In Greek mythology, Hades and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon defeated the Titans and claimed rulership over the universe ruling the underworld, sky, and sea, respectively. Because of his association with the underworld, Hades is often interpreted as a grim figure.
Hades was also called Pluto (from Greek Πλούτων Ploutōn), and by this name known as "the unseen one", or "the rich one". In Roman mythology, Hades/Pluto was called Dis Pater and Orcus. The corresponding Etruscan god was Aita. The symbols associated with him are The Helm of Darkness and the three-headed dog, Cerberus.
There were several sections of Hades, including the Elysian Fields (contrast the Christian Paradise or Heaven), and Tartarus, (compare the Christian Hell). Greek mythographers were not perfectly consistent about the geography of the afterlife. A contrasting myth of the afterlife concerns the Garden of the Hesperides, often identified with the Isles of the Blessed, where the blessed heroes may dwell.
In Roman mythology, the entrance to the underworld located at Avernus, a crater near Cumae, was the route Aeneas used to descend to the Underworld. By synecdoche, "Avernus" could be substituted for the underworld as a whole. The Inferi Dii were the Roman gods of the underworld.
The deceased entered the underworld by crossing the Acheron, ferried across by Charon (kair'-on), who charged an obolus, a small coin for passage, placed under the tongue of the deceased by pious relatives. Paupers and the friendless gathered for a hundred years on the near shore. Greeks offered propitiatory libations to prevent the deceased from returning to the upper world to "haunt" those who had not given them a proper burial. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog defeated by Heracles (Roman Hercules). Passing beyond Cerberus, the shades of the departed entered the land of the dead to be judged.
Since Hades was the ruler of the Underworld, it makes sense to note one of the key features of this region – its myriad rivers. These rivers had names and symbolic meanings: the five rivers of Hades are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (forgetfulness), and Styx (hate). See also Eridanos. Styx forms the boundary between the upper and lower worlds.
The first region of Hades comprises the Fields of Asphodel, described in Odyssey xi, where the shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats. Only libations of blood offered to them in the world of the living can reawaken in them for a time the sensations of humanity.
Beyond lay Erebus, which could be taken for a euphonym of Hades, whose own name was dread. There were two pools, that of Lethe, where the common souls flocked to erase all memory, and the pool of Mnemosyne ("memory"), where the initiates of the Mysteries drank instead. In the forecourt of the palace of Hades and Persephone sit the three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus. There at the trivium#latin sacred to Hecate, where three roads meets, souls are judged, returned to the Fields of Asphodel if they are neither virtuous nor evil, sent by the road to Tartarus if they are impious or evil, or sent to Elysium (Islands of the Blessed) with the "blameless" heroes.
In the Sibylline oracles, a curious hodgepodge of Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian elements, Hades again appears as the abode of the dead, and by way of folk etymology, it even derives Hades from the name Adam (the first man), saying it is because he was the first to enter there.
The ancient Christian Churches hold that a final universal judgement will be pronounced on all human beings when soul and body are reunited in the resurrection of the dead.
Some other denominations, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, hold that, until the resurrection, the dead simply cease to exist or, if they exist at all, do so in a state of unconsciousness (see annihilationism).
Upon reaching adulthood, Zeus managed to force his father to disgorge his siblings. After their release the six younger gods, along with allies they managed to gather, challenged the elder gods for power in the Titanomachy, a divine war. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades received weapons from the three Cyclopes to help in the war: Zeus the thunderbolt, Hades the Helm of Darkness, and Poseidon the trident. The night before the first battle, Hades put on his helmet and, being invisible, slipped over to the Titans' camp and destroyed their weapons. The war lasted for ten years and ended with the victory of the younger gods. Following their victory, according to a single famous passage in the Iliad (xv.187–93), Hades and his two brothers, Poseidon and Zeus, drew lots for realms to rule. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the seas, and Hades received the underworld, the unseen realm to which the dead go upon leaving the world as well as any and all things beneath the earth.
Hades obtained his eventual consort and queen, Persephone, through trickery, a story that connected the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries with the Olympian pantheon. Helios told the grieving Demeter that Hades was not unworthy as a consort for Persephone:
"Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells."
Despite modern connotations of death as evil, Hades was actually more altruistically inclined in mythology. Hades was often portrayed as passive rather than evil; his role was often maintaining relative balance.
Hades ruled the dead, assisted by others over whom he had complete authority. He strictly forbade his subjects to leave his domain and would become quite enraged when anyone tried to leave, or if someone tried to steal the souls from his realm. His wrath was equally terrible for anyone who tried to cheat death or otherwise crossed him, as Sisyphus and Pirithous found out to their sorrow.
Besides Heracles, the only other living people who ventured to the Underworld were all heroes: Odysseus, Aeneas (accompanied by the Sibyl), Orpheus, Theseus, Pirithous (see note 18), and Psyche. None of them was especially pleased with what they witnessed in the realm of the dead. In particular, the Greek war hero Achilles, whom Odysseus met in Hades (although some believe that Achilles dwells in the Isles of the Blessed), said:
Hades, god of the dead, was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him, they were reticent to swear oaths in his name, and averted their faces when sacrificing to him. To many, simply to say the word "Hades" was frightening. So, euphemisms were pressed into use. Since precious minerals come from under the earth (i.e., the "underworld" ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well, and was referred to as Πλούτων (Plouton, related to the word for "wealth"), hence the Roman name Pluto. Sophocles explained referring to Hades as "the rich one" with these words: "the gloomy Hades enriches himself with our sighs and our tears." In addition, he was called Clymenus ("notorious"), Eubuleus ("well-guessing"), and Polydegmon ("who receives many"), all of them euphemisms for a name it was unsafe to pronounce, which evolved into epithets.
Although he was an Olympian, he spent most of the time in his dark realm. Formidable in battle, he proved his ferocity in the famous Titanomachy, the battle of the Olympians versus the Titans, which established the rule of Zeus.
Because of his dark and morbid personality, he was not especially liked by either the gods or the mortals. Feared and loathed, Hades embodied the inexorable finality of death: "Why do we loathe Hades more than any god, if not because he is so adamantine and unyielding?" The rhetorical question is Agamemnon's (Iliad ix). He was not, however, an evil god, for although he was stern, cruel, and unpitying, he was still just. Hades ruled the Underworld and therefore most often associated with death and was feared by men, but he was not Death itself — the actual embodiments of Death were Thanatos (violent death) and Hypnos (peaceful or natural death).
When the Greeks propitiated Hades, they banged their hands on the ground to be sure he would hear them. Black animals, such as sheep, were sacrificed to him, and the very vehemence of the rejection of human sacrifice expressed in myth suggests an unspoken memory of some distant past. The blood from all chthonic sacrifices including those to propitiate Hades dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person who offered the sacrifice had to avert his face. Every hundred years festivals were held in his honor, called the Secular Games.
Hades' weapon was a two-pronged fork, which he used to shatter anything that was in his way or not to his liking, much as Poseidon did with his trident. This ensign of his power was a staff with which he drove the shades of the dead into the lower world.
His identifying possessions included a famed helmet of darkness, given to him by the Cyclopes, which made anyone who wore it invisible. Hades was known to sometimes loan his helmet of invisibility to both gods and men (such as Perseus). His dark chariot, drawn by four coal-black horses, always made for a fearsome and impressive sight. His other ordinary attributes were the Narcissus and Cypress plants, the Key of Hades and Cerberus, the three-headed dog. He sat on an ebony throne.
In the Greek version of an obscure Judaeo-Christian work known as 3 Baruch (never considered canonical by any known group), Hades is said to be a dark, serpent-like monster or dragon who drinks a cubit of water from the sea every day, and is 200 plethra (20,200 English feet, or nearly four miles) in length.
"But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark- robed Demeter."
Demeter questioned Persephone on her return to light and air:
"…but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods.
Thus every year Hades fights his way back to the land of the living with Persephone in his chariot. Famine (autumn and winter) occurs during the months that Persephone is gone and Demeter grieves in her absence.