Hades is 2020’s indie hit, a fantastic action game that uses the characters we all know from Greek mythology to tell its story about determination and strained familial relationships. Except the game’s version of the mythological characters are perhaps not quite as messed up as their mythological counterparts — because Hades goes out of its way to avoid the main character being born of incest.
If you know anything about the Greek myths and how they originated, you’ll know the stories we have now have not existed in a single, homogenous “canon” for very long. Everything we now commonly attribute to the religion of the Ancient Greeks was distilled over a long period of time from a panoply of local cults and oral traditions that eventually trickled down to us in its current form thanks to the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Homer, Ovid, Hesiod, and several others I’m forgetting.
Zagreus himself is basically created from a name that crops up in a few old texts and is vaguely attributed to an Underworld figure — and I cannot thank the game creators enough for turning that wisp of detail into one of my favorite new protagonists. There’s no one correct version of these gods, just the one we happen to have. So I’m not here to complain about Hades messing with the “canon.” I am, however, a little surprised that Hades is so gun-shy over the topic of incest.
The fact that Greek myth is absolutely littered with incest surprises no one, right? Heck, it feels like it’s half the reason the myths have lasted as long as they have. Granted, we must leave aside the question of how to define incest when the participants are the personifications of the ocean, thunder, afterlife, seasons, etc. But the fact that Greek mythology as we know it is a soap opera about the world’s most messed-up family is at least part of its enduring appeal.
In the traditional story, Demeter is one of Zeus’ three sisters and a daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and her daughter Persephone is Zeus and Demeter’s daughter. Hades explicitly rewrites the origin story of both Demeter and Persephone so that they’re no longer related to Zeus and, by extension, Hades.
Demeter’s journal entry says, “My understanding is, despite popular belief, Demeter is no direct relation to Lord Hades or his brothers, being born of more ancient Titan stock.” Demeter also says that Persephone’s father was a mortal farmer in the game’s continuity.
Coincidentally, this is similar to one version of the birth of Plutus, the god of wealth: One of his possible sets of parents is Demeter and a mortal farmer. The other is Hades and Persephone, so, FYI, Zagreus might have a brother (and multiple sisters, but let’s not make this any more complicated than it has to be).
Hades isn’t even the only fresh retelling of the Hades / Persephone myth to do this. Lore Olympus, one of the darlings of Webtoons, retools Hera into the daughter of the Titan Metis (whom you also might know as the mother of Athena in one version of that goddess’s origin story), thus making her unrelated to Zeus and his brothers. Persephone also has no father in this version.
I can think of a couple of good reasons why the game doesn’t want to go there. For starters, the obvious: While incest is a funny quirk in the story of the Greek myths when we’re reading it as a book, when it’s a thing we’re participating in — and when family is such an important part of the game — it becomes more uncomfortable.
Also, I suspect part of it is that Hades is trying to portray a certain freedom with regards to the characters’ sexuality. Megaera says in response to Zagreus gauging her comfort with a polyamorous relationship: “We’re not mere mortals. What do we care?” — and incest is the point where that freedom goes from being sexy and cool to being icky.
Still, I’m not sure the game is really getting as far away from the matter as it thinks it is, considering Zagreus was raised as Nyx’s son and can get into a relationship with Nyx’s actual son, Thanatos.
There is one way that this change actually complicates matters. The six weapons Zagreus wields were used in the Titanomachy — the war between the fledgling Olympians and the Titans. While the war split pretty much everyone on Earth, according to the stories the Olympian side was led by the main six: Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter, Poseidon, and Hades.
Those six were in it together because they were all the children of Cronus and all the victims of his cannibalism (insert Goya’s creepy painting of Cronus / Saturn eating his son). So if Demeter — and possibly Hera and Hestia — was not a child of Cronus, then why did she fight in the Titanomachy? This creates a new story possibility where there wasn’t one before.
In terms of fiddling with the basic Hades / Persephone story, removing the incest is definitely one of the lesser things Hades could have done. While we may not be missing anything with its absence, it’s still amusing to see the game that willingly dips into the story of such a messed-up family has to do some housecleaning to make sure they’re not too messed up.