Who is Hades anyway?

untitled Aidoneus, the Unseen. Trophonios, the Nourisher. Polydegmon, the Receiver. Euboulos, the Good Counselor.      Ploutos, the Wealth-Giving.

Such are just a few of Hades’s many epithets, names used in Greek myth more often than the name “Hades” itself.

In keeping with my “Who are the gods anyway?” posts, today I ask the question of Hades, god of the underworld.

A quick scan of google images for Hades reveals something disconcerting to me as it shows a modern misappropriation of Hades to a god dark and horrible, a god who deals death and who is monstrous. If such modern images reflect the larger collective view of Hades, then such does the god dishonor and speaks more to our relationship with Hades and what he is.

So in asking the question “Who is Hades anyway?” I hope to set the record a little straight.

Hades is both the name of the god and the name of a place–the underworld, the place of depth. Depth psychology, the tradition from within I write, honors this depth, this underworld, honors the place of Hades and it is in the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus do we find, within the Greek tradition, the earliest connection between psychology and the depths–the unconscious: “You could not find the ends of the soul though you travelled every way, so deep is its logos” (qtd. in Hillman, Dream and the Underworld, 25). What is psychology? From psyche (soul) and logos (speech of), we can understand psychology as the “soul’s speech” and this “soul” has depth, it goes deep. Hades is the place and the god of these depths and thus an intimate relationship exists between Hades and soul.

The above epithets give an indication as to the nature of this relationship: it is unseen, not readily visible to ego consciousness; these depths are nourishing, they are where the richness of soul is housed and nourished. Hades then, is “the hidden wealth or the riches of the invisible…the giver of nourishment to the soul…Hades is not an absence but a hidden presence…Hades hides invisibly in things” (Hillman, Dream, 28.) Hades is always there, always present, just under the surface, and to perceive those riches, to find and nourish them, we require seeing the world through such depth perspective (further remarks on such below).

But Hades is also named in relation to his brother, Zeus, the all-seeing god on high. Zeus and Hades (aka Zeus Chthonios–the Underworld Zeus) then may be seen as “opposite” sides of the same divinity: whereas Zeus sees all that is visible from on high, Hades, or Zeus Meilichios (the mild and gentle Zeus) sees from below.

Reference to Hades in the myths is scant and the Greeks dedicated only two temples in his honor: one, at Elis, was open only one day a year and only the priest was allowed entrance; the other was a “little more than an entrance to a natural cave” (Downing, Gods in our Midst, 38) where the Eleusinian Mysteries, a ritual centered around the mystery of death and rebirth, were held. These mysteries, rooted in the myth of Demeter and Persephone, take place in the underworld–the place of Hades, of death, where “there is no decay, no progress, no change, of any sort. Because time has nothing to do with the underworld” (Hillman, Dream, 29-30), Hades is not a place “after” life: it “is a psychological realm now…contiguous with life, touching it at all points, just below it, its shadow brother giving life its depth and its psyche” (30), its soul.

rape of persephone

The most famous myth in which Hades plays a part is the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” and Hades’s role in abducting Demeter’s daughter Persephone is popularly referred to as the “rape of Persephone.” While the implication of such is obvious, it serves to cast Hades in a negative light and, as with so much “popular myth,” is a gross misunderstanding of the story. Professor emeritus of Religious Studies and core faculty member of Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Mythological Studies Program Christine Downing questions whether or not intercourse between the two occurred at all “for on every other occasion that I know of when a Greek god had intercourse with a female, divine or human, a child was conceived, and there is not tradition of this couple having a child” (Gods in our Midst 47). Whereas Zeus is known for his multiple “conquests”, Hades only sought Persephone. The “Rape of Persephone” is not about sexual violation: it is about being taken into the underworld, into depths over which, once married, Persephone is named Queen. As a consequence, the Eleusinian Mysteries are possible–or put another way, the Eleusinian Mysteries are made possible only through the abduction of Persephone.

Furthermore, even Hades himself becomes almost a shadow to Persephone and in most depictions of the two together, they are shown eating together or him serving her as seen below.

hades persephone Much as Hades does not rape Persephone, neither is he “abductor even of the dead” (Downing 47). Hades does not cause death; other gods do. Hades, rather, receives the dead, as Hades Polydegmon, he hosts his guests.

Another myth significant to the current discussion is that of Psyche and Eros–god of love, not simply sexual love as we might associate with “erotic,” but the love which embraces longing, the love that leaves reason to the wayside. Eros, says Hillman, “beautifies” (Myth of Analysis 101).

Long story short, Aphrodite is jealous of the devotion to Psyche and sends her a number of trials, the last of which is a journey to Hades where Psyche must obtain a piece of Persephone’s beauty because Aphrodite has lost some of hers. In other words, the beauty Psyche must fetch is not the beauty of Aphrodite, it is an underworld beauty that cannot be perceived with the senses (Aphroditic beauty).

Psyche does as told, and curious, takes a peek inside the box, thereby cast into an “infernal and Stygian sleep.” She must “‘die’ herself in order to experience the reality of this beauty…This would be the ultimate task of soul-making and its beauty…the visible transfigured by the invisibility of Hades’ kingdom…Aphrodite does not have access to this kind of beauty. She can acquire it only through Psyche, for the soul mediates the beauty of the invisible inner world to the world of outer forms” (Myth of Analysis 102).

If, as described in “Who are the gods anyway?” we can understand the gods in terms of highly marked, transcendent experience, what, then, is the Hades experience?

Christine Downing puts its succinctly: “Hades is the name for that in me which pulls me to engagements with my inner self that consciously I long to resist and yet that I find to be the times of real soul-making” (Gods in our Midst 48). Hades is that call, that call to our inner selves, to our depths. Often we, as Downing states, we want to resist that call. In those cases, Hades might, like Persephone, abduct us.

Why? Why do resist? Hillman puts forth three reasons, what he refers to as barriers “that impede grasping the idea of the underworld as the psychic realm” (Dream and the Underworld (68). A chapter of significant length and import to his text, I pull out just a few quotes. The three barriers are:

1) Materialism: “that modality of consciousness which connects all psychic events to material ones, placing the images of the soul in service of physical tangibilities” (69).

2) Oppositionalism: We habitually think in terms of opposites. He employs medical metaphors to amplify his discussion. Western medicine is “allopathic medicine” where healing “means running counter to, reversing the direction of, a disease process by combatting it or by introducing what is missing. The aim is to restore lost balance” (78). Hillman’s archetypal psychology, his depth perspective, is homeopathic “which requires the feeling for likeness…We cannot see the soul until we experience it” (80).

3) Christianity: “Between us and the underworld stands the figure of Christ as he was presented by the early Church Fathers. ‘But it was for this purpose, say they, that Christ descended into hell, that we ourselves might not have to descend thither'” (85). In other words, Christ already defeated death and the underworld.

To see these three at work, while at the same time furthering the discussion of Hades, I turn to one particular case of “mental illness”: depressiondepression. Many of us have probably seen the commercials on television for anti-depressants. These will (hopefully) alter the chemical constitution of the brain to alleviate one of one’s depression. Why? Because depression is defined, in part, in relation to a chemical issue in the brain. Here we have Barrier 1 in that the psychic event of depression is defined materially and Barrier 2 in that the drug prescribed combats the chemical issue and reverse the effects of depression. Barrier 3, well that’s a little bit trickier, but I would not hazard to guess that Christian theology plays an underlying, implicit role in the modern denial of depression. Why?

Well, what is depression? To be de-pressed. Pressed-down. Where? Into the underworld. So since Christ already went there and we don’t have to, we don’t have to.

But what happens when we resist that call to the underworld? When we take those drugs? All you have to do is listen to those commercials for the myriad of side-effects, some of which seem downright malicious. Listening to those reminds me of the old cartoons where you have a leak in a boat and the character plugs it with his finger; then another leak pops upon; he plugs that; then another and another and another until the boat is filled with water.

Medical definitions to such phenomenon are heroic–that is they seek to destroy, or to build a bridge over the underworld. This serves ego and is detrimental to soul. Various depth psychologists have tried to define a central illness of modern humanity. Jung said it was the loss of soul; hades 2Hillman talks about the loss of soul in relation to loss of imagination and depth–the loss of such lead to a loss of meaning. When we are unable to connect with the depths, with soul, life loses meaning. His psychological project then, is to encourage that entrance into the depths, into Hades, where soul is nourished, treasure is found–

Does depression hurt? Of course it does. What does it hurt? It hurts ego. Particularly the heroic ego–that which acts aggressively toward what is unfamiliar, the heroic ego that views the world in terms of oppositionalism, that likes to wage wars on any and all kind of trouble. The heroic ego digs its heels in and will do whatever to protect itself, its supposed autonomy.

“It is a historical truth that our Western tradition has identified has identified ego with consciousness…The ‘relativazation of the ego’…is made possible…if we shift our conception of the base of consciousness from ego to anima…from I to soul” (Hillman, Blue Fire 32).

And consciousness arising from soul looks to myth.

Perhaps looking toward and honoring Hades and heeding his call, is where we should begin.

So how do we begin? A clue might be in the rivers surrounding the land of Hades itself. To wrap this post up, I shall discuss only one: the River Lethe. Her name means “forgetting.” We might think of “remembering” as opposite of “forgetting.” The Greeks did not think so, at least as far as language is concerned. Moreover, the Greek sense of forgetting is not associated with memory. Lethe’s linguistic opposite is aletheia–meaning truth.


One must cross Lethe in order to arrive in Hades. One must forget in order to arrive at truth–that truth, that treasure, found in those depths nourished by Hades. But the English “forget” is instructive here, as its etymology allows us to see “forgetting” in another light: for-, “away, amiss, opposite” + gietan “to grasp.” To forget is to let go.

How do we honor Hades and begin to nourish soul so we might heal?

We let go of our heroic stance.







5 thoughts on “Who is Hades anyway?

  1. Fascinating.

    I thought Hades fed Persephone pomegranate seeds, and she ate five (?) of them, so that she had to stay in the Underworld in winter then rise again in Spring. A shaman told me of the cycle of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter which is the life cycle of the human being, and also a progression we make several times: told to stand where I was on that circle, then move where I would go, I stood on Winter, and without conscious decision knelt, accepting it.

    I feel compelled to defend Christianity, and have thought we have mitigations within it- for example, Dante found the road to Heaven passed through the centre of Hell.


  2. Yes Hades did do that and yes, Persephone does represent the cycle of death and rebirth, but that is Persephone, not Hades. And yes Dante did find heaven through that road, but Dante was not an early Church father, one who laid down the foundations for the development of Christian theology and therefore thinking on the matter. When it comes to theology, Dante, I think is an exception to the rule. Him and men and women like the saints who have experienced the redemptive power of their own sufferings, their own “Hades” experiences.


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