Hades (Greek ᾍδης) is a name more strongly associated with the place, the Underworld for classical Greeks, than the god who ruled it, who was also known as Plouton. The Romans transferred him as the god Pluto, whose name wasn’t associated with their Underworld, which retained the name of Hades among many others such as Dis, from Dis Pater, an older god of the Underworld.
Unfortunately, the name Pluto has in more recent times been transferred to quite unrelated objects, including the fuel pipeline used by Allied forces to support their D-Day landings (‘PipeLine Under The Ocean’), a favourite Walt Disney character, and of course the planet. Clearly post-classical culture has lost the stigma of the past.
Although Hades was the oldest son of the primordial deities Kronos and Rhea, and brother to Poseidon, Zeus, Hera and Ceres, he wasn’t considered to be one of the twelve major Olympian deities. He was one of the new generation of gods who played a leading role in the defeat of the Titanomachy, leading to its replacement by Olympian deities led by his brother Zeus. For that, he was rewarded with the Underworld.
Hades or Pluto hasn’t been popular in European painting, and isn’t strongly associated with his major attribute of the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, Cerberus.
Agostino Carracci’s portrait of Pluto from 1592 shows Cerberus alongside his master, and the god holding the key to his kingdom.
Caravaggio’s slightly later group portrait of Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades) (1597-1600) is also helpful in showing their major attributes: Zeus at the top with his eagle, Poseidon lower right with a two-tined trident (a bident, perhaps?), and Hades with the black-and-white Cerberus.
The major myth in which Hades is central is his abduction of the young daughter of Demeter, Persephone or Proserpine, one of the most brutal of the many abductions and rapes catalogued by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
Hades/Pluto is living in fear of the eruptions of Mount Etna, the active volcano on the island of Sicily. One day, Hades rides out in his chariot to check that all remains well, when Aphrodite sees him and uses her son Eros to make Hades fall in love with Persephone. Hades finds the young girl playing and picking flowers by Lake Pergus, an idyllic spot, whence he abducts her in his chariot. As they pass a pool where the nymph Cyane lives, she tries to stop them, but Hades opens up a cleft in the ground, and drives quickly through it down to his kingdom. Cyane is heartbroken, and melts away in her tears of grief.
Demeter notices that her daughter has gone missing, and starts searching the world for her. She reaches Cyane’s pool, but after her transformation that nymph is unable to tell her what happened. Guessing that her girl had been abducted, Demeter tears her hair and clothing, and harvests are destroyed as a result. The daughters of Achelous, water-nymphs who were playing with Persephone when she was abducted by Hades, are tranformed into the Sirens, half-woman and half-bird, for their inattention to her care.
At last, Arethusa tells Demeter of Hades’ abduction of her daughter. Demeter goes straight to Zeus, Persephone’s father, and pleads the case that the girl should be freed from Hades. Zeus agrees on the condition – which is set by the Fates – that Persephone has not eaten while in the Underworld. Sadly, that proves not to be the case, as she nibbled at a pomegranate.
The outcome is that Persephone must spend part of the year in the Underworld with Hades as her husband, during which time the land above undergoes barren winter. Then she returns to spend the fertile months with her mother Demeter.
This story has been popular among artists since classical times. In a small royal tomb found at Vergina in Macedonia, there is a superb wall-painting of Hades Abducting Persephone which dates from 340 BCE. The view above shows the whole of Hades’ chariot, with its horses, while the detail below shows Persephone being carried by Hades within, with sophisticated modelling of the heads and fabrics.
Niccolò dell’Abbate’s The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570) gives a fine account of Ovid’s story using multiplex narrative. Under ink-black clouds associated with Hades, the god is seen carrying Persephone up a hill. At the far right, he is about to drive his chariot into a huge cavern, which will take them down into the Underworld.
In the foreground, Cyane is by her pool, and about to literally dissolve into tears in its water. Six other nymphs, the daughters of Achelous, are also protesting at the girl’s abduction.
Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Proserpina (c 1631) is probably the earliest masterpiece to show this story, although it deviates significantly from Ovid’s version. Hades is trying to drive his chariot away, with Persephone inside it. She is putting up fierce resistance, though, and trying to fend him off.
Hanging on to the hem of Persephone’s floral dress is a woman who should perhaps be her mother Demeter, but bears the crescent moon normally associated with Artemis. Hades’ chariot is being drawn by two black horses, through an ethereal almost fluid carpet of flowers. The horses and chariot are about to disappear into a black cleft in the earth, and make their descent to the Underworld.
Peter Paul Rubens also shows a composite story, in his superb The Rape of Proserpina (1636-38). Hades’ face looks the part, his eyes bulging and staring at Athena, who is trying to stop the girl from being abducted. Below the chariot, the basketful of flowers which Persephone had been picking is scattered on the ground.
Rubens shows irresistable movement to the right, as Hades struggles to lift the girl into his chariot. Two winged Cupids are preparing to drive the black horses on, once the couple are secured inside.
Otherwise, Hades makes only occasional appearances when others visit his kingdom. Among those are Orpheus in search of his bride Eurydice.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Orpheus in the Underworld from 1594 shows Orpheus walking and holding his lyre, to the left of centre. He is approaching Hades and Persephone, who sit at the far left as king and queen of the Underworld.
For both the Greeks and Romans, Hades/Pluto was a god to be feared, associated with their dread of the afterlife. The Romans in particular coined a great many alternative names which they used to avoid invoking the god himself.