If there is such a place as Hell – which I seriously doubt – and if you get the opportunity, trip and holiday of a lifetime, all expenses paid, and arrive, voluntarily or involuntarily for your eternal vacation to soak up the warmth, well maybe after a while you get tired of it all, a bit burned out as it were. After all there’s no place like home. Well you’ll find it’s a one-way trip – there’s no return ticket. That’s in there here and now and, of course, if you really believe there is such a geographical warm spot in the first place.
To the ancient Greeks, the equivalent was Hades, run by an Olympian god, one of the original half-dozen and one of the original trilogy of males, whose abode is named after him. So, Hades is run by Hades. Hades was hell, heaven and somewhere in-between all in the same general location. The hell part was called Tartarus; the heaven part was the Elysian Fields or Elysium, and in-between was, well I’m not sure it had a name. The upshot was, as with the Christian Hell, once there, there was no escape, and just to make sure, the only exit (or entrance) was guarded by the three-headed watchdog, Cerberus. However, several individuals did make the great escape. Some were those involuntarily placed there and rescued; others voluntarily went down there on some special mission. Still others appealed to the gods for assistance. These are their stories.
INVOLUNTARY RESIDENTS OF HADES
*Persephone was kidnapped by Hades (Pluto to the Romans) to be his wife as promised to him by his brother Zeus (Jupiter), only they forget to tell not only her, but her mom, the goddess Demeter, and by the gods was she ever pissed. Now Demeter (Ceres to the Romans) was the goddess of agriculture. In a fit of temper, Demeter refused to let the earth be fruitful, and thus the lands turned barren and there was hardship and starvation all about. With people starving and all, Zeus had to do something, and thus a compromise was reached. Persephone had to spend some time in and with Hades, not least because she munched on some goodies while underground, a taboo which makes you the property of Hades. On the other hand, justice mandated that Persephone spend some time up topside with mum too. And so it came to pass that Persephone spent roughly four (winter) months with Hades; and roughly eight (spring, summer, autumn) months with Demeter. While Persephone was with Hades, Demeter was unhappy and nothing grew – winter. The reverse was also true – spring, summer and autumn. Thus, the bounty, or lack of same, of the seasons, is now explained. Persephone escapes from Hades for a period each year, but has to return.
*Sisyphus was a crafty rogue and real all around SOB. He once fooled Zeus, not really the best of ideas (Zeus has no sense of humor at all), so Zeus sends the god of death, Thanatos, to stake a claim to him and take him down below. But Sisyphus outsmarts death and turns the tables by shackling Thanatos. With death in chains, no mortal can die, so finally Ares has to rescue Thanatos and restore natural order to the world. Thanatos, like all good Mounties, or bounty hunters, finally catches up with and corners Sisyphus, as Sisyphus knew he would. But, Mr. Crafty, prior to his demise, made sure that none of the proper death and funeral rites, etc. would be carried out. So, once in Hades, Sisyphus pleads to be allowed to return to the land of the living for three days to carry out these rituals properly and set things to rights. This was granted, but the quick-witted Sisyphus had absolutely no intention of carrying out his part of the bargain and returning after three days to Hades. Sisyphus eventually lived to a ripe old age, but, being mortal, had to eventually die all over again. Now having pissed off both Zeus and the ruler of Hades, Hades, it was show no mercy time to Sisyphus. So off to that part of Hades reserved for really nasty SOBs (Tartarus), Sisyphus was duly sent. As his eternal punishment for being naughty, he was required to roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it always slip at the top and tumble back down again and so Sisyphus had to do it all over again, and again, and again, and again for all eternity. That’ll teach you not to fool with and trick the gods!
VOLUNTARY MISSIONS TO HADES
*Theseus and Pirithous try to rescue Persephone after her kidnapping by Hades. Pirithous in fact is hot-to-trot for Persephone. Hades is aware of this plot, and so, via a bit of trickery, has his two guests sit down in chairs loaded with snake-superglue, or snake-handcuffed to where they sat. Fortunately, Hercules came to their rescue – fortunately at least for Theseus who was freed from his snake-bonds. Alas, even Hercules couldn’t free Pirithous and so he had to remain behind. The moral is you can’t win them all.
*Hercules twelfth and final labor was to kidnap Cerberus, the hellish three-headed guard dog of Hades, whose task was making sure nobody assigned to the underworld left again. Cerberus was one of numerous monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna, and thus kin to the Hydra, Chimera and others equally as hideous. Fortunately Hercules was able to do this without harming the animal or using any sort of weapon. Once accomplished, Hercules returned Cerberus to his rightful dog kennel down under.
*Alcestis was the daughter of King Pelias of Tessaly. She willingly sacrificed her life for her husband, King Admetus of Pherae, who failed to do a year of penance and perform the necessary sacrifice to the goddess Artemis (Diana) and thus was put on death row by the goddess. The wife of Hades, Persephone, was so moved by this selfless act that she allowed Alcestis to return to the land of the living. In an alternative version, Hercules rescues Alcestis and brings her back from the underworld.
*Orpheus was the son of the river god Oeagrus and the Muse, Calliope. With a Muse for a parent, it’s no surprise that Orpheus was a highly skilled musician. His wife, Eurydice, while running away from an abductor, was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus tries to rescue Eurydice by descending into Hades and via his music that sooths the savage beast, so charmed the powers-that-be that they agreed to release her. But, and there’s always a but, under no condition could he look back at his wife following him until such time as he was safely back in the land of the living, or else all would be lost and there will be no second chance. Orpheus nearly succeeded but he imitates Lot’s wife and looks back at the last second before leaving Hades – oops – and all was lost. Eurydice dies a second time and is returned to Hades.
*Odysseus, of „The Odyssey” fame, descends down under to consult the blind seer Tiresias. Odysseus made his way to the underworld on the advice of the enchantress Circe, as part of his epic ten year journey from Troy to his home in Ithaca to have a talk with Tiresias the prophet. Tiresias was allowed to continue with his prophecies even after he died and became an ordinary 'shade’ in Hades. A special offering of sheep’s blood gained Odyessus access to the 'shades’, many of which whom he had known when they were alive. He got his advice from Tiresias and continued on his journey.
*Aeneas also descents to Hades to consult with his father’s 'shade’. Aeneas was the demigod son of the Trojan Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite (Venus). He was veteran and rare survivor of the Trojan War as he fought on the side of Troy. He had a special destiny to found a new realm or state in Italy – a newer and better version of Troy itself. He needed his now departed father’s advice and so without any muss or fuss did the journey below and chin-wagged with dad’s 'shade’. Eventually that New Troy would become Rome, but that was still centuries away. Way before that Aeneas moved to the region of Latium, married the king’s daughter (of course) and founded the city of Lavinium, names after his wife. Aeneas is one of the major heroes to the Romans.
*Psyche was the beautiful daughter of the king of Sicily. In fact she was too beautiful, outshining even the goddess of love herself, Aphrodite (Venus). Worshipers of Aphrodite start deserting their attendance and worship in her temple. This of course pisses Aphrodite off, and as they say in royal circles, she was not amused. So she orders her son Eros (Cupid) to make Psyche fall in love with Mr. Horrible. Alas, Plan-A backfires when Eros falls in love with Psyche himself. This now really pisses off Aphrodite! To make a very long story short, Plan-B involves Aphrodite kidnapping Psyche and assigning her several Mission: Impossible tasks. But with the help from some allies, Psyche accomplishes all, though the last was a toughie. Her final task was to go to Hades to seize unguent (beauty salve) prepared by Persephone and fill-her-up it in a box given to her. With some coins to pay the ferryman (Charon) and several sweet cakes to feed the three-headed guard dog (Cerberus) and forewarned against some traps Aphrodite had set for her, it was Mission: Accomplished. Psyche eventually married Eros after a rather long, involved and unconventional courtship, and Zeus finally settled the dispute regarding the romance in favor of the happy couple, though to ensure approval from all and sundry – Eros and Psyche apart – he turned Psyche into a goddess and gave her a home on Olympus.
*Hera (Juno to the Romans), otherwise known as Mrs. Zeus, had a thing about her husband’s constant extramarital or illicit flings. One such fling Zeus had was with Semele. Out of that relationship was born Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans). Dionysus was the god of wine, viticulture and generally good times all around. So, as was the case with Hercules, Dionysus was already down strike one in Hera’s umpiring. Of course Dionysus, as a full-fledged bona-fide god, was Hera’s equal and so the queen of the gods, Hera, had to take her vengeance out on someone else and not a fellow deity. Now Dionysus was raised by Semele’s sister, Ino, wife to the king of Thebes. Ino was well known for her PR on her son’s behalf, spreading his cult far and wide. That made Ino, and by association her hubby, Hera’s enemies. But rather than strike herself, Hera went down to Hades (there’s no difficulty in a deity doing down below and up again without any bother at all) to get the trio of Furies to carry out her vengeance. One of the Furies, Tisiphone carried out Hera’s bidding and drove the pair insane. The king killed one of his sons; Ino and another of her children took a dive off a very high cliff – splash. But the god of the sea, Poseidon (Neptune), saved them and turned them into immortal sea deities.
*What became of Semele? With Hera around, nothing good that’s for sure. Zeus kills Semele when ever jealous Hera deceives Semele into demanding that Zeus reveal himself to her in his true form. Zeus had no choice but to comply and an awestruck Semele was consumed by his lightning. Zeus though rescued his unborn infant, Dionysus, carrying the child to term in his own thigh. Semele, of course now known as the late Semele, is in Hades. Dionysus, now an adult, is not about to let mom stay down there. So off to the rescue he goes. The actual journey and back is filled with all manner of subplots that need not concern us here. The upshot was that Semele was removed from Hades and taken up to live on Olympus as a goddess, her named changed to Thyone, now immortalized as the name of one of the planet Jupiter’s (Zeus’s) moons.
OTHER GREAT ESCAPES
*Adonis was the product of an incest-related union between a father (the king of Cyprus) and his daughter Myrrah. The relationship was the result of trickery on the part of the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus), because Myrrah didn’t worship her. Myrrah, while pregnant, gets turned into a myrtle tree, and Adonis was 'born’ when the tree split open. Aphrodite desired the infant for her own self, and so nicked off with the kid, hid him in a chest and entrusted the wife of Hades, Persephone, to look after him briefly for safekeeping. Of course Persephone also falls for the kid and refused to give it back. The two goddesses had Zeus arbitrate the matter. Zeus settled the matter by allowing Adonis four months to himself; four months to be spent with Persephone in Hades and four months with Aphrodite. Adonis chose to spend his personal four months with the goddess of love (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), so in an almost retelling of the original Hades / Persephone / Demeter story, the eight months Adonis spends with Aphrodite, the Earth blooms. The four months with Persephone in Hades is then wintertime.
*The first Greek to die in the Trojan War was Protesilaos who had just been newly married when the call to duty came. His newlywed wife, Laodameia, begged the gods to let him leave Hades and return to earth for a few hours to be with her again. This was granted. After that reunion and her husband’s return to the underworld, she kills herself so as to be forever with him in Hades.
The Dioscuri, the „Sons of Zeus” or the „Heavenly Twins” are better known as Castor and Polydeuces (who is even better known a Pollux and for you astronomers both as the constellation Gemini). Despite the „Sons of Zeus” tag, Pollux was the son of Zeus and Leda, and Castor the son of Leda and her husband, the King of Sparta. However they were twins, and brothers to Helen (of Troy), daughter of Zeus and Leda. When Castor was fatally wounded, Pollux asked Zeus to let him die alongside his beloved brother. Zeus gave him a choice – Castor goes to Hades and Pollux is made an immortal and goes to Olympus, or both share the immortality and both divide the time, alternative days, between Hades and Olympus. Pollux picks the latter so both go to and leave Hades on a regular basis.[ff id=”2″]