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Was Hades Really a Villain?

comic-style illustration of hades and cerebus

Modern pop culture tends to depict the mythological god Hades as a natural villain—but is that representation really in line with his ancient roots? In the end, the villainizing of Hades says more about the evolution of human concepts regarding death and the afterlife than anything else.

Hades in Mythology

In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of death and the underworld, one of three boys born to the Titans Cronus and Rhea. He and his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, lead a successful rebellion against the Titans and proceed to divide up the spoils of victory—in this case, the universe. Homer’s Iliad depicts the three siblings drawing lots to see who will receive what as they split the cosmos between them:

“We were three brothers whom Rhea bore to Cronos—Zeus, myself, and Hades who rules the world below. Heaven and earth were divided into three parts, and each of us was to have an equal share. When we cast lots, it fell to me to have my dwelling in the sea for evermore; Hades took the darkness of the realms under the earth, while air and sky and clouds were the portion that fell to Zeus; but earth, and great Olympus are the common property of all.”

Unlike his siblings, Hades rarely appears in the more melodramatic myths—stories with themes of sex, chaos, and manipulation that might even make a modern audience blush. In fact, the most well-know myth about him concerns the abduction of his wife, Persephone—a tale that explains why she has to split her time between the world (where she lives with her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest) and the underworld. His other most noteworthy appearance takes place in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which he actually breaks his own rules for once and offers the lovers a chance to leave the underworld—provided Orpheus does not look back until both he and his lover have left the realm of the dead.

The Greek Underworld

Although the Christian idea of heaven and hell (and purgatory, for Catholics) still largely dominates Christian culture in the modern world, the ancient Greeks had a very different concept of the afterlife. In Who’s Who in Classical MythologyMichael Grant and John Hazel describe the Greek afterlife as a sort of monotonous eternity, with Hades serving as a strict (but not exactly cruel) keeper.

“[Hades’s] house is therefore in no sense a ‘hell’…The dead were regarded as mere shadows of their living selves, who lacked blood and consciousness, and dwelt in the Underworld without escape forever, generally pursuing the activities of their former life in a wan, mechanical fashion.”

Other texts, such as the Odyssey, suggest that there are different “sections” of the afterlife where souls are sent based on their deeds in life. This includes Tartarus, the eternal abyss of torment and suffering where the wicked are forced to suffer for their misdeeds; Asphodel Meadows, a listless and sunless place where ordinary souls are left to a mediocre existence; and Elysium, the beautiful and refreshing meadow where the gods’ most favored get to enjoy an eternity of lush green fields and bubbling brooks (in some variations, this space is entirely separate from Hades’s realm altogether).

In ancient Greek myths and literature, it’s important to note that Hades is not presented as a “devil-like” figure. “Though the Greeks and Romans conceived of Hades as a grim, cold deity, ruthlessly applying the rules of his kingdom to all without discrimination, they never thought of him as evil, Satanic, or unjust,” write Grant and Hazel. In fact, this representation puts Hades in a good light compared with other gods, who are mostly depicted as mercurial beings capable of both great kindness and great cruelty (and ultimately more interested in their own desires and amusements than justice).

Hades in Pop Culture

However, in today’s world, we still tend to present Hades as an unlikeable villain, which is largely tied to our (often Western or Christian) concept of death and the underworld. The idea of the “underworld” has become connected to the Christian concept of hell, which then makes Hades appear as a devil of sorts. But in Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the entire underworld—that is to say, what modern people think of as both heaven and hell (or to be more accurate, neither heaven nor hell, for most souls). Depicting him as a demonic figure is a false comparison that’s become fairly common in popular culture. After all, many of us fear death, so villainizing a familiar literary figure who symbolizes it makes sense.

The most well-known version of Hades is probably found in Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules, which unapologetically casts the god of the underworld as a snarky, power-hungry villain who seeks dominion over the entire universe. The movie—which is only loosely based on Greek mythology—suggests that Hades isn’t happy with his allotment of the underworld and wants to steal his brothers’ more appealing portions. Here, the dignity of the Greek Hades is entirely erased; instead, he’s cast very much in the role of a comic villain (think ‘90s animated movies).

Other depictions of Hades may be less overtly wicked, but he is still presented in a clearly antagonistic light. For instance, the 2019 Broadway musical Hadestown portrays the god of the underworld as a more complex character, a robber-baron-esque capitalist who ruthlessly manipulates his underlings. However, it is revealed that he has lost his way after losing his one true love. Still, he ultimately remains the show’s antagonist. This is a common theme in modern portrayals of Hades: Even those that mold him into a well-rounded character still cast him as an antagonist or villain—a rather reductive view that overlooks the very different concept of death and the afterlife from which his character originated.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »