Persephone: Additional Materials

Persephone happens to be very well-suited for our unit on poetry, since there are several famous poems about her. Here are some of those poems, as well as interpretations of the myth in other media, to give you some ideas about how different creators have employed this myth.

Hibernal

So long now has that story of deep wintering
obsessed me: how the club-footed god sets his sights,

plucks a girl out of a field as easily
as a flower, takes her down with him.

Which is to say, look beyond the metaphor of brute
abduction to the underworld. But for the most part,

this has been the mother’s story— how she scours
the land and badgers the powers that be to get her back.

Fallow the fields and seas; famine and drought,
fruitlessness, the icy blade of her anger raking

across the countryside— I’ve wished too
for that wide level of influence but mine

doesn’t extend as far. Season after season
I work but brace myself for another

failure to raise ransom for permanent
parole. Season after season, stoic, I keep

clean and stark the banner of my hope:
bone buried in a field of snow.

“Hibernal,” Luisa A. Igloria, September 2019, A Dozen Nothing

Persephone, Falling

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

“Persephone, Falling”, from Mother Love by Rita Dove. Copyright © 1995 by Rita Dove.

Portrait of Demeter as Manananggal

To become separate, divided into
parts: the way children, bored
after dressing and undressing

their dolls, will snap off
a leg or an arm or the head.
Foretaste of power in the split-

second, as something gives or
gives way. How when you choose
instead of are chosen for, you

don’t have to settle. Tell,
if you like, the story of how
the god left you waiting at

the altar; of your monstrous
anger and the blue-black wings
it tailored for purging

the countryside at night.
On the ground, you leave the nether
regions of that body ransacked

and marked with every conquest.
Where it severs from the cage
of your heart, the wound

is brilliant as pomegranate;
its innards go on for miles.
Long before that other seed

grew into a child, you knew
the stories they would weave:
stingray whips, deadly

poultices of salt; you
and your hideous hauntings.
How ordinary you look

in sunlight. No one can imagine
how wide the territories of ice in
your sight, how you sustain those

arguments with yourself through
the year: cleave or forget? Soften
or stay, but refuse to disappear.

“Portrait of Demeter as Manananggal,” Luisa A. Igloria, 2021, Via Negativa.

If You’re Staying, I’ll Stay Too

Maybe it’s easier, having been named
after someone: nobody
expects that you’ll rule the underworld
or judge the dead, but
they call you Pluto anyway. Planet, too.
I know a girl like you
who used to be a thing she isn’t anymore
but hasn’t changed at all.
Whose orbit didn’t circle straight—whose
size & distance never quite
seemed right—but no one cared til now.
I was a woman once:
rounded by my own gravity, cat-called
into hades by men who
could not see this gem of a hard rock
was not made magnetic
for the likes of them. Hey little mama—
don’t take it so hard.
So we are frigid. So we stay relegated
out here with our kin.
I’ll wear my fade tight & my tie loose
if you play your radio loud.
They say we’re known only in comparison
to that which surrounds
us, so I’d guess they’ll hear our signal soon.
I was a woman once,
but that’s not the farthest thing from the sun
another universe might’ve
let me be: another universe might’ve let us be.

Originally printed in The South Carolina Review. Copyright © 2017 by Meg Day.

First Love: A Quiz

He came up to me:
a. in his souped-up Camaro
b. to talk to my skinny best friend
c. and bumped my glass of wine so I wore the
ferrous stain on my sleeve
d. from the ground, in a lead chariot drawn by
a team of stallions black as crude oil and
breathing sulfur: at his heart, he sported a
tiny golden arrow.


He offered me:
a. a ride
b. dinner and a movie, with a wink at the
cliché
c. an excuse not to go back alone to the
apartment with its sink of dirty knives
d. a narcissus with a hundred dazzling petals
that breathed a sweetness as cloying as
decay.


I went with him because:
a. even his friends told me to beware
b. I had nothing to lose except my virginity
c. he placed his hand in the small of my back
and I felt the tread of honeybees
d. he was my uncle, the one who lived in the
half-finished basement, and he took me by
the hair


The place he took me to:
a. was dark as my shut eyes
b. and where I ate biter seed and became ripe
c. and from which my mother would never take me
wholly back, though she wept and walked the
earth and made the bearded ears of barley
wither on their stalks and the blasted
flowers drop from their sepals
d. is called by some men hell and others love
e. all of the above

A. E. Stallings. “First Love, A Quiz.” From Fire on her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry, Jan. 2014, p. 308.

The Pomegranate

The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed. And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.

Eavan Boland, “The Pomegranate.” From In a Time of Violence, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Eavan Boland. All rights reserved.

A Myth of Devotion

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.

“A Myth of Devotion” from Averno by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2006 by Louise Glück.

Persephone the Wanderer

In the first version, Persephone
is taken from her mother
and the goddess of the earth
punishes the earth—this is
consistent with what we know of human behavior,

that human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm:

we may call this
negative creation.

Persephone’s initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin:

did she cooperate in her rape,
or was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

As is well known, the return of the beloved
does not correct
the loss of the beloved: Persephone

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—

I am not certain I will
keep this word: is earth
“home” to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably,
in the bed of the god? Is she
at home nowhere? Is she
a born wanderer, in other words
an existential
replica of her own mother, less
hamstrung by ideas of causality?

You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.

Three parts: just as the soul is divided,
ego, superego, id. Likewise

the three levels of the known world,
a kind of diagram that separates
heaven from earth from hell.

You must ask yourself:
where is it snowing?

White of forgetfulness,
of desecration—

It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

She is lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
of mind?

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.

The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live. You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.

You drift between earth and death
which seem, finally,
strangely alike. Scholars tell us

that there is no point in knowing what you want
when the forces contending over you
could kill you.

White of forgetfulness,
white of safety—

They say
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong
entirely to life. Earth

asks us to deny this rift, a threat
disguised as suggestion—
as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read

as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.

When death confronts her, she has never seen
the meadow without the daisies.
Suddenly she is no longer
singing her maidenly songs
about her mother’s
beauty and fecundity. Where
the rift is, the break is.

Song of the earth,
song of the mythic vision of eternal life—

My soul
shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth—

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

“Persephone the Wanderer” from Averno by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2006 by Louise Glück. 

Here are a couple of other examples of poems that draw on Greek myths other than Persephone.

Myth

I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

*

Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.

Natasha Trethewey, “Myth” from Native Guard. Copyright © 2007 by Natasha Trethewey.
Evie Shockley, “circe/odysseus/black odysseys (a remix-collage),” from Semiautomatic, 2017.

Persephone appears as a major character in the folk opera Hadestown. Since Persephone travels back and forth between the underworld and the upper world, this song imagines her as a bootlegger who brings contraband (such as sunshine and rain) to the inhabitants of the underworld.

Disney made a short film based on this myth in 1934 called The Goddess of Spring. It was made as practice for the animators leading up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It features many delightful touches including an organ-playing demon and Persephone weeping onto a giant diamond.

I also came across this animated version of the myth whose stop-motion style I find both pretty and incredibly unsettling. It is interesting how this version tries to handle the rape/abduction aspect of the story. The abduction appears traumatic, but then Persephone’s happiness and agency in her relationship with Hades is over-emphasized as if to make up for it.

Persephone: Core Reading

Persephone: Creative Prompt