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Friday, February 12, 2010

The many faces Hades

Ever since I was eleven years old I've loved greek mythology. One of the earliest books I actually bothered to read by myself was a novelization of a radio show where an old man read slightly edited versions of the more famous greek myths to his grandchildren.

I found the stories so riveting that I made my parents buy me reference books about the myths and then I read through those as well, for fun. It was all just so exciting to me and the most interesting thing in these stories were the gods. Out all of them, and there is a lot of gods in greek mythology, the one I found to be the most fascinating is Hades, god of the underworld.

He was just the most appealing and interesting to me. The lord of an underworld that was largely different from the one I was used to simply by chance, he drew lots with his brothers Zeus and Poseidon. In this duty Hades was more or less a fair deity, while still being the bastard that all the greek gods are, he kidnapped his niece in order to make her his wife. Also, while many series I had seen/read at that time often portrayed death as evil Hades was often described as sort of a passive god that was just doing the job that had been assigned to him. It was an intriguing combination for me, and still is.

However, when I started looking outside the regular myths to experience more modern interpretations of greek mythology, and by extension Hades. What I found made more often than not seemed off to me. The most common thing being that Hades was almost always a bad guy.
It's been awhile though since I gave these things much thought. But with the approaching release of the video game God of War 3 and the the movie Clash of the Titans, both of which will have different interpretations of Hades making an appearance, the thoughts have recently resurfaced and I wanted to go through how Hades has been portrayed in modern media. Which is what I will do here.
Before we begin I wish to stress Hades' godly title once again. He is the god of the underworld and the dead that go there. He is NOT the god of death. In greek mythology the closest thing to such a god would be Thanatos, a daemonic personification. The underworld itself was for everyone that died, good people as well as bad people. There they would be judged and either sent to Tartarus if their souls were damned or the Elysian Fields if they had been virtuous. With that said let us begin with taking a look at one of the more recognized and popular versions of Hades.
Disney's Hades
This guy is a good place to start simply because he presents a lot of the issues that I have a problem with when modern media interpret Hades.

For one thing he dislikes his position so much and desires his brother Zeus' so much that he is willing to strike a deal with the titans, the arch-enemies of the greek gods, just so he can usurp Zeus' position as king of the gods. This is a very common trait as far as modern representations of Hades goes. It most likely ties into people thinking that Hades is the death god and of death as evil so he's a natural choice for being the bad guy. Being sick of having to rule the underworld is the common motivation for why he is the bad guy.
Besides that you can also see that Disney's Hades has fire in place of his hair. It might seem like an little innocent detail. But then this version gets pissed and throws large pillars of flames all over the place. In the myths Hades is never associated with fire so one can assume that this trait has been brought over from another ruler of another underworld: The Devil. You don't get much more evil than the Devil.

In short, the creators of this version went out of their way to make sure that the connotations one can get from the character indicate that he is evil. Which rather greatly clashes with the passive and fair bastard from the myths. Of course, the majority of myths presented in the movie the Disney Hades appears in, Hercules, are equally mangled/edited to make it a much more kid-friendly movie.

In Hades this is apparent in his personality, which many sources cite as supposed to being like a "used-car salesman". He talks fast, is quick-witted and can sort of be compared to typical old school cartoon villains in terms of the plots he employs, at least in the animated series of the Hercules movie. While this is entertaining it certainly does not match up with th mythological version who, like his realm, was sort of dark and gloomy.
All in all, the Disney Hades is about as far removed from the mythological counter-part as you can get. At least he would be if it wasn't for this next guy.

DC Animated Universe Hades

Yeah, all those issues I have with Disney Hades are pretty much amplified ten-fold with this version. Mainly the associations with the Devil.
While Disney Hades limited the Devil connection to having him be on fire constantly the DCAU Hades goes all out and gives his true for a physical appearance resembling the Devil as well, as you can see in the picture above. But even before this form is revealed the idea is presented instantly. When he first appears he's wearing a helmet that has large impractical horns on it and when he takes it off he's looks like a handsome man with a charming personality. While that last bit may sound nice and all it's still more of a devil trait to charm people into listening to him and playing them like so. This version also uses fire as his primary medium of attack, along with an army of dead soldiers. But it doesn't stop there, when he first appears from an unlocked gate which leads into his it appears as though the entire place is engulfed in flames. Subtle, right?
And while I don't agree with them at least Disney Hades had motivations for trying to take over the throne of Olympus and the world. DCAU Hades on the other hand just seems to be a evil god because he's an evil god.
One thing this version has over Disney Hades though is that he doesn't seem displeased with his place as the lord of the underworld. Unfortunately, this is what robs him of a motivation so it is a double-edged sword.
To sum up, this Hades was just created to be an evil god that the good guys could fight and thus lacks the depth, shallow as it is, of Disney Hades and even more so when compared to the mythological Hades. I will however say this about both these modern versions. I kind of like their designs. Disregarding the Devil associations both of them look like rulers. The next guy on our list doesn't exactly have that advantage.
God of War Hades
Look at that thing.

It looks like a demon jailer from hell rather than an actual ruler of the underworld. A monster more than a man, and the gods based humans off of themselves so you'd assume that they resemble us somewhat. And the spikes on his back seem indicative that he's going to torture you as soon as he gets his hands on you. Overall, the design is obviously supposed to make you think of bad things and the underworld presented in the God of War games is often displayed in the same way. All these things are more fitting for the Devil of christian religion than the mythological Hades.
However, the designers of the game have said that instead of going for making the game look like authetic greek mythology they decided to make the game look like what the target audience thinks greek mythology looks like. So they get bonus points for knowing what they're doing.
Besides the horrible, if badass, design of GoW Hades I don't have much to complain about with this guy. Yeah, he will be fighting the player avatar and protagonist, Kratos. But that's because Kratos is trying to murder all the gods and everything that stands in his way because they've pissed him off. That is to say, everybody in those games are bastards. Just like in greek mythology.
Luckily there are a few versions that manage to combine the regal ruler-look that befits a god of the underworld as well as not being partially based on the Devil. Unfortunately I couldn't find a good picture for either one. Oh well.
Hercules the Legendary Journeys Hades

I always liked this version simply because he was often portrayed in a sympathetic light. Even in the episode that adapted the the myth about Hades kidnapping Persephone to make her his wife it tones down Persephone's unwillingness and makes it more a story of tragic love rather than bastard gods being bastard gods.

This version is also reasonable, fair but stern and while he is envious that his brothers got to rule the sea and the sky while he only got the underworld he just accepts it and goes to work instead of trying to enact some evil plot.
He's also a very human character which is shown when Hercules has almost succeeded in taking Persephone out of the underworld Hades shows up and says that he'll let Hercules bring his dead family back up to the living world as long as Persephone stays. It showed an interesting level of loneliness and desperation in the character which made you sympathise with him even further. Which is the problem with this interpretation. He's actually too sympathetic.

Like I've been saying all along, the greek gods are bastards. In Hades' case this makes him interestingly grey as a god that does his duty with the underworld while still being the arrogant bastard that they all are and you have to make it up in your mind whether you're supposed to like him or not. With the HtLJ Hades however you're pretty much expected to think that he's a nice and fair guy. It takes away an edge from him and makes him less grey than his mythological counter-part
Also, he's a greek god. He should be a bastard. A real bastard is the next, and last, version of Hades I will present here.
Marvel Comics Hades
Basically this guy is sort of an amalgam of the other versions. He has the regal, but dark, and human appearance of the Disney, DCAU and HtLJ Hades. The bastardness of the Disney, DCAU and GoW Hades and all without being a mix with the Devil or any other demon for that matter.
So one would think that he's a perfect interpretation. Nope. He's still the bad guy and he still wants to usurp Zeus' throne. However, in recent comics his motivation for this has been revealed and it is very satisfying and human in my opinion and he goes about trying to fulfill his ambitions in a very bastardish way.
But despite this added complexity he's still a bad guy and still rubs me the wrong way. So, close but no cigar.
In short: I've been giving a rather negative view here of the various modern interpretations of Hades. So let me take this chance to say that I don't hate/dislike them all that much actually. They all have qualities that I appreciate.
GoW Hades and DCAU Hades are both pretty badass. HtLJ Hades is sympathetic and interesting. Marvel Hades is a great and complex villain. And Disney Hades is entertaining and funny to look at.
But none of them fit with idea of Hades that I've had since I was eleven years old. It seems that modern society has a problem with seeing this guy as anything but an evil entity in the same league with the Devil simply because he orders over the dead, which in turn can be traced back to people always being afraid of what comes after this life. That's sort of disappointing really since there's a great non-evil character here. It's just nobody seems to be able to bring out all his mythological character traits.
But at least these incarnations serve to make him sort of recognizable for the general audience, if they can tell one version from the other. And who knows, there might be a more faithful adaptation of the character showing up in the future. Again, he's going to show up in the remake of Clash of the Titans later this year and there he will be portrayed by Ralph Fiennes.
Let me repeat that. Ralph Fiennes is going to play Hades. That's fucking awesome.
Until next post. Keep it cool


  1. Ralph Fiennes is a great actor.

    Given your thoughts on the above Hades creations, the manga series Saint Seiya would make your blood boil. Hades is not just the villain of the piece, he plots to wipe out humanity - whom he despises - and turn Earth into a wasteland.

  2. That does sound like something I would hate in regards to Hades.

    Poor guy.