Persephone was the Greek goddess of agriculture and the underworld. She was daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, and Zeus, king of the gods. Her name took many forms, including Proserpina in Latin and Proserpine in English.
Persephone was abducted by Hades, her uncle and god of the underworld, to be his wife. Angry and distraught at her daughter's disappearance, Demeter first made the earth barren, and then wandered weeping through the world until she discovered Persephone's location and demanded that the girl be returned to her. Zeus persuaded Hades to give up Persephone, but before Hades let her go, he forced her to eat six pomegranate seeds. The fruit was sacred to Hades, and for that reason Persephone was forever obliged to return to her husband for several months of every year, during fall and winter. While Persephone was below ground, nothing grew on earth, but fertility returned when she was reunited with her mother in spring.
The earliest detailed account of the myth of Persephone is found in the Homeric Hymns (works in the style of Homer, but written long after his death). In the "Hymn to Demeter" (sixth century BCE), Hades swoops down on Persephone and carries her off to his realm below. Hearing her cries, Demeter searches everywhere before hearing of her daughter's fate from Helios, the sun god. On learning that Zeus was behind the abduction, Demeter withdraws from divine society. In her wanderings she arrives at Eleusis—a Greek city on the Saronic Gulf about 13 miles (21 km) northwest of Athens—disguised as an old woman. There the daughters of King Celeus take her home to care for their baby brother Demophon. At first the royal infant thrives, anointed with ambrosia by his divine nurse, but when his mother, Metaneira, sees Demeter holding the baby in a fire in an effort to make him immortal, she screams in fright. The offended goddess drops the baby and announces that now Demophon will be subject to death like all other mortals. Demeter then orders the people of Eleusis to build a temple in her honor, and she promises to teach them mystery rites.
Enraged by her double loss, Demeter withdraws to her temple, and for an entire year no crops grow on earth. Famine looms, and the gods, concerned that the annihilation of mortals will lead to the loss of sacrifices, intervene. Every deity comes in turn to Demeter, but she will not be swayed until Hermes brings Persephone back to her. Mother and daughter are reunited, but their joy is allayed to some extent when Persephone tells Demeter that she has eaten pomegranate seeds. As a result, the year is henceforth divided into a time of barrenness and a time of fertility, which the hymn explicitly connects with the coming of spring.
In its simplest form, the myth of Persephone and Demeter symbolizes the origin of the seasons, but it has several other layers of meaning. In some versions of the legend, Demeter also bestows the secrets of agriculture on mortals as a token of her gratitude for their help in the search for Persephone. The hymn itself assumes that agriculture is already well known at the time of the myth, and that the goddess's grief and anger disrupt it. Because Demeter's contribution to human life is the technique of crop cultivation, scholars have assumed that earlier versions of the myth are the ones that explain the origins of agriculture. The hymn also explains the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries and has often been used to try to interpret details of those rites.
In psychological readings, the myth represents the struggle of a mother and daughter to come to terms with the separation brought about by the latter's marriage. In some versions of the legend, the power of patriarchy is made explicit: Zeus wants to marry Persephone off to his brother and does not consult her mother before doing so. It is only after Demeter has been reassured that Hades will be a good husband and that her daughter will not lack for honor that she is reconciled to the union. Persephone's awakening sexuality and the pull of divided loyalties are evident in the hymn's two different versions of the episode of the pomegranate seeds. The first contains nothing about coercion, but in the second Persephone tells her mother that Hades forced her to eat the seeds. Since Homeric style allows for the exact repetition of lengthy passages, this variation is significant. It may suggest the daughter's reluctance to admit to her mother that she is not an entirely unwilling bride. The pomegranate conventionally symbolizes death and eternal life, but here the eating of the seeds also suggests sex and procreation.
A timid young girl in the Homeric Hymn, Persephone is elsewhere a fearsome queen of the underworld. In the Odyssey by Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE), the hero Odysseus fears that if he lingers in the underworld Persephone will send a Gorgon against him. Persephone also becomes involved in a romantic triangle that is oddly reminiscent of her own situation. The goddess Aphrodite falls in love with the beautiful young Adonis. When he is killed by a boar, Persephone, who has also fallen in love with him, refuses to let him leave the underworld. Eventually a compromise is arranged: Adonis will spend half the year with her and half the year with his other divine lover.
The myth of Persephone was often depicted in Greek and Roman art. The abduction was also the subject of The Rape of Proserpina by Roman poet Claudian (c. 370–c. 404 CE). Although extremely popular in Latin literature, the legend of Persephone did not become widespread in Western literature and art until the 17th century. Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) both created representations of her in the early 1620s. In the 19th century poets such as A. C. Swinburne (1837–1909) and painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Frederick Leighton (1830–1896) drew on her myth in numerous works. In the 20th century the myth was attractive to a wide range of women writers, including American H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) (1886–1961) and Canadian Margaret Atwood (born 1939).
See also: DEMETER; EARTH MOTHER; FERTILITY; GREECE; HADES; MYSTERY CULTS; ZEUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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