Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Persephone as she stands alone
The story of Persephone is an interesting one because it isn’t really about her. She is merely a reflection of those around her, namely her mother and husband. It starts with her mother, Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and agriculture, who was the provider of the harvest. She was one of the original twelve gods of Mount Olympus and she was the sister of Zeus and Hades, among others.
After a liaison with Zeus, Demeter gave birth to Persephone. Persephone’s parents were siblings. Whilst incestuous, it was not unusual for these ancient Greek gods to hook up with their close relations. Zeus fathered many children, including many with his sisters. As nearly all the gods were related, there were very little options apart from siblings, when it came to partnering with other deities.
Persephone, born of two gods, was therefore immortal and by all accounts very beautiful. Like her mother, she was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She shared all the same symbols and presentations as her mother and, before her abduction, she possessed very little that differentiated her from her mother besides her exceptional beauty.
Her beauty caught the eye of Hades, her uncle and god of the Underworld, who fell in love with her from afar. Hades asked her father Zeus for her hand in marriage, and despite being an absentee father, he consented although he noted that Demeter would never acquiescence. So Hades decided to abduct Persephone. He rose from the Underworld unannounced and carried Persephone off in his chariot to live with him underground.
Demeter searched the earth for her lost daughter, sometimes in the guise of an old woman. When she eventually learned of her daughter's fate, Demeter was distraught, to say the least. Demeter is known for her wrath and she brings to mind the phrase: ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. This idiom, coined in 1697 by playwright William Congreve, specifically refers to a woman rejected romantically, and yet it seems apt for Demeter whose heart was crushed by a god from hell. The saying conjures up visions of an overly emotional woman, who is uncontrollable in her rage. I believe that Demeter (along with Hera) was a prototype for this female stereotype, which is still exists today. This unfavourable typecast is often used to dimmish women’s reasonable feelings of rage and anger.
Perhaps back in ancient Greece such displays of rage and anger were more palatable than they are today, as Demeter was a popular god to which temples were devoted. Moreover Demeter’s sense of powerlessness against the abduction of her daughter would have resonated with many mothers of ancient Greece whose daughters were married off at a young age at the determination of their fathers.
There are many stories of Demeter’s fury which she meted out whilst on her travels in search of her daughter. One such story sees her turn a man into a gecko for making fun of her whilst she was in the form of an old woman. At the peak of her frustration she induced a great famine by refusing to tend to the earth. Zeus begged her to end the famine but she only relented once Zeus agreed to intercede for the release Persephone.
While Demeter is busy scouring the face of the earth and unleashing her anger on unsuspecting victims, we can only imagine what Persephone is feeling after she is abducted and presumed raped. The stories do not tell it from Persephone’s point of view, or at least none of the surviving versions of it.
Zeus finally sends Hermes to the Underworld to demand Hades release his ill-gotten bride and here we pick up on Persephone’s situation via her husband. Hades is loath to return Persephone and tricks her into staying using a pomegranate seed. In some tellings he places the kernel in Persephone’s mouth, knowing its divine taste will compel her to return to him. In other versions, he persuades Persephone to eat, thereby condemning her to remain in the underworld forever more. While the exact reasoning behind this is unclear, what is clear is that after agreeing to let Persephone go, Hades performs some last-minute trickery involving a pomegranate that prevents Persephone from leaving.
Finally, after some negotiations between the male characters, a compromise is reached whereby Hades will let Persephone go to her mother on the condition that she return to him for one-third of the year (or one-half of the year, depending on who you ask). When Demeter and her daughter are reunited, the Earth again flourishes with vegetation, except for the few months of the year when Persephone is returned to the Underworld and winter reigns upon the Earth.
This story of Persephone is widely understood as an origin story to explain the existence of the seasons and the perennial change from life to death, and to life again. However, the story is more about Demeter than Persephone. Demeter plays the role of Mother Earth, as this is what her name signifies. Further her defiance against the almighty Zeus makes Demeter a powerful and appealing maternal figure who is prepared to fight for her child. She tends to the life of the planet and as well as the fate of her own children. Demeter is determined and expressive and Persephone by comparison seems meek and small.
In this story Persephone is a powerless child. At no time does Persephone speak or act for herself. Her only defiance is a shriek, released from her lips as Hades whisks her away on his chariot. Her part-time arrangement feels like a shared custody agreement between two warring guardians. At the time of her abduction she exists solely to please others: to her mother she is a mini-me and to her husband she is a sex slave. By herself she seems like a non-character, which frankly I find quite disappointing.
Bizarrely Persephone seems to come to life in the afterlife, as there are a couple of antidotes about her in the Underworld, Improbably after being abducted, raped and then tricked into staying by Hades, Persephone apparently comes to love her captor. This is based on the story by Roman poet Ovid who wrote that when Hades had an affair with a Nymph named Minthe, Persephone was so incensed with jealousy that she turned Minthe into a plant (aka mint). The ancient Greeks were not yet familiar with Stockholm syndrome or post-traumatic stress syndrome. If they had been they might have interpreted Persephone’s aggression as an act of rage against a man who had disappointed her yet again. In this story of Minthe as we get glimpse of Demeter’s rage appearing however briefly in her daughter.
Image: detail from Persephone, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2022.
The story I prefer is the one in which Persephone spends part of each year with the heartthrob named Adonis. Both Persephone and Aphrodite fall in love with Adonis and fight over him. Zeus settles the matter by decreeing that Adonis spend one third of the year with each goddess, and have the last third for himself. The ancient author Aelian wrote that Adonis' life was divided between two goddesses, one who loved him beneath the earth, and one above. So like Persephone, Adonis embodied two worlds: one in light and one in darkness. Aside from having to share him with Aphrodite, Adonis seems like the perfect lover for Persephone as they seem to have a lot in common. Who better to understand her very own living situation than Adonis who is also caught between two worlds and two captors. The only difference is that Adonis was mortal and Persephone immortal.
(A side note: I'm unclear on what happened to Adonis and Persephone after Adonis died. We know that Aphrodite mourned him, but did Persephone get to hang out with him in the Underworld permanently??)
Persephone's role as the Queen of the Underworld is somewhat ambiguous. Hades by comparisons is the embodiment of death and the afterlife. He is the king of the Underworld and the master of his domain. He is a man of action, and is revered and feared by all mortals. As his wife, Persephone wields no real power and has no duties. It has been suggested that apart from explaining the seasons, her existence serves to make the Underworld less frightening for mortals whose death is eminent. Although it’s hard to know why her presence would be of comfort to anyone beyond her mere identity as a woman.
Yet despite Persephone's lack of any real presence or strong personality, she does retain some appeal as the embodiment of life and death, light and dark. She has been depicted by many artists over the millennium, both as Demeter’s daughter and as Hades' bride. Although Persephone rarely appeared in art prior to the 6th century BCE, she was usually shown with Demeter. Later she was depicted on her throne as the Queen of the Underwood. During the classical period Persephone's abduction by Hades was a popular subject in art, especially on tombs, and continued to be for 18th and 19th-century oil painters.
It would be interesting to hear the story of Persephone in the first person. I wonder what she would have been feeling at year at the turning of the season: excitement, dread, resignation? As the subject of my painting I have to tried to represent Persephone as her own person, a distinct individual separate from both her mother and husband.
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