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Holy Hades

I’ve been reading the Percy Jackson books lately.  Just finished the third one.  On the whole, I’m liking them a lot.  The one thing that bothers me so far is the depiction of Hades.  I should say, at this point, I am a classics nerd.  Minored in classical studies.  Grew up with Greek mythology.  So every pop culture depiction of Greek mythology that I encounter, I can be overly critical about.  Now, that said, I will withhold judgement about this particular version of Hades until I finish the series.  I’ve noticed, however, that there are precious few versions of Hades that I find “acceptable.”  Two in particular stand out to me.

In Greek mythology, aside from the story of Persephone, Hades is rarely depicted doing anything sinister or evil, despite everyone’s primal fear of death (seriously, the Greeks were mortified, pun intended).  In fact, he plays a fairly passive role in most stories, and a benevolent role in a few such as Orpheus and Eurydice, in which he allows a woman to return to the world of the living.  The primal fear of death returns in the modern day cartoons with a vengeance.  Hades is distorted into a figure of the Judeo-Christian world.  Hades is transformed into a version of the Devil to fill the role of the heroic villain who is dehumanized and therefore defeated without hesitation.  That’s my fancy way of saying that cartoons don’t like shades of gray when it comes to their bad guys.

There are two parts to this transformation, found in two of my favorite cartoons which tackle Greek Mythology; Hercules (the Disney version) and Justice League (the Cartoon Network version).  The first is in the changes made to the underworld and the second is to the personality of Hades himself.  In both Hercules and Justice League, the concept of the underworld is transformed into the idea of Hell.  Both versions of the story depict it as a dark place filled with fire and demons.  In Hercules these demons, namely Pain and Panic, are primarily comical, but in the Justice League episode The Balance, they are very serious and only are scared away when Hawkgirl (who, I might add, is a sorely under-appreciated character) pretends to be an angel.  “That’s right,” she says, pointing up, “I’m an angel.  You can mess with me if you want but I don’t think you want to mess with the boss.”  When Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl later try to intimidate a resident of Tartarus, he haughtily replies, “Or what?  I might end up suffering eternal torment as punishment for my sins?  Oh wait, I already am!”  In another episode, aptly named Paradise Lost, Wonder Woman refers to Tartarus as “the pit of lost souls.”  There seems to be no reference, in either cartoon, to the Elysian Fields, a realm Hades was also responsible for in mythology, where heroes were supposed to dwell after death.

Watch your step, Hades!

Since the underworld is transformed into Hell, Hades easily fills the role of the Devil.  In Hercules, he is a bad guy from the start, due primarily to his demonic appearance with fire for hair.

A face that only a mother could love, right?  As his personality develops, he demonstrates himself as the Devil in two ways.  The first lies in his ambition to usurp Zeus and take over Olympus and the world itself.  He even calls his plan a “hostile takeover.”  He intends to unleash the Titans to conquer Olympus and takes drastic measures to ensure that his plan will succeed, even attempting to eliminate his own nephew, Hercules.  The second devilish characteristic of his personality lies in his fondness for making deals, something even Hercules recognizes.  “Speak of the devil,” Meg mutters as Hades appears.  In the course of the movie, it is revealed that she belongs to him.  “You sold your soul to me to save your boyfriend’s life,” he reminds her casually when her loyalty begins to waver.  He tries to strike another deal with her later, offering her freedom in exchange for discovering Hercules’s Achilles heel.  Of course, it turns out that the hero’s only weakness is Meg herself, so Hades proceeds to use her as leverage in making a deal with Hercules.  When Meg dies, Hercules bargains for her soul.  “You like making deals,” he says, “Take me in her place.”  In the end, Hades is undone and as punishment for his behavior, Hercules throws him back down into the pit of Tartarus.

Hades becomes even more of a fiend in Justice League, particularly in the episode called Paradise Lost where his origins are explained in detail by Wonder Woman.  Like the Disney version, Hades has an evil appearance which oddly resembles Ares, a popular villain from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, a show of great fame around the time this episode of Justice League was written.

Apparently, goatees are evil.  (Parenthetically, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys does a pretty good job of depicting Hades as a guy who’s just over-worked and under-appreciated.)

Getting back to the Justice League version of Hades, his helmet, interestingly, is decorated with ram horns and while he is not made of fire, he breathes it, prompting the superhero Flash to deadpan, “Get this guy a breath mint.”  John Rhys-Davies provides his voice, following the epic paradigm of villains having British accents while the heroes, including Wonder Woman, have American accents.  Seriously, if you’ve never noticed this before, go back and watch Spartacus, Quo Vadis, and Ben-Hurr.  The bad guys always have British accents.

Like his Disney counterpart, Hades has ambitions of conquest.  “The world will be ours,” his mortal minion promises him.  Unlike the other Hades, however, this one has already made an attempt to conquer Olympus.  According to Wonder Woman, during the battle with the Titans, Hades “struck a treasonous bargain” with the enemy, against Zeus.  “As punishment for his treachery, Zeus cast Hades into the pit of Tartarus where he would rule over the dead for all eternity.”

This Hades too has a great fondness for making deals.  The majority of his deals in this particular episode involve a mortal named Felix Faust, a reference to a Johann Faust who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for ultimate knowledge (which Felix does as well) or perhaps a reference to Doctor Faustus by Marlowe, an individual also works with the Devil.  Faust is considered to be in league with the Devil when Batman casually mentions that “he was kicked out of the university for his heretical ideas.”  Oh, Batman.  When did you find religion?  Like a true Devil, he sticks to the letter of his bargain with Faust and eventually kills him, as pain and suffering are the ultimate knowledge of mortals.  When Faust makes a comeback in The Balance, imprisoning Hades only to be defeated by Wonder Woman, Hades proclaims, “I’ve got a new hobby; tormenting Faust’s pathetic soul.”

So, in conclusion…cartoons like to make Hades look like the devil.  This is an inaccurate portrayal of the Greek god.  I’m apparently a cranky mythology snob.

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Comments on: "Holy Hades" (1)

  1. Hades (as Pluto) pops up in Thor (the comic book, not the movie), because in the Marvel universe, if the Norse pantheon exists, then surely the Greco-Roman pantheon does to! Science!

    His characterization is usually as a manipulative, devilish deal-maker who just wants to get back to Olympus, though the Marvel version of Hercules is actually pretty accurate (heroic, but also petty and possessed of appetites for food, drink and ladies).

    The weird thing is that both Marvel and DC have several different versions of Hell & Heaven, since, on the one hand, they don’t want to appear atheist, but on the other hand, they fear offending really religious people by having the actual Devil (or God) show up in the comics. Instead you get people like Neron & Mephisto and a bunch of cosmic creations like Eternity (in both Marvel and DC) and the Beyonder and the Watcher or all the members of the Endless (a la Sandman). And on top of that, they don’t want to offend anyone outside of Judeo-Christianity by saying all other religions are false. So the end result is a sort of polytheism in practice. Norse Gods can go to Hel/Valhalla or end up in the Olympian Underworld, for example. Could Thor end up in Heaven, or what about Beta Ray Bill (who at one time possessed Thor’s hammer but is some sort of equine alien)?

    It’s kind of funny, actually. – Robby

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