Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld, is most often associated with the colors black and grey. However, like most Greek gods, Hades was depicted in different ways over the centuries, and his color symbolism reflects this diversity.
In quick summary:
- Hades was often shown with black or grey skin or clothing, representing his domain of the underworld and death.
- He was also sometimes depicted with blue skin, connecting him to the blue flames of the underworld.
- Rarely, Hades was shown with alabaster white skin, representing the minerals mined from the earth.
- His hair was most commonly portrayed as black, but sometimes brown or fiery red.
- Hades’ symbols and animals, like the screech owl and Cypress tree, reiterated his dark color palette.
Black and grey as colors of death
In ancient Greek art and literature, Hades is most commonly associated with the colors black and grey. This dark color palette connects him to the underworld realm over which he ruled. Black and grey represent darkness, gloom, shadows, and death – all qualities associated with Hades’ domain deep below the earth.
Greek vase paintings frequently depict Hades wearing a black or grey himation (cloak). In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the god’s hair is described as black. Black animals were sacrificed to honor Hades, especially black bulls and sheep.
The Orphic Hymns from the 2nd century CE describe Hades as wearing clothing “the dark hue of night” and driving a chariot pulled by black horses. In Roman mosaics and frescoes, he was often shown in dark grey or black robes.
Overall, black and grey firmly establish Hades’ identity as the ominous god of death who dragged souls down into his deep, dark domain.
Hades’ helmet makes him invisible
An important part of Hades’ black ensemble was his helmet or cap of invisibility. The magical helm rendered the god invisible, allowing him to come and go freely from the underworld without being noticed by mortals or gods.
Hades used his helmet to great effect when kidnapping his bride, Persephone. By remaining unseen, he was able to ambush the maiden and carry her off to his kingdom before anyone could stop him.
Blue evokes the underworld’s flames
Though less common than black and grey, Hades was also sometimes depicted with blue skin or clothing in ancient Greek art. The blue connects Hades to the blue flames believed to flicker in the underworld.
In Homer’s Iliad, the gods swear oaths by the water of the Styx, considered the river of the underworld. The Styx oath invokes the Titans below who are nourished by Zeus’ “dark blue food.” This refers to the smoke of burnt offerings thought to feed the spirits of the dead.
The Orphic hymns describe Hades again as surrounded by blue flames, with hair the color of lapis lazuli. Blue fire continued to be seen as a symbol of the underworld into the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as depicted in the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Giotto, and others.
Persephone brings springtime colors
The blue color of smoke and fire contrasts with the blooming flowers and plants associated with Hades’ wife, Persephone. When forced to return to the underworld each winter, Persephone took the springtime colors with her below ground, leaving the earth barren and cold.
Colors like vibrant greens, pinks, purples, and yellows belonged to the living, growing world overseen by Persephone when she emerged each spring. These lively hues balanced out the somber blue and dark shades associated with her husband’s realm.
Alabaster white recalls underground minerals
Much more rarely, ancient Greek art depicted Hades with alabaster white skin. Ivory white symbolized the minerals mined from the earth and stones associated with the underground.
The god’s statues and carvings were often made from white marble or alabaster, a luminous stone quarried from Hades’ domain deep below the surface. This connected the white stone itself to the god’s realm.
Other death gods like Thanatos and Charon were also sometimes shown with bone white skin, evoking the pallor of lifeless corpses as well as the white stones pulled from the depths of the earth.
Orpheus travels to the white palace of Hades
The ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice features a description of Hades’ palace as having halls of white marble and alabaster. When Orpheus travels to the underworld in an attempt to rescue his bride Eurydice, he comes before the throne of Hades in this pale, luminous palace.
The white halls reinforced the depths to which Orpheus had descended in reaching Hades’ kingdom. The alabaster colors also connect to Orphic rituals, many of which originated in underground sites.
Hair color varies more widely
In contrast to his rather limited skin and clothing colors, artistic depictions show more variety when it comes to Hades’ hair color.
As mentioned earlier, black hair appears most commonly in ancient texts and art. But other colors were sometimes featured as well.
In Homer’s epics and on Greek pottery, Hades’ hair is almost always black. As discussed previously, the dark black curls or straight locks firmly establish the god’s identity and link him to a physical space conceived of as eternally dark and gloomy.
In some ancient Greek sculptures, Hades is depicted with rich brown hair and a beard rather than solid black. Brown provides a softer, more approachable look while still keeping to an overall dark color palette.
Interestingly, these statues often show a more somber, brooding Hades rather than an angry or threatening one. The brown hair seems to indicate a more meditative, introspective side of the god’s character.
Red and blonde hair
A few rare examples show Hades with fiery red or even blonde golden hair. These brightly colored locks sharply contrast with the god’s usual dark tones.
In vase paintings, red hair seems intended to convey strong emotion or vitality – qualities not generally associated with the stoic Lord of the Underworld. One theory proposes red hair connects Hades to the lively world of the living.
Blonde hair goes even further in subverting expectations, giving the death god a glowing radiance completely at odds with his gloomy realm. Hades’ blonde hair may link him to golden corn, grains, and fertility in his secondary role as god of wealth extracted from the earth.
Symbols and animals echo Hades’ palette
Hades’ colors extend to the various symbols, plants, animals, and minerals associated with the god. These repeat the dark hues connected to death and the underworld.
The screech owl was considered a bird of ill omen sacred to Hades. Its night-black plumage echoes the god’s dark hair and clothing while its eerie, haunting calls evoke the gloom of the underworld.
The cypress tree was often planted in Greek cemeteries. Its black-green branches and shadowy canopy repeated the darkness of Hades’ realm. The mourning rituals carried out beneath cypress trees reinforced the black color’s ties to death.
As mentioned earlier, black animals like sheep and bulls were traditionally sacrificed to honor Hades. Black sheep in particular symbolized the souls that entered the underworld upon death.
Metals and stones
Precious metals and stones taken from underground mines, like gold, silver, diamonds, and obsidian, also carried dark associations with Hades. Their rich, earthy blacks and browns evoked the god’s world hidden far below the surface.
|Object||Color||Connection to Hades|
|Screech owl||Black||Omen bird sacred to Hades; black plumage echoes Hades’ dark colors|
|Cypress tree||Black-green||Planted in cemeteries; shadowy branches evoke underworld darkness|
|Black sheep||Solid black||Sacrificed to honor Hades; symbolize souls entering the underworld|
|Gold, silver, diamonds, obsidian||Black, brown, dark grey||Precious metals and stones mined from underground link to Hades’ world below|
In ancient Greek art and literature, Hades was most commonly depicted in black or dark grey to represent his role as Lord of the Underworld and god of death. More rarely, he was shown in white, blue, or other colors with symbolic meaning related to his realm.
Black and grey firmly established Hades as the ominous ruler of the subterranean kingdom where souls journeyed after death. Dark colors conveyed the mystery and fear associated with this final journey into the afterlife.
Yet Hades’ broad symbolic color palette shows he was a complex god not defined solely by death and gloom. Rare brilliant hues hint at his additional powers of wealth and fertility drawn from the earth itself, which represented both the joys of life and the afterlife promised to initiates of his divine mysteries.