Persephone mosaic art

Ancient Greek Mythology: Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld

It is finally winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The temperatures are lower, the days are shorter, the trees are balder and the crops grow slower. Today, we are able to explain this change in season with science. However, the Ancient Greeks had their own way of explaining this phenomenon – through mythological stories primarily featuring the goddess Persephone.

In today’s post, we will explore the various myths and their different versions pertaining to Persephone. In doing so, we will attempt to understand her role and significance in Ancient Greek and Roman societies. We can also see what sort of lessons we can draw from the stories and how they may be applicable to us in the present day. Lastly, we’ll discuss Persephone’s prominence in popular culture today.

Trigger Warning: Due to the nature of the mythological stories, this post contains some content surrounding sexual and physical violence. This may be disturbing to some. As such, the reader’s discretion is advised.

Who is Persephone?

Before diving straight into the stories related to Persephone, let us first understand who she is. Persephone, also known as Kore, is a Greek deity with dual identities. As Kore, she is the goddess of spring, vegetation, fertility and nature. But, as Persephone, she is the Queen of the Underworld, the bringer of death and the dread queen. In this post, both her forms are referred to as Persephone to avoid confusion.

Persephone is the daughter of Zeus, god of the sky and the king of the gods, and Demeter, the powerful goddess of agriculture, harvest, fertility and nature. Demeter and Zeus are two of the twelve Olympians, who were the major deities in the Ancient Greek religion. They were also siblings, Zeus being Demeter’s younger brother. In ancient mythology, from many cultures, not just the Greek culture, it is common for gods and goddesses to marry and breed with their family members.

Illustration of Persephone
Image Credit: Stef Tastan

Persephone the Maiden 

Persephone is depicted as a beautiful, innocent young girl of nurturing and gentle nature. In this form, she is known as Kore, which means ‘maiden’ or ‘young girl’. While we do not know much about Persephone’s life before her teenage years, we do know she was raised with extreme care. Demeter, her mother, raised her in the gardens of Mount Olympus, far from the main Olympian deities, to keep her protected. Mount Olympus is the divine abode of the Greek deities.

Overall, she grew up in a protected environment and maintained a very close relationship with her mother. She had also made some friends, who were also maidens. Together, they spent their time playing and picking flowers.

Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld

As a teenager, Persephone gets married to Hades. Hades is the ruler and god of the underworld and the brother of Zeus and Demeter. This makes him Persephone’s uncle as well. In this form, she rules alongside Hades, as his equal. She is often feared by mortals and is known as the bringer of death. The word ‘Persephone’ does, after all, mean ‘she who destroys light’. A fitting name for the Queen of the Underworld.

Persephone’s Many Names and Images

In addition to the names ‘Persephone’ and ‘Kore’, the goddess has other names too. She may also be called ‘The Maiden’, ‘The Great Goddess’, ‘The Pure One’, ‘The Mistress’, ‘Dread Queen’, and when she is portrayed alongside Demeter, the pair are known as ‘The Two Goddesses’.

Persephone or Kore is usually portrayed as being in the company of either her mother or her husband. Some of her symbols are a sheaf of grain, a pomegranate, a bat, the narcissus flower and a torch. Artwork dedicated to her shows her holding one or more of these symbols. She is most frequently seen to be wearing a long floor-length robe, holding a sheaf of grain, a sceptre, a torch and a pomegranate.

Now the question is, how did the goddess of spring become the Queen of the underworld? This question can be answered by the mythological stories surrounding the goddess.

Stories of Persephone

There exist many versions of the stories about Persephone. Those retold below are just one of those versions.

Eros and Aphrodite’s Scheme

The story begins with Eros, the god of love, and his mother, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, love and lust. Upon Aphrodite’s orders, Eros, one day when he was feeling particularly mischievous, shot all the male gods in the Greek pantheon with his arrows. His arrows are known to make people fall in love with a person, and this person was Persephone. Why Persephone? Because she was raised away from the gods and goddesses on Olympus. Eros and Aphrodite wanted to prove no one is immune to their influence. So, they schemed to make all the gods fall in love with her.

Statue of Eros about to shoot his arrow
Eros about to shoot his arrow. Image Credit: Mythology Source

Consequently, all the gods tried to get her hand in marriage by showering her with gifts. They approached her one by one. First, it was Hermes, the messenger god. He offered her his golden caduceus. Then, it was Apollo, the god of the sun, light, healing, music and prophecy. He tried gifting her his lyre, which is his symbol. Then came Ares, the mighty god of war, offering her a spear and armour. He was seemingly even willing to be unfaithful to his lover Aphrodite, to marry Persephone. Then came Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalworks. He made her a ring and offered to end his marriage to Aphrodite.

They were all rejected and Demeter, Persephone’s mother, was especially frustrated by all this unwanted attention towards her innocent daughter. Besides, she wanted her daughter to remain a chaste maiden so she could keep her by her side forever. This is why most of Persephone’s friends were maidens as well.

Persephone’s Fate

Demeter was also worried about her daughter’s fate while dealing with the unnecessary suitors, so she decided to consult an astrologist. She visited the Titan god of stars, planets and astrology, Astraeus. Once Demeter gave him all the information he needed about Persephone’s birth, he made two predictions. The first was that her virginity would be suddenly and secretly be stolen, and the second was that her future husband would steal his bride.

Worried about her daughter’s fate, Demeter did everything in her power to keep her hidden in order to protect her. She immediately took Persephone to a secret cave. Some versions of the myth say this cave was located in Sicily, Italy. Persephone hid in the depths of the cave whose entrance was well guarded by drakons. Drakons were giant and scary serpent-like creatures. They protected her while Demeter was away tending to her duties as the goddess of agriculture.

First Prediction Coming True

Young and naïve Persephone was hidden in the cave where she’d most of her time weaving or playing in the protected vicinity.

While other gods didn’t know where she was, Zeus, the god of the sky, could see everything happening on Earth. Zeus was notorious for being unfaithful to his wife, Hera. He would seduce any woman he’d be attracted to, having numerous affairs with goddesses and mortals alike.

According to one version of the myth, when Eros shot his arrows, even Zeus wasn’t spared. He now had this growing infatuation for his own daughter, Persephone. This infatuation grew so strong that he was unable to control himself.

One day, he reached the cave where Persephone was being hidden and he put the drakons to sleep. He then transformed himself into one of the drakons and entered the cave. Once inside, he seduced his own daughter and from this union, Persephone gave birth to Zagreus.

Zagreus

Shortly after his birth, Zeus took Zagreus to Olympus and placed him on his throne. Little Zagreus even inherited some of his father’s powers, like the ability to throw lightning bolts. Seeing Zagreus infuriated Hera. Not only because Zeus had fathered yet another illegitimate child, but also because he was sitting on Zeus’ throne. Like many other times, Hera plotted to kill the boy. She engaged some titans to do her dirty work. They tricked the boy by offering him toys in exchange for his powers. Once he was powerless and unable to defend himself, they literally tore him apart, leaving only his little heart.

Zeus picked up the heart and made an elixir out of it. Not too long after this incident, he had an affair with the Theban princess, Semele. Zeus seduced her and gave his lover the elixir to drink. Semele then conceived, but the child was ultimately born out of Zeus’ thigh. This child was Dionysus, the god of wine. Dionysus was also a god of vegetation, which many mythology enthusiasts believe is due to his twisted connection with Persephone.

Second Prediction Coming True

After the first prediction came true, Demeter was more worried than ever. Unfortunately, she could not keep an eye on her daughter all the time. She was bound to her duties on Earth. All she could do was strengthen the protection there and make sure her friends accompanied Persephone when she was outside.

This is where Hades, the powerful god of the underworld, enters the scene. Usually, Hades stayed in his realm and didn’t come up to the mortal world. However, according to one version of the myth, Hades had to come up to the surface one day. On that day, apparently, a massive volcano had erupted, causing a lot of commotion in the underworld. The volcano was seemingly a sign that the Titan Typhon, who was defeated by Zeus and banished to Tartarus, was furious. Tartarus is one of the deepest parts of the underworld. This is where the worst enemies of the gods are imprisoned.

Hades surfacing was a rare occasion, so Eros was prepared with his arrows. Before this day, it seems the god of the underworld was unaffected. Once he ascended the Earth, Eros struck him with his arrows. Truly, no one could escape Eros and Aphrodite’s influence.

At some point soon after being struck, Hades found Persephone playing in the valley near her cave. The god, who is usually described as gloomy, lonely, grim and cold-hearted, felt a certain passion and softness towards her. Before he knew it, he was madly in love with Persephone and wanted her to be his wife.

Zeus’ Permission

There was one problem. He knew Demeter, his sister, would never accept him as a suitable husband for her daughter. So, he went straight to his brother Zeus to ask for permission. Zeus did, after all, promise him that he could marry any one of his daughters. Zeus granted him permission despite knowing Demeter would object. However, he did not have any other option. Firstly, Zeus did not want to fight with his brother. And secondly, he had to make up to Hera for seducing Persephone and there could not have been a better opportunity. So, he not only granted Hades permission but also offered to assist him. Together, they planned exactly how to make Persephone Hades’ bride.

The Abduction of Persephone

persephone picking flowers
Persephone picking flowers in the valley. Image Credit: Hub Pages

One day, Persephone was out in the valley picking flowers with her friends. Her friends included some of the ocean nymphs; Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. During their time outdoors, Persephone drifted a little far from her friends but still in their sight. That is when she spotted a mysterious yet stunning flower at a distance. It was the most beautiful flower she had ever laid her eyes on and she knew she had to get it.

Sensing no danger, she proceeded towards it. By now, she was far away from her friends. So much so, that they couldn’t see her. Unbeknownst to her, the flower, a narcissus, was strategically placed there by her father, Zeus. She stood by the flower, admired it and then bent down to pick it. Suddenly, the ground beneath her tore apart. It revealed a massive chasm from where Hades emerged in his golden chariot driven by four black horses. He quickly scooped her up, placed her in the chariot and descended to the underworld. All this time, Persephone cried and screamed for help, but her voice couldn’t be heard.

The ground sealed up as if nothing had ever happened. Persephone had been abducted by Hades.

This story of her abduction is more famously known as the Rape of Persephone. In this context, the word ‘rape’ refers to more of an abduction, rather than sexual assault. It is unclear, however, whether Hades did force himself upon Persephone.

painting showing hades kidnapping persephone
The Fate of Persephone by Walter Crane, 1877. Image Credit: Christie’s Images via Icy Sedgwick

Demeter’s Search for Persephone

Persephone was gone and her friends had no idea where she was. When Demeter returned from her duties, she found her daughter gone. She asked her friends and searched the nearby area but couldn’t find her. Worried, she frantically began searching the Earth but to no avail.

Demeter was devastated. She continued her search for nine days straight without eating, drinking or resting. Then, on the tenth day, her friend Hecate, the goddess of magic and witchcraft, approached her to confess she had heard Persephone. She said she heard her screams, so she rushed to see what had happened. By the time she reached her, it was too late. She was already gone and, unfortunately, she couldn’t see who had taken her. Unable to be much help to her friend, she advised Demeter to go to Helios, the all-seeing Titan sun god.

Demeter’s Fury

They immediately went to Helios and demanded to know what had happened. Feeling bad for Demeter, Helios told her everything about the kidnapping and even about Zeus’ involvement. Demeter was fuming and seeing her rage, Helios suggested that Hades may just be the right husband for her daughter.

But Demeter thought otherwise. How could Hades, her grim, cold-hearted and merciless brother, who was much older than her daughter, be right for her? Moreover, she loved playing in nature under the shining sun. How could the dark and cold underworld, full of dead souls, be the right environment for her?

In addition to that, she could not believe Zeus would approve of such a union. This infuriated her even more. So, she went to him and asked him to return his daughter but he refused.

She was already grieving, but now she felt helpless as well. In her sorrow, she completely abandoned her duties as goddess of harvest and agriculture. In other versions, Demeter is so furious that she decides to seek vengeance. Knowing Zeus’ affection for humankind, she decided not to fulfil her duties as goddess of harvest and agriculture. Either way, this led to the Earth turning into an infertile, barren and cold place. There was no more greenery, crops no longer grew and the water sources dried up. Humankind suffered a disastrous famine because of which people began dying of starvation.

painting showing demeter's sorrow
Demeter mourning for her child. Painting by Evelyn de Morgan, 1906. Image Credit: Femmina Classica

Reaching Eleusis

Sometime after confronting Zeus and before fully abandoning her duties as goddess of agriculture, Demeter began wandering the Earth. She was full of grief and sorrow and felt absolutely helpless. While wandering, she reached Eleusis, a city not too far from Athens, at some point. There, she transformed herself into an old mortal woman and took shelter under a tree located next to the Maiden Well. This is where women used to go and fetch water.

There, the four daughters of Celeus, the king of Eleusis, came to fetch water when they spotted the old woman. They politely asked her who she was and where she came from. Demeter created a false identity for herself and told them her name was Doso. She told them that pirates had kidnapped her from Crete but she somehow managed to escape and take shelter in Eleusis. She also expressed that she was hoping to find work as a nurse or housekeeper.

The girls then offered Doso to stay and work with them as their mother, Metaneira, had recently given birth to a boy. They asked her to nurse their brother till he reached his youth. Doso humbly agreed to this offer. The girls asked Doso to stay where she was until they went and spoke to their mother.

Entering the Queen’s House

The girls quickly returned to their home and told Metaneira about Doso. The queen immediately asked them to bring the old woman to their house. The girls rushed to bring Doso back with them. Before entering, Doso had veiled herself and as soon as she entered, her presence radiated divine energy. The queen was charmed and asked her to take a seat next to her on the couch.

However, Doso refused because she was a homeless old woman. Sitting beside the queen as her equal was out of the question. She stood until another servant named Iambe brought her a low chair for her. She was offered food and drinks but, as she was still mourning for her daughter, she refused the refreshments. Over time, however, Iambe managed to cheer her up. Even managed to make Doso laugh. The queen then poured her some red wine but she refused and asked for a drink made of barley, water and mint instead. (Remember this drink. It will come up later.)

Despite presenting herself as a homeless old woman, the queen treated her like a noble lady. She told her that she would be heavily rewarded if she could raise her son Demophoon. Doso accepted her offer and promised to raise and protect him.

Nursing Demophoon

Illustration of Demeter nursing Demophoon in the fire
Illustration of Demeter nursing Demophoon in the fire. Image Credit: Super Coloring

Doso quickly began her duties as Demophoon’s nurse. As she was pleased by the family’s hospitality, she decided to reward them by turning the boy immortal. She fed him ambrosia, the food of the gods, and at night, she would secretly place him into a fire. The process was supposed to burn away his mortality without hurting him. The boy grew really well and even started looking like a god. Doso absolutely adored Demophoon.

But Metaneira was suspicious. She wanted to know what Doso was doing to raise him. So, one night she decided to spy on the old nurse. She was horrified when she found her boy in the fire and cried out.

Doso or Demeter was enraged as her plan to make him immortal had failed. She was furious with Metaneira and the overall foolishness of humankind. She had no option but to reveal her true identity. Doso slowly transformed into her real beautiful, divine self, as Demeter. She then ordered the people of Eleusis to build her a temple in her place of choice. She promised to personally teach them the rites and rituals they needed to do to please her. Then, she left Metaneira’s house once and for all.

Demeter’s Temple

The queen was in total awe but mostly terrified. All this while Demophoon was crying inconsolably. The only person who could calm him down was gone. At dawn, the queen and her daughters informed the king about the incident and Demeter’s order. The king quickly arranged for labourers to build a temple for the goddess exactly where she wanted it and, in the manner, she instructed them to build it. Demeter was pleased and she spent her time in the temple, still grieving for Persephone and still furious at Zeus and Hades.

At this point, you may be wondering why the story of Demeter’s time in Eleusis is relevant. Well, this is because it formed the foundations of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Eleusinian Mysteries or the Rites of Eleusis were secretive rituals done by agrarian cults in honour of Demeter and Persephone. These rites are discussed in detail later in the post. Stay tuned!

Reuniting with Persephone

painting showing demeter and persephone reuniting
The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton, 1891. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Demeter stayed in Eleusis for another year. At that time, as she had promised, she taught the people how to perform rituals in her and Persephone’s honour.

Even after all this time, her sorrow wouldn’t leave her. In her continued rage and grief, she completely abandoned her duties as goddess of the harvest and agriculture. Soon, the Earth turned into an unpleasant, cold, barren and infertile place. People were starving and dying. They prayed to the gods and goddesses at Olympus to save them. Finally, when they were no longer able to make sacrifices to the gods, it caught their attention.

Zeus decided to take action but he wouldn’t speak to Demeter himself. He sent other gods and goddesses to invite her back to Olympus and to make the world fertile again. Naturally, Demeter refused. One by one, many deities approached her, with gifts in their hands, and made the same request. Demeter refused and made it clear that she wouldn’t do anything or go anywhere until her daughter came back to her.

Seeing no other option, Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld to explain the situation to Hades and retrieve Persephone. Hades obeyed and allowed her to go because no one knew about the little trick he’d managed to pull off.

Hermes then took Persephone back to her mother and they both were delighted! They embraced each other, they cried, they laughed and expressed all sorts of emotions. In her joy, Demeter made the world fertile and green again. Flowers bloomed and fruits grew again. Humanity was saved, they were no longer starving and they were able to make sacrifices to the gods again. Everything went back to normal. The mother and daughter spent some time together before Demeter sensed something was off.

Persephone and the Pomegranate

After Persephone was abducted and was forcefully made Hades’ wife, she spent her days in an extreme state of sorrow. She was angry, she kept crying and just hoping to get out of what felt like a prison. She’d refused to eat or drink anything. Meanwhile, Hades would try to win her heart by showering her with gifts, treating her well and making her his equal. She would rule by his side as the Queen of the Underworld.

One day, Hades learnt about Zeus agreeing to free Persephone from his realm. Instead of fighting with his powerful brother, he planned an alternative way to make his wife stay. He tricked her into having a few seeds of a pomegranate, the food of the underworld. In Greek mythology, eating any food from the underworld would bind the person to the realm forever. They would have returned and stayed there forever, no matter what.

In other versions of the story, Hades offers the fruit to Persephone. Persephone knew the consequences of eating the food. However, as she was famished from not eating for so long, she decided to only have a few seeds instead of the entire fruit. Either way, Persephone had eaten food from the underworld.

persephone about to eat a pomegranate
Image Credit: Pinterest

When Demeter learned about this, it made her divine blood boil. She immediately went to Zeus and he gathered all the gods and goddesses to decide what to do. In some versions, this meeting was called right after Hermes brought Persephone back from the underworld.

Zeus’ Verdict

Everyone knew the rules about eating food from the underworld. Demeter, however, threatened to never make the world fertile again if she was never allowed to see her daughter. Knowing what she was capable of, Zeus made an exception for Persephone, in a way that would satisfy both Hades and Demeter. As Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds, she’d spend six months with Hades and the other six with her mother. In other versions of the myth, Zeus allows Persephone to stay 1/3rd of the year with her husband. And the rest of the year with Demeter.

Neither Hades nor Demeter was content, but seeing no better alternative, they both agreed. So, from then on, whenever Persephone makes her journey to the underworld, her mother’s sorrow turns the world cold, barren and infertile. And when she returns to the heavens and the mortal world, Demeter’s joy turns the Earth green. Her presence on Earth marks spring and summer and her absence marks autumn and winter. This is how the Ancient Greeks explained the change in seasons in antiquity.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

As mentioned earlier, the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Rites of Eleusis were a set of rites and rituals done by agrarian cults in honour of Demeter and Persephone. They took place twice a year. First, minor rituals took place in spring and the main event took place in September, on the days close to the Autumn Equinox. The Ancient Greeks performed the rites in Eleusis and Athens between 1450 and 392 BC. Some believe the rites were performed until the advent of Christianity in the region.

Not much is known about what exactly happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries, especially in the initial few centuries. Initiated members performing the rites were sworn to secrecy so they could not share or properly document the events of the rites. It is believed that Demeter herself had taught the first members how to perform the appropriate rituals.

What is known for sure is that the rites held great importance to the Ancient Greeks. They believed humanity wouldn’t survive if these rituals weren’t performed.

By the 1st century BC, the level of secrecy required to be a member and partake in the rites had been reduced. However, this isn’t of much use because the original practices would have evolved by then. Thus, there is no way of knowing what exactly the rites entailed initially.

The Rituals and their Significance

artwork showing the eleusinian mysteries
An artist’s interpretation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Artwork title: Phryne on the Poseidon’s celebration in Eleusis by Henryk Hector Siemiradsky, 1889. Image Credit: Viático de Vagamundo

It is, however, known that people expressed their gratitude towards the goddesses of vegetation, harvest and agriculture. As mentioned earlier, these people were often members of agrarian cults who honoured the Two Goddesses. Back then, people mainly lived in agrarian societies and relied on agriculture for their livelihoods. This made Persephone and Demeter important deities to worship and honour. In these rites, they also appreciated the beauty of nature, its abundance, fertility, the human spirit and rebirth.

Members of the cult viewed Persephone’s ascent to Earth from the underworld as a symbol of rebirth. In Greek Mythology, living beings were not usually able to find their way out of Hades’ realm. However, Persephone did and with her, she brought spring. Initiated members, by performing these rituals, no longer feared death and they saw themselves as eternal souls inhabiting perishable bodies. The cult honoured the cycle of death and rebirth. Its members believed the rites would grant them a pleasant time in the underworld after death. This was the primary purpose of performing these secretive rites.

Another known fact is that part of the rites involved re-enacting the myth of Persephone. This included scenes from her kidnapping, to her time in the underworld, to her reunion with Demeter. The Eleusinian Mysteries would also honour the relationship and bond between a mother and daughter. Lastly, they’d also re-enact her never-ending journey from the underworld to earth and back to the underworld.

Also, remember the drink that Demeter in the form of Doso requested from queen Mateneira? That drink, made of barley, water and mint was called kykeon. It was seemingly used as part of these rituals. Some accounts mention that the drink even contained some hallucinogenic fungi, to alleviate the entire experience.

Hercules, a Notable Member

The hero Heracles, better known by his Roman name Hercules, was known to be a member of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Heracles was a demigod, a son of Zeus, and a notable Greek hero. One time he had to enter the underworld for one of his adventures. He knew mortals usually did not return from this realm. So, if he couldn’t return to the mortal world, he decided to take some protective measures. To make his stay there more pleasant. Heracles journeyed to Eleusis to seek membership into the cult. As he met a few of their conditions, he was initiated.

Persephone as Queen of the Underworld

sculture of persephone seated
Sculpture of Persephone seated. Image Credit: Livius

Initially, Persephone was upset about her separation from her mother and about her abduction, as anyone would be. However, gradually, she began confiding in Hades and eventually started liking him. They’re even shown to live happily together.

They were a power couple of sorts because of Hades’ status as one of the three main Olympian deities. Some even compare their relationship to that of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of heaven. This is because Hades and Persephone ruled the underworld, just as Zeus and Hera ruled its contrasting realm.

However, unlike Zeus and Hera’s relationship, the king and queen of the underworld had a more stable relationship. Unlike Zeus and the other gods, who were famous for their infidelity, Hades mostly stayed loyal to Persephone.

Moreover, he treated Persephone with respect and as his equal. Hades would act against those who expressed their interest in Persephone. Or against those who disrespected her. An example of this can be seen from the time the demigod Pirithous visited the underworld.

Theseus and Pirithous’ visit to the Underworld

One time, Pirithous and his friend, the Greek hero Theseus, entered the underworld. Theseus had already found a bride for himself, but he accompanied Pirithous to help him find one. Pirithous decided to make Persephone his bride by kidnapping her. When they entered the underworld, they made their intentions very clear. Hades offered his hospitality and asked them to join him for a feast later on. Pleased by this offer, the duo agreed. During the feast, Hades, like a decent host, asked them to take a seat. Once they settled down, stone snakes from the chairs began creeping on their legs. They tightened firmly around them and bound the men to their seats because Hades deliberately offered them the Chair of Forgetfulness. Theseus would be rescued by Hercules, but Pirithous would remain in the underworld forever.

 

Additionally, Persephone ruled by Hades’ side and even made decisions as Queen of the underworld. So far, we’ve only seen Persephone depicted as a naïve girl protected by her mother, or as a helpless victim. It also seems like she doesn’t have much say in the decisions about her own life. For instance, it is always Zeus or Demeter making decisions for her. As the Queen of the underworld, we finally see her develop into an individual entity of her own.

Persephone’s Personality

We know that as queen, she was heavily feared by mortals. Merely because of her position as the Queen of the underworld. Not necessarily because of any incident.

We also know that, unlike Hades, Persephone is known to be merciful. Hades’ job is to guide the departed souls into the underworld. He is often unaffected by the circumstances that led them into his realm. He makes no exceptions for anyone and, therefore, he is seen as a cold-hearted and cruel deity. When, in reality, he stays in his realm, works hard to do what must be done in a fair manner. This ensures order in an otherwise chaotic underworld. This is also why Hades isn’t necessarily portrayed as an evil god in Greek mythology. It is only in the more modern representations of Greek mythology that he gained such a reputation.

Persephone, on the other hand, made some exceptions. For example, she is known to have spared the lives of Alcestis and Admetus and allowed them to return to the underworld.

Myth of Alcestis and Admetus

Admetus and Alcestis were the king and queen of Thessaly. At their wedding, Apollo, the Olympian god gifted Admetus with the ability to revive himself. He could use this gift if he were ever seriously ill or on the verge of death. With it, he could be brought back to health. That is if someone volunteered to die in his place.

After their wedding, the king and queen lived happily for a while before Admetus fell ill. He was on the verge of death when some of his subjects reminded him of Apollo’s gift. However, the gift was of no use as no one was ready to surrender their lives. Admetus was a kind and benevolent king, but that wasn’t enough for others to die for him. No one was prepared to sacrifice themselves, except for his wife Alcestis. She died in his place and Admetus was healthy again.

In one version of the myth, Thanatos, the god of death, came to get her soul. Realizing she had died willingly, he took her to Persephone. When Persephone asked about her death, Thanatos retold the whole story. She was so moved by Alcestis’ love and sacrifice that she asked Thanatos to resurrect her. She was allowed to leave the underworld and go back to the mortal world. The king and queen then grew old and lived happily together for a few more years.

The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Another example of Persephone’s mercy is related to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

painting of orpheus and eurydice
Orpheus and Eurydice, Carl Goos, 1826. Image Credit:  Artvee

Orpheus, the son of Apollo, was an extraordinary poet and musician. He fell in love with Eurydice, a wood nymph, and she loved him as well. Soon the lovers decided to get married. However, in a cruel twist of fate, on their wedding day, Eurydice was bitten by a venomous snake. Subsequently, she fell to the ground from a height and died. Orpheus was devastated and was grieving. After her funeral, he had made it his life’s mission to somehow bring back his lover. He decided to journey to the underworld and plead with the king and queen.

The gates of the underworld are guarded by an intimidating three-headed dog named Cerberus. When Orpheus reached the gates, he started playing his lyre, which put the dog to sleep. Then, he easily entered the realm of the dead. Charon, the person responsible for ferrying dead souls to cross the River Styx, was also touched by his music. So, he carried him across the river free of charge. He then found himself in front of Persephone and Hades and presented himself. He began singing about his love and asked them to resurrect Eurydice. At least until it was actually time for her to go to the underworld, not be taken untimely. When he was done singing, everyone stopped what they were doing. They were all moved by his song. Even some of the hardened criminals and the most daunting creatures wept.

Persephone’s Request

Persephone was deeply touched and asked Hades to allow both of them to return to the mortal world. Hades agreed on one condition. Orpheus couldn’t look behind on his way out, or at least until he reached the Earth’s surface. Else, he would never see Eurydice again. Orpheus thought it was easy enough and began his ascent. But soon, he began to wonder whether she was really behind him. After all, he couldn’t hear her voice, nor could he hear her footsteps. He was really tempted but he resisted. But, just as he was a step away from the Earth’s surface, he gave in and turned. He saw Eurydice fall into the abyss and never saw her again.

Persephone’s mercy and empathy towards these characters and some other heroes protected them from death and from Hades. Thus, serving as a sort of protector to the people visiting the underworld.

To understand Persephone a bit better, let us look at a few more stories surrounding her from Greek mythology.

Persephone and Minthe

green mint leaves
Mint. Image Credit: Unsplash

Before Hades had met and abducted Persephone, he had a mistress named Minthe. Minthe was a naiad nymph. A naiad nymph is a nymph of flowing water. Minthe was associated with the River Cocytus, located in the underworld. When Hades brought Persephone to the underworld, Minthe was clearly unhappy. But, she hoped he would return to her one day because she believed she was way more beautiful than Persephone. She was so confident of her appearance that Minthe would announce it wherever she could. One day Persephone heard her and stomped her to death. From the ground that she died, grew a mint plant. She made sure Hades could never return to her.

In another version of the story, it was Demeter who stomped on her, transforming her into a mint plant. This version may have occurred shortly after Persephone was abducted and before Demeter reached Eleusis. Demeter was still grieving and one day she heard Minthe announcing how she was more beautiful than her daughter. And, that Hades would eventually leave Persephone for her. This enraged Demeter and she stomped on her. Some use this version of the story to explain why Demeter asked Metaneira to add mint to her drink.

Adonis

Both Persephone and Hades remained loyal to each other for the most part. However, it seemed Persephone would have the occasional affair without any known consequences. This is the story of Adonis.

Adonis was an unbelievably attractive mortal man who captured the attention of both Aphrodite and Persephone. Both goddesses ended up falling in love with him. They both loved him dearly and couldn’t decide who deserved him more. To solve this issue, Zeus decided Adonis would spend a third of his time with Persephone, another third with Aphrodite and the other third with the person he pleased. This arrangement worked for them and so Adonis spent his time with both goddesses. When it was time to pick the person he wanted to spend his remaining time with, he chose Aphrodite. This infuriated Persephone so much that she sent a boar to kill Adonis while he was out hunting. He tragically died in Aphrodite’s arms. From the ground where his blood split sprang a red anemone.

What do these Stories Tell Us?

First of all, as we discussed earlier, the myth of Persephone explained the changes in the seasons for the Ancient Greeks and even the Romans. Her journey to the underworld from Earth rendered the world cold and less fertile. When she returned, it would be just the opposite.

While science is able to explain the reason behind the changes in seasons, the myth is relevant to agriculturists today. In some parts of the world, farmers call the period when days have less than 10 hours of sunlight ‘the Persephone Period’. These are the coldest and darkest days of the year, making it less than optimal for plants to grow. As such, farmers keep track of this period and prepare accordingly to ensure their plants survive and keep growing.

Persephone’s return from the underworld marks spring. Spring is the time of the year when dormant plants start growing again. And when seeds sowed during fall or winter begin sprouting, signifying new life. Persephone’s ascent from below is symbolic of the way sprouting seeds push through the soil to reach the surface. On the other hand, her descent back to the underworld symbolizes the opposite – seeds being sowed into the ground during colder seasons.

illustration of persephone's influence on the seasons
The change in seasons. Image Credit: Earth Haven Learning

A Symbol of Hope

As this process continues in a cyclic manner, the goddess also represents death, re-birth and revival. She is additionally known as the bringer of death because her absence in the world results in the loss of food. But she is also a symbol of hope because her return restores life on Earth. Thus, her story also teaches us that there is always hope. Just like spring comes after a difficult winter, there is strength after weakness. There is light after darkness.

Speaking of light and dark, her relationship with Hades is another symbol of this concept. Both deities are polar opposites. One is the epitome of life, joy, youth, vitality and nourishment. While the other embodies the absence of life. Their relationship thus becomes the epitome of duality. And their marriage links the opposing concepts of life and death.

A Lesson about Loss and Motherhood

Persephone’s story is also a tale of loss and transition. The loss of innocence and the transformation from a girl to a woman. A transition from childhood to adulthood, where, in the process, we often leave our families and homes. Her story encompasses just that, as she is separated from Demeter. It is also a story of the loss of virginity, represented not only by becoming Hades’ bride. But also before that, when she plucks out the beautiful narcissus flower from the valley. This action represents deflowering, which also means the deprivation of a woman’s virginity.

Lastly, the myth of Persephone is also a story of motherhood. Firstly, it shows the pure bond between a mother and child. And secondly, it represents the difficulties a mother may endure while letting go of their child. There is the sorrow of no longer being able to keep them by their side. But, also the realization that their child can’t grow and succeed if they hold them back.

How do we know about these Ancient Myths?

Many of the original sources either weren’t recorded or have been lost over millennia. The majority of these stories are sourced from limited literary documents, artwork, pottery and oral storytelling.

The earliest documented record telling the stories of Persephone dates back to the 6th or 7th century BC. It is, however, possible that the myths existed before this time.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter

The earliest piece of literature to tell the story of Persephone is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. It is a collection of 34 poems composed in Ancient Greece between the 6th and 7th centuries BC. This is where we first find the tale of the goddess’ abduction.

While the title mentions ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’, the poems weren’t composed by the famous Greek author, Homer. The original author of these poems remains unknown.

Metamorphoses

The next source to detail Persephone’s story is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet who was exiled from Rome. However, before his exile, he had penned and published a narrative poem in the form of 15 books. The poem was published in 8 AD. Parts of Persephone’s myth are narrated in the 5th book of the series. It is from this piece of literature that we know Aphrodite and Eros plotted to shoot the gods with Eros’ arrows.

Ovid’s Fasti

The next piece of antique literature where we can find the story of Persephone is Ovid’s Fasti. Fasti is a 6-book poem that was also published in 8 AD, around the time Metamorphoses was published. The fourth book in the series narrates the story of Persephone. The version of the myth in this piece of literature shares similarities with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Claudian’s Poem

Next, there is the poem by the Latin poet Claudian, who published his poem titled ‘The Rape of Proserpine’ in the 4th century AD. A unique feature about this poem is that, unlike the previous works on the goddess, Proserpine (Roman name of Persephone) is the main character. Not Ceres (Roman name of Demeter), her mother or Pluto (Roman name of Hades). In this piece, her thoughts and feelings are also detailed, which is also different from the other works. Plus, there is a description of a wedding between Proserpine and Pluto, an event missing from the other literary works on the myth. This poem, however, was unfinished.

The Dionysiaca

Finally, there is the Dionysiaca, written by the Greek poet Nonnus of Panopolis in the 5th century AD. The Dionysiaca is an epic poem consisting of 48 books. It is most famously known as the longest surviving epic poem from the Greco-Roman period. The epic is centred on Dionysus and his adventures. However, the 6th book of this epic tells the story of Demeter’s meeting with the Titan astrologer Astraios and about the birth of Zagreus.

The stories retold in this post are drawn from versions that include parts of each of these literary sources.

Artwork and Pottery

Alternatively, there are artworks from this period that depict the myth of Persephone. Here is a list of a few of those artworks.

1. Sculpture of Kore with the Pomegranate

Sculpture of Kore with the Pomegranate
Kore with a pomegranate and wreath. Image Credit:  Acropolis Museum

This is a sculpture of Persephone in layers of textile, bending her right arm and holding a pomegranate. The marble sculpture dates back to between 580 and 570 BC. It is presently housed in the Archaic Acropolis Gallery at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece.

2. An Attic red-figure kylix

red-figure kylix featuring hades and persephone
The red-figure kylix. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Red-figure pottery was typical Greek style pottery that developed in Athens between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. A kylix is a type of wide bowl cup with handles that was used for drinking wine. This particular kylix depicts Hades and Persephone reclining on a couch in the underworld. They are seen lounging and feasting together. Hades is seen holding a plate in one hand and supporting a large cornucopia with his other arm. Persephone is seen holding a small object which is believed to be a pomegranate seed. The kylix dates back to 430 BC Classical Greece. The artefact is kept at the British Museum in London, England.

3. A Panel depicting the Abduction of Persephone

marble panel of the sarcophagus
Sarcophagus Panel Depicting the Abduction of Persephone. Image Credit: Kevin Kretschmar via Flickr

This marble panel, believed to be a portion of a sarcophagus, shows the abduction of Persephone. The characters are sculpted with great detail and artistry. The panel dates back to Ancient Rome, between 190 and 200 AD. The object is currently on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, United States.

4. Mosaic floor of the second chamber of the Kasta Tomb

Mosaic floor of the tomb
The Mosaic of the Abduction of Persephone. Image Credit: Kasta Hill

In 2014, a team of archaeologists uncovered the floor of a Greek tomb. The mosaic floor shows Hades kidnapping Persephone to the underworld. The tomb is believed to date back to the 4th century BC. It was found at the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis, Greece.

Roman Equivalent: Pluto and Proserpina

The Rape of Proserpina sculpture
Marble sculpture of Pluto abducting Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621-1622. Image Credit: Steven Zucker via Flickr

When we speak of Greek mythology, Roman mythology often follows suit. This is because the ancient Greek and Roman religions shared many of the same gods and goddesses and even their stories. In fact, when the Romans conquered Greece, they adopted much of the Greek religion.

And made it their official state religion before the spread of Christianity. Thus, like the Greeks, they also followed a polytheistic religion, worshipping multiple gods and goddesses. This religion was heavily influenced by the Ancient Greek religion and culture. This was due to the empire’s geography, interaction with the Greeks and newly acquired territories. Territories that were formerly Greek were now under Roman governance. However, the culture followed by the people in those territories remained.

There were only some differences. For instance, the gods and goddesses now had Latin names. Persephone became Proserpine or Proserpina. Hades became Pluto, like the dwarf planet. Demeter became Ceres, from where the word cereal comes from. And, Zeus became Jove or Jupiter, again, like the planet.  The deities had the same powers and duties as their Greek counterparts. But, their appearances differed. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans focused less on highlighting their physical attributes.

As for Persephone’s stories, the Roman myths about Proserpina remain the same. The only difference is that the Romans saw her time in the underworld as her protecting and preserving seeds during winter.

Representation of Persephone’s Story in Popular Culture

While earlier myths portray her abduction as a tragic event, modern adaptations show her story as a consensual romance between Persephone and Hades.

In the modern-day, the myth of Persephone, her abduction and her time in the underworld has been transformed. The myth has been revived as a love story between two very unlikely characters. Authors and creators have modified the original myth to first make it more suitable for children and younger audiences.

And second, because they have begun to romanticize Hades and Persephone’s relationship. Their loyalty towards each other and the overall stability of their relationship is very different from most other relationships in Greek mythology.  Hence, they focus less on the undesirable aspect – the kidnapping. And reinterpret the rest of the myth as the ‘perfect love story.’

This concept is then applied to modern-day scenarios to make them more relatable and palatable. Today’s Hades and Persephone have evolved from their antique versions. Hades started out as a fair, dutiful, cold-hearted, feared ruler. Then he was seen as a cruel and evil character. Today, he has both characteristics, in addition to being gothic, romantic and mysterious. Persephone has come a long way. She is no longer seen as a victim or a stolen, innocent maiden. She is shown as a person who is wise, able to stand up for herself, make decisions and take action, like a queen.

Here are a few popular works in popular culture where Persephone has featured. Let’s look at what roles she plays and how she is really portrayed.

Percy Jackson

The Percy Jackson Series are an immensely popular book series centred on a teen demigod named Percy Jackson.

This series has a massive fan base and is hands down the most famous pop-culture fiction surrounding Greek and even Roman mythology. This series sparked a huge interest in Greek mythology. Usually, mythology isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But the way Rick Riordan, the author of the series, modernizes Greek mythology and presents Percy’s quests and adventures in a highly exciting manner.

Adults, teens and children alike all took a liking to Greco-Roman mythology after reading these books. The series ultimately became so popular that the first two parts of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series – Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief and Percy Jackson and The Sea of Monsters; were adapted into films.

Persephone’s Role in Percy Jackson

persephone in percy jackson
Persephone depicted in the books (left) and Rosario Dawson as Persephone in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief movie (right). Image Credit:  Fan Share

In both the books and movies, Persephone is a minor character and her portrayal is very different in the two. In the books, she only appears twice. Once in the final book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and once in the companion book of the series, called ‘The Demigod Files.’

In the books, Persephone is described as an attractive young woman with long blond hair and blue eyes. She is vibrant and lively on Earth, but her appearance changes as she spends time in the underworld. She is described as gloomy, pale and lifeless. Her looks essentially change, much like the seasons.

In Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian, which is the final book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, she rules beside Hades and is shown as merciful. She prevents Hades from killing Percy. She is also shown to have conflicts with her mother, Demeter.

In the Demigod files, Persephone manipulates the protagonist and his companions to retrieve a weapon to help her husband become more powerful.

While she wasn’t a part of the first book in the series, she was a part of its film adaptation. In Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief, the movie, the goddess is played by actress Rosario Dawson.

There we see her expressing discontent over her residence in the underworld. She also hates being married to Hades and complains about him. She even manipulates him, goes against him and makes him unconscious. Persephone also seems helpful as she helps out Percy and his friends.

Fanfiction: Hades x Persephone

illustration of a persephone x hades fanfic
Image Credit: A court of thorns and roses

Fanfiction is essentially fictional stories written by fans of a certain character, film, TV show, etc. Fans come up with creative stories writing scenarios they wished to have seen. In the process, they play around with the dynamics of different characters from the same story. Or they mix and match by taking characters from other fictional pieces and making them a part of another fictional piece. For example, writing Harry Potter as a character in the Star Wars Universe.

These stories aren’t formally published as books but they are published online on different websites and social media. We’ve all come across at least a few fanfics in our lives.

Hades and Persephone are two popular fanfic characters. Writers often use them in their stories, retelling the myth of Persephone in new ways in the process. Fans like to play around with the nature of Hades and Persephone’s relationship. Or with their personalities and appearances.

For example, Persephone is sometimes shown as a young naïve teenager, while in others she is a mature, powerful, independent and capable young woman. Another way they’re often used is by placing them in modern-day scenarios or in urban settings. Others play with the idea that Persephone fell for Hades first, or that she willingly went to the underworld.

Disney’s Hercules

In 1997, Disney produced an animated film called Hercules. It was the first time Disney introduced Greek mythology or characters from the myths in any of their movies. The movie is based on Hercules’ adventures after he finds out about his godly heritage. The movie is a 90s classic, and especially memorable to children growing up at that time. It was a unique concept at the time. Plus, it really engaged the younger audiences as it was funny, exciting and featured catchy songs.

Persephone appears only briefly in this movie. She is shown to have pink skin, long blond hair and to wear a long white gown. The goddess is portrayed as a kind and caring and honest character. Her relationship with Hades, however, isn’t specified.

Lore Olympus

Persephone in Lore Olympus
Persephone in Lore Olympus. Image Credit: Lore Olympus Fandom wiki

Lore Olympus is a popular webcomic by Rachel Smythe that was first published in 2018. Persephone is the main character of this series. The story focuses on the relationship between Persephone and Hades. Essentially being a modern retelling of the myth of Persephone. It immerses the characters in a modern setting and even shows the use of modern appliances like cars and smartphones.

In this series, Persephone is 19 years old. She is innocent, warm and is shown trying to find herself at that age.

The webcomic was well received and was even presented with many awards. Due to this success, it is on its way to being developed into a TV series.

The Persephone Series by Kaitlin Bevis

The Persephone Series book covers
The Persephone Series by Kaitlin Bevis. Image Credit: Amazon

The Persephone series is a young adult fiction book series written by Kaitlin Bevis. The trilogy is based on the myth of Persephone. The series features Persephone as the principal character. The books are even written from her perspective.

In the books, she is initially portrayed as a sort of victim as she is saved by Hades from getting kidnapped by a powerful character. As a protective measure, she seeks refuge in the underworld. Thus, ending up in the underworld for a different reason to the original myth. Also, unlike the original myths, the underworld appears to be a lively place buzzing with activity and colour. Not the dark realm we imagine.

Over the series, we see that Persephone isn’t helpless or naïve and that she has the ability to fight back. She learns how to make use of her powers and deal with the dangers surrounding her. Persephone is also faced with challenging situations where she must make bold decisions. There we witness her wisdom and decision-making abilities.

In this series, Hades is shown as a kind, sensitive but mysterious person. We see Persephone and Hades gradually falling in love with each other.

Persephone by Allison Shaw

Persephone by Allison Shaw cover
Persephone by Allison Shaw. Image Credit: Goodreads

Another book based on the myth of Persephone is a graphic novel written and illustrated by Allison Shaw. Published in 2017, the book is intended for a more mature audience.

In this book, Persephone is the main character. She is portrayed as a young woman who is held back by her overbearing mother. She is shown as a young goddess protected throughout her life but, as a young adult, wishes to seek new experiences.

In this modern retelling, Persephone falls in love with Hades first. Hades eventually falls in love with her too, but because of Eros’ arrows. Initially, he is depicted as a frightening king. However, after being struck, he turns into a lover boy of sorts, too shy to approach Persephone.

Allison Shaw’s work is especially appreciated for its artwork. Particularly because it allows readers to see the artist’s representation of the mythological characters.

Conclusion

statue of persephone holding a symbolic object
Image Credit: Greek Mythology

Greek mythology dates back over two thousand years old. And over millennia, the stories of the gods and goddesses have served as moral stories, as stories to caution people or to explain a phenomenon that was otherwise inexplicable. Persephone’s story once explained the occurrences and changes of the seasons. Even though science has provided the real reason behind these phenomena, we still keep these stories alive. The lessons we can draw from them are invaluable. So we find ways to make them relevant to us in the present day.

 

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