Pluto: Roman God of Death
Pluto, god of death, was the Roman lord of the underworld. He was also the god of anything that could be extracted from the earth, such as diamonds. He abducted Proserpina, who eventually being Pluto’s wife.
This article explains Pluto’s story and how loneliness affects the course of someone’s life.
Who is Pluto in Roman Mythology?
Pluto was the god of death and the god of the underworld in Roman mythology. He is the Roman equivalent of Hades, and he was the brother of Jupiter. Pluto had the power over one’s fate, and he controlled one’s entry into the underworld after death.
He resided in and controlled the underworld. But he was also the controller of all materials that could be found there. These would be metals and precious stones. So, not only was he an ominous, fearsome god, full of terrible power, he was also the Roman god of wealth.
He was rather a combination of two figures. Since the Romans absorbed Greek mythology and made it their own, there is a bit of confusion and mixing of myths. Pluto was the combination of the Greek god of the underworld, Hades, as well as the lord of wealth, Plouton. In early Roman history, they worshipped Plouton for his power over the earth’s mineral wealth. Pluto’s name is actually borrowed from the Greek, and the name for the underworld as well as the Greek god is Hades.
In some historical records, Pluto was identified as Dīs Pater. This could contribute to some complexity and confusion about this deity. The Romans took on the Greek pantheon as their own. After that, they combined his underworld power with the god of death, Hades. Together, these two figures make Pluto, the Roman god of the dead. There are some slight differences between Hades and Pluto. That is the case for almost all the Roman deities. In Pluto’s case, he and Hades share the same myths.
All About the God of the Underworld: A Bit of a Loner
Even though Pluto was a god, he preferred to remain in the underworld with the departed souls. He was not one to get involved in the issues of men that occurred on earth. He lived in his gloomy, subterranean world, at first with just a three-headed dog. This dog was called Cerberus, and not only was he a pet, but he was also the guardian of the sacred underworld.
Pluto rode a chariot and carried a staff. Later, he was responsible for the kidnapping of Proserpina who he made his wife. Unfortunately for Pluto, there isn’t much recorded about the worship of this deity. Perhaps since he kept himself to himself, the Romans did the same.
How was Pluto Born?
Pluto was one of six children. His parents were Saturn and the goddess Ops. His siblings were Jupiter, Neptune, Ceres, Juno, and Vesta. Saturn was afraid that one of his children would one day overthrow him. Saturn had overthrown his own father Caelus so that he could take over the universe. He feared retribution.
So, he vowed that once Ops had the children, he would swallow them one by one and thus prevent his overthrow. But Ops helped out. Before Saturn could swallow Jupiter, she gave her husband a rock with a blanket on it to eat. He did, and it caused him to throw up all his other children, Pluto included.
Eventually, all six children worked together to overthrow their father. They divvied up the universe. Jupiter took to the sky, Neptune to the sea. Juno became the queen of the gods and married Jupiter. Ceres became the goddess of the earth and growing things. Vesta became the goddess of hearth and home, and that left Pluto to tackle the underworld.
Myths of Pluto and the Underworld
Two main myths involve Pluto: that of him and Prosperina and that of he and Orpheus. Orpheus was a musician. He was extremely talented. His ability to perform brought him a cult following called the Orphic Mysteries. He was the mortal son of the god Apollo.
Orpheus’s musical ability with the lyre was so skilled, that he was able to put others under a trance. But tragedy struck. Orpheus’ lover Eurydice was bit by a snake, and she died. In his sorrow at her loss, he began to play his music. It was so lovely that the gods wept. Orpheus knew then that he could touch the gods enough to get Eurydice back from the underworld. All he would have to do was play his music for Pluto and his wife Proserpina and put them under a trance.
He hurried to the underworld to complete his mission. He asked to see the lord and lady of the underworld. Orpheus played his music for them, and they were moved by it. They allowed him to take Eurydice back to earth, but he had to follow one rule. As they were walking back, Orpheus had to walk in front, and he could never look back to look at her.
They were close to the opening to the earth. But Orpheus was overwhelmed with fear that Pluto was playing a trick on him. He thought that that was why the god had allowed him so easily to take back his lover. So, just as they were about to cross over into the living world, Orpheus turned back. When he saw her face, she returned back to the underworld. Orpheus was without her forever because he had disobeyed. Pluto was like other gods of the underworld in that he would strike deals. He would definitely take payment if conditions weren’t followed.
Pluto and Proserpina: Stockholm Syndrome?
The other famous myth of Pluto is his abduction of Proserpina. Proserpina was the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, and so, Pluto was her uncle. Because of his solitary existence, Pluto was lonely. He lived alone in his gloomy lair, and Venus noticed and took pity on him. She asked her own son Cupid to shoot Pluto with a love arrow. That way, the next woman he saw the next time he was above ground, he would fall in love with.
One day, Proserpina was dancing with other young maidens. Pluto was traveling along in his chariot. He spotted her and instantly fell in love. Unfortunately, he raced after her and took her back down to the underworld. Proserpina called out to her mother for help. In the haste and scurry, Proserpina had left her belt behind.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote about this abduction very famously in one of his famous works. Here are a pair of famous lines describing the scene:
“The frighted Goddess to her mother cries,
But all in vain, for now far off she flies…”
Ceres searched and searched over the earth, but she couldn’t find her daughter. She didn’t realize that her daughter had actually been taken off the earth into the underworld. Pluto and Proserpina married against her will. It was Ceres’ duty to take care of the growing things on the earth and to protect the harvest. But in her sorrow, she couldn’t.
The world slowly became brown and barren. But Mercury saw that Pluto had taken Proserpina, and he told Jupiter. Jupiter told Pluto to release the girl, and he threatened him. Pluto agreed, and as was expected, he proposed a deal. He said that Proserpina could return as long as she hadn’t eaten anything in the underworld. Jupiter agreed, but Proserpina had eaten some pomegranate seeds. So she couldn’t leave.
But they eventually came to a compromise. She could leave part of the year each year and stay with him the other part of the year. The times when Proserpina is away from her mother correspond with the winter season. It is the time when Ceres is too distressed to take care of the earth. And then when her daughter returns, Ceres returns to her duties, and we have spring!
Unfortunately for Proserpina, she still had to spend half the year with her abductor. It’s not really clear whether they had children. Some myths claim that Pluto’s children were the Furies or Eumenides. These were deities of vengeance, and they also lived in the underworld.
The Roman God of Death in Hades
Since Pluto and Hades shared a lot of the same myths, the Roman underworld was like the Greek underworld. Once a person died, their soul would go to the entrance to the underworld. It was considered underneath the world or sub terra.
Then, at the entrance, they meet a whole host of horrible beasts and others. Grief, Death, Need, Hunger, and more wait there for the souls to arrive. The dead must pay with a coin to be able to pass through and pay their passage across the river to get to the underworld.
There they meet Cerberus, and he resides just before the judgment. The souls must go there for the judges to decide where they will go to: either Elysium or Tartarus. Elysium is for the good souls and Tartarus for the bad. Pluto might have resided in Tartarus according to myth.
Pluto’s Representation in Art
Just like other Roman gods, Pluto has been painted and sculpted thousands of times. His image changed and adjusted. As time went on, he became a little Christianized. What that means is that Pluto became very like the Christian god of the underworld or Satan. So his image might have also been confused with the Satan character in Christian art.
Pluto is often depicted as a bearded man, carrying a staff. Sometimes he is standing near to his dog Cerberus. Also, artists often like to portray the famous abduction of Proserpina in artwork.
Pluto’s main symbol could possibly be that of his dog Cerberus. He is often shown sitting with this dog. This dog was a guardian of the underworld. A likeness to Cerberus could be found in the Harry Potter book, Harry and the Philosopher’s Stone. He is also a guardian, but instead of a fearsome name, he went by Fluffy.
Pluto’s other symbol could be the staff that he carries. Many images show him with this staff, and some claim that it is a bident, a two-headed staff of sorts. In Ancient Rome, this was used for farming, but that wouldn’t make much sense being held by the lord of the dead.
It might also show the link to Jupiter as one of the variations of his lightning bolts. And there is of course the other link to his brother, Neptune, who carries the trident.
Pluto’s Legacy Today
Pluto has lent his name most famously to the dwarf planet. It was discovered in 1930 as a planet, but then later changed to simply a dwarf planet. Of course, the name is also famously found in Walt Disney’s character list: the dog Pluto.
Most of the time, the name Hades in reference to the god of the underworld is most popularly used. In the film Hercules, Hades is the one who is the underworld character. The name Hades was used interchangeably with Hell starting around the 1600s.
Pluto was a complex character with an interesting history. Here’s a little sum-up of what the article covered:
- Pluto is the god of the underworld or the lord of the dead in Roman mythology. He is the brother of Jupiter, Neptune, Ceres, Vesta, and Juno.
- Not only was he god of the dead, but he was also the lord of mineral and metal wealth underneath the earth.
- His Greek equivalent is Hades, but he was a mixture of Hades and Plouton, the lord of wealth in early Rome.
- Pluto preferred to stay out of the quarrels of gods and men. He kept mainly to his domain and rarely ventured up to the earth. His companion was the three-headed dog, Cerberus, guard dog to the underworld.
- Pluto was almost killed by his father who swallowed him and his siblings except for Jupiter. His mother gave Saturn a rock to eat, and so he threw Pluto and the other siblings up. When they divvied up the cosmos, Pluto was given the underworld.
- Pluto allowed the musician Orpheus to take back his lover from the underworld. But he couldn’t look back at her as he walked her back to earth. But Orpheus disobeyed. He looked, and his lover was returned to the underworld forever.
- Pluto was lonely, and Venus took pity on him. She told her son Cupid to shoot him with a love arrow. Then, the next time he looked upon a woman, he fell in love with her. He saw Proserpina, fell in love, and kidnapped her back to the underworld.
- Her mother Ceres, the goddess of agriculture was so sad that the earth went barren. They came to an agreement that split her time in the year. Proserpina would visit her mother (spring/summer). And the other half of the year she would stay with Pluto (fall/winter).
- In art, Pluto was shown as a bearded man of middle age. He would often carry a staff and stand next to Cerberus. But it’s a very popular artist choice to portray Pluto in his most famous myth: the abduction of Proserpina.
- Pluto’s symbols are his dog Cerberus, and his staff or bident.
- He is still remembered today because of the name of the dwarf planet in our solar system.
Almost every civilization had the concept of an underworld or an afterlife as well as a guardian over it. That was Pluto’s domain. It seems he was pleased with the lot he was given. Especially since he preferred his gloomy home to the one above ground.
And yet, love tugged at his heart. Or it was the love arrow shot into from Cupid. He felt his loneliness and resorted to kidnapping his own niece and marrying her. The Romans later adopted Christianity. They chose an even more fearsome character to rule the underworld: Lucifer or Satan.
This figure felt no love, and in his images was often given a fearsome depiction. Pluto looks like a normal human man, even if his selected corner of the universe is cold, lonely, and dark. The Romans changed to Satan. Perhaps that made it a more fearful prospect to die and not know to what depths of evil your soul would plunge to.
Satan would strike fear into one’s heart. His powers extended beyond what Pluto could have achieved: illness, fear, pain, and death. Pluto was merely a guardian, one to watch over those who came through. He could decide if people needed to stay or if they could leave.
But Satan was another character altogether. It’s no wonder the Christians gave him no wife to go with him on his dark missions. Pluto, however, desired love and companionship, even if it was for just half the year. Strange, how a god of death would pursue a wife so fervently. Yet his future counterpart would do anything to spurn mankind.