Who is Persephone?

What we know from myth, history, and inspiration

Persephone Old5The goddess Persephone (known to the Romans as Proserpina) has two major aspects. In one, she is Kore (or Cora), the beautiful daughter of Demeter, Greek goddess of grain and agriculture. As the Kore, she is the Spring Maiden who brings the green shoots up from the Earth. Her other aspect is the Queen of the Underworld, counselor and comforter of dead souls, and wife of Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. These two aspects seem strongly opposed to each other, and yet Persephone manages to combine them into one goddess.

Persephone1 by Jaz MerigoldAccording to the most popular myth about her, Persephone - as Kore, the young maiden and virgin daughter of Demeter - was playing with her nymph-friends in a field one day when a great white flower sprang up before them. She desired the beautiful blossom and pulled it up by the roots, upon which a great hole opened in the Earth and a black chariot flew out of it. The chariot was driven by her uncle Hades, Lord of the Dead, and he seized Persephone and abducted her.

Demeter searched for her missing daughter for days, finally being told by Helios the Sun that Persephone had been taken by Hades. She went to Persephone's father Zeus and asked for help, but Zeus confessed that he had already arranged for his daughter to be married to his brother Hades, and had given permission for her abduction. Demeter was furious and withdrew her gifts of fertility over the land, making it so that nothing would grow and threatening the people of Greece with starvation. At this point, Zeus intervened and agreed to make another deal with his brother: Persephone would be returned to her mother, as long as she had not eaten anything during her stay in the Underworld.

Persephone2 by Jaz MerigoldHermes the divine messenger (in some versions of the story, Hecate) was dispatched to bring her forth, but it was discovered that she had eaten six seeds of a pomegranate that Hades had offered her. (In one version of the story, she tells her mother that Hades tricked her into eating them, even though it had actually been her choice.) Thus Zeus decrees that she must spend six months of the year with Hades, and the other six with her mother above ground. (Other authors claim only four months, which may be a matter of the length of winter in different areas.) She marries him, and begins her transformation into the dread Queen of the Underworld. While she is known as a counselor and comforter for dead souls (and those grieving for them), she was also thought of as a traditional Death Goddess, and thus her name could not be spoken in some cultuses for fear of bringing death into their lives. She was said to aid her husband Hades in carrying out the curses that living men had laid upon dead souls.

The story of Persephone's rape - perhaps the most famous rape in storytelling history - is debated by scholars. Some see it as a simple vegetation myth - the green plants burst forth in the spring, but withdraw under the Earth during the winter, leaving the people without their sustenance. This interpretation may also reflect the ancient Greek custom of storing grain in pithoi or underground jars during the winter; these pithoi were associated with Hades under his name of Ploutus or "wealthy one", as grain was wealth, and Persephone (grain) went to stay with Ploutus (pithoi) during the winter.

Persephone Old3Other scholars see it as a cultural reflection of Greek wedding customs during a specific period, when brides were fetched from their homes in a choreographed manner that mimed abduction as a way of respecting the grief of the family that would "lose" them. Still others see it as the story of a rite of puberty, the transition from girl to woman - the onset of puberty and adulthood can seem like a violation to some girls, sometimes accompanied by grief and depression (a "trip to the Underworld"), and they must make their own peace with it, becoming Queens in their own right. Some modern authors, uncomfortable with the "rape story", have rewritten the myth to seem more like a girl's coming-of-age, moving from the mother's protected daughter to the wife with an active sexuality.

Persephone and Demeter were the principal goddesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an autumn mystery celebration in the city of Eleusis that drew thousands of worshipers at the height of its popularity. She was also celebrated as one of the goddesses worshiped at the Thesmophoria, the women-only festivities held in Athens.

Second and third pictures are original artwork by Jaz Merigold. All others public domain.