaves it in a pile on the floor. Needless to say, Sif was not amused, and neither was her husband, Thor. Promising to make up for it, Loki went to replace it with the help of the dwarves. Best not to be on Thor’s bad side.
Loki sought out the dwarves, particularly the sons of Ivaldi. After Loki persuaded the dwarves to spin gold so fine to replace Sif’s lost hair, the dwarves decided they didn’t want to waste the fire and went on to create more treasure. They crafted the ship Skidbladnir that could be dismantled and folded down to the size of a piece of cloth for Freyr. Then they went on to craft the spear Gungnir that would never miss it’s mark for Odin.
As Loki began to return towards Asgard, he decided to pay the dwarves Brokk and Eitri a visit. Loki showed off the treasures that Ivaldi and his sons had crafted and challenged the two to craft something better.
A wager this time, one that Loki staked his head on. The dwarves agreed and now the magical gold boar Gullinbursti for Freyr was created. Next came the magical gold arm ring known as Draupnir that could create 8 gold rings every ninth night. Finally, the two crafted Thor’s famous hammer, Mjolnir that couldn’t be broken and always returned when thrown.
Returning at last to Asgard, Brokk accompanied Loki to have the gifts judged by the gods. Odin, Thor and Freyr were all quick to agree to Mjolnir’s fine craftsmanship. With that pronouncement, Brokk tried to claim Loki’s head.
Not so fast Loki retorted, he had only promised his head, not any other part of his neck. Damaging his neck was not part of the deal. Fine then, Brokk responds that he can at least sew Loki’s lips shut and left him tied to a tree.
At least it shut Loki for a while, probably not long enough for other’s liking.
The Theft Of Idunn’s Apples
Due to his penchant for mischief, Loki ends up in the hands of the jotunn, Thiaz who threatens to kill the trickster unless Loki brings him the goddess Idunn and her golden apples. Very much so looking to save his own skin, Loki agrees to the deal and brings her and the apples to Thiaz.
Needless to say, this caused an uproar among the gods who are the ones now threatening to kill Loki unless he rescues and brings back Idunn. Once more, looking to preserve his own hide, Loki agrees and transforms into a falcon to carry the goddess safely back to Asgard.
Wanting back what he deems rightfully his, Thiaz changes into an eagle and pursues the pair. As Loki and Idunn are getting closer to Asgard, Thiaz in eagle form has nearly caught up with them. The gods light a fire around the perimeter to their hall and the flames catch Thiaz, burning him up.
With Idunn safely within the halls of Asgard, Loki runs back out to help the other gods with the remains of Thiaz and rectifying the very problem he created in the first place.
Loki & Skadi
Not long after Thiazi’s death, his daughter, Skadi shows up demanding restitution for her father’s slaying at the hands of the Aesir. One of Skadi’s demands is that the gods make her laugh. Loki accomplishes this by taking a rope and tying it to the beard of a goat and the other end to his own testicles. Both the goat and Loki bleat and cry out in terror and more pain as they try to pull away from each other. Eventually, Loki falls into Skadi’s lap and she busts out laughing at the absurdity of the scene.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg gets an oath from all living things that they won’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small in consequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
The Bjarkan Rune – Loki is mentioned in the 13th stanza of a Norwegian rune poem utilizing the Younger Futhark Bjarkan rune.
In Old Norse, the poem reads:
Bjarkan er laufgrønster líma;
Loki bar flærða tíma
In Modern English, the translation:
Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit
It has been suggested that “Loki’ deceit” refers to his part in the death of Balder.
Did Loki Get Too Out Of Hand This Time?
There is an interesting view given regarding Balder’s death. For one, we know that Saxo’s version written from the Danish myths, doesn’t include Loki’s involvement in Balder, the Sun God’s death.
The version that everyone is familiar with in Snorri’s Prose Eddas, where Loki is seen as getting progressively more and more out of hand with his trickery and becoming more and more outright evil.
What if… that weren’t the case? The gods know the prophesy of Ragnarök, the end of the Norse gods. Of course, they want to prevent and prolong the inevitable. What if, Loki’s killing Balder is for the greater good? A sacrifice? Odin knows the only way to really protect Balder is if he dies and goes to the Underworld, Niflheim. The only place that won’t be destroyed of all the nine realms. So it is at Odin’s request, that Loki sees to it that Balder is killed and to prevent his return, turns into an old woman who refuses to weep for his loss.
That way, now, when Ragnarök comes, Baldur is able to be in place to remake the world.
It’s an interesting take on this myth.
The Binding Of Loki
Eventually with all of his mischief and havoc and likely with the death of Baldur, the Aesir have finally had it with Loki and decide to bind him to a massive rock deep beneath the earth in a cave. As punishment for all these misdeeds, Loki is tied by the gods using the entrails of his son Nari after turning another son, Vali into a wolf to rip apart his brother. Both the Poetic and Prose Edda mention the goddess Skaði being the one who places a serpent above Loki while he’s bound. This serpent then drips venom down on Loki. Before it can hit him, Sigyn collects the venom in a bowl, the caveat is that whenever Sigyn has to empty the bowl, that is when the venom does hit Loki, causing him much pain. This pain causes Loki to writhe in such agony, it causes earthquakes.
Loki & Útgarðaloki – Many are familiar with Snorri Sturluson’s take on Loki & Thor’s encounter with Utgard-Loki from the Prose Edda’s Gylfaginning. The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus has a different take on the story of Utgard-Loki or Útgarðaloki.
In Saxo’s take, Thor does indeed travel to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants. There, Thor finds a jotun by the name of Útgarðaloki, meaning “Loki of the Utgard,” who is bound fast much like the other versions for the binding of Loki. Otherwise, Loki is largely absent of Saxo’s collection of Norse mythology.
It has been pointed out, that the Scandinavians may have held conflicting views on deciding if Loki were a god, a jotun or another entity altogether.
Greek Connection – Loki’s being bound to a rock has been compared to other, mythological figures in Greek, namely those of Prometheus and Tantalus.
In the Prose Edda, Loki is described as a: “contriver of fraud.” Loki isn’t mentioned very often in the Eddas, he is generally mentioned as being a member of Odin’s family.
The Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Loki and the other Norse deities comes from the surviving Poetic Edda that was compiled in the 13th century C.E. It is a collection of various poems as follows: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð. Loki only appears or is referenced in a few of these.
It should be noted that Loki, in many of these poems is often referred to as Loptr, coming from the Old Norse word lopt for “air.”
Baldrs Draumar – In this poem, Odin awakens a dead völva in Hel. He questions her about the meanings of Baldr’s dreams. It is in the final stanza of the poem, that the völva tells Odin to go home and be proud of himself, that no one else is coming until Loki escapes his bounds and brings about the onset of Ragnarök.
Fjölsvinnsmál – In this poem, Fjölsviðr is describing to the hero Svipdagr where Sinmara keeps the weapon Lævateinn. Loki as Lopt, is mentioned as using runes to lock Lægjarn’s chest nine times, holding within it the weapon Lævateinn. There are two different translations of this poem depending on how the runes are translated.
The first translation reads:
“Lævatein is there, that Lopt with runes
Once made by the doors of death;
In Lægjarn’s chest by Sinmora lies it,
And nine locks fasten it firm.”
The second translation reads:
“Hævatein the twig is named, and Lopt plucked it,
down by the gate of Death.
In an iron chest it lies with Sinmœra,
and is with nine strong locks secured.”
Hyndluljóð – Loki is referenced twice in this poem. Here, Loki is mentioned as the father of the wolf with the jötunn Angrboða, to have given birth to the horse Sleipnir by the stallion Svadilfari and to be the brother of Byleistr. The last child that Loki gives birth to is “the worst of all marvels.” This is due to his eating the heart, the “thought-stone” of a woman and having eaten it half-cooked, Loki became pregnant by this woman and it is from this union, that all ogress on earth are descended from.
Lokasenna – Loki’s Quarrel in English, in this poem, Loki enters a flyting match with the gods in Ægir’s hall. Ægir is a god of the sea and he is currently holding a feast for the other gods and elves. The other gods begin to praise Ægir’s servants: Fimafeng and Eldir. Hearing this, puts Loki into a right foul mood and he kills Fimafeng. In response, the other gods grab up their shields and weapons as they chase Loki out into the woods. With Loki gone, the gods then return to the hall to resume their feasting.
The poem begins properly when Loki returns from the woods and meets Eldir outside whom he entreats to tell him what the other gods are talking about. Eldir tells Loki how the other gods are discussing their weapons and prowess and how no one has anything good to say about Loki.
Loki says he will return to the feast, this time intending to incite the other gods to arguing and to put malice into their drinks. Eldir warns Loki that this isn’t a good idea if all he is going to do is sow anger and resentment towards him, that it won’t end well.
Undaunted, Loki heads back into the hall anyways and sure enough, all the gods fall silent on noticing the trickster enter. I can just imagine Loki smirking as he breaks the silence, saying he’s thirsty and has only come for a drink.
When no one answers him, Loki calls the gods arrogant and demands they either give a seat at the table or tell him to leave. The god, Bragi is who finally addresses Loki, saying that he will not have a seat among the gods for they know whom to invite and who not to.
Turning his attention to Odin, Loki address the god, reminding him of the time when Odin and he had mixed their blood together and that Odin said he would never drink ale unless it were brought to the two of them.
Odin than asks his son, Víðarr to sit up so that the “wolf’s father” (referring to Loki) can have a seat at the table and not speak of the gods. As Víðarr stands to pour Loki a drink. Before drinking, the trickster makes a toast to the gods with the exception of Bragi.
Bragi, trying to make amends and smooth things over, says he would give a horse, sword and ring for his own possessions so that Loki won’t speak ill. It’s really clear now that Loki is going out of his way to single out Bragi, by saying he’ll always be short these things and implies that the skald deity is a coward.
Temper beginning to flair, Bragi says that if they were outside, he would have Loki’s head for a trophy given all his lies. Loki taunts Bragi, calling him a “bench-ornament.” At this point, Iðunn interrupts, trying to calm Bragi.
All that does is get Loki to direct his ire towards Iðunn now, calling her “man-crazy” of all of the goddess’s present. Iðunn does her best not to be baited by Loki’s words. Now Gefjun speaks up, asking why the two have to fight. Doesn’t everyone know that Loki is jesting. Not quitting now, Loki comments that Gefjun is one to talk, having been seduced by a boy and proven to be an easy lay.
Essentially, it carries on for a quiet a bit with Odin, then Freya and most of the other gods refuting Loki, saying he has to be mad to get someone like Gefjun angry as Loki in turns just calls out the flaws and failings of each of the gods. He just keeps it up, getting them all angry with him one after the other.
Towards the end of the poem, as things get more heated, the attention is turned towards Sif, Thor’s wife and Loki makes a bold claim to have slept with her. Beyla, a servant of Freyr’s, interrupt and announces that since the mountains are shaking, it must mean that Thor is on his way home. Beyla continues with how Thor will bring an end to the argument. Loki responds with more insults.
Thor does arrive and tell Loki to keep quiet or else he’ll rip off Loki’s head using his hammer. Loki taunts Thor, asking why he is so angry, he won’t be in any mood to fight the wolf, Fenrir after it eats Odin. All this is about the events of Ragnarök that have been foretold. Thor again tells Loki to keep quiet with a threat to throw the trickster god so far into the sky he would never come back down.
Not daunted in the least, Loki tells Thor how he shouldn’t be bragging about his time in the east as the mighty Thor had once cowered in fear inside the thumb of a glove. Once more Thor tells Loki to keep silent with threats to break every bone in his body. Loki continues the taunts, saying he still intends to live, throwing in references to when Thor had met Útgarða-Loki.
Thor gives a fourth and final demand to Loki for silence or else he would send Loki to Hel. At this, Loki ceases his taunts saying that he will leave the hall, knowing that Thor does indeed strike.
Loki leaves at this point, going to hide behind the Franangrsfors waterfall in the form of a salmon. The gods do eventually capture Loki and bind him in his son, Nari’s entrails. His other son, Narfi turns into a wolf. Skaði places a venomous snake above Loki’s head that drips venom. Loki’s wife, Sigyn sits nearby with a bowl to catch the venom. Every time she goes to empty the vessel, Loki writhes in such agony that it causes earthquakes.
Reginsmál – In this poem, the dwarf Regin, who is the son of the sorcerer Hreidmar and foster father to the hero Sigurd, tells of how the gods Odin, Hœnir and Loki had gone down to the Andvara-falls to fish. Now Regin had two brothers, Andvari who would swim about in the form of a pike and Otr, who would change into an otter to swim and fish.
On this particular occasion, Otr, in otter form had caught a salmon and was eating it on the river banks when the god Loki killed him with a stone, thinking it’s just a normal otter. Later that evening, the gods go to stay with Hreidmar and show off the otter pelt. There’s a catch of course, Hreidmar and Regin both recognize the pelt as being a dead Otr. Regin and Hreidmar seize hold of the gods and demand a weregeld for Otr’s death.
The gods agreed and made a sack out of Otr’s pelt that they filled with gold and covered the outside with red gold. Now just where the gods got this gold from? Loki was sent out to get and he borrowed a net from the goddess Rán. Going back to the Andvara-falls, Loki spreads out the net and captures Andvari in his pike form. Loki forces Andvari to reveal where his gold is at before releasing him.
Andvari tells Loki a little bit about himself, namely having been cursed by a “norn of misfortune” during his early days. Loki replies back, asking what does mankind get if they “wound each other with words.” Andvari’s response is that they get a terrible fate, being forced to wade in the river Vadgelmir.
Eventually, Andvari hands over his gold to Loki, including the ring, Andvarinaut. Back in his dwarf form, Andvari tells Loki that this gold will cause the death of two brother, conflict between eight princes and be of no use to anyone.
Taking the gold back, the gods fill the otter skin with it, with the ring Andvarinaut covering a whisker to Hreidmar’s satisfaction. Loki chimes in how the gold is as cursed as Andvari and that it will be the death of Hreidmar and Regin
Hreidmar doesn’t believe Loki, believing instead the curse is for those not yet born. Plus, with the gold, he’s plenty wealthy now and he tells the gods to leave.
The poem does continue, and most are familiar with how it continues and connects to Sigurd in the Völsunga saga where Regin is the foster father to Sigurd. This version of Regin’s story lists Fafnir and Otr being his brothers, not Andvari. Which makes far more sense to have the gold belonging to someone else that Loki steals the gold from. Not this Loki stealing Andvari, who in the Reginsmál is Regin’s brother. That connection makes no sense to have Loki steal Andvari’s gold and then seem to give it right back, granted to the father.
Skáldskaparmál – An episode in this saga sees Loki rather maliciously cut off all of Sif’s hair. Thor threatens to break Loki’s bones if doesn’t put this to rights. Looking to save his own skin for the problems he often creates, Loki gets the dark elves or dwarves to craft some golden hair to replace Sif’s shorn hair with.
Þrymskviða – Also known as the Lay of Trym, this comedic poem features Thor as a central figure. Thor awakens one morning to discover that his hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Thor confides in Loki about the missing hammer and that no one knows it’s missing. The two then head to Freyja’s hall to find the missing Mjöllnir. Thor asks Freyja if he can borrow her feathered cloak to which she agrees. At this, Loki takes off with the feathered cloak.
Loki heads to Jötunheimr where the jotunn, Þrymr is making collars for his dogs and trimming the manes of his horses. When Þrymr sees Loki, he asks what is happening among the Æsir and elves and why it is that Loki is alone in Jötunheimr. Loki replies by telling Þrymr how Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Þrymr admits to having taken Mjöllnir and hiding it some eight leagues beneath the earth where Thor will never get it back unless the goddess Freyja is brought to him to be his wife. Loki takes off again, flying back to the Æsir court with Freyja’s cloak.
Thor enquires with Loki if he was successful. Loki tells of what he has found out, that Þrymr took Thor’s hammer and will only give it back if Freyja is brought to Þrymr to be his wife. At this news, Thor and Loki return to Freyja to tell her of the news that she is to be a bride to Þrymr. Angry, Freyja flat out refuses, causing the halls of the Æsir to shake and for her famous necklace, Brísingamen to fall off.
The gods and goddess hold a meeting to debate the matter of Þrymr’s demands. The god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that instead of Freyja, that Thor should dress as the bride as a way to get Thor’s hammer back. Thor balks at the idea and Loki seconds Heimdallr’s idea, saying it will be the only that Thor can get his hammer back. For without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade Asgard. Relenting, Thor agrees to dress as a bride, taking Freyja’s place. Dressing as a maid to the disguised Thor, Loki goes with Thor down to Jötunheimr.
After arriving in Jötunheimr, Þrymr commands the jötnar of his hall to make the place presentable for Freyja has arrived to be his bride. Þrymr then tells how of all of his treasured animals and objects, that Freyja was the one missing piece to all of his wealth.
Disguised, Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and all of his jötnar. At the feast, Thor consumes a large amount of food and mead, something that is at odds with Þrymr’s impressions of Freyja. Loki, feigning the part of a shrewd maid, tells Þrymr how that is because Freyja had not eaten anything for eight days in her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr decides that he wants to kiss his bride and when he lifts “Freyja’s” veil, fierce looking eyes stare back at him. Again, Loki says that this is because Freyja hasn’t slept either during the past eight nights.
A “wretched sister” of the jötnar arrives, calling for the bridal gift from Freyja. The jötnar bring out Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir in order to sanctify the bride as they lay it on “Freyja’s” lap. Þrymr and Freyja will be handfasted by the goddess Var. When Thor sees his hammer, he grabs hold of Mjöllnir and proceeds to beat all of the jötnar with it. Thor even kills the “wretched, older sister” of the jötnar. Thus, Thor gets his hammer back.
Völuspá – In this poem, a dead völva tells the history of the universe and the future Odin in disguise about the events of Ragnarök. Regarding Loki, the völva speaks about how she sees Sigyn sitting unhappily near her bound husband, Loki. The location of this being in a grove of hot springs. Once Ragnarok begins, Loki, referred to as the “brother of Býleistr” is freed from his bounds.
The völva further describes how she sees Loki steering a boat, filled with Muspell’s people (these people being from the World of Fire and seen as destroyer of worlds).
The last bit in the Völuspá is the monstrous wolf Fenrir, referred to as Loki’s kinsman as he will eat Odin and then be killed by Odin’s son, Víðarr.
The Prose Edda & Other Sagas
Not to be confused with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda consists of four books: Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal written by Snorri Sturluson.
In the Prose Edda, Loki is described as a: “contriver of fraud.” Loki isn’t mentioned very often in the Eddas. He is generally mentioned as being a member of Odin’s family.
This book has various stories that feature Loki. Notably his giving birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir and of Loki’s contest with the personification of fire, Logi. This book gives a number of epitaphs for Loki that aren’t very flattering from “originator of deceits” to “the disgrace of all gods and men.”
The Fortification of Asgard – This seems to be a significant story within the Prose Edda, the gods are establishing Midgard and have built “Val-Hall.” An unnamed builder has offered to build a wall for the gods to keep out invaders, all he wants in exchange is the goddess Freyja, the sun and moon.
Sure, why not, the gods agree after some debate. There are some conditions to be met, such as the builder has to complete the work in three seasons without help from any man. The builder argues he needs the help of his stallion Svaðilfari and this is agreed to with, with Loki’s influence.
With the aid of his horse, the builder is able to make quick work on the wall. With the deadline of Summer just three days away, the builder is nearly complete with this task. The gods hold a meeting and decide that Loki is to blame.
But the gods wanted a wall, now they blame Loki for the builder nearly being finished. Oh that’s right, Loki spoke on the builder’s behalf to have his horse help. Right then, the gods decide, if Loki doesn’t find a way to get the builder to forfeit his payment of Freyja, the sun and moon. Loki swears that he will find a way to stop the builder.
That night, the builder and his horse, Svaðilfari head out to the forest to get more stone to finish the wall with. A mare comes running out of the forest and neighs at Svaðilfari, who realizes what kind of horse he sees and goes chasing after. The builder swears and follows after his horse. The two horses are busy all night, running around and getting it on.
The builder is of course, unable to complete the work and thus misses his deadline. Understandably, the builder flies into a rage and the gods realize that he is a hrimthurs (some type and variety of jötunn as the term can be pretty broad). The gods forget their oaths to the builder and call for Thor who comes and kills the builder, smashing his head in with his hammer.
Ya’ know, don’t make a deal or promises if you know you’re just going to renege on them later and refuse to pay up. As to Loki, with his horsing around, he gave birth to the eight-legged horse Slepnir that Odin rides.
Loki & Thor Versus Skrymir – This section of Gylfaginning see a reluctant Third telling the story of how Thor and Loki were out riding in Thor’s chariot. The two came upon the home of a peasant and stopped there for the night. Now, Thor’s chariot is pulled by a pair of goats, whom Thor killed to eat, knowing that they will be resurrected the following day. All good, no big deal for Thor.
Thor invites the peasant’s family to feast on the goats with him that night. He warns the family though not to crack the bones. Loki, plotting what he thinks is harmless mischief, gets the peasant’s son, Þjálfi to crack one of the bones and suck the marrow from it.
Now, when Thor goes to resurrect his goats, he finds that one of his goats has become lame. Afraid of the god’s wrath, the peasant gives Thor his son Þjálfi and his daughter Röskva to be his traveling companions.
Without his goats, the small group of four continues heading east until they arrive at the forested edge of Jötunheimr. The group continued on into the forest until it becomes night. They come upon a large building and take shelter in it. During the night, there are earthquakes that awaken the group who, with the exception of Thor or afraid to fall back asleep. The building turns out to be the giant Skrymir’s glove, who had been sleeping during the night and the source of the earthquakes.
The group moves out from the shelter and sleep beneath an oak tree. During the middle of the night, Thor awakens and attempts to slay Skrymir. Twice, Thor attempts to slay the giant, only to have Skrymir awaken and believe acorns have fallen on him. It is on the second attempt, that Skrymir fully awakens and advices the group not to be so cocky when they arrive at Útgarðr, to turn around and go back.
Skrymir led the group to the jotun city of Utgard where the group lost sight of Skrymir and was greeted by a group of jotun, including the king himself, Utgard-Loki, whom it turns out was Skrymir all along.
Given the general animosity between the gods and jotun, it’s no surprise that Thor, Loki and their other companions were not welcomed, unless of course they could complete a series of seemingly impossible challenges.
Loki was challenged and lost an eating contest when his opponent not only ate all the meat, but the bones and plate itself. Þjálf races against Hugi, losing to him in a series of three footraces.
It now fell to Thor to fulfill three challenges. As Thor boasted he could drink anyone under the table, a large drinking horn was brought to him with the challenge to finish it all in one gulp. After taking three huge swallows, Thor had only managed to drain the horn a few inches.
With the next challenge, Thor boasted his immense strength and Utgard-Loki challenged Thor to pick up a cat off the ground. After three attempts at moving the cat, Thor was only able to succeed at moving one paw.
Enraged by this, Thor accepted the last challenge of a wrestling match with anyone willing to match strength with him. The only one who would, was an old, frail looking woman. Thinking this would be easy, once again Thor was met with defeat at the hands of a feeble opponent who easily bested the mighty god, bringing him to his knees.
After this, Utgard-Loki declared the contests over and allowed the gods to stay the night and rest before returning home in the morning.
Come daylight, Utgard-Loki led the group out of Jotunheim. Once they were well past the borders, Utgard-Loki revealed himself to have been the giant, Skrymir who lead them to the city. Utgard-Loki proceeded to reveal the secrets of all of the challenges that Thor and his companions undergone.
Loki had been competing with fire, that burns and consumes everything it touches. That Thialfi’s opponent was thought, whom no one can outrun. As to Thor, the drinking horn he had drunk from was connected to the ocean and that he had succeeded in lowering the sea levels. The cat that Thor had tried lifting was none other than Jormungand, the Midgard serpent that encircles the world. As for the old woman, she was Age itself whom no one can defeat. That no matter how fiercely and bravely Thor fought her, even he would fall to her.
Before the group leaves, Utgard-Loki says that group should never return and if he knew who he had been dealing with, they would never have been allowed in. Angry at being tricked, Thor raised his hammer Mjollnir only to have the king of giants and his city vanish into thin air.
This is another of Snorri Sturluson’s books, written in the 13th century C.E. Loki is made mention in this text. On the Snaptun Stone, the Kirkby Stephen Stone and the Gosforth Cross, it has been suggested that Loki is the figure seen on these stone artifacts.
Also spelled Lokka Táttur, this is a Faroese tale or ballad from the late Middle Ages and more 18th century. It features Hœnir, Loki and Odin all helping a farmer and boy escape the wrath of a jötunn after he loses a bet. The ballad is notable in that it presents Loki as a benevolent god rather than the usual “evil” deity he’s often seen as due to all of mischief and cunning.
A jotunn comes and snatches up a farmer’s son. The farmer and his wife pray to Odin that their child may be protected. Odin comes and hides the boy in a field of wheat. The jotunn still manages to find the boy. Odin rescues the son and brings him back to his parents, saying he’s done hiding the boy. Now the couple pray to Hœnir who hids their son in the neck-feathers of a swan. Again, the jotunn finds the boy. Now the couple prays to Loki who hides the child in the middle of a flounder’s eggs. Once more, the jotunn finds the child and Loki tells the boy to run towards a boathouse. As the boy runs, Loki turns and faces off against the jotunn who’s gotten his head stuck in the boathouse while trying to snatch the boy. Loki chops off the jotunn’s leg and shoves a stick and stone into the leg stump, preventing the jotunn from regenerating. Loki takes the child home and both the farmer and his wife embrace the two.
Ragnarok – Twilight of the Gods
The final endgame of the Norse Gods, this is not exactly a happy time as a good many of the gods end up dying. Baldur’s death is clearly a catalyst for setting these events in motion. Loki still bound, becomes an enemy of the Norse Gods.
When this event begins, Loki is able to break free of his bonds to fight against the Norse gods on the side of the Jotnar. He sails on a ship made of nails called Naglfar. During this battel, Loki will face off against Heimdallr and the two end up killing each other.
Christian Connection – Given that one man and woman are who survive the events of Ragnarök. The story is then seen not so much as the end of the world yet to come, but an event that has already happened. As Christianity continued to move through Europe, Ragnarök can be interpreted as the end of the Norse Gods and their worship as Christianity becomes the dominant religion.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner’s famous four opera cycle. Loki does make an appearance in this famous opera series. In Wagner’s version, Loki is called Loge, a play on the Old Norse word of loge for fire. As Loge, he is an ally of the gods, especially Wotan. Loge views all the Norse gods as being greedy as they refuse to return the Rhine Gold back to it rightful owners. At the end of the first opera, Das Rheingold, Loge reveals a secret desire that he turns into fire and destroys Valhalla. In the last opera, Götterdämmerung, Valhalla is indeed destroyed by fire and all the gods with it.
A stone cross dating from the mid-11th century C.E., this artifact features various figures believed to be from Norse mythology. The lower part of the western side of the cross depicted a long-haired female figure who is kneeling, holding an object above another bound and prone figure. Above and to the left of this imagery is a knotted serpent. The female figure has been interpreted by some to be Sigyn holding the bowl above the bound Loki as the serpent drips venom down onto him. The cross is located in Cumbria England.
Kirkby Stephen Stone
This artifact is part of a cross dating from the 10th century C.E. found in Stephen’s Church of Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria England. It features a bound figure with horns and a beard, this image has sometimes been thought to be Loki. The stone cross was found in 1870 and is composed of a yellowish-white sandstone. A similar horned figure was found in Gainford, County Durham and rests in the Durham Cathedral Library.
This is a gilded silver brooch discovered in 7th century Nordendorf, Germany. There are two lines of inscriptions on the brooch. The first line reads: “awaleubwini.” This has been interpreted as “Awa” a woman’s name and likely shortened of Awila. “Leubwini” has been interpreted as meaning “beloved” or “dear friend” and could mean it’s from a friend of the same name.
The second line of the inscription reads: logaþore wodan wigiþonar. The last two names of Wodan and Wigiþonar are easily read as alternate names for Odin and Battle Thor as either “Holy Thunder” or “Fight Lightning.” Personally, I’d go with “Holy Thunder.” The first name is a little more problematic with the name Logabore. It would seem this is the name of a third deity, making for a Divine Trinity. Both deities, Lóðurr and Loki have been suggested. However, where Germanic paganism and beliefs are concerned, there’s just not enough evidence and what there is, is tenuous.
One scholar, K. Düwel put forward that Logabore means: “magician” or “sorcerer” and would point to Odin and Thor as two magician deities. So we get, where this is an example of Pagan Germany slowly becoming more Christianized as the brooch is either a protective amulet against the old gods or it’s meant to be more beneficial as a healing charm. It all lays in how the interpretation of “wigi” for Thor is taken.
This is a semi-circular flat stone found on a beach near Snaptun, Denmark in 1950. The stone is composed of soapstone that originally came from either Norway or Sweden and features a carving dating back to 1000 C.E. The image shown in the carving is a face with scarred lips, which is identified with that of Loki. The scarred lips are thought to be in reference to a story found in the Skáldskaparmál where the sons of Ivaldi stitched Loki’s lips closed.
A hearth stone, the Snaptun stone would have had the nozzle of a bellows placed into a hold at the front of the stone and air pushed through to feed a fire while the bellows were protected from catching fire. It’s thought this stone might point out a connection between Loki, smithing and flames.
Lokabrenna or “Loki’s Torch is the name of the “Dog Star,” Sirius in pagan Scandinavia. The location of Útgarða-Loki’s worship in Denmark, there is also mention of the Danes potentially worshipping or revering this star according to Saxo.
Place Names & Surnames
As Loki gets more associated and reviled as a villain, there aren’t very many locales or surnames being named after the devious Trickster god.
The surnames in question are close enough in spelling, they may or may not be variations to Loki’s name, they include: Locchi (from 12th century Northumberland, England), Locke and Luki (Sweden).
Jacob Grimm mentions a place in Vestergötland, Sweden reputed to be a giant’s grave called Lokehall. Other place names are: Lockbol, Luckabol, Lockesta, and Locastum. One of the Faroe Islands is called Lokkafelli or Loki’s Fell. It should be of note that the Faroe Islands are where the 18th century saga of Lokka Táttur originates.
Etymology: “Unseen” or “The Unseen One”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Ἁιδης, Αιδωνευς, Áïdes (Ionic and Epic Greek), Aïdoneús, Áïdos, Áïdos, Áïda, Ais, Eubouteous, Háides, Klymenos, Pluto or Ploutos (“wealth” or “the rich one,”) Pluteus,Pluton, Ploutodótes, Ploutodotr (“Giver of Wealth”), Pylartes, Stygeros, ‘unseen’, Zeus Katachthonios (“Zeus of the Underworld”)
Epithets: Agesander, Agesilaos (“fetcher of men,” “carries away all” or “leader of men”), Chthonian Zeus, Clymenus (“notorious,”) Eubuleus (“good counsel” or “well-intentioned”), Hegesilaus, Polydegmon (“Reciever of Many Guests”)
Hades is an ancient chthonic deity who best known as the God and Ruler of the Underworld, so much so, that the Underworld would come to be known by his name.
Animal: Black Rams, Dog, Rooster, Screech-Owl, Serpents
Patron of: The Underworld, the Dead, Wealth
Plant: Asphodel, Cypress, Mint, Narcissus, Pomegranate, White Poplar
Sphere of Influence: Death, Grief
Symbols: Cerberus, Cornucopia, Scepter, Narcissus, Key of Hades
Early Greek Depictions
In early Greek art and even mythology, Hades doesn’t make many appearances as this is a deity whom the ancient Greeks didn’t want to attract the attention of.
Most of Hades’ early representations in art are mostly pottery and statuary where he’s not always clearly defined. The classical era of art, especially those that depict the Rape of Persephone will show Hades with varying ages depending on the artist. Sometimes Hades is shown as looking away from the other gods to represent their disdain for him.
In Greek pottery, Hades is often shown having a dark beard and shown as a stately figure seated on an ebony thrown. In Greek statuary, Hades is often shown with his three-headed dog Cerberus for quick and easy recognition.
Hades is known to drive a chariot, drawn by four black horses, which makes for a fearsome and impressive sight. Hades is often thought of as being very dour and stern, unmoved by prayers.
When identified and represented as Plouton, Hades is seen in a more positive light. As Plouton, he is shown holding a cornucopia that represents the riches and fertility of the earth.
Cult & Worship
Hades was a grim and fearsome seeming deity that living humans did not mention by name lightly. As the god of the dead, one simply did not mention Hades by name lest they draw his attention and potentially an early death. Instead, Hades would be called by a few different euphemisms and epithets.
Such was the reluctance of any followers that people were hesitant to swear oaths in Hades’ name and would avert their gazes when performing sacrifices to him. The sacrifices made to Hades were black animals like sheep. Human sacrifices to Hades were outright rejected even though other sources will try to say that such human sacrifices were done. The blood from the animal sacrifices would be dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person offering the sacrifice would turn away their face. When propitiated, people would slap or hit the ground to make sure that Hades heard them. Finally, every hundreds, festivals would be held to honor Hades. These were known as the Secular Games.
Temples – Hades was worshiped throughout Greece and Italy. It is known he had a sacred grove and temple in Elis. This temple would only be opened once a year. Another temple is known to have been in Pylos Triphyliacus near Mount Menthe. Finally, there was a sacred grove to the Erinnyes in Athens and another grove in Olympia.
Hades does have a part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. Hade’s role in the mysteries comes in the story of his abducting Persephone to the Underworld to be his wife and Queen. The Mysteries concern more the worshiping of Demeter and Persephone.
While we don’t know as much about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries are another matter as there have been plenty of surviving Orphic Hymns and texts that have been found and translated. There’s plenty of evidence that has been left behind found through out all of southern Italy. Much of which is the connection of Dionysus’ death and resurrection symbolisms in myth.
Hades = Dionysus!?!
In connection to the previously mentioned Eleusinian Mysteries, starting with the philosopher Heraclitus; he states that Hades and Dionysus are merely the same deity with different aspects to them, the essence of life. A Karl Kerenyi points out that in her grief, Demeter refused to drink wine, a symbol of Dionysus, especially after Persephone’s abduction. Further, one of the Dionysus’ epithets is Chthonios, meaning “the subterranean.” Demeter knows full well that its Dionysus who has abducted her daughter and that Hades is merely an alias.
Though this is just one level of the Orphic tradition trying to explain a deity who has a dual nature. Many of Hades epitaphs are also the same epitaphs used for Dionysus. Names such as: Chthonios (“the Subterranean”), Euclius (“glorious” or “renowned”) and Eubouleus (“Good Counselor”)
Speaking of Eubouleus, that epitaph is also applied to Zeus…. When covered as a deity by himself, Eubouleus is depicted as a youthful representation of the Lord of the Underworld.
Zeus Katachthonios – Zeus of the Underworld
Another important epitaph of Hades in the Orphic tradition. By calling Hades the name: “Zeus Katachthonios” they could connect him to his brother Zeus and why there are stories of Zeus and Persephone coupling up to have children like Melinoe and Zagreus.
Homer calls Hades “the Infernal Zeus” and “Grisly God”.
It all makes for an interesting connection. Hades as the God of Death, Dionysus as the God of Life and Zeus tying them both together to represent the birth, death and resurrection of a deity.
What’s In A Name
The exact origins for Hades’ name have been lost to antiquity. It is however been agreed to translate as: “The Unseen One.” Plato’s dialogue of Cratylus has an extensive section devoted to the etymology of Hades’ name. Socrates argues that the name doesn’t mean “unseen,” but instead means: “his knowledge of all noble things.” More modern linguists lean towards the “unseen” meaning though another idea put forward is the meaning: “the one who presides over meeting up” referring to death.
Given his role as Lord of the Underworld, Hades is the deity liked least and people were reluctant to speak his name lest they bring unwanted attention to themselves. Even the other gods are said to have avoided Hades’ company.
In the 5th century B.C.E., the ancient Greeks began calling Hades by the name of Plouton, meaning “wealth” or “riches.” This name served more as a euphemism as the Greeks didn’t want to draw the attention of the God of Death. In addition, not only is the Underworld were the dead go and that’s who Hades rules over, but wealth and riches in the form of gold, silver and various gems can be found there.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Persephone – The daughter of Demeter whom Hades himself abducted. She is the Goddess of Spring, Vegetation and Fertility before becoming Queen of the Underworld.
He is the fourth child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
It should be noted that by some accounts, Hades being the God of the Underworld is thought to be infertile, so any of Hades and Persephone’s children are the result of Zeus coming to have sex with his brother’s wife… and his own daughter. If you ask me, that’s a bit limited in thinking, just because Hades is lord of the Underworld, doesn’t mean he will be infertile. Of course, Zeus as the father works in the Orphic tradition when you want him to be the father of everyone.
The Erinyes – Also known as the Furies, they are sometimes called the daughters of Hades, though they’re actually earth-born.
Macaria – Death or Blessed. It’s just known that she is a daughter of Hades. There is a proverb: “Go to blessedness.” This is a euphemism for death as it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.
Melinoe – A chthonic goddess identified with Hecate. In the Orphic tradition, she is the daughter of Persephone and Zeus in the guise of Hades. So, she’s not really Hades’ daughter and it’s possible Persephone claimed her as Hades if she didn’t know of Zeus’ ruse.
Zagreus – A minor deity in Greek mythology, he is called the “first Dionysus” in the Orphic tradition. In the Orphic tradition, Zagreus is the son of Zeus and Persephone, he is torn apart by the Titans and reborn later. The earliest mentions of Zagreus have him as a consort to Gaia and the god of the Underworld. The Greek playwright, Aeschylus connects Zagreaus with Hades so that they are either Father (Hades) and Son (Zagreus) or that they’re the same deity. Linking Dionysus into the myth of being Hades seems to stem from the myths of Zagreus.
As much as Hades is a major Greek Deity, as his domain and realm is that of the Underworld where he rules over the dead, he isn’t one of the Olympian Gods.
Simply because that isn’t where Hades spent all his time. Except for the one time that he happened to be above ground and fell in love with Persephone, Hades spends all his time underground.
Attendants of Hades
Ruling the Underworld isn’t easy. There are all those souls of the deceased coming in. While Hades is sure to have the help if his wife and queen, Persephone, there’s still a lot to be done.
Cerberus – A Most Loyal Hound
Cerberus is the three-headed dog of Hades that guards the gate to the Underworld. It is with amusement that Cerberus has the meaning of “spot.” There’s something very humanizing and endearing in a deity naming their dog Spot.
Also known as the Furies, they are an earth-born trio of chthonic deities whose job is to mete out retribution and vengeance. If you went against the natural order of things, perjured, broke an oath, murder, unfilial conduct, a child upsetting their parent…. These are the deities who came to deal with you. In their connection to Hades in the Underworld, the Erinyes would torment the souls of criminals.
I think its fair to say I wouldn’t want them angry with me, that way lays madness and likely some horrifying illness.
Judges of the Dead
The three judges of the dead are: Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus. These three judges would sentence the souls of the dead, determine their guilt on if they would go to Tartarus or if deemed innocent enough, to pass on to the Elysian Fields.
In Plato’s Gorgias, a story is told to Socrates that the reason that there are three judges is so that everyone who dies will be judged fairly. The original judges had been there since Cronos’ time and were prone to letting anyone who was wealthy enough, dressed fanically enough and had witness who would claim that an undeserving, wicked soul was being allowed to pass on to the Elysian Fields. As these judges were judging people while still alive on their last day on earth.
Hades and the overseers in charge of the Isles of the Blessed came before Zeus with a complaint about this.
Zeus said he would put a stop to this practice and decreed that there would be stop to anyone having any foreknowledge of their death. The dead would be stripped bare of everything before judgement and would stand naked. The judge too would likewise be naked… clearly a metaphor for the naked truth and nothing hidden. The judge would hold the soul of the deceased in their hands to determine it’s worthiness without any of the entrapments of life. Aeacus and Rhadamanthus would determine a soul’s fate with Minos to act as a tie breaker if there were any doubt to where a soul’s final destination would be.
Birth Of A God
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Hades and all his siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia. Incidentally, Hades is the last of Cronus’ children that is either regurgitated or comes out after Zeus splits their father open.
In other versions I have found of this story, Zeus meets with Metis who concocts a drug for Zeus to give Cronus so that he disgorges or vomits up the stone and all of his children.
There is a ten-year long divine war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hades and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
During the war, Gaia gave a prophesy to Zeus that he would have victory over the Titans by freeing the Cyclops who were then prisoners in Tartaros. Zeus slew Campe, the jail-keeper of the Cyclops. As a reward and thanks for releasing them, the Cyclcops forged weapons for the three brothers. Thunderbolts for Zeus, a Trident for Poseidon and a Bident for Hades along with a magical helmet of invisibility.
During this war, Hades used his helmet of invisibility to sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy their weapons. After the war, the Titans were imprisoned within Tartoros and the Hecatoncheires were placed in charge of guarding the new prisoners.
Dividing the Spoils of War – After defeating Cronus and all of his father’s followers, the three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus divided up rulership of the cosmos between them. Hades would become ruler of the Underworld, Poseidon would become ruler of the seas and Zeus would become ruler of the air. The earth, the domain of Gaia, would be available to all three gods.
Iliad – The Iliad describes the three brothers as pulling lots to determine who would rule which realm.
Hades & Typhon – While not exactly a flattering story of Hades; the story is that of Zeus battling the giant monstrous serpent Typhon during or after the Titanomachy. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Hades as cowering down below in the Underworld while Zeus is busy hurling thunder bolts and battling Typhon to take his place as king of the Olympian gods.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone.
After Hades’ birth and the dividing up rulership of the realms, this story is the most well-known regarding this deity.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes, and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love at first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Plouton, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when he is released, Demeter turns him into an owl.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be a something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So, looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Before his marriage to Persephone, Hades does seem to have had a couple of love interests. Not as many as Zeus, that’s for sure, just a couple though.
Hades & Minthe
Hades had a mistress by the name of Minthe, a nymph. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone takes exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turns the nymph into a plant of the same name.
By Ovid’s account, Hades is still pursuing Minthe, which would explain a moment of jealousy on Persephone’s part to make sure her man remains loyal.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
Hades & Leuce
Leuce was a nymph and the daughter of Oceanus. She was carried off by Hades and ravaged, according to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Though we know what really happened, rape. Alas things were not meant to be and Leuce died. On her death, Hades turns Leuce into a white poplar, a tree that would later be sacred to Hades. Hercules is said to have been wearing a crown of poplar leaves when he returned from the Underworld.
Theseus & Pirithous – Would-Be Suitors
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them. Most versions, it’s just Theseus who is freed.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Molossians – King Aidoneus
There’s a version of the story of Theseus and Pirithous were they journied to the Molossian in Epiros where a King Aidoneus rules. Coincidentally, Aidoneus has a wife by the name of Persephone, a daughter named Kora and a dog named Cerberus. Pirithous conspires to kidnap Kora and when Aidoneus learns of this plot, he seizes both men. Pirithous is killed by the dog Cerberus and Theseus is held prisoner. In this version of the story, Herakles (Hercules) was a guest of Aidoneus and when he learned of what happened; Herakles pleaded for Theseus’ release. In gratitude, Theseus built an alter to Herakles.
So perhaps this shows a bit of taking an actual event and making it larger than life involving the god of the Underworld, Hades.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks and the final one, was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus.
In a more extended version of the event, Hercules goes to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. This had to purposes, first to absolve Hercules of his guilt for the death of all the centaurs and secondly, it would allow him to learn enter and return from the Underworld.
Hercules found the entrance to the Underworld in Taenarum. With the help of the gods Athena and Hermes, Hercules was able to make the descent down and back. Being sensible, Hercules goes and asks Hades if he can take his dog, Cerberus rather than outright steal it. Hades only consents to Hercules taking his beloved dog on the condition of not harming Cerberus. Specifically, Hercules is not to use any weapons. When leaving the Underworld with Cerberus, Hercules passes through the Acherusia cavern.
In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement. Other accounts will say that Hercules wounds Hades with an arrow, though that sounds like that’s from another story.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules frees both Theseus and Pirithous.
In Seneca’s Hercules Furens, Hera complains about Hercules having broken down the doors to the Underworld and dragging the hound, Cerberus up to the living world. Hera ask why doesn’t Hercules lord it over Hades, saying that the law of the shades has been nullified. That a way for ghosts or spirits of the dead to return from the Underworld has been opened up. That the mysteries of Death are available for all to see. Seneca’s Hercules Furens also ignores that Hercules was not to harm Cerberus with any weapons and says that the hero does use his club.
Hercules & Alcestis
This is the second encounter that Hercules and Hades have.
Queen Alcestis was the wife of King Admetos. He didn’t want to die and seems to have gotten some special permission from the Fates.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Admetos can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
Hercules & The Siege Of Pylos
This is the third time that Hercules and Hades encountered each other. During the siege of Pylos, Hercules hurt Hades who was there to gather up the souls of the deceased. Some later accounts would place Hades as defending the town of Pylos. Most accounts of this story have Hades wounded by an arrow.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice back from the dead. Both Hades and Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allow him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens, the Coronides, daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
Hades & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him.
Before dying, Sisyphus has tied up Thanatos so that men would cease to die. It would take the god Ares to come to the rescue and release Thanatos before turning Sisyphus back over to the god of Death.
Just before getting taken away to the Underworld, Sisyphus had told his wife, Merope to just have his body be thrown out into a public square, where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Hades into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Lord Of The Underworld – Hades
Hades was so well equated with the Underworld that the very place came to be associated with his name. Small wonder then, that the Greeks would start calling him Pluto to distinguish between the deity and the place.
The Underworld was known as the Unseen Realm where all the souls of the dead, not just of humans, but all living things. Once there, there for good, there’s no leaving.
As ruler of the dead, Hades forbid anyone from leaving the underworld. A few such as Hercules and Orpheus are among the few living to have claim to entering and returning to tell about it. Others, such as Pirithous and Sisyphus learned the hard way that you don’t dare try to cheat death or there would heavy consequences to pay.
Even so, feared and disliked as he is, Hades was known for being very stern and sometimes seemingly cruel at times. He was still just in all his dealings, even when he had someone like Sisyphus repeatedly trying to cheat death.
The Underworld – Hades
As a physical locale, there are many regions in the underworld. The Greek mythographers weren’t consistent with the geography of the Underworld.
Getting to the Underworld isn’t so easy as it’s located beneath the earth, obviously. In the Odyssey, the entrance is described as being at the edge of the world, across the ocean. Other Greek and Roman poets would describe the Underworld’s entrance being found in deep caverns and deep lakes.
Homer describes the Underworld as being a vague and shadowy place occupied by ghost where nothing is real and any existence, such as it is, was miserable. Well then….
Later descriptions better define what the Underworld looks like with having the Elysian Fields where “good people” go and Tartarus where “evil people” go. Firstly, the god Hermes in his role as a Psychopomp would lead the souls of the dead down to the river Styx. There, assuming the dead had been buried with a coin, the souls would pay the ferryman, Charon to take them across the river Styx to the gates of the Underworld.
An unlucky soul who wasn’t buried with the proper coin, the Greek obol, a small denomination coin much like an American penny, would be condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost
Guarding the gates to the Underworld would be Cerberus ensuring that anyone can enter, but no one is getting back out. Once in, the souls of the dead would stand before the Judges of the Dead to determine where they would be spending the rest of eternity.
A soul deemed to have been good would be taken to the river Lethe where they would drink and forget all the awful things that happened to them in life before being sent to the Elysian Fields. A soul deemed to be bad or unworthy would be seized by the Erinyes and taken to Tartarus where they would be tormented forever.
Acheron – Meaning woe or sorrow, it is one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Asphodel Meadows – Or the Fields of Asphodel, this is the first region of the Underworld. The shades of heroes wander here. Lesser spirits gather around them. The libations of blood offered to them by those in the living world are able to reawaken these spirits for a short period to what it had been like to be living.
Avernus – In Roman myths, the entrance to the Underworld is found at Avernus, a crater near Cumae. This is where the hero, Aeneas journeyed on his descent down to Hades. Incidentally, the name Avernus is sometimes used as the name for the Underworld.
Cocytus – Meaning lamentation, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Elysium – Also called the “Islands of the Blessed,” those souls deemed blameless or heroes would come here to reside in the afterlife.
Erebus – This area is described as being a gloomy and misty place where the dead reside. This is the place where every living person goes when they die. Few are those who have entered that leave. This place is the area most associated with Hades and would be called by the deity’s own name. Here, two pools were to be found. The first being Lethe, the souls of the dead would drink from to erase the memories of their former life. The second pool is Mnemosyne or “memory” that initiates of the Mysteries would drink from.
Hades and Persephone’s court is found here, where three judges of the Underworld, Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus sit in judgment of the dead. In addition, the trivium, a spot sacred to Hecate was found. From the trivium ran three roads. The souls of the dead would be judged here. If a soul was judged to be neither virtuous or evil, they would be sent to the Asphodel Meadows. If a soul was judged to be evil or impious, they would be sent to Tartarus. If a soul was judged to be virtuous or “blameless”, they would be sent to Elysium.
Erytheia – An island found in the Underworld. Hades kept a herd of cattle here who are attended to by Menoetius.
Lethe – Meaning oblivion, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Phlegethon – Meaning fire, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Styx – Meaning hate, an infamous river of the Underworld. One of five rivers, Styx forms the boundary between the living world and the lands of the dead. The newly dead would pay the fare of an obolus or small coin to Charon, the Ferryman to be ferried across to the Underworld. The Greeks would make propitiatory offerings to help those born paupers or without friends and relatives to have a proper burial; thus, preventing their return to the living world. Once to the other side of Styx, the dead would pass by Cerberus, through the gates of the Underworld to be judged and sent on their way to where in the Underworld they would reside. The gods would swear their oaths on this river and is the same river that Achille’s mother dipped him into in order to grant her son invulnerability.
Tartarus – If a soul were deemed evil, they would be sent to Tartarus. Infamous inmates of Tartarus are: the daughters of Danaus who must try to fill a sieve with water, Ixion who is tied to a constantly spinning wheel of fire, Oknos who forever braids a piece of rope while a donkey eats the other end, Sisyphus who must forever roll a rock up a hill, and Tantalos who is unable to ever quench his thirst.
Judaism & Hades
Continuing on the theme of Hades’ name becoming synonymous with that of the Underworld. The Hebrew word, Sheol which means “Unseen” is also the name for the Jewish Underworld. And Hades’ name means “Unseen” as well. It could be easy to see a linguistic translation could cause confusion and could cause people to start calling the Underworld by the name of Hades and giving the deity the name Pluto to keep it straight.
Christianity & Hades
It wasn’t just the Greeks, later Christians would also refer to Hades when wishing someone to go to Hell, they might say “See you in Hades” as an alternative.
The name Hades appears ten times in the Bible, particularly the New Testament; specifically, the newer King James Version and the original Greek texts, where the name Hades is frequently interchangeable with the Christian idea of Hell or for the body’s decay and destruction in death. At times, certain verses seem to indicate the god Hades, not just the place. Later translation will replace the name Hades with that of Hell.
Evil Vs. Well… Neutral
Because Hades is the ruler of the Underworld and God of the Dead, there’s a strong tendency to equate him as being evil. The Underworld, that’s where Hades rules and people down below to Hell where Satan, the devil dwells. Hades must be evil!
Not so, Hades is more altruistic in that he prefers to keep balance. Sure, he comes off as stern and dour and when dealing those like Sisyphus, you have to lay down the law.
There’s a lot of movies and T.V. shows that tend towards showing death and going to the Underworld as some sort of negative thing. When really, it’s just another place, another state of being and plane of existence. Hades was all about maintaining balance.
The television show: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seems to be the only series I know of that portrays Hades in a positive light. The main episode in question being Hercules helping his Uncle Hades properly win and earn Persephone’s love, not just flat out abducting her. A retelling of Hades’ abduction of Persephone to the Underworld.
Thanatos – Death Personified
Just a quick note to throw in, yes Hades is the God of the Underworld and the Dead, he is not Death personified, that distinction belongs to Thanatos.
Sibylline Oracles – This was a curious mixture of Greco-Roman beliefs and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Here, Hades is noted as the name for the realm of the dead. If one played fast and loose with the etymology of the name Hades, they would derive the name of Adam, the first man due to his being the first to die and enter the afterlife.
Asclepius & Hades
As mentioned before, Hades being the God of the Underworld doesn’t allow the souls of the living to return to the living world lightly. So, it should come as no surprise when, Asclepius, a famous healer, finds himself in trouble with Hades.
Asclepius’ healing abilities were so great, that he could bring the dead back to life. This angered Hades, who, one of his few trips to the upper world, brought his grievances to Zeus. Hades accused Asclepius for the decreasing number of dead who entered his realm.
Siding with his brother, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
Aesop Fable #133
As a bit of a side story, this fable has a reference to Asclepius’ story. In it, a physician who knows nothing about medicine, informs a patient that they will die and to get his affairs in order.
Even though this patient had other people telling him this bought of illness would go away.
A short bit later, the physician runs into the patient again and asks them how everyone down in Hades are doing. The patient responds that everyone is doing well, however Persephone and Hades are angry, ready to denounce all physicians with the physician at the top of the list as people were no longer getting sick and dying. The patient goes on to say that he stepped forward, grasping their scepters and sword that his was nonsense as the physician was no doctor of at all.
Key Of Hades
This symbol is often used in art to represent Hades’ power and control over the Underworld. The key serves as a reminder that the Gates to the Underworld are always locked. That while souls are free to enter, they are not allowed to leave. Even if the Gates are opened, that Cerberus is right there, guarding the exit to prevent any escapees.
A bident is a two-pronged weapon that Hades is often shown with. That claim though, for antiquity remains uncertain even though a bident does appear in various Greek art and literature and there are a few examples of bronze weapons from Greek culture.
It has also been pointed out that Poseidon has a trident, a three-pronged weapon, Hades has a bident, a two-pronged weapon and that Zeus has his thunderbolt, that is a one-pronged weapon. Just in case someone thought there should be some sort of connection.
With this bident, Hades could shatter anything in his way, much like Poseidon does with his trident.
Helm Of Darkness
Better known as the Cap of Invisibility, the Cap of Hades and Helm of Hades, it is either a cap or helmet that can turn whoever wears it, invisible. The Greek name for the Cap of Invisibility is: Ἅϊδος κυνέην, which translates into “dog-skin of Hades.” The 1st/2nd century text: Bibliotheca mentions Hades having this helmet. A Rabelais refers to this helmet as the Helmet of Pluto and Eramus calls it the Helmet of Orcus. Both names clearly connect this cap or helmet as belonging to the god of the Underworld.
The Helm of Darkness is said to work by creating a cloud of mist, allowing the wearer to become invisible to any supernatural being. The Elder or Uranian cyclops created the Helm of Darkness for Hades to use in the war during the Titanomachy. A gift and thanks for freeing the cyclops from Tartarus.
Hades isn’t the only one to wear the helmet. The goddess Athena wore the helmet during the Trojan War when helping Diomedes fight her brother, Ares. Diomedes succeeds at wounding Ares with a spear.
Then you have Hermes who wore the Helmet when he battled the giant Hippolytus. Lastly is the hero Perseus who received the Helmet from Athena, along with a set of winged sandals when he was on his way to go slay the gorgon, Medusa. Another variation to the story has Perseus getting the Helmet and sandals from the Stygian nymphs. After slaying Medusa, Perseus used the helmet to escape the wrath of her sisters, Euryale and Sthenno.
Plouton – God of Wealth & Riches!
When Hades is known as Plouton, he becomes connected with that of wealth and riches. Seeing as it is underground where gold, silver, precious gems, etc. are all going to be found, that makes sense. It also makes some sense too when partnering Hades up in his role as Plouton with Persephone to spread and share the bounty of the earth. Not just in mineral wealth, but the fertility and growth of the land as well.
Eleusinian Deity – Ploutos is originally a god of wealth as it concerns agriculture and later just wealth and riches overall. Of which, Ploutos is the Demeter’s son by way of Iasion. Which when you know the genealogy and who Ploutos mother is and who Persephone’s mother is, I don’t think the ancient Greeks were thinking through this pairing of deities very well.
Which is what they did when referring Hades by the name of Plouton to try and connect him to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Of course, that could be why Hades is said not to have any children directly and why the mother of Persephone’s children are fathered by someone else. Even then….
It’s just the Greeks playing theological games with throwing everything in a blender and trying to have more minor deities absorbed into the worship of a more influential deity to become an epitaph of said deity.
This connection also comes about too, as the Greeks didn’t like to refer to Hades by name. A euphemistic name would be used instead; Plouton. This alternate name for Hades started seeing use in 5th century B.C.E. The name Plouton would be adopted by the Romans and Latinized to become Pluto.
Aita – Etruscan
A cognate for Hades in the little-known Etruscan beliefs and mythology.
Pluto – Roman
Pluto the Latinization of Plouton. Other Roman names used for Pluto are: Aidoneus, Dis, Dis Pater (“the Rich Father”), Dives and Orcus.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.