Hades Day 3 – Part I

30 Days of Devotion
Day 3: Symbols and Icons – Part I

Bident

In surviving art and literary fragments, Hades is often depicted with a scepter or bident as a symbol of his rulership. Some depictions show this scepter tipped with a golden bird, others a bident: a two-pronged metal implement similar to a pitchfork.

In my own devotional work, it is the bident that reveals itself as a symbol of the Chthonic King. First, the bident was used in Roman agriculture to cultivate tough, rocky soil; we have surviving descriptions of Hades utilizing His bident to “cleave the earth”, allowing Him to reach the surface. Second, being two-pronged, the bident complements the single lightning bolt of Zeus and the trident of Poseidon, hearkening to the siblings who split between them the three realms of sky, deep oceans and the Underworld.

Golden Chariot

Hades’ golden chariot makes a dramatic entrance in the story of Persephone’s “abduction” (in quotes here because my personal beliefs about the actions of the gods disagree with the classical telling of this story):

“The wide-pathed earth yawned there in the plain of Nysa, and the lord [Haides], Polydegmon (Host of Many), with his immortal horses sprang out upon her–the Son of Kronos, Polyonomos (He who has many names)… He caught her [Persephone] up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away…” (Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter, Greek epic C7th or 6th B.C., trans. Evelyn-White).

The Orphic hymns and the writer Pseudo-Hyginus tell us that the chariot is drawn by four immortal horses. Its golden description corresponds to the idea that Hades is a god of great wealth.

Helm of Darkness

Following ten years of epic warfare, Gaia prophesies that Zeus and his siblings can defeat the Titans if they ally with the three Cyclopes imprisoned in Tartarus.  Renowned for their expert crafting of magical tools and weapons, the Cyclopes reward Zeus by providing his thunder and lightning bolts, a trident for Poseidon, and a helmet for Hades — the Helm of Darkness, which makes its wearer invisible. With the aid of these powerful weapons, the Titans are finally defeated by the younger generation of gods.

The Helm of Darkness belongs to Hades and resides with Him in the Underworld. It is periodically borrowed by heroes questing to complete various tasks:

“Upon the head of the hero [Perseus] lay the dread cap of Haides which had the awful gloom of night [i.e. the power of invisibility].” (Hesiod, Shield of Heracles 126ff (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C., trans. Evelyn-White). 

Keys to the Realm

The realm of Hades has a gate and a gatekeeper — Aiakos — who often kept the golden keys to the Underworld. Hades is also mentioned to sometimes carry these keys Himself; it was imagined that the gates were kept locked to prevent souls from escaping. Personally, I like to think of these keys representing something far more arcane. Many greater Mysteries require a gatekeeper, a boon, and specific keys to unlock their secrets.

“Earth’s keys to thee, illustrious king [Haides], belong, its secret gates unlocking, deep and strong.” (Orphic Hymn 18 to Pluton, Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D., trans. Taylor).

Owls

How did the infamous rumor about the pomegranate seeds make it to the surface? Hades had a daimon orchardist named Ascalaphus, who happened to see Persephone eat the seeds of the Underworld fruit. In one version of events, Ascalaphus told the Olympic gods about what he had witnessed; in a fit of rage, the goddess Demeter punished him by pinning him down under a heavy stone. The hero Herecles later liberated Ascalaphus, but alas, Demeter then turned the daimon into an owl. In a second version of events, Persephone herself turned Ascalaphus into an owl by dowsing him in water from the river Phlegethon.

With their proclivity for nighttime hunting and capacity for almost silent flight, owls are a fitting familiar for He Who Is Unseen. Many sources, usually secondary, will in particular mention the “screech-owl” as associated with Hades. However, screech owls (genus Megascops) are restricted to the Americas. The owl species most likely to be associated with Hades is the common barn owl, Tyto alba, widely distributed in the Old World and known for its ghostly face and haunting calls.

Litany to Hades
(Hester Butler-Ehle)

Noble Hades, lord of the afterworld, upon
your head the shining helm that veils the one it crowns
in darkness, within your grasp the fearful staff
with which you split the world asunder. Hades,
I praise and honor you, I thank you for your blessings.

Hades, holder of all the wealth within the world,
yours are all the priceless treasures buried in
the earth’s deep bones, the silver and the gold,
the copper and the iron, the many-colored gems.
I praise and honor you, I thank you for your blessings.

Within your realm, O Hades, are treasures too
of life and abundance. The precious seeds of fruit
and grain, the soft black soil that clings to root and leaf,
without these gifts would mankind fail to flourish.
I praise and honor you, I thank you for your blessings.

Kindly host of the dead, receiver of all who pass
from the earth into your deep, abyssal realm,
granter of rest for the weary, sweet reunion
for those too long parted by your well-wrought gates.
I praise and honor you, I thank you for your blessings.

Fair-minded Hades, even-handed one who holds
in hand the lot of all whose earthly lives have ended.
The greatest of kings, the lowest of beggars,
all receive reward or sanction by your will.
I praise and honor you, I thank you for your blessings.

Resources:

Barn Owls: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barn_owl
(accessed August 27, 2019)

Bident: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bident
(accessed August 27, 2019)

Hades’ Estate and Treasures on Theoi: https://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/HaidesTreasures.html
(accessed August 27, 2019)

Underflow Prayers to the Gods of Olympus by Hester Butler-Ehle:
https://greekpagan.com/


Featured photo credit: Pixabay royalty-free images.