This article will focus on the current cool-girl of mythological figures, the Graeco-Roman goddess Persephone/ Proserpina. Throughout the article I’ll be using the names Persephone (Greek) and Prosperina (Latin) when referring to specific iconography or versions of the myth, but when talking more generally I’ll just call her P. To understand her story I’ve used four main primary sources: the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ovid’s Fasti Book Four, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Claudian’s Rape of Proserpine. Each tells the story of P with subtle but culturally significant shifts. Persephone’s story contains themes which can be potentially triggering for some readers, as there are multiple mentions of abduction and violence against women, so proceed with caution when reading this article.
I’ll be approaching the primary sources and archaeological evidence with a modern feminist perspective, meaning every small detail and variation will be put under the microscope, as this is often where elements of gender roles and societal expectations can be found. To some, P’s story is a tragic tale of violence and stolen innocence, to others, a heartbreak between mother and daughter, to others still, a twisted love story. She represents a duality of chaos and tragedy paired with femininity and beauty, at once the goddess of spring and simultaneously the queen of the Underworld. The more you learn about her, the more complicated and compelling she becomes. Somehow, the story has also come to represent an alternative tale of love, agency, and feminine empowerment. Sometimes Persephone’s story manages to represent all of these interpretations at once.
I want to shed light on the role Persephone played in ancient societies as well as the role she occupies in pop culture today. As I explain the different myths, pay careful attention to the role of the pomegranate seeds, Persephone’s agency, her duality between life and death; Underworld and realm of the living. Consider the implications these things have for audiences both ancient and modern. I won’t be focusing solely on the history and academic side of Persephone either, I’ll also be talking about the fascinating role she plays in in pop culture post 2010 as well.
The pieces of P’s story consistent between these four versions of the myth are: Persephone/Proserpine is the only daughter of Demeter/Ceres. Demeter/Ceres is very much in control of P’s life and decisions. One day, P is picking flowers when Hades/Pluto kidnaps her to take as his wife. Demeter/Ceres then looks all over the Earth and heavens for her daughter. An important aspect to understand before going further, the words “rape” and “abduction” are used almost interchangeably in these myths. When P is abducted, she is made to be the bride of Hades/Pluto. The word rape is often used in place of abduction:
“The crime committed against Proserpina seems best described as raptus, or abduction marriage”(Jones, 75)
Though it is not explicitly stated in any of the myths, it is alluded to that there was an act of consummation between the bride and groom. We do not know for certain in some versions of the myth if sexual assault does take place, however, the ideas of consent were much different in the Ancient world than they are today. Regardless, P’s abduction is a massive violation and is treated as such. With this in mind, themes of sexual assault will at times be discussed. Aside from this basic framework, the details change between each version of the myth, including significant elements of the plot and the addition of characters.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is the oldest surviving version of the myth and seems to be the most well-known account of Persephone’s story (Lincoln, 224). The Homeric Hymns weren’t actually written by Homer – they’re a collection of thirty-four anonymous poems written in the same epic style and meter. Most of them are thought to have been written between 700BCE to 500BCE. They were written to be sung or recited in honour of the gods (Raynor, 14). The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is dedicated to the titular goddess and tells the story of her and her daughter Persephone, while also providing a mythical explanation for the seasons.
This version places the least amount of emphasis on Persephone, since the poem is written for and about Demeter (Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture). The Hymn opens with the line: “I sing of the revered goddess, rich-haired Demeter, and her slim-ankled daughter, whom Hades snatched (far-seeing, thundering Zeus gave her away)” (Hom. Hymn Dem. 1-3, trans. Raynor); which prioritizes Demeter from the get-go. This line also names the four characters who play a role in the events which take place; Demeter, Persephone, Hades, and Zeus. This is where some context is needed: Zeus, in addition to being ruler of the gods, is also Persephone’s father. It is never said in the Homeric Hymn if Persephone’s conception was romantic, sexual, or consensual. All we know is their interactions as parents are very formal and lack any sort of romantic or sexual charge, and that Demeter is very happy to be mother to Persephone. She is also deeply protective of her daughter, who is incredibly young compared to the ancient Olympian gods. Persephone is often equated to a teenager, think late teens, maybe 18-19. Hades (or Aidoneus as he is called in the opening line) is one of the much older gods, and is a brother of Zeus and Demeter. Zeus and Hades have come to an agreement and concocted a plan for Hades to kidnap Persephone as his bride, making her queen of the Underworld at his side; because as we all know kidnapping is the key ingredient to starting a marriage off on the right foot. Their plan was obviously made without consulting Persephone or Demeter on the matter. The following actions are often referred to as the rape of Persephone.
Unique to The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is a beautiful flower Zeus plants in order to trap Persephone. As she bends to pick the flower, Hades, who has been hiding in wait, grabs her and whisks her away in his chariot. Persephone; like most of us would if we were suddenly grabbed around the waist by our weird old uncle, screams, and her shout rings out across the world. She’s heard by both Hecate and Helios, two other gods, who offer her no help. The Encyclopedia of World Religions describes Helios as both the god and personification of the sun in Greek mythology (394), and Hecate as an Underworld goddess associated with magic, spells, and crossroads (419). The scream eventually reaches Demeter, who begins to fiercely search for her daughter. After speaking to both Hecate and Helios, Demeter is told by the god of the sun that Persephone was taken to be Hades’ wife and that Zeus orchestrated her capture. Helios also attempts to convince Demeter that Hades is not a bad match for Persephone, saying:
“But, Goddess, give up your strong grief; let go of your infinite anger. Hades is not an unsuitable son-in-law among the gods: Lord of the Many Dead, your own brother from the same seed. As for honor, he won the third share when the division was made and lives as king among those in his allotted land.”(Hom. Hymn Dem. 82-87, trans. Raynor)
This goes to show how much power of men is valued over the opinion and safety of women – as Helios believes that the power and prestige Hades and his lineage hold should be considered enough to make him a good husband. Who cares that he kidnapped you and is forcing you to live in the world of the dead forever if he has a lot of land and a good job right? Helios doesn’t even bother to mention the type of person Hades is, only his domain and positions of authority.
Much of the hymn from this point focuses on Demeter. As the goddess of grain and harvest, she stops the growth of all the plants and crops so that the Earth is barren and the humans have no food to harvest or sell. Think of this act as the ultimate “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” move. Zeus realizes he’ll need to appeal to Demeter to end this barren period on earth. Demeter responds to Zeus with an ultimatum; she will only allow things to grow if Persephone is returned to her. Zeus sends Hermes to The Underworld with this request. When Hermes arrives is the first time Persephone is mentioned since the beginning of the hymn. In these lines she is only described in relation to Hades: “Lord Hades in his house sitting in bed with his revered wife, still unwilling and longing for her mother.” (Hom. Hymn Dem. 342-344, trans. Raynor). Surprisingly, Hades responds by telling Persephone to go to her mother, encouraging her to think kindly of him and reminding her she will always have power in the Underworld. Seems like he gave up pretty quickly for someone who helped plan a whole kidnapping huh? Well if it seems to good to be true, that’s probably because it is. Hades tricks Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed from the Underworld so that she is unable to permanently return to her mother, because eating food from the Underworld binds you to it.
Persephone and Hades then take his chariot to Demeter’s side in the world of the living. Demeter is happy to have her child back, but asks if she ate the food, explaining that she will have to divide her time between the Underworld and the realm of the living if she did. Persephone tells Demeter that Hades tricked her into eating the seed, as well as how he initially kidnapped her. Zeus agrees to the arrangement of splitting Persephone’s time between the realms so he can keep both Hades and Demeter happy. Demeter and Persephone then embrace and are thrilled to be back together. The text may not say it, but you get the vibe that there’s some sappy-movie-level tears between the two women here. Hecate, the goddess who had previously heard Persephone’s cry, becomes a companion of the young goddess. Reminder: Hecate’s role is the goddess of boundaries and crossroads, and Persephone now represents a crossing of boundaries. She lives at an eternal crossroads of life and death, the realm of the living and the realm of the dead, of being the innocent daughter and the queen of the Underworld. This makes her friendship highly symbolic. Also, as a modern reader it feels pretty nice to know Persephone will have a gal pal around to help her manage her chaotic schedule.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses was written around roughly the same time as the Fasti, but Metamorphoses was completed first, making it Ovid’s initial adaptation of the myth (Miller & Newlands, 3). Ovid was a Roman poet who wrote many famous poems, and was eventually exiled from Rome by the Emperor Augustus for reasons we still don’t fully understand. Metamorphoses was written before his exile and is composed of fifteen books full of mythological stories. It was published in 8AD (Kennedy, ix-xi). Though this is the next notable surviving myth chronologically, it was written over half a century after The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Metamorphoses also has a different narrator; the Muse Calliope. She is telling this story as a part of a contest. Just like most of us would when trying to tell the best story at a party, she embellishes the hell out of it. She uses very artistic and image-filled language and adds interesting additional characters in order to appeal to those judging the contest (Zissos, 97-98).
This version of the myth begins with Venus (the Roman / Latin version of Aphrodite) telling her son Cupid to shoot Pluto (who is sometimes referred to as Dis) with an arrow so that he will fall in love with Proserpina. Proserpina, meanwhile, is picking flowers when she is suddenly whipped away by Pluto, newly overcome with his arrow-related love for her. As she is carried off, she cries out for her mother. As she is being held by Pluto her tunic comes loose and all of the flowers she picked fall out in lines 398 to 399 (Ov. Met). The symbolism here is coming on stronger than Zeus comes on to almost any woman, as it is a literal deflowering of Proserpina at the hands of Dis. Deflowering is of course a colloquial term for the loss of virginity. This loss happens in a moment of violence; as she is being taken against her will, she is also being deflowered against her will. This moment is layered and emotional, as are many tales involving sexual violence. The nymph of a nearby lake, Cyane, tries to stop Pluto by calling:
“No farther shall you go! Ceres shall have No son against her will; Proserpina Should have been asked, not taken.* If I may Compare small acts with great ones, Anapis loved me,* And I became his bride, but at least he asked me, He did not force or frighten me into wedlock.”
(Ov. Met. 415-420, trans, Humphries)
Pluto does not listen to this plea (what a shock! A man in ancient mythology doesn’t listen to a woman!), instead forcing his way through Cyane’s lake to the Underworld. In her grief for Proserpina, Cyane dissolves away. Shortly afterwards Ceres discovers her daughter is missing and begins to search to the ends of the Earth for her. She eventually comes across the nymph Arethusa who tells her: “I saw Proserpina, with these very eyes I saw her, Minerva and the Muses Sorrowful, to be sure, and still half-frightened, And still a queen, the greatest of the world Of darkness, and an empress, the proud consort Of the proud ruler of the world of darkness” (Ov. Met. 504-509. trans, Humphries).
Ceres comes before Jove (the Roman/Latin version of Zeus, also known as Jupiter) and asks for Proserpina to be returned to her. Jove insists that it is not a bad marriage arrangement, but does agrees to let Proserpina return if she has not tasted food from the Underworld. Proserpina, however, had a moment of absentminded carelessness; “She had been hungry, wandering in the gardens, Poor simple child, and plucked from the leaning bough A pomegranate, the crimson fruit, and peeled it, With the inside coating of the pale rind showing, And eaten seven of the seed” (Ov. Met. 535-539. trans, Humphries). She was seen only by a character named Ascalaphus, who tells Jove he saw her break her fast. Persephone turns Ascalaphus into an ugly bird in revenge. A weird form of revenge? Sure. A valid response to someone sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong and condemning you to spend half your life in the Underworld? Sure!
Jupiter sees the perspective of both his brother, Pluto, and his sister, Ceres, so he splits the year in two and declares Proserpina spend six months with her husband and six with her mother. As for Proserpina: “the goddess May be with both and neither; and her bearing Minerva and the Muses Is changed, her sorrow alternates with sunlight, The cloud and shadow vanishing (Ov. Met. 566-569. trans, Humphries). The imagery used in this final passage is uplifting, talking about sunshine and natural elements. Though the characters feel good in the end in some of the other versions, the scenery does not play such a large role. Leaving the reader with a sunny image gives the impression that the story is happy, despite Proserpina’s ultimate lack of choice in her own arrangement.
The story of Proserpina in Fasti is the closest to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but it is much shorter. Fasti was also written by Ovid and was also published in 8CE, containing six books. Persephone’s section in Fasti, Book 4 also begins with Persephone picking flowers. Pluto simply comes across her and carries her off with no pre-planning. As she is being carried away Proserpina cries out to her mother. Ceres hears the cry and immediately begins to look for her. Much of this version of the myth after Proserpina’s abduction is devoted to Ceres’ wanderings as she looks for her daughter. Eventually, Ceres comes before Jove and reminds him he is Proserpina’s father, begging him to bring the girl back. He says that if she has not broken her fast, as eating food from the Underworld binds you to it, he will let her out of her marriage bonds. Jove sends Mercury (the Roman/Latin version of Hermes) down to see if she kept her fast and he returns with the message that she “did break her fast on three grains enclosed in the tough rind of a pomegranate” (Ov. Fast. 526. Trans, Frazer). Ceres is so upset at this news that Jove divides Proserpina’s time into four three-month periods. These will be split between the Underworld and the world of the living, so she can both honour her marriage vows and her relationship with her mother. Proserpina’s opinions are noticeably absent from this version of the myth. Persephone’s views weren’t exactly featured in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but at least she’s heard from in the end and we know that she’s happy with the arrangement. Fasti doesn’t give her the same chance to speak up.
Rape of Proserpine
Claudian was a Latin poet who lived from approximately 370CE until 404CE (Foley, 538). He had a large body of written work when he began the mythological epic the Rape of Proserpine, which he wrote on and off for many years (Foley, 540). Claudian begins his potentially unfinished epic poem (more on that unfinished note later), Rape of Proserpine, with a summary of the story he is about to tell: “Say with what torch the god of love overcame Dis, and tell how Proserpine was stolen away in her maiden pride to win Chaos as a dower; and how through many lands Ceres, sore troubled, pursued her anxious search” (Claud. DRP. 28-30. trans, Platnauer). This version of the myth was written later than the others, in 400 CE, placing it over one thousand years after The Homeric Hymn to Demeter was written (Schottenius Cullhed, 82). Proserpina is the main focus in this version instead of her mother. Our little girl is all grown up and leading her own epic poem! It follows her closely and gives more information about what her life was like before the abduction, her thoughts throughout the action, and a description of the actual wedding and all it entailed. Spoiler alert; the wedding is not exactly the party of the century for Proserpina. There is also more characterization given to Pluto/Dis.
The poem opens with Pluto upset and angry that he has no wife or child. In his fury over living the bachelor life he launches threats of war against the gods, setting all of the Titans and monsters kept in the Underworld free to wage his battle against the Olympians. The Fates beg him to stop, saying Jove will give him a wife if he asks. Granted, most people will probably do what you ask if you send a legion of monsters after them. Pluto then feels rightfully ashamed of his massive overreaction and locks the monsters back up. He then summons Mercury to deliver a message to Jove asking to allow him to marry. Pluto threatens to free the creatures of the Underworld again if his request is not granted, because subtlety is not his thing. With the threat / appeal of Pluto in mind, Jove has to consider who would be a fitting candidate to marry his brother. AKA: who could he force to live in the Underworld forever?
The narrator next describes Ceres, who fiercely loves and cares for her daughter Proserpina. Proserpina is described as having “grown a maiden ripe for marriage, and thoughts of the torch of wedlock stir her girlish modesty, but while she longs for a husband she yet fears” (Claud. DRP. 130-131. trans, Platnauer). In short, Proserpine wants a husband but fears the commitment and the new life it would entail. Relatable. Currently, two gods are competing for Proserpina’s hand in marriage, but Ceres dislikes them both and refuses their advances. Ceres is incredibly protective of Proserpina, to the point where she isolates her daughter. In no versions of the myth does Ceres/Demeter ever ask P what she wants for her own life, or acknowledge that though she’s young, she would be considered an adult in the time the myths were written.
Fearing that the rejected gods will kidnap Proserpina, Ceres hides her in Sicily while she goes to tend to her divine duties elsewhere. Jove sees this as the perfect time to enact his plan to give Pluto a wife, calling on Venus to convince Proserpina to be outside the next day. Venus quickly tries to do Jove’s bidding, and comes across the goddesses Pallas and Diana as she approaches the enforced palace Proserpina is hidden away in. Pallas and Diana are not a part of the planned abduction and were merely going to visit the young goddess. Proserpina is inside singing and stitching the story of the universe out on a cloth, but as she stitches the gloomy Underworld she is overcome with a strange omen of bad things to come, and begins to cry. She is unable to finish the stitching.
At the next dawn Proserpina gives in to Venus, leaving her fortress and go outside. Venus encourages Proserpina, along with her companions Pallas, Diana, and some naiads, to relax and pick flowers. There is a loud crash, and Pluto begins to rip through the Underworld and Earth to get to Proserpina. He scoops her up into the chariot, and she cries out for Pallas and Diana to help her. They try to fight but Jove stops them with bolts and sounds from the sky which he sends to confirm his approval of the marriage; they cry as they bid Proserpina goodbye.
Proserpina cries out to Jove asking why he’s doing this, and laments that she didn’t listen to the warnings of her mother or understand that Venus was tricking her. Notably, this is the only version in which P directly speaks to Jove/Zeus. As suggested by Brandon Jones, this may not actually be the progressive and empowering act we may initially interpret it as:
“Proserpina’s elevated agency and rhetoric, and her regrets at not taking her mother’s advice to stay at home, also display the type of anxiety that a rapta [victim of abduction marriage] might have felt, given the harsh punishments imposed by contemporary raptus law in which even an unwilling victim is punished for not locking herself indoors”(Jones, 94)
Enhancing the victimization of Proserpina, Pluto comforts her by promising he will be a worthy husband and make her a true queen, in his own humble opinion of course. He also promises to give her power and a role of authority. Pluto is overjoyed as their wedding celebrations start in the Underworld. The rest of the realm also celebrates this happy occasion for their ruler. After their wedding celebrations the couple goes to their marriage bed and the shades sing:
“Proserpine, queen of our realm, and thou, Pluto, at once the brother and the son-in-law of Jove, the Thunderer, be it yours to know the alliance of conjoined sleep; pledge mutual troth as ye hold each other in intertwining arms. Happy offspring shall be yours; joyous Nature awaits gods yet to be born. Give the world a new divinity and Ceres the grandchildren she longs for.”
(Claud. DRP. 365-370. trans, Platnauer)
Kind of weird to think about an entire realm singing about your sex life huh?
At a council of the gods, minus Ceres, Jove reveals his plan and threatens the other gods not to tell her where her daughter is. He intended all along to use Ceres’ desire to find her daughter to manipulate her into helping humans who have been appealing to him for assistance. When Ceres realizes her daughter is gone she begins to have extreme nightmares about her. She looks all over the world, but because her daughter is in the Underworld she cannot find her. She goes to Olympus and begs the virgin goddesses to tell her where Proserpina is, but they keep their promise to Jove. Ceres never finds her daughter. The end. No, really! The poem stops there, and I’ll explore why in a moment.
The oldest of these versions, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, offers the most complete conclusion, featuring a warm reunion between mother and daughter. Fasti and Metamorphoses both share some version of this ending, but Rape of Proserpine excludes it entirely, ending in the middle of the story. The shortest and least detailed version is Fasti, in which Proserpina seems only to exist in the context of her mother, because Ovid places the focus on the mother-daughter connection as opposed to the abduction itself. For P, the separation of mother and daughter that would normally come with marriage is made more extreme due to the violent nature of Hades’ abduction and P’s inability to leave the Underworld (Fantham et al., 33-34). Metamorphoses, Ovid’s other interpretation, involves Venus and strong symbolism of lust. One of the most striking moments in this telling is the highly symbolic passage where the flowers fall from Proserpine’s tunic during the abduction – which can be interpreted as a literal deflowering. Metamorphoses also has an explicitly stated narrator, Calliope, one of the Muses. As Calliope is telling the story she highlights details the other myths don’t include. This includes Cyane, a character who is not present in the other versions, but adds fascinating symbolism about sexual violence. Her presence makes Pluto more of a villain as he explicitly denies her plea. In fact, the wound of Pluto charging through Cyane’s lake is much like the wound a sexual assault could leave on a victim, paralleling the rape (Zissos, 100). After these acts Cyane literally dissolves over her grief for Proserpina.
Claudian’s unfinished epic poem The Rape of Proserpine contains the most differences. A fascinating aspect of Claudian’s work is the characterization he gives to Pluto. By having Pluto so strongly motivated to have a family, the audience will gain sympathy for him, as a desire for love and a family is something many people relate to. Pluto is not only portrayed as having sentimental desires, but also as uncharacteristically happy after his marriage. Pluto is normally very sullen and serious, so the joy his wedding brings him stands out, once again helping to encourage positive feelings in the reader:
“Pluto’s jovial appearance during the wedding has made scholars look upon this as a unique moment in ancient poetry, not only because the wedding itself is an elaboration introduced by Claudian, but also since we find grim and bitter Pluto blushing and smiling during the ceremony.”(Schottenius Cullhed, 89-90)
As to the unfinished aspect I promised to address earlier; some theories as to why the poem was never finished include: political or religious barriers which prevented Claudian’s writing; a case of lost inspiration before having written a conclusion; or even Claudian’s premature death. However, it is possible that Claudian intentionally omitted a satisfying ending as a potential metaphor: an abrupt ending to represent the themes within the poem of abduction and rape. These violent acts often begin and end without warning, much like the poem has a sudden cut off in a dissatisfying moment. The story is left unfinished, just like Persephone’s stitching, which was also meant to tell a story, was left in the poem (Schottenius Cullhed, 83-84). It is ironic and unfortunate that Claudian’s version lacks an ending, since it is otherwise very detailed. Another unique element of this telling is the isolated palace that Ceres built for Proserpina. The inclusion of the palace creates a fascinating parallel between Pluto and Proserpina. Pluto is angry because he has no wife or children, left to suffer loneliness in the Underworld, a loneliness very likely to have also been experienced by Proserpine, trapped alone in an extravagant palace. Ceres also experiences this loneliness when she returns to find the palace empty after the kidnapping (Schottenius Cullhed, 85). Claudian more frequently mentions virginity in his poem, as well as associating Proserpine with extremely feminine pastimes such as stitching and singing. Though she is still a feminine figure in all of the tellings, Claudian gives a domestic idea of femininity with these chosen hobbies.
A shared element between Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Ovid’s Fasti, and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, is the presence of the pomegranate seeds which bond P to the Underworld. The pomegranate, often seen as Hades’ tool of trickery and violation within this myth, can also be seen as a source of choice and agency for Persephone in a story where those qualities are otherwise lacking:
“If she chooses to eat, she demonstrates agency. Some aspect of the maiden consents to the transformation of her identity, her role, her powers, and her life such that she becomes consort and queen of the Underworld… If, on the other hand, Hades forces or tricks her into eating the pomegranate, Kore/Persephone continues to be a victim, and her bond with Hades is characterized by the fresh trauma of deceit and betrayal.”Nelson, 9.
When you consider that P may have willingly eaten the pomegranate, it not only has the power to force her to be connected to the Underworld, but also to give her agency. Even though Persephone expresses sadness and guilt to her mother over having eaten the seeds in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, she becomes an unreliable narrator (a narrator who can no longer be trusted to tell the story truthfully) in that moment, as she may have lied and potentially felt ashamed if she had a desire for power or to stay married, leading her to consume the fruit (Nelson, 10). When it comes to modern understanding of the myth, “Whether or not… Persephone chooses to eat the pomegranate seeds is crucial to contemporary readers using the Hymn to help negotiate their own Underworld journeys” (Nelson, 10). In this quote Nelson uses the term “Underworld journeys” to refer to any dark times modern readers may be experiencing, much less literal than in P’s case. If P ate the pomegranate on her own, she gains empowerment, something modern feminist readers desperately want her to have. There is also symbolism in the use of the pomegranate as opposed to any other food, explained in detail by B. Lincoln in The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women’s Initiation:
“The seed which is specified, rather than the fruit as a whole… gives rise to ideas of life and rebirth. Further, the red color evokes associations… of mortal wounds, but also menstrual blood, the blood of defloration, and the blood of parturition: blood of life, as well as death; sexual blood; women’s blood. …pomegranate has always made it a symbol of exuberant female fertility, but there are male associations as well, for the term used of the seed in the Homeric Hymn… can mean “testicle” as well as “seed,” … Death, life, male, female, and above all, the irrepressible power of reproduction, are all found in the image of the pomegranate seed. It is this seed which Persephone literally incorporates into her body, and with that seed, she becomes a new person: whole, mature, fertile, and infinitely more complex than before. Having tasted the seed, she has crossed a barrier from which she cannot return, and nothing Demeter can do will ever make her the same again.”The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women’s Initiation. B. Lincoln. 234.
This image would have a huge impact on ancient audiences, specifically women entering marriages and parents transitioning daughters into marriage. They are being transformed from daughters into wives; girls into women, and experiencing a fundamental change in role and lifestyle, much like P.
The other “Brides of Hades”
With this idea of a time of transition in mind, it is important to look not only at myth but also at material culture and iconography in order to better understand Persephone’s role in ancient Graeco-Roman cultures. Persephone was a figure for whom marriage and death were intrinsically linked. Throughout their paper Girls Playing Persephone (in Marriage and Death), Ellie Mackin describes girls who become “Brides of Hades” after they suffer premature, often violent, deaths, while still in the midst girlhood. Death is described as a marriage for these girls (9). In Athens, such girls were honoured at their graves with goods reminiscent of wedding gifts and even buried wearing wedding clothes. Some grave markers act as evidence that this was to invoke the idea that the girls were wed to or in Hades, much like Persephone (Mackin, 14). One of the most notable examples of these ‘Brides of Hades’ is Phrasikleia. Her grave marker, a kore statue, bore an epigram noting that she had died before marriage and therefore had a special status within the Underworld (Mackin, 14). Phrasikleia is presumed to have been a member of the powerful Alcmeanoid family, who buried the grave marker to protect it when a tyrant they feared returned to power (Svenbro, 10). The inscription says:
“[I am the grave] marker of Phrasikleia. I shall always be called “kore,” this name being my fate by will of the gods who deprived me of marriage.”(Stieber, 146)
Notably, the statue is covered in flowers, specifically unopened buds. This is interesting to compare to the scene in Metamorphoses where Proserpina loses her flowers during the abduction, keeping in mind the comparison of flowers and virginity. Persephone loses all of her flowers against her will, while Phrasikleia’s flowers will never bloom, as she died while still an unmarried virgin. Though Phrasikleia died between 550 and 530 BCE (Stieber, 142), over 500 years before Metamorphoses was written, the comparison is still worth making.
Sanctuary at Locri Epizephyrii
Locri Epizephyrii, had an important sanctuary of Persephone which thrived particularly during the sixth and fifth centuries (Fantham et al., 39). There are items found at this site known as pinakes which are thought to be dedications made by young women preparing to be wed. The pinakes act as a material request for Persephone’s blessing and protection of young women’s looming marriages. Most of these images show the goddess at the same place in life as the girls, just before marriage (Mackin, 4-5). This archaeological evidence demonstrates different aspects of Persephone’s story and divinity. The young girls are the helpless korai (kore, Greek for maiden, is a name sometimes used for Persephone before her abduction), not yet wedded but taken away to the Underworld, and they invoke Persephone at her moment of abduction wherein she becomes the queen of the Underworld and is given a form of empowerment through her marriage (Mackin, 15). Because of how often images are repeated, we know that molds were used repeatedly to make the pinakes, which would then be bought and dedicated by the individuals in the temple (Dillion, 222).
Some of the scenes that can be found on the pinakes are: Persephone being abducted by Hades, Persephone and Hades on their thrones (pictured below), girls picking pomegranates, and images of young girls preparing to make various pre-nuptuial offerings. Roosters, a symbol of fertility, are also seen often on the pinakes. Mirrors are also a common image on the pinakes, as girls would have likely dedicated their mirror from childhood to represent their transition into marriage. (Dillion, 222-225). The relation of young girls to Persephone also serves as a reminder of an important element of their upcoming married life: “A woman can always be retrieved, a marriage nullified. She does not completely integrate into her husband’s home” (Mackin, 8). By celebrating Persephone and looking at this example, girls may have found comfort in thinking that much like Persephone is able to return to her family, so might they, however unlikely this was.
If you’re interested in the pinakes I recommend doing a bit of your own research – you can find images of many more in books and on the internet, but because of copyright they cannot be shared here.
P was also featured on coins. Syracuse is a city on the island of Sicily, an island which plays a large role in Claudian’s The Rape of Proserpine. P began to appear on coins during the last decade of the fifth century. She is identified by the imagery of “barley wreaths, grain ears, and stalks” (Motta, 379) appearing on a young woman. As Rosa Maria Motta notes: “Persephone’s image was in fact copied hundreds of times, appearing on later 4th and 3rd century BCE coins from sites as geographically diverse as Spain and Crete, and Pheneos in the Peloponnese” (380). On some coins, P is accompanied by a victorious looking Nike, while others feature Pegasus (Motta, 382). We do not know why P was partnered with those specific images. Motta explains that for the people of Syracuse: “Persephone’s depiction was a reminder of the repetitive rhythm of the four seasons, of the cyclical birth and death of crops; of her double function as chthonic and vegetation goddess whose protection assured the inhabitants’ welfare” (383).
There is something about this story which has kept generation after generation coming back to revisit and retell it, and the modern era is no different. Today, P’s story has gained a foothold particularly in comics and art, often being re-imagined as a story in which P is truly the main character and makes her own choices: “In the modern era, versions of the Proserpina myth in which the girl is attracted to the Underworld and stays there voluntarily have grown increasingly popular” (Schottenius Cullhed, 82). In the twenty first century, more women are drawn away from traditional structures such as family life in favour of something else (Asburn-Nardo et, al., 394), much like P leaves her controlling relationship with her mother behind. In the traditional poems this is done involuntarily, but modern tellings give P the power to decide her own fate.
Another major attraction for many to adapt P’s story is the creative approaches which can be taken in describing her descent to the Underworld. As Elizabeth Nelson says: “The descent to the Underworld can manifest as chaos, depression, illness, and addiction, or simply as a felt sense that a once vital, juicy life is now desiccated” (7). This element of descent in P’s story is one that is often used in modern adaptations. Some twenty-first-century takes on Persephone are in the Image Comics series The Wicked and the Divine, and the Webtoon hosted webcomics Punderworld, and Lore Olympus.
In The Wicked and the Divine, a pantheon of twelve gods from various mythologies return to Earth in the bodies of young people every ninety years. In the featured pantheon, Persephone returns as a mysterious thirteenth god, and is the main character of the comics. The series was quite successful, receiving positive reviews and even being nominated for several awards. It was written by Kieron Gillen with a majority of the art being done by Jaime McKelvie. The series ran from 2014-2019, producing forty-five regular issues and six specials. The Wicked and the Divine Persephone is as empowered as they come, injecting herself into a pantheon and then leading the charge of young gods to question the system they’re a part of. This Persephone also exemplifies new kinds of duality and boundary crossing not seen before in the character, as she is both biracial and bisexual. She also exists in a nature both divine and mortal simultaneously, as it is never made clear just how divine the pantheon is, but they can be harmed. This Persephone also exists independently of Demeter and Hades, and is in a modern Earth setting as opposed to an ancient or divine location. Though she’s the main character, she is also shown making decisions which cause harm to the world around her, humanizing her and having her intentionally make mistakes. Persephone of The Wicked and the Divine is a fully realized character on her own, and a fully modern woman.
Punderworld is the newest of the three examples I have here. It’s published on the webtoon format by an independent artist who goes by the screen-name Sigeel, and with thirty four episodes posted, boasts over three hundred and thirty thousand subscribers, and has over two thousand Patreon subscribers. I can’t discuss too in depth what direction the story takes, as it simply hasn’t progressed far enough. However, it features a Persephone who is frustrated by her controlling mother, and who has a large crush on the god who once visited their home. Though the god is unknown to Persephone, readers know it is Hades. Though the feelings are mutual, neither party is able to share their feelings due to Demeter’s constant watchful eye. The carefully planned kidnapping between Zeus and Hades never takes places, being swapped instead for a drunken conversation between the two gods in which Hades takes Zeus’ advice to pursue his crush. A series of accidents leads to Hades accidentally whisking Persephone away in his chariot. Punderworld takes the events of the myths and morphs them into an alternate fun and romantic take. Hades is no longer the villian, but a romantic lead equally sympathetic to Persephone. In fact, if there is any villain in Punderworld, it’s Demeter. She is frequently seen gaslighting Persephone and denying her daughter autonomy. The conflict in this story is no longer due to an act of violence, but rather in characters trying to be together despite difficult family relationships. Essentially, Punderworld seems to be re-telling the myth as a magical love story, free of the traditionally troubling elements; Sigeel is taking the “problematic” out of “problematic fav”. The art is sweet and colourful, drawing on the mythological traits to create fun character details. As the comic progresses, it’s fanbase is sure to continue to grow.
Lore Olympus is likely the most popular of the three, having begun in early 2019 it now has nearly five million weekly subscribers. There are currently one hundred fifty-five episodes published, with several more available behind a paywall. Lore Olympus is so popular that it has merchandise available, has a print edition in the works (which this writer may or may not have pre-ordered), and is being produced as a TV show by the Jim Henson Company. This comic also manipulates the story in order to give Persephone more power. Though she has been incredibly sheltered by her mother, the comic starts with her moving from her overbearing mother’s house into a friend’s apartment and beginning school at a university. Clearly, it does not have an ancient setting, but rather is a modernized version of Olympus and the Underworld, where the Olympians reign supreme and everyone has a cell phone and wi-fi. Persephone’s descent to the Underworld is vastly different, as the first time she ends up there it is the result of a cruel prank Aphrodite has played on Hades by hiding Persephone in his car. Hades doesn’t harm Persephone, but rather provides her with safety and care, not expecting anything in return. From this point on, a slow-burn romantic relationship develops between the two, with Hades always letting Persephone take the lead on what that looks like. Trigger warning: sexual assault still plays a role in this story, but it happens to Persephone at the hands of a different god.
This Persephone is deeply feminine (she is completely pink and grows flowers from her hair) and has some naive qualities, while also being whip smart and learning how to navigate the world around her. She is a Persephone made for the modern reader to relate to, a reader who is trying to get the whole “adult” thing figured out just like she is. Hades characterization is also changed, being portrayed as a calm counterpart to his womanizing brothers, and deeply traumatized by his past. Readers will have a desire to protect Hades as much as they want to protect Persephone. Both of these characters frequently flash back to trauma they’ve experienced, often at the hands of their own parents. The relationship between the two comes naturally, slowly growing from a place of mutual support and comfort they find in one another. By retelling the story in this way, Smythe portrays Persephone as a woman fighting for her own place in the world, despite trauma and restrictive relationships holding her back. The art is stunning and colourful beyond belief, with each character being a different bright shade and a variety of shapes. Smythe does an excellent job writing the comic as well, with each new topic and character being handled with both the utmost care and in an entertaining way. It’s clear why Lore Olympus is successful, and it seems likely the success will only grow as the new versions of the story roll out to the public.
The character of Persephone/Proserpine has captured the imagination of audiences for thousands of years. Surviving ancient literature which chronicle the myth of her abduction by Hades/Pluto, particularly the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ovid’s Fasti, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Claudian’s Rape of Proserpine , allows us to understand the basis of P’s story and expand into learning about her role in the world at large. The symbolism in the story doesn’t just make for an interesting read, but had real life implications for ancient audiences, leading to young ancient Greek women looking up to her for generations. She was also the subject of many pieces of art, some of the surviving pieces of which I’ve included throughout the article.
But P’s influence didn’t end with the fall of Rome; her presence has stuck around. She has been a part of art and culture for thousands of years. Her story is still told in new ways to reflect changing values. Generation after generation we keep coming back and remaking P to reflect what we want her to be in our society, and she fits these roles flawlessly. Ultimately, Persephone has left a mark on culture far beyond what one may think possible due to her relatively small role in classical mythology. It seems clear that no matter what form she takes, Persephone or Proserpina will always have a strange power over our imagination.
Ashburn-Nardo, Leslie, & Ashburn-Nardo, Leslie. (2017). Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men. Sex Roles, 76(5), 393-401.
Claudian & Platnauer, M. (1922). Claudian. (Vol. 2). Harvard Univserity Press.
Dillon, Matthew. (2001). Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. London: Routledge.
Encyclopaedia, B. I. (2006). Encyclopedia of world religions. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443
Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (1995). Women in the classical world : Image and text. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443
Foley, J. M. (Ed.). (2005). A companion to ancient epic. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443
Gillen, K. (2015). Issue 11 [The Wicked and the Divine]. Portland, Oregon: Image Comics.
Jones, Brandon F. (2019). The Poetics of Legalism: Ovid and Claudian on the Rape of Proserpina. Arethusa,52(1), 71-104.
Lincoln, B. (1979). The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women’s Initiation. Harvard Theological Review, 72(3-4), 223–235. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0017816000020034
Mackin, E. (2018). Girls Playing Persephone (in Marriage and Death). Mnemosyne, 71(2), 209–228. https://doi.org/10.1163/1568525x-12342276
Miller, J. F., & Newlands, C. E. (2014). A handbook to the reception of Ovid. Wiley-Blackwell.
Motta, R. M. (2016). Myths, Coins, and Semiotics: Philosopher Kings and Tragic Heroes, 371–386. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvbj7gjn.24
Nelson, E. E. (2016). Embodying Persephone’s Desire: Authentic Movement and Underworld Transformation. Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies, 11, 5–17. https://doi.org/10.29173/jjs37s
Ovid, & J. G. Frazer. (1931). Fasti, Ovid. Harvard University Press.
Ovid, & Humphries, R. (2018). Metamorphoses: The New, Annotated Edition. Indiana University Press.
Ovid, & E. J. Kenney. (1998). Metamorphoses. OUP Oxford.
Rayor, Diane J.. The Homeric Hymns : A Translation, with Introduction and Notes, University of California Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Schottenius Cullhed, S. (2019). PROSERPINA IN PIECES: CLAUDIAN ON HER RAPE. Ramus, 48(1), 82-94. doi:10.1017/rmu.2019.10
Sigeel. (2020). The Longest Night Collab [Punderworld]. Webtoon.
Smythe, Rachel. (2019). Episode 56 [Lore Olympus]. Webtoon.
Stieber, Mary. (2004). The Poetics of Appearance in the Attic Korai. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Svenbro, Jesper. (1993). Phrasikleia : An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece. Cornell University Press.
Zissos, A. (1999). The Rape of Proserpina in Ovid “Met.” 5.341-661: Internal Audience and Narrative Distortion. Phoenix, 53(1/2), 97. https://doi.org/10.2307/1088125
All photos are open access properties taken from Wikimedia Commons or the Metropolitan Museum of Art unless otherwise stated.
One thought on “Persephone / Proserpina”
It’s amazing article or I can call it a perfect literary essay. What I need to understand is how Thomas Hardy employed this myth of Persophone in his novel Tess of the D’ Urbervilles .
Thanks a million
Dr. Kamal Al-Gorani