Hades gets a bad rap. It always comes home this time of year when the story of "The Rape of Persephone" starts getting tossed around as it's a seasonal favorite. It's really a very cool story, but the way it's often told nowadays is simply unfair to Hades. And worse, these short-sighted retellings often gloss over the cultural and spiritual insights hidden in plain sight in this really fascinating story.
First, let me begin by explaining just who Hades is. To do this, I will begin by explaining who he is not: He is not the Greek equivalent of Satan. He does not rule over the Greek equivalent of Hell. The ancient Greeks and modern Hellenic Pantheists do not associate death with evil the way many modern Western folks do. There was evil, yes. And there was death, yes. But death was a thing that happened to everybody. It could not be avoided no matter how good or how evil you were or how many good or evil things happened to you. Therefore the guy in charge of handling the dead had to be as indiscriminate as death was/is and that's where Hades comes in.
The Greek Underworld is the Kingdom of Hades. It is where the dead people go and the job of Hades is to manage it. He doesn't have this job because he likes dead people or because he's cruel and likes to watch suffering (though I can't definitively say that he doesn't). He has this job because after the Olympian Gods led be Zeus defeated the Titans in the Titanomachy, the three brothers drew lots to split up the booty. That booty was the three realms of the Sky, the Sea and the Underworld. I can't say whether Hades drew the shortest or the longest straw, but he got the job of King of the Underworld by chance.
It is true that the ancients approached him with caution. They didn't tend to swear oaths in his name and when he came up they tended to call him by nicknames (Like "The Wealthy One" and "Zeus underground" loosely translated) so as not to call his attention to them. Why not? Nobody is in a hurry to meet death. But wait. Hades isn't death. (That would be Thanatos) Hades doesn't do any of the actual killing, and he doesn't order it either. (That would be the Fates.) And while he does preside over the eternal punishment of the occasional wrongdoer, he isn't the judge either (The judges are Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aiakos, though some people piss off the Gods so thoroughly they go straight to Tartarus and do not pass go.)
Poor Hades, it's almost like he's the office manager who has to deal with all the clients who blame him for a bureaucracy that was in place before he took the job. Oh my, he's like the President of the United States! Except that he didn't claw his way into the position, it was dropped into his lap.
By most accounts, Hades is pretty chill. One of his nicknames is "the hospitaler" as his job, really, is to provide hospitality to the dead. And it seems he's pretty good at it. He doesn't seem to have a great temper like his brothers Poseidon and Zeus and is only recorded as being very angry a few times, when Pirithous tried to kidnap Persephone (He is still bound to a chair to this day) and occasionally when people interfere with death and burial practices. In fact, in many cases he seems rather a softy, occasionally accepting deals for one soul or the other and even releasing souls on occasion (Like the wife of Orpheus.) although this never really works out well.
So here you have this guy who is basically working the suck job of the Universe, living in dark and surrounded by whiners (Will you just drink the Lethe and shut up already.) and he decides that he'd like a woman's touch to brighten the place up. (I won't get into reports that he may or may not have already had a mistress named Minthe. Maybe he needed someone from a royal bloodline.)
So he starts looking around for a wife and decides on Persephone. And then, AND THEN ladies and gentleman, he asks Zeus if it's okay. In other words, he did what people did back then. He found a girl, he asked her dad. Maybe Zeus isn't her dad(most reports say he is), I don't know, but Zeus is her King and that's just as good. Zeus says go for it and TELLS HIM that he's going to have to grab her on the sly because Demeter is one of those helicopter moms so they get Grandma Gaia in on the act and she totally, willingly, cheerfully helps them get the girl alone so Hades can grab her and take her home with him.
You see, this all happened in a world where men took wives as booty after a battle and that was totally normal and okay. Over in the Celtic world not far away, men would steal a father's cattle and then ransom them back for the daughter. And were these women generally consulted on the matter? No they weren't. That was normal.
But let me point out right now something that totally gets on my nerves, the title of this story: The Rape of Persephone. Was Persephone raped? I don't know. I presume Hades wanted some consummation at some point and I can't say whether she was down with it or not. In those days would it even have been considered rape if she wasn't after her father/King had agreed to the marriage? I don't know. Not at all likely. But the story isn't about what he did with her when he got her back home. The story is about the abduction. What she was, was RAPT. The right word here is rapt not raped. The Rapture of Persephone would be much more appropriate I know that modern language associates rapture with joy and upward movement, but I'm pretty sure that's Christian influence. Rapture is about transportation to another plane. Doesn't have to be up in heaven and happy.
So far, all of Hades actions with regard to Persephone have really been above-board and not the worst thing that could have happened to her. Maybe he shouldn't have taken Zeus's advice and spirited her away, but that wasn't unheard of. The unusual thing that happened was Demeter's reaction. Now I'm not talking about at first when she didn't know where Persephone was, that was perfectly normal. What was unusual was her refusal to accept the match, even after several other Gods encouraged her to do so, pointing out that Persephone could've done worse than the Ruler of Many. It would have been nice if someone had given her a head's up early on, but that wasn't Hades' responsibility at that point because he was busy eloping and Hades' power is limited anyway. He is bound to his realm. It was Zeus's responsibility to deal with Demeter but he had skipped town, not that I want to point any fingers.
Would Demeter have declined the marriage offer if given a choice? Probably. Not because Hades was a bad match, but because Demeter is an Olympian Goddess and Hades is the ruler of the Underworld. This meant that as long as Persephone lived with Hades, Demeter could not see her. At all. She couldn't visit unless a psychopomp like Hecate or Hermes escorted her and then only with permission from the Kings. Only very few Gods have free passage back and forth between the realms. Mother and daughter would never have seen each other again.
But Demeter's plight was not unusual in the ancient world. Girls were given away by their fathers to older men who took them far away and sometimes their mothers never saw them again. Persephone's story really needs to be looked at from the context of the culture it came from. Many mothers would lose their daughters similarly and they would lament. But they weren't Demeter and their lamentations didn't result in famine.
As for Persephone, she was also unhappy because like millions of girls who came before and after her, she was taken away from familiar people and surroundings to live with a strange older man in a strange place. This whole story is like an allegory against an institution that hangs on in many places today. We in the West are so spoiled that we don't even realize that our outrage is a luxury. But like millions of women before and after her, she would adjust and maybe even learn to love her new mate and her life and (maybe not like any other woman) would learn to embrace her impressive position as Hostess of Many. Queen of the Underworld. That's a pretty sweet gig.
And by all accounts she did just that. Hades cheated on her a couple of times (at the most two from what I can tell) and she turned them into plants and she had a bunch of kids with people other than Hades, but that sounds like a normal Divine relationship to me. Maybe even healthier than Zeus and Hera's and Aphrodite's and Hephaestus (I hope I don't get struck by lightening now that I've said that.)
But what about the Pomegranate? Hades gave it to her before she returned to Demeter fearing that her mother wouldn't let his lawful wife return to him. But did she know it would mean she had to come back? And if she did, did he force it on her? How do you force someone to eat? She lied about eating it in many versions, perhaps she lied about being forced to eat it. Perhaps she knew and wanted to return to her husband. Or perhaps she was young and innocent and had no idea what eating in the Underworld meant. The pomegranate is the key to the question of whether Persephone had fallen in love with Hades at that point or not (this was quite some time after the abduction). And we'll never know.
Of course I am talking about Gods like some gossipy housewife as if they were real people. The Gods don't need my defense and I know that. But I think the stories might. We do them a disservice by feminizing them, giving Persephone more power, turning Hades into some evil villain or even a secrete seductive charmer or ignoring the rules about crossing the boundaries and who can and can't do it. These stories were told in the context of the culture they existed in in order to get a point across. That's important because if we try to ignore or remove the context from them, the point may get lost as well. There is truth in these myths, provided you look for it. But you'll find considerably less if your vision is blurred by modern Western prejudice.
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