This is a post for my March book challenge, #marchmonthofmythology.
The story of Persephone is my favourite Greek myth, and it’s one I’ve adapted several times. Every time I try to write it down, I get another idea of how to do it, and I’m never satisfied with the end result. One of the things that attracts me to this myth is its mystery, the different versions that all have slightly different meanings. I think that’s why I’ll never be able to write just one good retelling; I’ll have to write many to show all my different interpretations.
The abduction of Persephone
Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, and Zeus. She lived a sheltered life with her mother, who loved her dearly. Several gods wanted to marry the beautiful girl, but Demeter wouldn’t have any of that. No man would ever be good enough for her daughter! Unfortunately, one day Persephone disappeared. Demeter sought everywhere for her daughter, but she wasn’t to be found anywhere on earth. It was like she’d disappeared completely…
She hadn’t, of course. What happened was this: Persephone was out picking flowers when the earth in front of her opened up and a black chariot appeared, driven by none other than the Lord of the Underworld, Hades! He pulled Persephone onto his chariot and went back beneath the earth, the crack in the ground closing up behind them. You see, Hades had fallen in love with Persephone and had stolen her so she could be his wife.
Meanwhile, above ground Demeter was still distraught. As a last resort she visited Helios, the sun, who always saw everything from his chariot in the sky. He was the only one who knew where Persephone had gone, and he couldn’t deny Demeter the truth. It didn’t help much, however, because her daughter had gone to a realm she could not reach. Mad with grief, Demeter started to ignore her divine duties. This meant plants withered and died and nothing would grow any more. In other words: mortals were starting to grow hungry… and die.
This situation could not go on. In the end, Zeus had to step in and order Hades to return Persephone to her mother, or all mortal life would perish. Hades had no choice but to comply – except he couldn’t! At some point, Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds from a pomegranate tree in Hades’ garden. There was an ancient rule that stated that anyone who ate any of the food in the Underworld had to stay there forever. It seemed like they were at an impasse.
In the end, a clever solution was found: Persephone would spend a part of the year (either a third or half) in the Underworld as Hades’ wife, and the rest above ground with her mother. Neither Hades and Demeter were very happy with this, but it was the best they could get out of it. Whenever Persephone was with her mother, the crops would grow and food was plentiful; during the time she spent underground, however, Demeter would be too upset to do anything, and people had to make do with whatever food they’d saved. As you might have guessed, this is a way to explain the changing of the seasons.
What I love about this myth
In most ancient versions of the myth, the focus is on Demeter. Hades gets some attention, but it’s mostly unclear what Persephone does or what she thinks of it. This is where interpreting and retelling the myth gets interesting. A lot of things that could change your interpretation completely are left unclear or unexplained, or differ between versions. For instance: why did Hades abduct Persephone? In some versions, the whole thing was a trap orchestrated by Zeus. In others, no explanation is mentioned and it seems like Hades came up with the idea himself. Another problem: the pomegranate seeds. There are two questions connected to this. One: did Persephone eat the seeds of her own accord, or did Hades force her? And number two: did she know what would happen if she ate the seeds? You might think she would never have taken the seeds if she knew what they would do to her, but there are various ways of looking at it. Before she became the wife of Hades, Persephone was only Demeter’s daughter; she didn’t have any notable power of her own. In the Underworld, she is queen, and if the myths are to be believed, a fearsome one at that. It’s also interesting to me that in other myths, Hades and Persephone are always described as a loving couple. In fact, they might be the most well-functioning couple in the whole Greek pantheon. How did that happen after such a violent start?
These things might be interesting to do research about, to see what the ancient Greek and later Roman perspective was on them. But for me, they’re mostly things I like to explore in writing. I like how I can modernise the tale, and give Persephone more agency. Now I just have to find a version I can be completely happy about… (or almost completely, at least).
Persephone – book and fruit
I love pomegranates. They’re symbols of both death and fertility, and they’re just plain delicious! It takes some effort to eat them, though. (Actually there are easy ways to get all the seeds out, but that takes all the fun out of it!)