“Greek Mythology: Hades & Persephone” by S.M. O’Connor

Hades was the (Greek) God of the Underworld, son of the Kronos (Cronus), King of the Titans, and his sister-wife Rhea, and brother of the gods Zeus and Poseidon and goddesses Hestia, Demeter, and Hera.[1]  Zeus was the last-born of these children.  Kronos and Rhea were children of two primordial gods: Ouranos (Uranus), God of the Sky, and Ge (Gaia), Goddess of the Earth.[2]  When Kronos castrated Uranus, he flung his father’s genitalia into the ocean and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, emerged.[3]  Fearing that one of his children would overthrow him the way he castrated and overthrew his father, Cronus ate Hades, Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera as they were born, but when Rhea gave birth to Zeus on the isle of Crete, she presented Kronos with a stone in swaddling clothes, which he swallowed whole.[4]  Zeus later came back and forced his father to vomit back up his siblings.[5]  These children of Kronos and Rhea were the leaders of the Olympian gods.[6]  With the help of the hundred-handed giants, they overthrew Kronos and imprisoned him with most of the Titans in Tartarus.[7]  Zeus freed a group of his uncles, the Cyclopes, from their imprisonment in the Underworld.[8]  In return, they gave him his thunderbolt.[9]  Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades played lots to determine who would claim dominion over the sky, sea, and underworld.[10]  Zeus replaced their father Kronos as God of the Sky; Poseidon (the Earth-shaker) replaced their uncle, the Titan Oceanus, a primordial water god, as God of the Ocean; and Hades became God of the Underworld.

Hades is not to be confused with Thanatos, the God of Death.  According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Thanatos was the son of Erebus, God of Darkness, and Nyx, Goddess of Night, and the twin of Hypnos, the God of Sleep.[11]  [Erebus and Nyx were children of Chaos, the primordial creator god and father of Gaia (Earth), so, in theory, Thanatos and Hypnos should have been on the same plane as the Titans and more powerful than the Gods of Olympus.]  Thanatos was depicted in art as a youth with wings and an upside down torch.[12]

The realm of Hades was also known as Hades (but to avoid confusion I will refer to it as the Underworld).[13]  Usually, it was depicted as being underground, but sometimes it was depicted as being in the west.[14]  Regardless of its location, the souls of dead humans led a dreary existence as shades.[15]  As Hermes Psychopompos (“Guide of Souls”) the Messenger God conducted the souls of the recently deceased people to the Underworld’s frontier.[16]  Then, the shades had to hand to Charon the ferryman a coin called an obolus to row them across the back waters of the River Styx, which separated the land of the dead from the land of the living.[17]  The ancient Greeks believed a person buried without an obolus between his or her lips would not be able to enter the Underworld and would be doomed to spend eternity wondering the Earth.[18]

The ancient Greeks believed the souls of good and evil people alike went to the Underworld, but that within the Underworld there was a realm reserved for extraordinarily good people, known as the Elysian Fields or Elysium.[19]  Three dead kings passed judgement over the souls of other dead people.  These were Minos, King of Crete; Rhadamanthys, King of Crete; and Æacus, King of Ægina.[20] The ancient Greeks planted asphodel on graves.  According to Homer, most of shades wondered a meadow in the Underworld covered with the plant.[21]  They drank water from the well of Lethe (“Oblivion”) and forgot about their lives.[22]  The souls of people who committed heinous crimes ended up in Tartarus with (most of) the Titans.[23] The souls in Tartarus included the demigod Tantalus (from whose name the English word tantalize derives) who suffered perpetual hunger and thirst with food and drinks eternally falling out of his reach as punishment for having killed his Pelops and served his flesh to the gods; Sisyphus, who had to roll a boulder uphill every day only to see it fall back downhill as punishment for tricking Thanatos and other gods multiple times; and the Danaides, who had to pour water into a bottomless barrel as punishment for murdering their husbands.[24]

Any shade who tried to escape the Underworld fell prey to Cerberus the dreaded three-headed dog of Hades.[25]  A handful of mortals were able to visit the Underworld and escape back into the land of the living.[26]  As one of the Twelve Labors, which he undertook to atone for slaughtering his own family, Hercules fetched Cerberus and in one version also rescued Alcestis.[27]  Orpheus descended into the Underworld to rescue his dead bride, Eurydice.[28]  Odysseus (whom the Romans called Ulysses) sailed to the Underworld to consult Tiresias the seer.[29]  On the order of Athena, the demigod Æneas went to the Underworld to consult the shade of his dead human father Prince Anchises and Psyche and steal unguent made by Persephone,[30] according to the Roman poet Virgil.

The only times Hades was known to have departed the Underworld (once he became lord of it) was to abduct Persephone and to seek treatment for a wound inflicted by Hercules.[31]  Mere mortals were not aware of other times he ascended to the land of the living because the Cyclopes had made him a helmet that made him invisible.[32]  When praying to him, ancient Greeks would strike the ground with rods or their bare hands.[33]

Out of superstitious fear, the ancient Greeks tried to avoid referring to Hades by name.  Consequently, he had many euphemisms and epithets, the best known of which was Plouton (“Giver of Wealth”).  This appellation was a reference to good things mankind could bring out of the Earth, crops, minerals, and spring water.[34]  The Romans, who did not have a death god of their own, simply adopted Hades under the name Pluto.  He was also known as Polydegmon (“Receiver of Many Guests”).[35]

Hades carried off Kore (“the Maiden”), daughter of his sister Demeter (Ceres to the Romans), Goddess of Grain and Agriculture, to his kingdom, the Underworld.[36]  There, she became Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.[37]  She had been playing with her cousins, the daughters of Oceanus, in Sicily, when she stooped over to pick a narcissus, at which point Hades burst out of the Earth in his chariot and carried her off to the Underworld.[38]  Demeter did not know it, bur Zeus had promised their daughter to Hades.[39]  The only witnesses to the abduction of Kore were Helios, God of the Sun, and Hecate, the (Thracian) Goddess of the Moon.[40]  After Hades carried off Persephone and her mother searched for her in vain, Demeter appealed to their brother, Zeus, the King of the Gods, for help.[41]  In her fury, Demeter inflicted drought and sterility on the world.[42]   Zeus, who was Persephone’s father, ruled that because Hades had gotten Persephone to eat a pomegranate seed in the Underworld their union was indissoluble, but Hades would have to release Persephone for eight months out of every year (spring-to-autumn), and she would have to return to him for four months out of every year (winter).[43]  [There was a rule that no-one who ate anything in the Underworld could leave.[44]]  During their annual separation, Demeter would go into mourning and plant life would die. [45]   To a certain extent, the Greco-Roman gods were forces of nature anthropomorphized, and this myth explained springtime as the annual reunion of Demeter and Persephone.

The English name of the Baroque marble sculpture is The Rape of Proserpina, and in more recent times has been called The Abduction of Proserpina, and it was executed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) between 1621 and 1622 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), a prince of the church and a patron of the arts whose maternal uncle was Pope Paul V (lived 1550-1621, reigned 1605-1621).  [Proserpina is the Latin name of Persephone.]  The original is in the Villa Borghese.

In front of the column in the Great Hall of Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, is an 18th Century French ivory sculpture of Pluto and his niece-wife Persephone.[46]  Pridmore pointed out this sculpture is a “perfect [miniature] replica of Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone.”[47]  A museum visitor will not see the sculpture in sufficient detail, but on p. 71 of Colleen Moore’s Doll House, the sculpture of Pluto and Persephone shows the statue in sufficient detail to demonstrate the sculptor who made the miniature replica (as well as Bernini) managed to capture the horror of the moment from the Greek myth when Pluto carried off Kore.

The nymph Minthe was mistress of Hades.[48]  A jealous Persephone trod her under foot like an insect and Hades turned her into the first mint plant.[49]  He also cheated on Persephone with Leuce, a daughter of Oceanus the Titan that the Greeks envisioned as a river that encircled the Earth.[50]  When she died, he turned her into a white poplar tree in the Elysian Fields.[51]  Other plants that were sacred to Hades included the cypress and the narcissus.[52]  Black rams and ewes made for appropriates sacrifices to Hades.[53]

Persephone loved Adonis, but did not cheat on her uncle-husband.[54]   Hecate was her associate.[55]  The cult of Orpheus nevertheless held she was mother of Dionysus.[56]

From 1995 to 1998, Erik Thomson, a Scottish-New Zealander, played Hades in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999), Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), and Young Hercules (1998-1999).  In Disney’s Hercules (1997), James Woods provided the voice of Hades, who plotted against Zeus (whose voice was provided by Rip Torn).  The representation of the character in this film conflated Hades with the Devil.

In Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), Chris Columbus’s adaptation of Rick Riordon’s young adult novel The Lightning Thief, the first book in his series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, young modern-day demigod Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), the son of Zeus (Sean Bean) and enters the Underworld. He intends to rescue his mother, Sally Jackson (Catherine Keener) with the help of his romantic interest Annabeth Chase (Alexandra Daddario), the demigoddess daughter of Athena (played by Greek-American actress Melina Kanakaredes), and his friend and guard Grover Underwood (Brandon T. Jackson), a satyr.  In the Underworld, he meets his uncle Hades (played by Anglo-Irish comedic actor Steve Coogan) and Persephone (played by American actress Rosario Dawson).  Parents watching the film with the intended audience of children will recognize the persona Hades is projecting as that of a rock star.  Once again, Hades is a villain, but he is not the archvillain of the story.  Grover must remain with Persephone in order for Sally to escape.  Persephone helps the heroes and heroine escape.  Anglo-Canadian actor Julian Richings played Charon, the ferryman who takes souls across the River Styx.  German-Canadian actress Stefanie Christina, Baroness von Pfetten, played Demeter.

She was not supposed to literally be the goddess Persephone, but the fact the character played by gorgeous Italian model-actress Monica Bellucci in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) was called Persephone, signaled to viewers with any awareness of classical mythology that her husband was supposed to be, in some sense, Hades. His character did not have a proper name, but was called The Merovingian (played by Franco-Irish actor Lambert Wilson).  [In real life, members of the Merovingian dynasty supplied the Franks and Burgundians with kings, three of whom were saints, from before the reign of Clovis I (who died in 511 A.D.) until Pepin the Short, Mayor of the Palace, ended the reign of Childeric III in 752 A.D. with the permission of Pope Zachary.  The dynasty also supplied the Catholic Church with bishops, abbots, and abbesses.] The two characters were A.I.s (artificial intelligences) that lived inside the Matrix simulation of the (real) world from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries alongside humans living the indulgent lifestyles of super-rich private citizens.  They were two of several characters with names freighted with meaning in The Matrix trilogy.

ENDNOTES

[1] Guus Houtzager, The Complete Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology. Edison, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc. (2003) , p. 118

See also H.S. Versnel, “Greek Myth and Ritual: The Case of Kronos.” Interpretations of Greek Mythology.  Edited by Jan Bremmer. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books (1986), pages 122 and 124

See also Stuart Gordon, The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline Book Publishing (1993), pages 164, 301, and 759

[2] Versnel, p. 122

[3] Versnel, p. 122

[4] Versnel, pages 122 and 123

See also Gordon, pages 164, 165, and 759

[5] Gordon, pages 165 and 549

[6] Versnel, p. 122

[7] Versnel, pages 123 and 124

[8] Versnel,p. 123

[9] Versnel, p. 123

[10] Gordon, p. 549

[11] Houtzager, p. 236

[12] Houtzager, p. 236

[13] Houtzager, p. 118

[14] Houtzager, p. 118

[15] Houtzager, p. 118

[16] Houtzager, p. 118

[17] Houtzager, p. 118

[18] Houtzager, p. 118

[19] Houtzager, p. 119

See also Gordon, p. 301

[20] Houtzager, p. 118

[21] Houtzager, p. 118

[22] Houtzager, pages 118 and 119

[23] Houtzager, p. 119

[24] Houtzager, pages 119 and 232-236

[25] Houtzager, p. 119

[26] Houtzager, p. 119

[27] Houtzager, p. 119

[28] Houtzager, p. 119

[29] Houtzager, p. 119

[30] Houtzager, p. 119

[31] Gordon, p. 301

[32] Houtzager, p. 119

See also Gordon, p. 301

[33] Gordon, p. 301

[34] Gordon, p. 301

[35] Gordon, p. 301

[36] Houtzager, p. 120

See also Gordon, p. 534

[37] Gordon, p. 534

[38] Houtzager, p. 120

See also Gordon, p. 534

[39] Houtzager, p. 120

[40] Gordon, p. 314

[41] Gordon, p. 534

[42] Gordon, p. 534

[43] Houtzager, p. 120

See also Gordon, p. 534

[44] Houtzager, p. 120

[45] Gordon, p. 534

[46] Colleen Moore, Colleen Moore’s Doll House.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (1979), p. 69

[47] Jay Pridmore, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (1997), p. 97

See also Terry Ann R. Neff, Within the Fairy Castle: Colleen Moore’s Doll House at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1997), p. 56

[48] Gordon, p. 301

[49] Gordon, p. 301

[50] Gordon, pages 301 and 506

[51] Gordon, p. 301

[52] Gordon, p. 301

[53] Gordon, p. 301

[54] Gordon, p. 534

[55] Gordon, p. 534

[56] Gordon, p. 534

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