*Trigger Warning* This post contains themes of sexual violence that may be sensitive to some. If this topic is in any way triggering for you, please click off and we will catch you next time.
The Arting the Ancients Team
G’day, friends! My name is Rose and I’ll be kicking off my first blog post by writing about Persephone, Mistress of the Underworld.
I am excited to bring this tale into the light of our focus on Ancient Greek mythology, for it is a detailed and complex narrative, encompassing the main characters, Persephone, Demeter, Hades and Zeus. I’d like to acknowledge this group of characters as the complicated quad.
The story of these characters is almost too difficult to write in a small blog post, however, my aim is to make it more accessible, rejecting any bombastic dialogue, so that all readers can enjoy it with ease.
Ps. I just discovered this new word, “bombastic”, meaning ranting in a verbose and meaningless manner. I thought I’d throw it into my intro as an irony. Please appreciate my nerdiness (laugh!)
Persephone, Mistress of the Underworld
Persephone – Queen of the Underworld. She is the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Her husband is Hades. She represents springtime, agriculture and fertility.
Hades – The mighty ruler of the Underworld. He is the son of titans, Cronus and Rhea. He represents the dead, riches and darkness.
Demeter – Persephone’s Mother who also appears in the Eleusinian Mysteries. She too is the goddess of agriculture, fertility and the cycle of life and death. One of her most notable cult names is Sitomeaning “giver of grain.”
Zeus – The powerful Olympian god of all gods. He is the ruler of the sky and protector of all deities and mortal beings on earth.
Hecate – The overseer of spells and magic. She witnesses Persephone’s abduction and attempted to accompany Demeter in finding her daughter.
Cyane – A member of Persephone’s nymph entourage. Cyane attempted to stop Hades from stealing her mistress.
The Tale of Persephone (In a Nutshell)
Persephone, roughly translated to “Destroyer” or “Slayer” (among other interpretations) was the venerable goddess of the underworld in Ancient Greek Mythology. Her husband, Hades ruled over her existence by subjugating her to the underworld as his wife in perpetuity.
As the only daughter of Demeter and Zeus, Persephone was a delicate maiden who represented fertility and springtime by raising prosperity to the Greek populace during the harvest and affiliating with the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Although the tone of Persephone’s role sounds charming, her story, delivered through the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and later on, in Ovid’s Roman impression, Metamorphoses presents a rather confronting view of her experiences as a character subject to sexual oppression by a powerful figure in the Greek tradition.Both mythical accounts, although slightly contrasting in nature, equally highlight how Persephone was stripped of her innocence and forcibly separated from her family as a result of Hades’ lust.As the myth explains, Persephone was absentmindedly picking flowers in a lush meadow and, as she became curious to forage deeper into the woodland, she was surprised to recognise an abyss in the earth. The mighty figure of Hades suddenly appeared and Persephone was forcibly captured by the god who gained permission from Zeus to rape and marry her as he turned back in his chariot and rode into the Underworld.
Ovid tells us that Persephone was extremely frightened and crying as she was taken away. Additionally, when Cyane describes her witness statement of Persephone’s terror, she says that Hades forced and terrified the captive. The cruelty of Persephone’s abduction made Demeter furious as she soon discovered that Zeus had schemed and consented to the marriage in collaboration with Hades. As Demeter searched far and wide, accompanied by Hecate, she failed to find her daughter. Demeter insisted on retribution for Zeus’ recklessness by terminating springtime growth in the mortal world.
As time passed, Demeter grew increasingly furious with Zeus because he supposedly tricked his daughter into eating the pomegranate seeds that would tempt her to go to Hades. When the trickery succeeded, Persephone was placed into the underworld, only to return annually in the spring. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone resides in the underworld for a three month period in wintertime, representing the austereness of the earth’s nutrients. She then returned to Mount Olympus for the
rest of the seasons, bringing with her a bounteous harvest, floral growth and sunshine. To me, Persephone is almost like a “Mother Nature” figure or the personification of the warmer seasons.
The story of Persephone’s abduction is variable depending on which interpretation one reads, however, I am mostly drawing my analysis from Ovid’s account, which delves into the deeper emotional trauma experienced by the goddess herself. Ovid meticulously accounted for Persephone’s perspective by explaining what was actually happening at the present time of the aforementioned events. However, Homer gives his account through the eyes of another storyteller’s viewpoint.
Ovid accounts for the rape of Persephone by drawing upon the idea that Hades fell in love with her immediately and resulted to steal her without consent. On the contrary, Homer writes that Zeus allowed Hades to plan the abduction and marriage on behalf of Persephone. I find it interesting to note that, in the Homeric Hymn II, the author imparts little detail on the rape of the goddess, whereas, Ovid shares a whole lot more explanation on her experiences in Book V of Metamorphoses.
Persephone, as she is mostly acknowledged, was subject to male oppression and control by both her husband and father. We must understand that these occurrences were not uncommon in ancient Greek times, but can also address the themes of misogyny in the myth that transcend different contexts and relate to modern times. On the subject of the rape of Persephone, some scholars believe that her violation created a passage of communication between the mortal and underworld, which was never previously connected. Subsequent to the violation of her personal
and sexual freedom she was given the power to control the course of life and death, becoming an authorial figure who decided the fate of all souls. Ironically, Persephone was given immense power over the dead after she was violated and oppressed against her will.
Another modern perspective of this story draws upon the binary opposition of Hades and Persephone as a “Beauty and the Beast” type of relationship which resulted in their union. The glorification of the dichotomy between a conniving, aggressive male and a beautiful maiden is a topic that is often portrayed in popular culture but not ancient authorship. In fact, the ancient
authors appear to oppose such cruelty and comment on the violation of Persephone’s body and soul. Interestingly, popular culture has seen the romanticisation of Persephone’s abduction by sugar-coating her rape with idealised versions of the strength of love between her and Hades. In
essence, Persephone represents light and Hades, darkness, two opposing ideas which attempt to balance each other harmoniously, however only end up concealing a very controversial issue.
Do you think we should tread lightly on the interpretations of Persephone’s destiny?
Is it vital for us to challenge the culture surrounding the romanticisation of her rape in order to better understand the injustices in myth and popular culture alike?
How can we relate this to our own context?
Overall, It is unclear as to what the message of the story of Persephone is from ancient interpretations. Some are drawn to believe these myths have nothing to do with morals and were only written to celebrate Greek seasonal changes with reference to specific deities who controlled them. Nonetheless, Persephone’s story, according to Laura Strong PhD, “…is a personification of some of the most universal concepts about life and death.”
The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Very insightful and for academic research if you wish to pursue it further).
My favourite blogs to read about Persephone
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The Arting the Ancients Team