Category Archives: Styx
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.
Etymology: Uncertain, the name Narcissus has come to be associated with a species of daffodil. Pliny the Elder wrote that the flower is named for its fragrance. There’s a connection to “narko” meaning “I grow numb” and not for mythological figure.
Alternate Spellings: Nárkissos
Narcissus hailed from Thespiae in Boeotia and was very well known for his beauty. He was so proud of his beauty that he held disdain and scorn for those who professed their love for him. This of course, attracted the attention of Nemesis, the goddess of retribution who sought to punish Narcissus for his arrogance.
Father – Cephissus, a river god or Endymion by Nonnus in his Dionysiaca
Mother – Liriope, a nymph or Selene by by Nonnus in his Dionysiaca
There are several variations to the story of Narcissus.
For one, with Narcissus’ parentage of a minor river god and nymph, Narcissus himself is a minor god. This makes it a little more likely for why other gods, albeit minor take an interest in him.
Conon was a contemporary of Ovid. Unlike Ovid’s telling of the story, in this one, there is a young man by the name of Ameinias who falls in love with Narcissus. Now, Narcissus had already spurned the love and advances of several other male suitors already. So Ameinias is just merely the latest of who’s been turned down.
What makes Ameinias different from the others is that Narcissus gives him a sword. Ameinias prays to the gods, specifically Nemesis, that Narcissus would get his comeuppance and feel all the pain that he has caused others. The prayer said, Ameinias takes his own life on the steps to Narcissus’ home with the sword given to him.
In answer, when Narcissus walks by a pool of water, he sees his own reflection after stopping to get a drink. Falling in love with his own reflection, Narcissus kills himself as he’s unable to have what he wants, his reflection.
Or, when Narcissus realizes that he is cursed for the humiliation he inflicted on Ameinias, he kills himself. From Narcissus’ blood, a flower springs up, bearing his name.
Sometimes it is the goddess Artemis who answers Ameinias’ call for vengeance.
By Conon’s account, Narcissus is still in the Underworld, gazing at his reflection in the waters of the Styx river.
Edith Hamilton’s Mythology
One story mentioned in this volume is that Zeus had created the narcissus flower in order to help Hades with kidnapping Kore (Persephone), the daughter of Demeter down to the Underworld while she was out with friends gathering flowers and playing. When Kore went to pick the strange, new flower, that is when a chasm leading to the Underworld opened up and Hades carried her away to become his wife.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses has the version of Narcissus’ story that most people are familiar with.
The son of Cephissus, the river god of the Boeotian river and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus was born in Thespiae, Boetia. Liriope was worried about the fate of her baby boy and took him to a blind seer by the name of Tiresias. The seer told Narcissus’ mother that the baby would enjoy a long life so long as: “he didn’t get to know himself.” In some accounts, in response to this prophecy, Liriope removed all mirrors to try and prevent Narcissus from ever catching sight of his reflection.
When Narcissus reached sixteen years of age, he spurned the love and advances of all those, men and women alike, who showed any interest in him. Yes, the ancient Grecian heart-throb leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him without any second thoughts.
Narcissus is out wandering the forests one day with some friends hunting deer when Echo, a mountain nymph or Oread sees and instantly falls in love with him.
What’s not told when starting off with just Narcissus’ side of the story is that Echo had been cursed by Juno, Jupiter’s wife after finding out that Echo was only running distraction to keep her from finding out about her husband’s affairs. Angry, Juno curses Echo that she can only repeat what someone else has said.
With that context in mind, when Narcissus gets separated from his friends and calls out: “Is anyone there?” That Echo can only repeat back what he says with: “Is anyone there?”
This startled Narcissus who then asked: “Come here.”
Because of the curse, Echo could only respond with the same “come here” reply.
When no one came out into the glade he was standing in, Narcissus figured that the other person must be moving away from him. So, he called out again: “This way, we must come together.”
Echo, taking this to heart as confirmation for her love, called back: “We must come together!” As she came running out, ready to throw her arms around Narcissus.
On seeing the nymph running towards him, Narcissus became affronted and pushed Echo away exclaiming: “Hands off! May I die before you enjoy my body!”
Hurt, all Echo could respond with was: “Enjoy my body.” Before she turned to flee back into the woods, rejected and humiliated by Narcissus. By this account, Echo wasted away, her body becoming stone until only her voice remained.
Narcissus would have his own comeuppance coming, for he continued to spurn the advances and loves of others. Including the previously mentioned Ameinias, who in his love-sickness, called out: “O may he love himself alone and fail un that great love.”
Nemesis, the goddess of revenge heard Ameinias’ cure and decided to respond. She cursed Narcissus, attracted him to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection. Not realizing it was merely an image and unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.
Echo, her own love unrequited and unable to do anything, watched on as Narcissus pined away for his reflection.
It is said, that just before he died, Narcissus told his reflection: “Oh darling boy, I loved you in vain, good-bye.”
Echo repeated the words: “Good-bye.” As she was now completely stone and unable to do anything else.
When the nymphs came to gather up Narcissus’ body for funeral, it was gone and in its place was a flower.
Nemesis – It should be noted that she is sometimes seen as an aspect of Aphrodite and not a separate entity.
Another note, Ovid connecting Echo to Narcissus’ myth seems to have been his own invention. However, its now the official one.
Pausanias’s Guide To Greece
In a Greek travelogue, Pausanias retells Narcissus’ story in which he ends up falling in love with a twin sister, not his own reflection. When his sister died, Narcissus would go to a spring and look at his reflection, imagining that it was his own sister that he saw. Narcissus eventually dies, pinning away for the loss of his sister.
Pausanias doesn’t think the story of Narcissus falling in love with is reflection and not being able to recognize it as such is unlikely.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall….
One idea I came across says that Narcissus’ story may originate in an ancient Greek superstition that it is unlucky, possibly even fatal, to see one’s reflection.
Other sources to Narcissus’ story have him drowning in the pool as he tries reaching for his reflection.
That’s a bit heavy and deep to take. Ovid, Parthenius of Nicaea and Conon all have versions of Narcissus’ story where he commits suicide as he’s unable to what he desires, that being his reflection give love back.
After Narcissus’ death, a flower sprang up in the very place that he died. This flower of course bears Narcissus’ name and is a genus of daffodil.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Or Narcissism. Obviously, Narcissus’ story is the basis for a personality disorder in which a person is very self-absorbed, vain and everything is always about them whether that is their own physical appearance or public perception. Psychologist have studied this disorder for years.
A little bit of self-care and self-love is good. We should care about ourselves and want to do good as well as look good. When taken to the extremes and a narcissus is that self-absorbed with themselves that they don’t care about others or make everything about them, then you get a problem.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference about Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. A last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There’s typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer or Hesiod mention him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue their true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to god and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Other gifts that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play. Calliope, as Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophesy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations to how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bringing his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, that he looked back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would than later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld and that of Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay or other supernatural being.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as whey would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death for Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophesies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures of Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their decent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.