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Hades in Greek Mythology: Zagreus

If you’re anything like me, playing Hades has rekindled the awe and adoration of Greek mythology you felt when it was objectively the most interesting thing you learned about in your middle school history classes. It may have spawned a strong desire to rewatch Disney’s Hercules. Hell, I’m personally even considering re-reading the Odyssey. (Not the Iliad, mind you, which is more relevant to Hades, but also more boring and just has unchecked male egos spewing everywhere. At least they’re very, very checked by witches and nymphs and monsters in the Odyssey.)

Point is, my noted obsession with Hades is conspiring with my long-buried obsession with Greek mythology to spawn a new series of articles here on Stropse where I’ll be investigating Hades’s ties to the larger world of Greek mythology. And who better to start with than the game’s central character, who is not at all a mainstream figure in actual Greek mythology: Zagreus.

Actually, Zagreus has a pretty major role in Orphism, which was an entire set of religious beliefs and stories associated with the followers of Orpheus. Followers of Orphism revered those who defy death (hmmm), and their most treasured gods were Dionysis and Persephone (HMMMM).

In Orphism, Zagreus is the son of Zeus and Persephone. And the myth he stars in is the most important myth of Orphism. As with many of these myths, there are multiple versions with little details tweaked, but here’s the gist of it:

Zeus turned into a snake to have sexy times with Persephone (sure), the result of which was Zagreus. This made Zeus’s actual wife, Hera, a little peeved, so she asked the Titans to kill the child. The Titans obliged, sneaking up on poor baby Zag while he was playing with his toys (in some versions, they give him the toys – don’t accept gifts from shady strangers, kids). The Titans proceed to dismember him. And kill him. By eating him.

Zeus doesn’t appreciate his son’s murder, and upon discovering what happened, he strikes the Titans with a thunderbolt and immediately turns them into ash. In some versions of the story, this ash gives rise to the humans, and the ash’s mixture of the vile Titans and the god Zagreus explains the origin of good and evil within humans. 

In seemingly all versions, either Zeus or Persephone finds Zagreus’s heart among the ashes. There’s any number of ways they use this heart, including giving it to another Olympian god for reassembly or impregnating a mortal woman with it. But the outcome is always the same: Zagreus is reborn.

The kicker is, this new Zagreus goes by another name: Dionysis.

Plot twist!

Zagreus is therefore known in some circles as “the first Dionysis.” Hades actually offers a little wink and nod to this story. Dionysis jokes with Zagreus and tries to persuade him to tell Orpheus “how you and I, like, we’re connected or something.”

Image courtesy of Reddit user u/ montezuma.

The pre-Orphic myths concerning Zagreus are the ones that link him to the Underworld. Sadly, all of these mentions occur in lost works. One lost epic pairs him with Gaia, the goddess of Earth, and calls him the “highest of all gods.” Some interpret this to mean that, in this epic, Zag was Hades himself.

In one of his lost plays, the tragedian Aeschylus also conflates Zagreus with Hades. But in a different lost Aeschylus play, Zagreus is mentioned in the capacity we know him: as Hades’s son.

These Underworld-centric mentions of Zagreus predate the Orphic myth by at least one hundred years. So some scholars believe that Zagreus was the son of Hades and Persephone in older Greek mythological circles (maybe probably possibly), and when Orphism rolled around, he just got muddled up with Dionysis, the son of Zeus and Persephone in Orphic mythology.

But Dionysis hates a party pooper more than anything.

The lack of information about Zagreus is exactly what endeared him to the team behind Hades as they were searching for a protagonist. In an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, writer Greg Kasavin recalled, “I ran into this detail that there’s this little-known god called Zagreus who, according to some, is a prototype of Dionysus, but there’s also a shred of evidence that he might be the son of Hades. Like, woah! What’s that about? Then I researched Hades more, and it turns out there are very few stories told about him.”

That mystery became their storytelling playground. Turns out, Zag’s relatives weren’t the only ones surprised Hades had a secret son.

So that’s that on Zagreus. But who comes next in our investigation of the Greek gods, goddesses, and demigod-goddesses of yesterday? Stay tuned for the next Hades in Greek Mythology.

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