Pluto: The Roman God of the Underworld

Some of you may know Pluto as a Disney character. But, did you know that the character was actually named after a dwarf planet in our solar system? And then again, did you know that the name of this dwarf planet was based on a god of ancient Greece and ancient Rome? Indeed, even Disney characters are closely related to the ancient gods. 

Pluto is generally known as the god of the underworld. Not necessarily something you first think of when you see Mickey’s yellow companion. But, after Cupid shot an arrow in the heart of Pluto, the god of the underworld fell in love with Persephone. Not long after, he became Persephone’s husband. 

Maybe his loyalty to Persephone is the obvious link between the two? We will see. First, we should set the record straight. This is much needed because there is a lot of debate about the origin and nature of Pluto, in either its Roman or Greek version. 

Pluto as a Greek God or Pluto as a Roman God?

Pluto is normally seen as the Roman version of the Greek god Hades. The name Pluto has some pretty ambivalent connotations. On the one hand, Pluto in Roman stands for god of wealth, so he was thought to be very rich. The treasures owned by Pluto were ample, ranging from gold to diamonds that he found under the earth. 

How did Pluto get access to the diamonds that were buried under the earth? Well, this is where the name Pluto gets a little ambivalent. He got his access because he was also known to be the ruler of the underworld, referring to its Greek counterpart Hades. Gaining access to diamonds underneath the earth would be an easy task as a ruler of the place. We will return to this later.

The Greek god Hades was known to be the most feared of all gods. People were even afraid to say his name out loud. Indeed, Hades was the original he who must not be named. The idea was that, as long as you didn’t say his name, he would not pay attention to you. But, if you did, he would notice, and you would die sooner than expected. Pluto wasn’t feared as such.

Our Focus: Pluto in Roman Mythology

So, the story of Pluto in Roman mythology is a bit different from the one in Greek mythology. For example, in Greek mythology, Hades is seen as someone who was abducting Persephone. As we already concluded before, his Roman counterpart was known to be a loyal lover to Persephone. 

At one point, the name Hades wasn’t associated anymore with the Greek god itself. Rather, it became the very name for the whole realm of the underworld. Because this was the case, ancient Greeks copied the name Pluto as a ruler of Hades. The association between the Greek myth and the Roman myth is therefore very evident. Some actually say they are one and the same. 

But, while potentially one and the same, there is still a difference between the two stories. Pluto is generally seen as a more positive concept of the god who takes care of the afterlife. Its Greek counterpart is not. We will leave the version as seen in Greek mythology for what it is.

Dis Pater 

Over time, the language of the ancient Romans changed quite a bit. It was a mixture of both Latin and Greek, along with some other dialects. With this in mind, it should be noted that Pluto is generally seen as the replacement of Dis Pater: the original Roman god of the underworld. 

The usage of Dis Pater in popular language diminished over time. At a time when the Greek language became more important, the way people referred to Dis Pater changed. ‘Dis’ is Latin for ‘the rich’. The name Pluto is a modified version of the Greek ‘Plouton’, which also means ‘the rich’. Somewhat by chance, the new ruler of the underworld came to be called Pluto.

The Story of Pluto

Now we got that out of the way, let’s actually talk about the god Pluto as one of the Roman gods. Like the Greek god, Pluto’s main activity was being god of the underworld. But how did he come into such a powerful position?

The Origin of Pluto

Following Roman mythology, there was only darkness from the beginning of time. Mother Earth, or Terra, found life out of this darkness. Terra, in turn, created Caelus: the god of the skies. Together, they became parents of a race of giants known as the Titans

From here, it gets a little more violent. One of the youngest Titans, Saturn, challenged his father in order to become the ruler of the universe. He won the battle, giving him the most prestigious title of all. Saturn married Ops, whereafter they went on to give birth to the first Olympian gods

But, Saturn knew out of experience that his children could challenge him at any point for the title of ruler of the universe. To avoid this, he swallowed each child after it was born. 

Of course, Ops wasn’t happy with that. She wanted to avoid the same fate for their sixth child. Therefore, Ops hid the sixth child and gave Saturn a wrapped stone, pretending it was their actual sixth child Jupiter. Saturn, thus, swallowed a stone instead of their sixth child.

According to the ancient Romans, Jupiter grew up and eventually returned to its parents. After his father, Saturn, realized that he had a beautiful living child, he threw up his other five children. One of the children was, indeed, Pluto. All of the children of Saturn and Ops are seen as Olympian gods. You can see this as an essential part of the story of our Roman god.

How Pluto became the God of the Underworld

However, the Titans and their children started to fight. This is also known as the Titanomachy. The battle of the gods ended up being quite disastrous. It actually almost destroyed the universe. However, this would also mean the end of the existence of both the Titans and the Olympian gods. Therefore, the Titans gave up before it was too late. 

After the Olympian gods won the battle, Jupiter rose to power. Together with all brothers and sisters, the gods created a new home on Mount Olympus. After the gods created a safe home, Jupiter divided the universe among his brothers. 

But, how does one divide the universe? Just like you would do it, through a lottery. We’re here by chance anyway, right? 

The lottery granted Pluto the underworld. So, the story of how Pluto became the ruler of the underworld is by chance; it didn’t necessarily fit its character. It’s up to you to decide whether Pluto won the lottery or not. 

Pluto as Ruler of the Underworld

As the ruler of the underworld, Pluto lived in a palace deep under the ground. His palace was located far away from the other gods. Only every so often, Pluto would leave the underworld to visit Earth or Mount Olympus. 

Pluto’s role was to claim the souls that were doomed to enter the underworld. The ones who entered the underworld were destined to be kept there for all of eternity. 

The Underworld

Just to set the record straight, the underworld in Roman mythology was seen as a place where the souls of bewitched and wicked people go after they finished their life on earth. Romans saw it as an actual place which was controlled by their Roman god: Pluto. 

In Roman mythology, the underworld is divided into five parts. The five parts were based on a division through five rivers. 

The first river was called Acheron, which was the river of woe. The second river was called Cocytus, the river of lamentation. The third river was referred to as the river of fire: Phlegethon. The fourth river goes by the name of Styx, the river of unbreakable oath by which the gods took their vows. The last river was called Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. 

As you probably noted already, the idea of a ruler of the underworld draws some similarities with the concept of Satan in Christianity or Iblis in Islamic religion. Hold on to that thought, because it might help with making sense of the story of Pluto.

Cerberus

One god to take care of the whole underworld? Even in the most conservative hypotheses of how many people would reside in the deep earth, this would be quite the task. Wouldn’t it be too grand for just one deity?

Luckily for Pluto, he had a creature at the gate of the underworld which was there to help. The creature goes by the name of Cerberus, a three headed dog with snakes growing from his back. Cerberus was there to attack anyone who planned on escaping the underworld. Having a three headed dog as your partner in the underworld seems helpful to say the least. 

Cerebus only allowed entrance to the deceased who were destined for the underworld. Any living human being was denied access by Pluto’s helper. Still, legend has it that the mythic hero Orpheus was able to gain access by charming Cerebus with his extraordinary music. 

Underground Wealth

We already briefly touched upon it before, but Pluto is also referred to as the god of wealth. Actually, his very name indicates him as being wealthy. Pluto was believed to be the one who brought all the gold, silver, and other underworld goods to Earth on his occasional visits. 

The Actual God of Wealth?

So, Pluto was seen as someone who shared the riches of the underworld. But, referring to him as the god of wealth might be a bit misleading. Actually, even scholars aren’t in consensus about the actual god of wealth in Roman mythology.

In Greek mythology, there is another god which is referred to as the god of abundance or wealth. He goes by the name of Plutus. Yes, we know, their names sound very similar, but there is an actual difference between them. Compared to Pluto, Plutus was a relatively minor deity. He, indeed, wasn’t the ruler of something the size of the underworld. 

Pluto and Hades

Just to take us back to the beginning for a second, the differences between Pluto and Hades might actually be found in the way in which they relate to wealth. Or, how they don’t. Hades actually doesn’t relate a whole lot to wealth, but Pluto certainly does.

The name Hades, nowadays, actually translates directly to hell. It is a complicated story indeed, but this is probably because we can never be a hundred percent sure about everything in these types of mythologies. Small differences in how a story is told might accumulate over time and gain a life on its own. 

Pluto and Plutus 

But, then we should still clarify the differences between Plutus and Pluto. 

Plutus gained his wealth while being concerned with agricultural bounty. Agricultural abundance was his way to achieve his wealth, something which generally happens on Earth; not in the underworld. Pluto, on the other hand, gained his wealth through other means. He harvested the gold, ores, and diamonds that were buried underground.  

The names Pluto and Plutus both derive from the term ‘Ploutos’. So as we concluded earlier, they both obviously relate to wealth in one way or another. This is affirmed by the fact that Pluto also is the replacement for Dis Pater, ‘the rich father’. 

Pluto and Persephone: a love story

Then, a little love story. Persephone, the daughter of Jupiter, was known to be so beautiful that her mother hid her from the eyes of all gods and mortals. Still, Persephone eventually became the wife of Pluto. But, how they got to this point was quite the story.

Persephone’s mother thought that hiding her would protect her chastity and independence. Pluto had other plans. While Pluto already longed for a queen, being shot with Cupid’s arrow made his longing for a queen even greater. Because of Cupid, Pluto became obsessed with no other than Persephone. 

One morning, Persephone was picking flowers when, out of the blue, Pluto and his chariot thundered through the earth. He swept Persephone off her feet and into his arms. She was dragged with Pluto into the underworld. 

Her father, Jupiter, was furious and searched all over the earth. Since she was now located in the underworld, she was nowhere to be found. But, someone tipped Jupiter that Persephone was with Pluto. With the same fury, Jupiter went to rescue his daughter.

How Pluto Got to Marry Persephone

Jupiter found Pluto and demanded his daughter back. One more night: that was what Pluto asked from him to finish up with the love of his life. Jupiter conceded. 

That night, Pluto charmed Persephone into eating six little pomegranate seeds. Nothing too bad, you would say. But, as the god of the underworld knew like no other, if you eat in the underworld you are forever doomed to stay there. Because the meal was relatively small, it meant that Persephone ‘only’ had to be in the underworld for six months of every year.

So, Pluto was still kind enough to allow Persephone six months on earth every year. In the months that she was not on earth, nature withered. In Roman mythology, this is seen as the very thing that led to the differences in winter, spring, summer, and autumn.

Pluto’s Appearance

The appearance of Pluto is generally characterized by an ambiguity of color. Sure, the underworld is obviously seen as a very dark place. But, the actual ruler of the underworld himself is often depicted as being pale, or having a pallor. 

Other than that, Pluto rode a chariot; a kind of cart that is pulled by a couple of horses. In the case of Pluto, he was pulled by seven dark horses. Also, he carried a staff and was depicted with a warrior’s helm. Like most gods, he was a muscular guy with heavy facial hair. 

Cerberus was often depicted  alongside Pluto. The three headed dog can be described as a large animal with snake heads growing from his back. His tail is not just a regular dog’s tail. What would you expect from the guardian of the underworld? Cerberus’ tail was a serpent’s tail, indicating that basically every part of its body was deadly. 

A Multi-Faceted God

Bringing the story of Pluto to an end, it should be obvious that he is a multi-faceted God. Many different stories were being told. Many of them intertwine with each other. 

What is for sure, is that the story of Pluto is different from the ones of Hades or Plutus. Pluto was the Roman god that was ruling the underworld. However, he was still welcomed to earth so that he could share the riches he found underground. Therefore, he wasn’t necessarily feared or hated by the ancient Romans. Also, he was able to charm Persephone as opposed to abducting her. 

Pluto, indeed, was the ruler of a very sinister realm. It is, however, very questionable if he was himself as sinister as the realm that he ruled. 

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