Although most of us think of Pluto as the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hades, it is one of the Greek god’s titles, usually given as Pluton, Wealthy. This referred both to the earth’s fertility and the mineral riches that could be mined from it.
No Children, but very Wealthy
Pluto was in fact the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Dis Pater, whose name can be translated as “Rich Father”. The name Pluto does not appear in the earliest Greek writing, so that in works like Hesiod’s Theogony Hades is the brother of Zeus. By the time Plato was writing, however:
Socrates: Pluto gives wealth (Plutos), and his name means the giver of wealth, which comes out of the earth underneath. People in general appear to imagine that the term Hades is connected with the invisible (aeides) and so they are led by their fears to call the God Pluto instead.
(Plato, Cratylus, 452-3.)
One odd fact about Pluto/Hades is that, unlike his brothers, he had no children. He certainly didn’t try as hard as Zeus and Poseidon – apart from his wife-by-capture Persephone, his only known dalliance is with the nymph Minthe. (And the main story about Minthe is how Persephone crushed her.) H.J. Rose calls him “a most respectable and monogynous Greek deity”. It may be that ruling the dead puts a damper on sex.
Pluton was creatively confused with the other rich deity, Plutos, son of Demeter. Supposedly conceived when Demeter lay with the farmer Iason in a furrow, he was the Divine Child of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Homer mentions Plutos in the Odyssey:
In the same way,
when fair-haired Demeter was overcome
with passion and had sex with Iasion
in a thrice-ploughed fallow field, soon enough
Zeus heard of it and annihilated him
by throwing down his dazzling lightning bolt.
As if losing your father to divine wrath wasn’t enough, Plutos was then blinded by Zeus so that he would distribute wealth without favour. He was often shown with a cornucopia full of grain, as was Pluton. The temple complex at Eleusis had a Plutonion, seen as the site of Plutos’ birth, showing how far the two gods had become one in that cult. (A plutonion was a temple to Pluton, called a plutonium in Latin.)
Pluton was seen more favourably than Hades, at least by initiates, who viewed him as Persephone’s loving husband, if not the most approachable of deities. In art, Hades was always seen enthroned as the god of the underworld, while Pluton was often shown with the cornucopia, as the god of wealth and good harvests.
It also means that his mother-in-law became his mother, but that’s nothing for Greek myth, whose genealogies always resemble spaghetti junction.
This ability seems to have always been part of his mythos, however:
Pray to Zeus of the Earth and to pure Demeter to make Demeter’s holy grain sound and heavy, when first you begin ploughing, when you hold in your hand the end of the plough-tail and bring down your stick on the backs of the oxen as they draw on the pole-bar by the yoke-straps.
(Hesiod. Works and Days, 465-70)
Temples of Pluton and Hades
While Pluton had many sanctuaries, Hades had one temple, at Elis, which even the priest was only permitted to enter once a year.
The sacred enclosure of Hades and its temple (for the Eleans have these among their possessions) are opened once every year, but not even on this occasion is anybody permitted to enter except the priest.
(Pausinias Description of Greece 6.25.2)
Pluton, on the other hand, had many other temples besides the one at Eleusis, often shared with his wife. (One of them was unearthed in Turkey a few years ago, complete with thermal springs and a dedication to Pluto.)
The ancient geographer Strabo mentions this temple, with its noxious vapours which only the priests of Pluto could withstand. He also mentions another, with an oracle:
On the road between the Tralleians and Nysa is a village of the Nysaeans, not far from the city Acharaca, where is the Plutonium, with a costly sacred precinct and a shrine of Pluto and Core, and also the Charonium, a cave that lies above the sacred precinct, by nature wonderful; for they say that those who are diseased and give heed to the cures prescribed by these gods resort thither and live in the village near the cave among experienced priests, who on their behalf sleep in the cave and through dreams prescribe the cures.
Strabo, Geography 14.1.45
This may seem a strange thing to do, but the ancients believed that dreams came from the underworld, through the gates of horn and ivory. Both the Odyssey and the Aeneid mention this idea, so the Greeks and Romans shared this belief. (The cult of the healer-god Asklepios also had a dream oracle, although patients were supposed to dream of their own cures, which were then interpreted by the priests.)
So it seems that Pluton had a healing aspect as well as giving wealth.
A final thought, in keeping with the themes of this blog, is that the planet named Pluto probably received its name because of its similarities to Hades – invisible, difficult to reach, and mysterious. Now, however, with all the new information reaching us about the weird and wonderful nature of Pluto and its moons, it seems that the god is finally reaching into his cornucopia for us.
PS – The new Wonder Woman comics had a depiction of Hades that, although not inspired by the Pluton/Plutos idea, does show the god as a youth. Apparently it was inspired by a French painting of Death. (Darowski and Rush: Loc. 4367)
Darowski, Joseph, and Virignia Rush, “Greek, Roman or American?: Wonder Woman’s Roots in DC’s New 52”, in The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess for Changing Times, ed. Joseph J. Darowski, MacFarland Press. (Kindle edition)
Rose, H. J. 1925: “The Bride of Hades”, Classical Philology 20:3 (Jul. 1925): 238-42. (on JSTOR)
For the image at the top, click here.