Persephone: Core Reading

Abduction of Persephone (ancient vase painting)

The myth of Hades and Persephone is famous as the origin myth for the changing of the seasons. It is also a valuable source of insights about Greek attitudes towards marriage and mother-daughter relationships.

The definitive version of this myth is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (ca. 7th c. BCE). Demeter is the goddess of grain and agriculture, and Persephone is her daughter with Zeus. The story begins with Persephone in a state of childlike innocence, picking flowers with her friends in a meadow. At the order of Zeus, the Earth grows an extraordinary narcissus that entices Persephone. While she is staring at the mesmerizing flower, the earth opens up and Hades, the god of the underworld (where souls go after death), snatches her onto his chariot:

“[Persephone was] gathering flowers over a soft meadow, roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus, which Earth made to grow at the will of Zeus and to please the Host of Many (Hades), to be a snare for the bloom-like girl — a marvelous, radiant flower. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy. And the girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy; but the wide-pathed earth yawned there in the plain of Nysa, and the lord, Host of Many, with his immortal horses sprang out upon her —the Son of Cronos, He who has many names (Hades). He caught her up reluctant on his golden car and carried her away lamenting. Then she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father, the Son of Cronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice…”

Her abduction by Hades is described as a traumatic event with no agency for Persephone. He carries her away, and her mother Demeter hears her cries, but doesn’t know where she is. She frantically searches the world and can’t find her.

“Bitter pain seized her heart, and she tore the veil upon her divine hair with her hands: her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child. But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal man; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her.”

The mother-daughter bond is described very intensely. In ancient Greek culture, a woman tearing her veil off signifies that she has been raped. Here, Demeter feels so closely identified with her daughter that she tears her own veil off even though Persephone is the one who has been abducted. Finally, the goddess Hecate (protector of children), tells her that she thinks Helios, the Sun, saw what happened. Demeter begs Helios to reveal her daughter’s whereabouts. This is how he responds:

“Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rhea, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Hades, her father’s brother, to be called his buxom wife. And Hades seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly: Aidoneus (Hades), the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells (the dead).”

Helios tells her what happened: that Zeus, without consulting her, promised their daughter in marriage to their brother, Hades, and that Hades took her away to the underworld, where the other gods can’t go. But he advises her not to be angry about it, and to look on the bright side, since Hades is an important and powerful god. Demeter is very angry, but there is nothing she can do, so she leaves mount Olympus, disguises herself as an old woman, and enters the world of humans. She becomes a nanny for the baby boy of a wealthy family, and unbeknownst to the boy’s parents, she tries to turn him into a god by anointing him with nectar and ambrosia (the foods of the gods) and putting him in the fire every night. It’s not made explicit, but it seems like her intention is to make a son for herself who would be strong enough to overthrow Zeus. However, her plan fails because she gets caught putting the baby in the fire and his mother freaks out. Demeter is so offended to be questioned by a mortal woman that she leaves, and in some versions the baby dies (in this version it’s ambiguous whether he dies or just goes back to being a regular baby).

After this plan fails, Demeter stops the crops from growing, causing a famine for humans. The famine means that people can’t sacrifice (burn animal bones) to the gods, which finally gets Zeus’ attention. He sends each of the gods to beg her to stop the famine, but she refuses.

Yet no one was able to persuade her mind and will, so angry was she in her heart; but she stubbornly rejected all their words: for she vowed that she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus nor let fruit spring out of the ground, until she beheld with her eyes her own fair-faced daughter.

Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to bring Persephone back from the underworld. He tells Hades:

“Dark-haired Hades, ruler over the departed, father Zeus orders me to bring noble Persephone forth from Erebus (the underworld) unto the gods, so that her mother may see her with her eyes and cease from her dread anger with the immortals; for now she plans an awful deed, to destroy the weak tribes of earth-born men by keeping seed hidden beneath the earth, and so she makes an end of the honors of the undying gods. For she keeps fearful anger and does not associate with the gods, but sits aloof in her fragrant temple, dwelling in the rocky hold of Eleusis.”

Persephone and Hades (ancient vase painting)

Hades tells Persephone to go, but also suggests that she may want to come back, to take up her powerful role as queen of the underworld, then secretly gives her a pomegranate seed.

“‘Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me: be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods, I who am brother to father Zeus. And while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.’ When he said this, wise Persephone was filled with joy and hastily sprang up for gladness. But he for his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter.”

From this description, it seems like Persephone chooses to eat the seed to make herself queen, but it isn’t clear, and she will say the opposite later. He brings her back to the upper world and she is joyously reunited with Demeter, but then her mother asks:

“My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos (Zeus) and be honored by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men. And now tell me how he snatched you away to the realm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did the strong Host of Many beguile you?”

Return of Persephone (Persephone, Hermes, Hecate, Demeter) (ancient vase painting)

As Demeter explains, if Persephone has tasted food in the underworld, she will have to spend a third of every year there. Persephone responds:

“Mother, I will tell you all without error. When luck-bringing Hermes came, swift messenger from my father the Son of Cronos and the other Sons of Heaven, bidding me come back from Erebus that you might see me with your eyes and so cease from your anger and fearful wrath against the gods, I sprang up at once for joy; but he secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste against my will…”

She tells her mother that Hades forced her to eat the seed. It’s not entirely clear whether this means that he did and it wasn’t specified earlier, or if she is changing the story to avoid making her mother angry. Demeter accepts that Persephone will be gone for a third of every year, and Zeus grants her honor. The story ends with her teaching humans how to honor her with special “mystery” rituals that will give them a better place in the afterlife.

Elsewhere in Greek literature, Persephone always appears as the fearsome queen of the underworld. In the Odyssey, for example, the hero visits the underworld but leaves because he is afraid that Persephone will send a monster to terrify him.

The myth seems to reflect negative feelings about marriage. In Greek culture, a bride would leave her own family and go live with the groom and his family, and of course this separation was hard on mothers and daughters. Sending your daughter away to live with strangers and not knowing when she would come back probably felt like sending her off to marry the king of the underworld. It is important to notice that the story emphasizes women’s lack of decision-making power about marriage. The story emphasizes that Persephone’s betrothal to Hades is the result of an agreement between Hades and Zeus and that Demeter and Persephone were neither consulted nor informed.

At the same time, the myth suggests that mothers are overbearing and possessive of their daughters. If we accept the idea that Persephone chooses to eat the seed and lies to her mother about it (which, again, is possible but unclear), then the implication seems to be that although she was unwilling at first, she now wants to remain married to Hades. Perhaps she enjoys the power of being queen of the dead, or just wants to move on from being a young girl to being a married woman. Demeter’s desire to protect her seems to be criticized as an impossible wish to keep her daughter as a little girl forever.

This myth has been especially popular in modern media like webcomics and fanfiction. A lot of these versions imagine the story as a forbidden romance between dark, brooding Hades and innocent but curious Persephone. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but knowing the sources of the myth, I find this creepy. Why romanticize a story about an adult man abducting his adolescent niece? Still, I know myths are for everyone and that engaging with them means finding your own meaning in them. They change and evolve in different contexts and every creator has the freedom to explore what they find interesting or exciting about a myth; clearly, a lot of people are excited about the idea of a forbidden romance between a spring goddess and a death god, and there’s nothing very useful about me waving my arms and yelling “Guys, no! You can’t make this one romantic! In older versions it was about rape!” I just feel like I should be honest about the fact that it creeps me out.

Persephone: Additional Materials

Persephone: Creative Prompt