Myths about the Roman God Pluto

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Myths about the Roman God Pluto

Pluto, son of Saturn and Ops, assisted Jupiter in his wars, and after victory had crowned their exertions in placing his brother on the throne, be obtained a share of his father's dominions, which, as some authors say, was the eastern continent, and lower regions of Asia; but, according to the common opinion, Pluto's division lay in the west.

He fixed his residence in Spain, and lived in Iberia, near the Pyrrenaean mountains: Spain being a fertile country, and abounding in minerals and mines, Pluto was esteemed the god of wealth; for it must be here observed, that the poets confound Pluto, god of hell, with Plutus, god of riches, though they were distinct deities, and always so considered by the ancients.

Pluto's regions being supposed to lie under ground; and as he was the first who taught men to bury their dead, it was thence inferred that he was king of the infernal regions, whence sprung a belief, that as all souls descended to him, so when they were in his possession, he bound them with inevitable chains, and delivered them to be tried by judges, after which he dispensed rewards and punishments according to their several deserts. Pluto was therefore called the infernal Jupiter, and oblations were made to him by the living, for the souls of their friends departed.

Although Pluto was brother of Jupiter, yet none of the goddesses would condescend to marry him, owing to the deformity of his person, joined to the darkness of his mansions. Enraged at this reluctance in the goddesses, and mortified at his want of issue, Pluto ascended his chariot, and drove to Sicily, where chancing to discover Proserpine with her companions gathering flowers in a valley of Enna, near mount Aetna, the grisly god, struck with her charms, instantly seized her, and forcing her into his chariot, went rapidly off to the river Chemarus, through which he opened himself a passage to the realms of night. Orpheus says, this descent was made through the Cecropian cave in Attica, not far from Eleusis.

His whole domains are washed with vast and rapid rivers, whose peculiar qualities strike horror into mortals. Cocytus falls with an impetuous roaring; Phlegethon rages with a torrent of flames; the Acharusian fen is dreadful for its stench and filth: nor does Charon, the ferryman, who wafts souls over, occasion any less horror; Cerberus, the triple-headed dog, stands ready with open mouths to receive them; and the Furies shake at them their serpentine locks.

Thus far the common fable; but the following seems the true foundation of the story which has been so much disguised; Pluto having retired into Spain, applied himself to the working of the mines of silver and gold, which in that country, were very common, especially on the side of Cadiz, where he fixed his abode. Boetica, his residence, was that province now called Andalusia, and the river Boetis, now Guadalquiver, gave that name to it. This river formed of old, at its mouth, a small island, called Tartessus, which was the Tartessus of the ancients, and whence Tartarus was formed.

It may be remarked, that though Spain was not now fertile in mines, yet the ancients speak of it as a country where they abounded. Posidonius says, that its mountains and hills were almost all mountains of gold; Arienus, that near Tartessus was a mountain of silver; and Aristotle, that the first Phoenicians who landed there, found such quantities of gold and of silver, that they made anchors for their ships of those precious metals. This, doubtless, is what determined Pluto, who was ingenius in such operations, to fix himself near to Tartessus; and this making him pass also for a wealthy prince, procured for him the name of Pluto, instead of that of Agelestus.

The situation of Pluto's kingdom, which was low in respect to Greece, occasioned him to be looked on as the god of hell; and as he continually employed laborers for his mines, who chiefly resided in the bowels of the earth, and there commonly died, Pluto was reputed the king of the dead. The ocean, likewise, upon whose coasts he reigned, was supposed to be covered with darkness. These circumstances united, appear to have been the foundation of the fables afterwards invented concerning Pluto and his realms of night. It is probable, for example, that the famous Tartarus, the place so noted in the empire of this god, comes from Tartessus, near Cadiz: the river Lethe not unlikely from the Guada-Lethe, which flows over against that city; and the lake Avernus, or the Acheronian fen, from the word Aharona, importing, at the extremities, a name given to that lake, which is near the ocean.

Pluto was extremely revered both by the Greeks and Romans. He had a magnificent temple at Pylos. Near the river Corellus, in Boeotia, he had also an altar, for some mystical reason, in common with Pallas. His chief festival was in February, and called Charistia, because their oblations were made for the dead. Black bulls were the victims offered up, and the ceremonies were performed in the night, it not being lawful to sacrifice to him in the day time, on account of his aversion to the light. The cypress tree was sacred to Pluto, boughs of which were carried at funerals.

He is usually represented in an ebony chariot, drawn by his four black horses, Orphnaeus, Aethon, Nycteus, and Alastor. As god of the dead, keys were the ensigns of his authority, because there is no possibility of returning when the gates of his palace are locked. Sometimes he holds a sceptre, to denote his power; at other times a wand, with which he directs the movements of his subject ghosts. Homer speaks of his helmet as having the quality of rendering the wearer invisible; and tells us that Minerva borrowed it when she fought against the Trojans, that she might not be discovered by Mars. Perseus also used this helmet when he cut off Medusa's head.

Mythologists pretend that Pluto is the earth, the natural powers and faculties of which are under his direction, so that he is monarch not only of all riches which come from thence, and are at length swallowed up by it, but likewise of the dead; for as all living things spring from the earth, so are they resolved into the principles whence they arose. Proserpine is by them reputed to be the seed or grain of fruits or corn, which must be taken into the earth, and hid there before it can be nourished by it.

Pluto the God of Death
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