From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In ancient Greek religion and myth, Pluto (Πλούτων, Ploutōn) was a name for the ruler of the underworld; the god was also known as Hades, a name for the underworld itself. This deity has two major myths: in Greek cosmogony, he received the rule of the underworld in a three-way division of sovereignty over the world, with his brothers Zeus ruling Heaven and Poseidon the Sea; and he abducts Persephone to be his wife and the queen of his realm. In other myths, he plays a secondary role, mostly as the possessor of a quest-object.
The name Ploutōn was frequently conflated with that of Plutus (Πλοῦτος, Ploutos), a god of wealth, because mineral wealth was found underground, and because as a chthonic god Pluto ruled the deep earth that contained the seeds necessary for a bountiful harvest. Ploutōn became a more positive way to talk about the ruler of the underworld, and the name was popularized through the mystery religions and philosophical systems influenced by Plato, the major Greek source on its meaning.
Pluto (genitive Plutonis) is the Latinized form of the Greek Ploutōn. Pluto's Roman equivalent is Dis Pater, whose name is most often taken to mean "Rich Father." Pluto was also identified with the obscure Roman Orcus, like Hades the name of both a god of the underworld and the underworld as a place. The name Pluto is sometimes used for the ruler of the dead in Latin literature, leading some mythology handbooks to assert misleadingly that Pluto was the Roman counterpart of Hades, rather than an adopted Greek name identified with Dis Pater or Orcus. Pluto (French Pluton and Italian Plutone) is commonly used as the name of the classical ruler of the underworld in subsequent Western literature and other art forms.
Pluto was God of the underworld and its riches. The name is the Latinized form of Greek Ploutōn, another name by which Hades was known in Greek mythology, possibly from the Greek word for wealth, ploutos.
It is debatable whether in the Roman pantheon he was considered a son of Saturn, as Hades was of Cronus. If so, he would have been one of the children devoured by Saturn, along with Neptune. Jupiter was saved and hidden from Saturn by Rhea. Together, they represented earth, water, and air (not as elements, but as environments). After Saturn's defeat, the three brothers took control of the world, and divided it into three separate parts for each brother to rule. Jupiter took control of the skies, Neptune of the seas, and Pluto ruled the underworld (Tartarus or Hades).
The widely accepted myth about Hades and Persephone was also told of Pluto and Proserpina in Roman myth. Pluto and Proserpina are almost exact replicas of their Greek equivalents, as the Romans' ideas about the spirits of the underworld were very vague before adopting Greek mythology. Venus, in order to bring love to Pluto, sent her son Amor, also known as Cupid, to hit Pluto with one of his arrows. Proserpina was in Sicily, at the fountain of Arethusa near Enna, where she was playing with some nymphs and collecting flowers, when Pluto came out from the volcano Etna with four black horses. He abducted her in order to marry her and live with her in Hades, the Greco-Roman Underworld. She is therefore Queen of the Underworld. Notably, Pluto was also her uncle, being the brother of her parents, Jupiter and Ceres.
Ceres vainly went looking for her in any corner of the Earth, but wasn't able to find anything but her daughter’s small belt that was floating upon a little lake (made with the tears of the nymphs). Ceres angrily stopped the growth of fruits and vegetables, bestowing a malediction on Sicily. The plants died, and it became cold and dark above ground. Ceres refused to go back to Mount Olympus and started walking on the Earth, making a desert at every step. While Proserpina remained in captivity, Ceres wept, and nothing could grow or be harvested. The people of the world were dying, and prayed to Jupiter for help.
Worried, Jupiter sent Mercury to order Pluto to free Persephone. Pluto would have obeyed, but by then, she had eaten six pomegranate seeds, whether of her own accord or through Pluto's trickery. Having tasted the food of the underworld, she could not leave, but when Jupiter ordered her return, Pluto struck a deal with him. He said that since she had stolen his six pomegranate seeds, she must stay with him six months of the year, but could remain aboveground the rest of the time. For this reason, in spring when Ceres received her daughter back, the crops blossomed and flowers colored in a beautiful welcome to her daughter, and in summer they flourished. In the autumn, Ceres changed the leaves to shades of brown and orange (her favorite colors) as a gift to Proserpina before she had to return to the underworld. During the time that Proserpina resided with Pluto, the world went through winter, a time when the earth was barren.
Although Hades was seen as somewhat merciless, Pluto was worshipped by the Romans for some of his kinder attributes. Although Hades took a central role in many Greek myths, Pluto was not as much of a general focus.
Pluto is also the god of the dead, terminally ill, and those wounded in battle.
In Western art and literature
Christian writers of late antiquity sought to discredit the competing gods of Roman and Hellenistic religions, often adopting the euhemerizing approach in regarding them not as divinities, but as people glorified through stories and cultic practices and thus not true deities worthy of worship. The infernal gods, however, retained their potency, becoming identified with the Devil and treated as demonic forces by Christian apologists.
One source of Christian revulsion toward the chthonic gods was the arena. Attendants in divine costume, among them a "Pluto" who escorted corpses out, were part of the ceremonies of the gladiatorial games. Tertullian calls the mallet-wielding figure usually identified as the Etruscan Charun the "brother of Jove," that is, Hades/Pluto/Dis, an indication that the distinctions among these denizens of the underworld were becoming blurred in a Christian context. Prudentius, in his poetic polemic against the religious traditionalist Symmachus, describes the arena as a place where savage vows were fulfilled on an altar to Pluto (solvit ad aram / Plutonis fera vota), where fallen gladiators were human sacrifices to Dis and Charon received their souls as his payment, to the delight of the underworld Jove (Iovis infernalis).
Medieval mythographies, written in Latin, continue the conflation of Greek and Roman deities begun by the ancient Roman themselves. Perhaps because the name Pluto was used in both traditions, it appears widely in these Latin sources for the classical ruler of the underworld, who is also seen as the double, ally, or adjunct to the figure in Christian mythology known variously as the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer. The classical underworld deities became casually interchangeable with Satan as an embodiment of Hell. For instance, in the 9th century, Abbo Cernuus, the only witness whose account of the Siege of Paris survives, called the invading Vikings the "spawn of Pluto."
In the Little Book on Images of the Gods, Pluto is described as
an intimidating personage sitting on a throne of sulphur, holding the scepter of his realm in his right hand, and with his left strangling a soul. Under his feet three-headed Cerberus held a position, and beside him he had three Harpies. From his golden throne of sulphur flowed four rivers, which were called, as is known, Lethe, Cocytus, Phlegethon and Acheron, tributaries of the Stygian swamp.
This work derives from that of the Third Vatican Mythographer, possibly one Albricus or Alberic, who presents often extensive allegories and devotes his longest chapter, including an excursus on the nature of the soul, to Pluto.
Medieval and Renaissance literature
In Dante's Divine Comedy (written 1308–1321), Pluto presides over the fourth circle of Hell, to which the greedy are condemned. The Italian form of the name is Pluto, taken by some commentators to refer specifically to Plutus as the god of wealth who would preside over the torment of those who hoarded or squandered it in life. Dante's Pluto is greeted as "the great enemy" and utters the famously impenetrable line Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe. Much of this Canto is devoted to the power of Fortuna to give and take away. Entrance into the fourth circle has marked a downward turn in the poet's journey, and the next landmark after he and his guide cross from the circle is the Stygian swamp, through which they pass on their way to the city of Dis (Italian Dite). Dante's clear distinction between Pluto and Dis suggests that he had Plutus in mind in naming the former. The city of Dis is the "citadel of Lower Hell" where the walls are garrisoned by fallen angels and Furies. Pluto is treated likewise as a purely Satanic figure by the 16th-century Italian poet Tasso throughout his epic Jerusalem Delivered, in which "great Dis, great Pluto" is invoked in the company of "all ye devils that lie in deepest hell."
Influenced by Ovid and Claudian, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) developed the myth of Pluto and Proserpina (the Latin name of Persephone) in English literature. Like earlier medieval writers, Chaucer identifies Pluto's realm with Hell as a place of condemnation and torment, and describes it as "derk and lowe" ("dark and low"). But Pluto's major appearance in the works of Chaucer comes as a character in "The Merchant's Tale," where Pluto is identified as the "Kyng of Fayerye". As in the anonymous romance Sir Orfeo (ca. 1300), Pluto and Proserpina rule over a fantastical world that melds classical myth and fairyland. Chaucer has the couple engage in a comic battle of the sexes that undermines the Christian imagery in the tale, which is Chaucer's most sexually explicit. The Scottish poet William Dunbar ca. 1503 also described Pluto as a folkloric supernatural being, "the elrich incubus / in cloke of grene" ("the eldritch incubus in cloak of green"), who appears among the courtiers of Cupid.
The name Pluto for the classical ruler of the underworld was further established in English literature by Arthur Golding, whose translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1565) was of great influence on William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser. Golding translates Ovid's Dis as Pluto, a practice that prevails among English translators, despite John Milton's use of the Latin Dis in Paradise Lost. The Christian perception of the classical underworld as Hell influenced Golding's translation practices; for instance, Ovid's tenebrosa sede tyrannus / exierat ("the tyrant [Dis] had gone out of his shadowy realm") becomes "the prince of fiends forsook his darksome hole".
Pluto's court as a literary setting could bring together a motley assortment of characters, as in Huon de Méry's 13th-century poem "The Tournament of the Antichrist", where Pluto rules over a congregation of "classical gods and demigods, biblical devils, and evil Christians," basking in the "magnyfycence" of their "lord Pluto," clad in a "smoky net" and reeking of sulphur. Throughout the Renaissance, images and ideas from classical antiquity entered popular culture through the new medium of print and through pageants and other public performances at festivals. The Fête-Dieu at Aix-en-Provence in 1462 featured characters costumed as a number of classical deities, including Pluto, and Pluto was the subject of one of seven pageants presented as part of the 1521 Midsummer Eve festival in London. During the 15th century, no mythological theme was brought to the stage more often than Orpheus's descent, with the court of Pluto inspiring fantastical stagecraft. Leonardo da Vinci designed a set with a rotating mountain that opened up to reveal Pluto emerging from the underworld; the drawing survives and was the basis for a modern recreation.
Opera and ballet
The tragic descent of the hero-musician Orpheus to the underworld to retrieve his bride, and his performance at the court of Pluto and Proserpina, offered compelling material for librettists and composers of opera (see List of Orphean operas) and ballet. Pluto also appears in works based on other classical myths of the underworld. As a singing role, Pluto is almost always written for a bass voice, with the low vocal range representing the depths and weight of the underworld, as in Monteverdi and Rinuccini's L'Orfeo (1607) and Il ballo delle ingrate (1608). In their ballo, a form of ballet with vocal numbers, Cupid invokes Pluto from the underworld to lay claim to "ungrateful" women who were immune to love. Pluto's part is considered particularly virtuosic, and a reviewer at the première described the character, who appeared as if from a blazing Inferno, as "formidable and awesome in sight, with garments as given him by poets, but burdened with gold and jewels."
The role of Pluto is written for a bass in Peri's Euridice (1600); Caccini's Euridice (1602); Rossi's Orfeo (1647); Cesti's Il pomo d'oro (1668); Sartoris's Orfeo (1672); Lully's Alceste, a tragédie en musique (1674); Charpentier's chamber opera La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (1686); Telemann's Orpheus (1726); and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). Pluto was a baritone in Lully's Proserpine (1680), which includes a duo dramatizing the conflict between the royal underworld couple, notable for its early use of musical characterization. Perhaps the most famous of the Orpheus operas is Offenbach's satiric Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), in which a tenor sings the role of Pluton, disguised in the giddily convoluted plotting as Aristée (Aristaeus), a farmer.
Ballets in which Pluto is featured include Lully's "Ballet of Seven Planets'" interlude from Cavalli's opera Ercole amante ("Hercules in Love"), a spectacular flop in which Louis XIV himself danced as Pluto and other characters; Noverre's lost La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers (1760s); Florian Deller's Orefeo ed Euridice (1763), with the role of Pluto danced by Gaétan Vestris; and the Persephone (1952) choreographed by Robert Joffrey based on André Gide's line "king of winters, the infernal Pluto."
The abduction of Proserpina by Pluto was the scene from the myth most often depicted by artists, who usually follow Ovid's version. The influential emblem book (Iconologia) of Cesare Ripa (1593, second edition 1603) presents the allegorical figure of Rape with a shield on which the abduction is painted. Jacob Isaacsz, the first teacher of Rembrandt, echoed Ovid in showing Pluto as the target of Cupid's arrow while Venus watches her plan carried out; the by Rubens is similar. Rembrandt incorporates Claudian's more passionate characterizations. The performance of Orpheus in the court of Pluto and Proserpina was also a popular subject.
Major artists who produced works depicting Pluto include:
- Dürer, Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (1516), etching (pictured under Medieval and Renaissance literature above). Dürer's first English biographer called this work "a wild, weird conception" that "produces a most uncomfortable, shuddering impression on the beholder." The source or significance of the unicorn as the form of transport is unclear; Dürer's preparatory drawing showed a conventional horse. Pluto seems to be presented in a manner that recalls the leader of the Wild Hunt.
- Caravaggio, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto (Italian Giove, Nettuno e Plutone, ca. 1597), a ceiling mural (pictured under Theogonies and cosmology above) intended for viewing from below, hence the unusual perspective. Caravaggio created the work for a room adjacent to the alchemical distillery of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, his most important patron. The three gods hover around a translucent globe that represents the world: Jupiter with his eagle, Neptune holding a trident, and Pluto accompanied by a bluish-gray horse and a Cerberus who resembles a three-headed border collie more than a hellhound. The three figures represent "an allegory of the applied science of alchemy" beyond the traditional personifications of the classical elements air, water, and earth.
- Brueghel the Elder, Orpheus before Pluto and Proserpina (1604), painting.
- Bernini, Pluto and Proserpina (1621–22), also known as The Rape of Proserpina, sculpture with a Cerberus looking in three different directions.
- Rembrandt, Abduction of Proserpina (ca. 1631), painting influenced by Rubens (via the engraving of his student Pieter Soutman). Rembrandt's leonine Pluto draws on Claudian's description of the god as like a ravening lion.
After the Renaissance, literary interest in the abduction myth waned until the revival of classical myth among the Romantics. The work of mythographers such as J.G. Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison helped inspire the recasting of myths in modern terms by Victorian and Modernist writers. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Thomas Hardy portrays Alec d'Urberville as "a grotesque parody of Pluto/Dis" exemplifying the late-Victorian culture of male domination, in which women were consigned to "an endless breaking … on the wheel of biological reproduction." A similar figure is found in The Lost Girl (1920) by D.H. Lawrence, where the character Ciccio acts as Pluto to Alvina's Persephone, "the deathly-lost bride … paradoxically obliterated and vitalised at the same time by contact with Pluto/Dis" in "a prelude to the grand design of rebirth." The darkness of Pluto is both a source of regeneration, and of "merciless annihilation." Lawrence takes up the theme elsewhere in his work; in The First Lady Chatterley (1926, an early version of Lady Chatterley's Lover), Connie Chatterley sees herself as a Persephone and declares "she'd rather be married to Pluto than Plato," casting her earthy gamekeeper lover as the former and her philosophy-spouting husband as the latter.