PERSEPHONE: PART I

QUEEN OF THAT WHICH IS BELOW

Persephone is an ancient Greek Goddess who occupied the roles of “Goddess of Spring” and “Queen of the Underworld.” She is the daughter of Demeter – Goddess of Grain & Zeus – King of the Gods. She was first known by the name Kore which translates as maiden or daughter, although it has also been suggested by scholars that Kore may mean the feminine derivative of the word koros, meaning sprout. Demeter and Kore were worshipped by the ancient Greeks as agricultural Goddesses associated with the harvest. Young Kore attracted the attention of Zeus’ brother (her uncle) Hades, king of the Underworld. Hades sought permission from Zeus to wed his maiden daughter and without courting her first, stealthily spirited her away to his realm below the earth. Once she became Hades wife she took on the name Persephone which is the epithet she is most commonly know by. Grieving Demeter eventually forced the return of her daughter to the surface by causing great famine, but having been tricked into eating pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, Persephone was bound to remain there for a portion of each year. This story was used as an allegory to explain the seasons, because Demeter causes the fruitful earth to wither when Persephone descends to her husband in the Underworld, while her ascent brings with it the renewal of Springtime and new life.

The meaning of the name Persephone is something of a mystery, and is still under dispute due to discrepancies over translations.

Some say it means Bringer of Death or Destroyer, whereas others have interpreted it as “The one who brings the light” or “She who shines in the dark.” It can’t be proven what the name Persephone means, if anything, but it is interesting to see how linguists try to solve the puzzle and attribute meaning to her moniker. The ancient Greeks allegedly refused to say her name, choosing instead to call her Kore, for fear of bringing death upon themselves. If true, this would lend credibility to the darker translation of her name.

Like so many other deities of the Greek pantheon, Persephone is believed to have been a transport from a foreign land. Meaning, her worship was not born in Ancient Greece but Thracia. Thracia was a region in the Southeast Balkans in Europe in what is now parts of Macedonia and Bulgaria. Scholars believe this dynamic goddess originated in an agricultural-based cult in the Balkans. 

 

One of the earliest recorded mentions of Persephone’s abduction story is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Homeric Hymns are written in the style of Homer, but were authored after his death by anonymous writers. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter can be dated back to the sixth century BCE and it is thought that these hymns may in fact be preludes to long, epic stories which have been lost to time. This hymn tells what is considered to be the original tale of Persephone’s abduction however much of the focus is on Demeter’s search for her daughter. It details how Demeter came to establish a temple on the top of a prominent hill in Eleusis where she promised to instruct the worshippers in her sacred rites. These sacred rites came to be known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Shrouded in secrecy, we are able to draw educated conjecture about what took place during the Eleusinian Mysteries, however we will likely never be completely certain about the details of these rituals because the secrets were well guarded. The rituals were only for initiates, and as far as we know – no credible written record detailing exactly what went on there has survived. However, the evidence available we can tell that the mysteries were divided into the Lesser  Mysteries that took place at the end of Winter, and the Greater Mysteries which took place in Autumn.

One first had to be initiated into the Lesser Mysteries before being granted attendance to the rites of the Greater Mysteries and this may or may not have involved the ritual sacrifice of a pig. Participation was open to everyone, providing they spoke Greek and had never shed the blood of another human being. Initiates were promised a happy afterlife in the Underworld. For this reason, Eleusinian Mysteries fitting a name as Eleusis itself means the place of happy arrival. Hierophants and Priestesses showed sacred objects to the initiates; it is thought that one of these sacred items was an ear of corn that would have been cut symbolically. Initiates may have undergone purification rituals and re-enactments of Kore’s abduction by Hades and subsequent return to her Mother.

Although the first written records of Persephone are attributed to the Greeks, the Underworld Queen archetype is primordial and is likely that ancient civilizations venerated Goddesses similar to Persephone even before the Greeks. It has been suggested that Erishkegal, a Mesopotamian Goddess dating back to the fourth millennium BC is an earlier incarnation of Persephone. Erishkegal had the epithet ‘Queen of That Which is Below’ and was attributed with ruling over the Underworld. There is an element of the dual Goddess to her as well, because Erishkegal sometimes overlaps with her sister Inanna – ‘Queen of That Which is Above.’

The notion of a dual Goddess ruling over death and rebirth may have resonated with ancient people whose lives were dictated by the rythms of the seasons. Without the modern conveniences of technology, civilizations had no choice but to follow the flow of the earth and embrace the dark phase of the Goddess as well as the light. Death and rebirth are complementary forces, so it is logical that one Goddess may hace dominion over both. Creation and destruction were understood to be essential aspects of the same process. In Western culture where life and death are viewed as linear, death follows life and that is the end. Death is feared because it is seen as the absence of existence; many religions seek to placate this fear with the promise of an eternal afterlife if we behave ourselves in this life. However, when the life and death cycle is viewed as cyclical rather than linear, it is not so frightening because each proceeds the other, and both are necessary. Life, or consciousness is followed by death; death is followed by transformation in the dark fertile soil of the earth, and transformation is followed by rebirht in a continuous, everlasting cycle. We can witness this cycle repeating around ourselves all the time, in the seasonal patterns and the lunar cycle. It isn’t outside of the reals of possibility that the same cycle could be applied to our human consciousness. 

HISTORICAL ORIGINS:

The tale of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, the God of the Underworld has inserted itself into the modern zeitgeist of popular culture. This is evident from the number of fictional books that have been written about her in the last decade. Persephone’s story is thousands of years old, and grows ever popular all the time, although it is often re-imagined to paint her relationship with Hades in a more favorable light, attributing her with more autonomy than in ancient versions. 

To understand Persephone’s origins, and why the abduction mythi is commonly considered the ‘original’ myth, we must look to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Homeric Hymns are a type of story told in verses like poems, and written by multiple authors. Historians suggest that the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was written between 650 – 550 BCE, over 2500 years ago. The authors of Demeter’s hymn are unknown and fragments of it have been lost to the decay of time, meaning certain parts can only be guessed at. The text we have today was discovered in a manuscript in 1777, in a stable in Moscow. It ws a copy of the hymn that had been transcribed in the fifteenth century and parts of it were damaged. The translation of these hymns from ancient Greek to English is not a simple process, therefore we can’t be entirely sure that our modern day translations are verbatim. 

There are numerous Homeric hymns dedicated to multiple deitis in the Greek pantheon which tend to share a common thread in that they praise the deity that theyare written for, and tell of how they came to acquire their poer or commit great deeds. 

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is in its essence a fertility myth. Persephone symbolizes the seed that appears and disappears; the never ending rhythm of life and death. Many cultures have similar myths that are used to explain the earth’s seasons and the cycles. In addition to providing an allegory for death and renewal it also tells of how Demeter establishes the Eleusinian Mysteries, the name given to the cult established in honor of Demeter and Persephone in the town of Eleusis near Athens. Persephone doesn’t appear much in this hymn, but the few times she is featured we see her suffering violence and deceit at the hands of Hades and Zeus. Hades abducts her by sudden force, holds her captive in an unfamiliar place, then finally tricks her into eating the infamous pomegranate seeds. Zeus does not appear any more favorably in the poem; he consents to his daughter’s marriage without so much as a word to mother or daughter. His self interest is difficult to hide when his concern for the dying mortals is based upon his lack of worship and offerings rather than benevolent anxiety for the welfare of mankind. His order for the return of Persephone is not intended to restore an innocent maiden back to her mother because Zeus is not troubled by the impact of his decision upon his daughter or her mother. The motivation for returning her is simply to receive the adoration f the mortals which he won’t get if they are dead. The hymn illustrates how Persephone is let down and mistreated by the men in her life. It may also paint a picture of gender roles in ancient Greece, or more specifically Athens. The religion based around Demeter and Persephone was location based, so whilst it illuminates us as to the attitudes held in ancient Athens, we can’t with all accuracy apply that to the whole of ancient Greece.

It should be pointed out that in ancient Athens, marriage was a contract between the father of the bride and the intended husband. A woman could not own land or property, and was see as an asset that could be traded. Whilst Hades’ abduction of Persephone is extreme, it is not outside of the context of the marriage traditions of that time. Being a patriarchal society, a new bride would move to her husband’s family home. Women were not permitted to move freely about the city, therefore if her new husband lived far away from her childhood home she would experience separation from her mother. Again, this represents a less extreme parallel to the parental separation between Demeter and Persephone.

Persephone is referred to as Kore in the beginning of the text, but takes on her more regal epithet whilst in the Underworld. This may signify her initiation into womanhood and acceptance of her Goddes power. Once she becomes Hades’ wife, she sheds her identity as the maiden and takes on the role of Queen, a definitve transition into adulthood. Hades is Zeus’,  equivalent in royal status, ruling the land of the dead rather than the heavens. He has dominion over the minerals of the earth, making him a wealthy God of precious metals and stones. When Persephone becomes the Queen of the Underworld her status is then equal to that of Hera, Zeus’ wife and Queen of Heaven. 

Selecting a new name can be symbolic of taking on a new identity, marking the end of virginal innocence Before Persephone departs the underworld with Hermes, Hades promises her three things that foreshadow the fierce Goddess that she is to become. The first promise is that she will be Queen of all living things, second is the greatest honor among the Gods, and third is that she will have vengeance on those that cross or disrespect her. That vengeance would be considered a temptung lure to keep Persephone in the Underworld alludes to the stern and powerful figure she is destined to become. 

PERSEPHONE RETOLD:

Although the Homeric hymn is one of the earliest written records that we have of Persephone’s story, there exists another poem that mentions her very briefly and predates the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Named Theogony, it is authored by an Ancient Greek poet named Hesiod. Theogony translates approximately to ‘The Birth of the Gods’ and provides an introduction to the Greek pantheon. Written somewhere between 730 – 700 BCE, it was potentially written 80 years before the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Persephone is mentioned twice in it, once where she is described to be seated next to Hades on her throne in the Underworld as the ‘very awful’ Persephone. The second mention is slightly longer, and relates to Demeter giving birth to her daughter, ‘she bare white-armed Persephone whom Aidoneus (another name for Hades) carried off from her mother’ but wise Zeus gave her to him.’ These two brief mentions could suggest that Persephone is grandiose and intimidating, and Zeus saw that Hades and Persephone were well matched. The poem claims that Zeus is wise to consent to the unlikely union, so perhaps there was some reasoning for his decision to marry his daughter off, and wasn’t just a senseless act of callousness. Could Hades and Persephone hance been destined to be together? There are some variations on the Homeric hymn that suggest that this is the case. The Latin poet Claudian wrote that Zeus consented to the marriage under pressure from the FATES & Hades, who grew resentful of his lonely existence without a wife. In Metamorphosis by Ovid, Hades falls in love with Persephone when Aphrodite (Venus) commands Eros (Cupid) to pierce Hades with an arrow of love. Aphrodite is displeased at the vows of chastity taken by the virgin Goddesses Artemis and Athena and conspires not to see Persephone take the same path. Latin poet Virgil, wrote a piece about agriculture in 29 BCE called the Georgics. According to the translation by Ferry (2015), Persephone (or Peroserpine as she was called by her Roman equivalent name) refused to return from the Underworld because she wanted to remain with her husband. Demeter (or Ceres, to us her Roman epithet) taught the mortals agriculture so they could provide crops for themselves and not rely on the return of Persephone. This would suggest that the idea of Persephone willingly descending into the Underworld is not a modern invention, as Virgil did it over 2000 years ago. 

The tale of a maiden Goddess being assaulted and forced into an arranged marriage is abhorrent to consider. However, in the patriarchal society of ancient Athens an arranged marriage would have been common practice. Therefore, Zeus giving Hades permission to marry Persephone would have been in alignment with the culture of that society. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is a product of that ancient society so it stands to reason that it would be a reflection of the norms and ideals held at that time. Society evolves though, and the stories we tell evolve with it. Taking a woman by force and forced marriages are not acceptable a Western society where women should have autonomy and equal rights to men. It would be out of line with our way of thinking to venerate a story that allows these practices, therefore we rewrite the narrative to reflect the present. Persephone still descends into the Underworld and eats the pomegranate seeds, but modern versions suggest that she does this willingly, and these present versions are no less credible than ancient ones at capturing the heart of the story. When we read any book that was written in a generation before our won, we may find the language difficult to decipher, even if its our first language, due to the sentence structure, or use of words that have fallen out of common use. We have to make inferences and interpretations to deduce the meaning, which can make older texts difficult to read. We infer new meaning when we make our own interpretations of things, and each time we infer a new meaning, the story changes slightly. We don’t live as the ancient Greeks in Athens lived, so why must we venerate Persephone in the exact same way they did.? They made an interpretation of her myth based on their world-view at the time, so too should we make our own interpretation.

In the Homeric hymn Persephone is portrayed as a victim’ removed from her home and forced to be the wife of a man she did not choose It’s no wonder that the narrative to this story is being retold to represent Persephone as a powerful Goddess who chooses an unorthodox path. Folkloric stories and myths constantly evolve over time, and it’s clear to see that the story of Persephone has been changing ever since the first time it was told. Present day reimagining’s suggest that Persephone rebelled against her overbearing Mother to be with her love, Hades. They say that she ate the pomegranate seeds by choice because she wanted to create a compromise’ she wanted to have it all. Not content with being the Goddess of Spring in her Mother’s shadows, she wanted a crown of her own. These tales are perhaps fueled by other ancient texts that describe Persephone as an iron willed Queen of the Dead. She is generally represented as a powerful, empathetic and just ruler, and of all the Greek Gods and Goddesses, Hades and Persephone seem to have the closest thing to a functional marriage. This feeds the narrative of the ‘power couple’ they are represented as today.

When discussing subjects as esoteric as Gods and Goddesses, consider that Persephone’s myth can evolve as humanity evolves because it is not a historical event. Where history ought to be documented as accurately as possible to preserve the truth, the same is not strictly so true for myths. History seeks to record factual events, in contrast to myths which usually serve to demonstrate a point or act as an allegory. Historically there isn’t even any stability in the Greek Myths themselves, as they were reshaped depending on the audience and occasion they were being recounted for.  If the story can be retold in a way that still holds on to the focal message of the story, then why not update it to fit the audience it is being told for. Multiple variants of the myth can exist and none of these invalidate the other. The Homeric version of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld has brought some comfort to survivors of abuse’ a Goddess who has her autonomy taken away yet ultimately undergoes transformation into a fiercer, stronger individual inspires hope and optimism. When a person sees themselves in an archetypal Goddess, and can relate to their journey it fosters a feeling of connection to that Goddess. When your path mirrors that of a deity, even in a negative way it offers the promise that your path will eventually mirror the triumphs too. Portraying Hades as a lover and not as an abductor is not an attempt to erase earlier myths, it is simply a natural evolution and psychological act of healing for the collective psyche. As a Goddess of duality, Persephone can be both a survivor and fearsome queen’ her story can be whatever you need it to be in your present place in time. 

The beauty and complexity of myths is that there is no such thing as a true myth. A myth by its very nature is a fictitious story that may act as a parable or allegory. This particular myth resonates deeply because it demonstrates fundamental truth about human existence. It is symbolic of the need for balance, for uniting polar opposites to create harmony. All of the characters in the myth were out of balance before Persephone took her throne in the Underworld. The Earth had an eternal summer, whilst the Underworld was bleak and neglected Demeter was too attached to her daughter, whilst Hades was lonely. Persephone led a restricted life whilst she longed for independence. The union of Hades and Persephone tips the scales in all of these cases, bringing equilibrium to the universe. It is reasonable that the myth should be reshaped over time as we become increasingly disconnected with the practices of the ancient world it was written in. People want Persephone to be a strong heroine who overcomes an adverse situation to fulfil her destiny, and that is who she has become. All myths have credence, including the modern day reiterations.

Once you delve into Greek Myths you’ll come to understand that there is a great deal of overlap within the Pantheon. Persephone’s role is often blurred between that of Demeter and her maiden self, Kore. There are even instances where she is merged with HEKATE as both share the epithet ‘Queen of the Underworld.’ It is also interesting to reflect on the idea that although Persephone was never a major player in the Greek pantheon, her iconography has endured and continues to grow in popularity to this day. She seems to strike a chord with modern audiences’ perhaps she resonates with us because she experiences trauma and grows from it to become more powerful than could reasonably be assumed. She relates to us in a way that other deities may not, for we can identify with Persephone at her most vulnerable. Every human will experience trauma to varying degrees within their life, and a Goddess like Persephone demonstrates that we can emerge reborn from the abyss of darkness. She teaches us that some chapters have to end in order to make space for new beginnings. There is value in stillness and introspection; we often occupy our minds with constant distractions just to avoid looking inwards and being alone with our thoughts. This avoidance is a barrier to personal growth and development, but Persephone is here to show us the beauty of our inner darkness. Her mythos is gaining momentum because she carries the message that we need to hear. 

A MYTH RETOLD

A beautiful young maiden wandered bored and frustrated across a daisy filled meadow; her skin shole in the neat of the noon day sun as she picked lilies and roses from the field, jus as she did everyday. Her Mother Demeter had provided every comfort a Goddess could wish for, but now Kore was on the verge of womanhood and she felt coddled by her Mother’s constant protection. Demeter chased away every suitor who paid an interest in Kore, and she felt angry and helpless at not having a say in her future. Although she loved her mother dearly, she couldn’t see an escape from the limbo of eternal childhood. Lost in her reverie, a splash of vivid yellow caught her eye’ curiosity compelled Kore to take a closer look at this unknown species of flower that resembled the sun with it’s yellow petals. Bending to pick it, she felt a soft rumble below the surface. It slowly built in intensity until the ground beneath her began to quake, giving way to a small split in the surface. The split deepened and the once luscious grass cracked apart like a fragile eggshell’ out of the chasm appeared skeletal horses treading air in an attempt to pull themselves fully to the surface. The frightening creatures were succeeded by a black chariot in which was seated a dark, brooding figure. The King of the Underworld. Paralyzed with fear and awe at the impressive yet menacing sight before her, young Kore was rooted to the spot. The dark King both frightened and fascinated the girl’ she had never been alone with a man before and nervous excitement churned inside her. In a quiet, commanding voice the Kind addressed the maiden “Goddess, I have loved you from afar for so long, I can no longer stand to wait another day to be in your presence. I think that you are as lonely as I, won’t you come with me? My Kingdom is yours if you give me your heart.”

He held out his hand in invitation, his eyes wide with anticipation. Here was freedom, here was a new life, but at what cost? In a moment of reckless rebellion, giving no thought to consequences, Kore took the handsome stranger’s hand and stepped into the chariot. With a crack of his whip the deathly steeds began the descent back down to where they came, the earths surface swiftly knitting back together as if it were never disturbed. 

Before long, the maiden’s absence ws felt by her panicked mother. Demeter, the golden Goddess of the Harvest began a frantic search for her beloved daughter, recruiting her ensemble of Nymphs to assist in the search. Fruitlessly Demeter hunted for a sign as to what became of Kore but  not a trace remained of her. Taking pity on the grieving mother, Helios the Sun God told Demeter what he’d seen that day from his vantage point in the sky, “Hades erupted from the Earth on his chariot; no sooner had he emerged than he returned back into the chasm with your daughter on board.”

In an attempt to console the Goddess, Helios added “Zeus gave his blessing to the Union, Hades will make a fine husband for Kore.”

Overcome with rage at her brothers Zeus and Hades for their scheming and betrayal, Demeter unleashed her fury. She rescinded her gifts of harvest and abundance, and the crops tended by the mortals on earth began to fail There was no sustenance to be obtained from the once fertile earth and famine ravished the lands. The earth ws stripped of greenery, foliage and warmth. The barren lands were inhospitable, and without food the human race began to perish in far greater numbers than usual. 

Zeus, the King of the Gods, had become accustomed to the worship and offerings of the mortals and sorely felt the loss caused by Demeter’s wrath. Fearing the last of his worshippers would be destined for Hades, Zeus relented and agreed to undo the betrothal of Spring Maiden to the Underworld King. Zeus tasked Hermes, the messenger God to retrieve Kore from the Underworld and bring her back to her Mother.

Meanwhile in Hades’ subterranean realm, Kore felt regret at her hasty and careless decision to climb aboard the chariot. She hadn’t considered that descending into the Underworld was a one-way journey that she couldn’t return from. The naive Goddess assumed that she could come and go as she pleased, and now suffered with guilt at leaving her Mother behind so callously. She missed the upper world and all of the resplendent joys it offered. She longed for the feeling of the soft grass beneath her feet, and pined for the delicate sweet aroma of the flowers. However , as unhappy as she was at being stuck in this strange dark place, Kore couldn’t deny her intense attraction towards Hades. Furious that he wouldn’t return her to the surface, Kore was disarmed by Hades’ kindness to her. He was attentive and patient, and gave her free reign of the kingdom. Demeter had kept Kore sheltered from the world, but now she had the opportunity to explore not only this deathly frontier, but her burgeoning sexuality. Hades promised Kore that she would rule by his side, as his equal. She would be known as Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and it would be her duty to care for the souls of the departed. 

An awakening took place in Kore’s mind. The name Persephone, and the role associated with it resonated deeply within her. A sense of destiny filled her thoughts, she felt perhaps that she was intended to illuminate this dour underworld terrain and bring life to it. As Persephone acclimatized to her new identity, her reverie was broken by the arrival of Hermes. He urgently recounted Zeus’ order for her to be returned to her mother as famine had plagued the land in Kore’s absence.

Persephone felt like a pawn in the game of the Gods. Decisions regarding her life were consistently being made without her consent or consultation. Her mother had denied her suitors, and her father had agreed to a marriage union with no regard for how she felt about it. Now she ws told that her marriage was to end. Persephone felt conflicted; excitement at the prospect of returning to the upper world contrasted against her desire to be with Hades. In her desperation at the loss of control over her life, a plan was formed; she would eat the food of the dead and her connection to the Underworld would then be unbreakable. Tearing open a pomegranate to reveal it’s ruby red bounty, she took six small pomegranate seeds to her lips and swallowed them quickly. In that moment , Persephone felt more conscious than she ever had before; she finally understood the power that she held as she asserted her will. The Goddess wanted to be with Hades, and she wanted to spend time in the Upper world. Nobody could deny her both of these things once she had decided to take matters into her own hands. 

As the young Queen approached the most significant crossroads of her existence – the Titaness Hekate appeared, with a fierce air of guardianship and divine duty, she bore the undying flames of her twin torches to guide Persephone from the underworld and back to the land of the living, offering her safe passage and strength.

Persephone promised her lover that she would return to him and she left with Hekate, who fulfilled her role as guardian, guide and gatekeeper, holding council for Persephone as she transitioned between the two realms and re-emerged from the Underworld a changed woman, strengthened by her personal resolve. 

The mother & daughter reunion that followed was a bittersweet moment for Demeter; she could finally hold her precious daughter in her arms again, but the girl was changed. Demeter sensed a spark of rebellion and independence in her once placid, timid daughter. Stepping back from the young woman, Demeter exclaimed “you have eaten the food of the Underworld you foolish child!”

Calmly, Persephone looked her mother in the eye, and told her with the self assured confidence of a regal Queen “No Mother, I ate the food of my realm. Hades is my husband now, and the Underworld needs my light. However, I propose a compromise, that I might spend a portion of time in the upper world with you. I would sorely miss you, along with the beauty of this land if I were to be deprived of either. There must be a way that I can move between realms.”

Looking to Zeus, he shifted uncomfortably at the unorthodox request; here was a young Goddess who challenged the status quo. The dogmatic King wanted to uphold the laws of the realm and confine her to the Underworld, but the consequence of such action would deprive him of the mortal admiration he’d grown to adore. Consenting  to her proposition undermined his authority as  the all powerful ruler, but to deny her would be worse. Reluctantly he accepted and it was decreed that Persephone would spend six months above the earth with her mother, followed by six months below with her husband. Persephone felt jubilation at achieving the outcome she had engineered, but Demeter was petulant at not getting her own way. She would only agree to restore her gifts to the mortals for the duration of the six months that her daughter was with her. Frustrated at the lack of Demeter’s compliance, Zeus knew that she was a powerful Goddess and it would be wise to accept this less than desirable resolution, lest he risk angering her further.

A new system was established; the never ending cycle of ascent and descent, spring renewal and winter death became the natural order. Hades and Demeter had both tried to control Persephone’s destiny, but her decision to eat the six pomegranate seeds enabled her to seize her own power. She would not love forever in the dark. She moved freely between the two realms and experienced the best that each had to offer. Finally, she had claimed the crown of her own sovereignty. Finally, she was whole

PERSEPHONE: GODDESS OF ADAPTATION

Persephone is often seen only as the maiden taken to the Underworld against her will, but there is so much more to her than that. In fact, she became the fierce Queen of Hell ruling over her domain very much the equal to Hades while saving humanity by adapting the climate to give us the growing season. To put Persephone’s story into a contemporary context, we can classify her as a Goddess of Adaptation because of how she transformed herself, managed her relationships and turned the wheel of the year.

Putting Persephone into Historical Context
While we can relate to her struggle against the powers-that-be, I fear that the popular version of Persephone is one that is acceptable since it conforms to the long standing gender roles that have followed her since her tale was first told over 2,000 years ago. I know a bit about how the gatekeepers of information influence popular belief about a Goddess, since Hekate has been restricted like Persephone at the hands of the patriarchal writers down through time. In recent decades, our understanding of Hekate has greatly expanded beyond the limited roles of Queen of the Witches and Goddess of the Under World. It’s time for our thinking about Persephone to undergo a similar shift. While Hekate has emerged as a complex goddess with many roles, Persephone’s roles in the ancient texts are a bit more limited, but no less diverse.

 

PERSEPHONE’S TRANSFORMATION:
Persephone had to adapt to life on earth and in the Underworld continually. It’s her transformation from the timid, but beautiful maiden to a tenacious queen that’s fascinating. Persephone’s rise to the Queen of Hell was inevitable as Hades’ wife, so it’s not so much that she had the title, but that she rose to the title. She reigned over the Underworld with a ferocity that earned her the ancient epithet of Brimo, but was also tender when Orpheus needed to rescue Eurydice from the Underworld. She shows us that we can make the most of wherever we find ourselves and remain kind. At least to those we can relate to. Appeal to her when you are seeking transformation. Persephone is a true warrior, whose victories were not found in the valor of the battlefield but in the depths of her soul. 

PERSEPHONE’S RELATIONSHIPS:
Persephone had complex relationships with both Demeter, her mother, and her husband. Here is more evidence supporting Persephone as a Goddess of Adaptation. She had to make her mother happy while also dealing with that husband of hers. In her relationship with Hades, she transforms from the despondent girl crying in the cave about her betrothal to the jealous wife. While enraged over his infidelity she turned the object of his affection, Minthe, into a plant.

Persephone and Hekate had a special relationship in the story of her abduction and subsequent return to earth. Hekate played mediator helping Persephone make her way to and from the Underworld. They were also companions, indicating a dual relationship that we can imagine also required some adaptation by Persephone. They reigned as Goddesses of the Underworld simultaneously. In addition, they share many epithets including that of Triformis (Three Formed), Brimo (Terrifying Goddess) and Dadoukhos (Torch Bearer). However, there is little record of tales beyond Hekate as her guide. The notable exception are the texts from the Eleusinian’s indicating that Demeter, Hekate and Persephone were worshiped together by some cults. In these mysteries, Persephone saved humanity by bringing on the arrival of spring with her return from the Underworld.

ADAPTING THE CLIMATE:
Her other major role in antiquity was that of a Goddess of Agriculture. Her return from the Underworld each spring rendered the land fertile. The importance of honoring Persephone so there would be a bountiful harvest was paramount for those growing crops. In this role, Persephone shows us her power of adaptation by changing the very seasons themselves. To be more accurate, it was her mother, Demeter who was in control of the seasons. However, the world would have remained in winter were it not for Persephone’s annual return.

PERSEPHONE REMINDS US THAT WE TOO CAN ADAPT AND CONQUER
Her transformation from the Kore (Maiden) to the Queen of the Underworld has countless women (myself included) through our own difficult times. Serving as a reminder that we can adapt and conquer.

“The time has come to see Persephone for all that she is. Above everything else, Persephone made the most of a bad situation. She is, without a doubt, a Goddess of Adaptation.” – Cyndi Brannen

SYMBOLOGY & ASSOCIATIONS:

Spring Equinox (Ostara)

Occurring around March 19th – 21st in the Northern hemisphere or September 22nd – 23rd in the Southern hemisphere, the spring equinox is associated with the arival of the Goddess of Spring and her reunion with her Mother. The equinox occurs when the sun crosses the celestial equator, and the day and night are of equal length. The word equinox derives from the Latin words for ‘equal’ and ‘night’ which are ‘aequus’ and ‘nox’ demonstrating this as a day of balance. Moving forward the days begin to grow longer than the nights, and plants can be seen to bloom again after the stillness of winter. This is Persephone’s ascent into the upper world, bringing with her the fertile, fresh, vital energy of Springtime. This is a time of growth, creativity and planting new seeds both actual and metaphorical. Spring is the opportunity for us to put into  otion the plans we made during the darkness of Winter Referred to as Ostara by those that follow the Neo-Pagan wheel of the year, it is one of eight festivities that marks the occurrence of significant solar events and the four midpoints between each of these. Whilst the wheel of the year is considered Pagan in origin, one does not have to be strictly Pagan to follow it; there have been recordings of many people throughout history who have celebrated these celestial movements, such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts. It is after all no coincidence that Easter and Christmas occur approximately around the Spring equinox and Winter solstice respectively.

AUTUMN EQUINOX (MABON)

Occurring around September 22nd – 23rd in the Northern hemisphere or March 19th – 21st in the Southern hemisphere, the autumn equinox is associated with Persephone’s descent into the underworld, and her reunion with her husband Hades. As with the spring equinox, the day and night are of virtually equal length on this day, but it instead marks the point that the daylight hours begin to wane, making way for longer nights. The descent of Persephone brings us the sweet decay of Autumn; leaves turn reset before falling to the ground, leaving bare branches in their wake. Referred to as Mabon on the wheel of the year, it is a time of harvest and reaping the benefits of our Spring efforts. As the darkness dominates the light, we prepare to turn inwards and experience a fallow period of rest. It is a time to nurture our bodies, make plans for the future and reflect on our experiences so far.

POMEGRANATE:

Perhaps the most ubiquitous association with Persephone is the pomegranate. It is no coincidence that the pomegranate is her sacred fruit as it is a symbol of perennial renewal, feminine fertility and new life. All areas over which Persephone holds influence. A deciduous shrub that sheds its bounty in Autumn, this is a parallel to Persephone’s cycle of descent and ascent. A winter fruit, it is ripe for harvest between September and February in the Northern hemisphere of the world. Just as Persephone is the light in the dark of the Underworld, the pomegranate is the jewel in the heart of winter. The large volume of beautiful ruby red seeds held within the voluminous body of the pomegranate represent fertility because of its swollen roundness and the possibility that hundreds of pomegranate trees could be sewn from a single fruit. Described as the ‘Queen of Ritual Fruits’ in Llewellyn’s 2012 Magical Almanac, and representative of love, unity and harmony, it plays a central role in the tale of Persephone’s abduction. Consuming the seeds whilst in the Underworld led to her being eternally bound to Hades, an act that united two polar energies in a symbiotic relationship and provided seasonal balance to the earth above. The amount of seeds she allegedly ate varies from 3 to 7, but 6 is often adopted as the amount eaten because it balances out with the the 12 months of the year.

According to some interpretations, Hades gave Persephone the pomegranate seeds in order to secure her return and therefore their marriage; a decision layered with meaning because the fruit is symbolic of the taking of virginity, the consummate act of wedding vows. The symbolism is derived from the deep red, blood colored juice that is shed from the fruit when it is opened up for the first time. Perhaps in support of this, in ancient Rome newly-wed women wore garlands made from branches of the pomegranate tree in celebration of their vows.

Deflowering of maidens is not the only association the pomegranate has with blood. Greek myth names it the ‘fruit of the dead’ and claims that the first Pomegranate tree grew from the blood of Orion’s wife. Tricked by the queen of the gods, Hera, into believing that she had killed her children, she took her own life in grief. The blood red juice of the fruit therefore resembles the blood from which it sprang. This macabre beginning, along with the ripening of the fruit in desolate winter may explain why it ws considered the fruit of the dead. However, death is followed by rebirth so this is not as negative a connection as it may appear. Being linked with the womb, a place of fertility and the source of the feminine menstrual cycle is another tie to blood representation. Many cultures revere the pomegranate as a symbol of fertility, fortune and abundance. 

Some academics suggest that the fruit of the Garden of Eden was in fact a Pomegranate rather than an apple. The evidence for this is that the Pomegranate was on the list of seven items that represented proof of the Hebrews having found the promised land. It’s clear that the Pomegranate has been woven into the tapestry of many belief systems over the course of human history; the plentiful jewel red seeds held beneath the tough outer skin make it an obvious symbol for fertility, and abundance. Still today a pomegranate has magickal associations as a fruit of abundance and luck. The seeds, juice and skin of a pomegranate are all useful in spell work for fertility and abundance, or even as an offering to Persephone. Cunningham describes it as a lucky, magical fruit. He also suggests using the juice of the fruit as blood red ink. 

FURTHER ASSOCIATIONS:
 Asphodel

Jasmine

Narcissus

Crocus, Iris, Larkspur, Lily, Violet & Roses

Spring Flowers

Floral Crowns

Sheaf of Corn

Torch

Iron Crown

Waxing Moon

Skulls and Bones

Bats

COLORS:

White

Pink

Magenta

Blood Red

Black

GEMSTONES:

Garnet

Carnelian

Red Crystals

Onyx

Obsidian

Smokey Quartz

 

EPITHETS:

Averna (of the Underworld)

Daeira (Knowing One)

Despoina (Mistress or Queen)

Goddess of Spring

Juno Inferna (Infernal Queen) – Roman

Kore (Maiden)

Khthonia (From the Earth – Subterranean)

Megala Thea (Great Goddess)

Persephone: Interpretations vary from “To Bring Death, to ” She who brings the Light,’ ‘Destroyer of Light’ and ‘She who shines in the Dark.’

Persephone Soteira (Persephone the Savior) – Greek

Praxidike (Exacter of Justice)

Proserpina (Roman equivalent of Persephone)

Stygia (Of the Styx) – Roman

Queen of the Underworld 

WORKING WITH PERSEPHONE:

For the remainder of winter and the days leading up to and surrounding the Spring Equinox or Ostara – we will be working closely with Persephone through studies of the Eleusinian Mysteries, magickal rites of renewal and reclamation.

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