The thing about being stuck in the Underworld is you really lose track of what day it is — hence, Mythology Mondays but on a Friday. I suppose I could have just waited a few more days and shared it on Monday but…eh. I wanted to talk about Persephone, Queen of the Dead, like, now.
I’m going to get to the ones that were voted on in the poll, I promise — but the key thing keeping me from those is time to research. So in the meantime, enjoy a few articles about gods I already KNOW A LOT ABOUT!
Persephone: Queen of the Dead and Flower Maiden of Springtime
If there’s a god of paradox, it’s Persephone. She is both Queen of the Dead, Dread Bringer of Death, Queen of the Shades, Mother of Furies, and she is Kore, Goddess of Springtime Flowers, Maiden of Green Growing Life.
Persephone is merciful and harsh at the same time. She gives second chances, but don’t fuck those ones up. She is gentle and completely terrifying.
If you don’t know anything about Persephone at all, let me give you a basic overview.
Descent and Transformation
The key myth we use to understand Persephone in the modern day is the one of her descent to the underworld. It’s also referred to as her abduction myth. This is because Zeus literally tells his brother Hades, “Look, you wanna marry my daughter, go ahead, but kidnap her because otherwise her mom is gonna be pissed.”
(Yeah, don’t try to apply human ethics around things like incest to the gods. It’ll give you a headache. Zeus and Demeter are siblings, they have a kid and that kid marries their other sibling, Hades. This is par for the course in the Greek myths.)
The myth is also sometimes called the rape of Persephone, because rape in the time this myth came about was differently defined than it is now — having less to do with the consent of all parties actually involved and more to do with consent of the parents to the marriage, or societal mores.
I often see modern folks throwing shade Hades’ way because they hear about this myth and assume he’s, you know. A rapist. My opinion is they should leave any shade-throwing to Persephone, as she’s Queen of the Shades.
(Ok, bad joke. I apologize for nothing.)
My point is — a point I make many times over in this series — ancient myths come from a cultural context that we need to try to understand in order to understand the gods.
Sometimes Depression Means You Let Humanity Starve
Persephone is abducted by Hades, and after her disappearance Demeter, her mother and goddess of grain, is distraught beyond measure. The grain goddess, in her mourning and rage, murders a bunch of plants and lets a bunch of humans starve to death.
See, this myth is set in the Golden Age — a time before seasons, when people lived forever and didn’t know agriculture because they didn’t need to. Everything grew all the time, and food was plentiful upon the earth.
This myth is the story of how we got seasons, and how we learned agriculture, and how the Golden Age ended and life wasn’t quite so easy anymore.
It’s also about how the Underworld got a new Queen of the Dead, and how those no longer living could have a slightly softer existence with Persephone’s presence in their realm. (Hades is a good dude but he can be harsh.)
But the myth is still happening in the Golden Age, and it’s the apocalypse for mortals. So the gods are like “Crap, we really need Demeter to snap out of it,” and the machinations of a bunch of different deities work to try to get Persephone back to her mother.
Persephone, meanwhile, has eaten the food of the dead — six pomegranate seeds — and eating the food of the dead means one must stay in the Underworld forever.
From Maiden to Mother of the Dead
There are many interpretations to this part of the myth. One says she is coerced into eating the seeds, not knowing the rules. I say that’s BS because she’s a freaking Greek goddess; of course she knows the rules of the Underworld. I prefer the one that says it’s her choice to eat the seeds because she wants to know more.
It’s analogous to Eve eating the apple because she desires to know more. (The apple, by the way, has been theorized to actually have been a pomegranate.)
There is also some interpretation about Persephone eating the pomegranate being akin to going through menarche and “becoming a woman”. This myth definitely is about Persephone coming into womanhood — whether you specifically connect that to menarche is a personal choice (and potentially not as applicable to gods, but hey, what do I know?).
Demeter is told Persephone cannot come back because she has eaten food of the dead. Demeter continues to make the earth cold and barren, and humans continue to starve to death. (Sometimes mother goddesses get REALLY MAD and very PUT THAT GODDESS BACK WHERE SHE CAME FROM OR SO HELP ME. What can I say.)
The Original Long-Distance Relationship
Finally, a compromise is reached which can be accepted by all parties: Persephone will spend six months with her mother, and six months with Hades, who is now her husband. Six for the seeds of the pomegranate eaten.
This is how we get the seasons — the growing season and the barren season. The growing season is when Persephone is with her mother, helping her make the earth flourish. The barren season is when she returns to the Underworld and grows flowers for the dead, to lighten up the afterlife a bit.
The seasons are an eternal cycle of transition between her roles of Kore, flower goddess, and Persephone, queen of the dead. This is an example of myths showing cosmic truth, not scientific truth.
This myth was the basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries, the contents of which are largely a mystery (because speaking of them was punishable by death) but which we know were largely about the afterlife and the promise of eternal life for initiates.
This myth might also explain the combination of two different goddesses; there is speculation that Persephone and Kore were two separate beings at some point.
We don’t really know. What I can tell you is this: Persephone, Queen of the Dead, is awesome. Don’t piss her off. Her dog has three heads.