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Persephone (Roman Proserpine or Proserpina) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She was the Goddess of the Underworld, and was also associated with springtime, flowers, the fertility of crops, and vegetation.
Depictions of Persephone often portray her dressed in a robe, carrying a sheaf of grain. Sometimes, she’s carrying a scepter and a small box. Most commonly though, she is shown abducted by Hades, king of the Underworld.
Persephone’s parents were the Olympian gods, Demeter and Zeus. This makes Persephone a second-generation Olympian goddess. She had many brothers and sisters, fourteen by most accounts. These included the gods Hephaestus, Hermes, Perseus, Aphrodite, Arion, The Muses and The Fates. She also had several children, including Dionysus, Melinoe and Zagreus. Her consort was Hades, who she initially reviled but later grew to love.
The story that Persephone is best known for is her abduction by Hades, who was her father Zeus’ brother, so therefore her uncle. According to the myth, Hades had fallen in love with Persephone, when he saw her among the flowers in a meadow. He decided that he would abduct her. Some versions of the story claim that Zeus had known about this abduction before it happened and had consented to it.
Persephone is Abducted
Persephone, young and innocent, was with a few fellow goddesses gathering flowers in a field when Hades burst forth through a giant chasm in the earth. He grabbed Persephone before returning to the Underworld.
When Demeter, Persephone’s mother, discovered her daughter’s disappearance, she searched everywhere for her. During this time, Demeter forbade the earth from producing anything. This caused nothing to grow. The entire earth began to dry up and die, which alarmed the other gods and mortals. Eventually, the prayers of the hungry people of the earth reached Zeus, who then forced Hades to return Persephone to her mother.
Demeter Tries to Leave the Underworld
If a person ate food from the Underworld, they would never be allowed to leave. Although Hades agreed to return Persephone, he first offered her a handful of pomegranate seeds. In other accounts, Hades forced a pomegranate seed into Persephone’s mouth. Persephone ate half of the twelve seeds before Hermes, the messenger of the gods, arrived to take her back to her mother. Because Persephone had only eaten six of the seeds, she could only stay with her mother for six months of the year, and was compelled to spend half of the year in the Underworld with Hades.
Symbolism of Persephone’s Myth
This story is used as an allegory to explain the origins of the four seasons. The time when Persephone stays in the Underworld corresponds to autumn and winter, while her return to her mother signifies spring and summer, a time of growth and life.
Persephone is associated with spring, and her return from the Underworld each year was seen as a sign of life’s ongoing cycle. She represents both life and death. She is seen as both the producer and destroyer of everything.
In some religious groups, Persephone’s name was taboo to mention out loud as she was the terrible Queen of the Dead. Instead, she was known by other titles, some examples being: Nestis, Kore, or the Maiden.
While Persephone may appear as a victim of rape and abduction, she ends up making the best of a bad situation, becoming the Queen of the Underworld and growing to love Hades. Prior to her abduction, she doesn’t exist as an important figure in Greek myth.
Symbols of Persephone
Persephone is known as the goddess of the Underworld, because she is the consort of Hades. However, she is also the personification of vegetation, which grows in spring and recedes after the harvest. As such, Persephone is also the goddess of spring, flowers and vegetation.
Persephone is typically depicted with her mother, Demeter, with whom she shared the symbols of a torch, a scepter, and sheath of grain. Her symbols include:
- Pomegranate: The pomegranate signifies the division of Persephone’s world into two halves – death and life, the Underworld and Earth, summer and winter and so on. In the myth, eating the pomegranate is what forces her to return to the Underworld. Thus, the pomegranate plays a significant role in Persephone’s life and, by extension, in the entire earth.
- Seeds of Grain: Grain symbolizes Persephone’s role as the personification of vegetation and the bringer of spring. She is what makes it possible for grain to grow.
- Flowers: Flowers are a quintessential symbol of spring and the end of winter. Persephone is often depicted with flowers. In fact, when Hades first saw her, she was picking flowers in a meadow. This highlights her innocence and child-like nature, but also associates her with nature and the environment.
- Deer: Deer are creatures of the spring, born in spring and summer. They symbolize the powers of nature and the ability to endure and thrive. These were ideal characteristics to be associated with the goddess of the springtime.
Persephone In Other Cultures
The concepts embodied in Persephone, such as creation and destruction, exist throughout many civilizations. The duality of life that is at the core of the myth of Persephone, wasn’t exclusive to the Greeks.
- The Myths of the Arcadians
Thought perhaps to be the first Greek speaking people, the Arcadians’ mythology included a daughter of Demeter and Hippios (Horse-Poseidon), who is understood to represent the river spirit of the Underworld and who often appeared as a horse. Hippios pursued his older sister Demeter, in the form of a mare, and from their union they bore the horse Arion and a daughter called Despoina, believed to be Persephone. But Persephone and Demeter were often not clearly separated, which is possibly because they come from a more primitive religion before even the Arcadians.
- The Origins of The Name
It is possible that the name Persephone has pre-Greek origins as it is an incredibly difficult name for the Greeks to pronounce in their own language. Her name has many forms and many writers take liberties with spelling in order to communicate it more easily.
- The Roman Proserpina
The Roman equivalent to Persephone is Proserpina. Proserpina’s myths and religious followings were combined with those of an early Roman wine goddess. Just as Persephone was the daughter of an agricultural goddess, Proserpina was also believed to be the daughter of Ceres, the Roman equivalent of Demeter, and her father was Liber, the god of wine and freedom.
- Origins of the Abduction Myth
Some scholars believe that the myth of Persephone being abducted by Hades may have pre-Greek origins. Evidence points to an ancient Sumerian story in which the goddess of the Underworld was abducted by a dragon and then forced to become the ruler of the Underworld.
Persephone In Modern Times
References to Persephone and her abduction myth retellings exists throughout contemporary pop culture. She continues to be a popular figure, a tragic victim, and yet a powerful and important goddess, signifying the power yet vulnerability of the feminine.
Numerous references to Persephone exist in literature, from poems, novels and short stories. Many young adult novels take her story and view it through a modern lens, often including the romance between Persephone and Hades (or their literary equivalents) as central to the plot. Sensuality and sex are often prominent features of books based on Persephone’s story.
Is Persephone Worshipped Today?
Persephone is still worshipped today, primarily by modern Hellenic Polytheists and Pagans who follow a path known as the “Hellenic Tradition” or “Dodekatheism“. This practice involves the worship of the ancient Greek Gods, including Zeus, Demeter, Apollo, Athena, Persephone, and others, and attempts to reconstruct the ancient Greek religion as closely as possible.
In addition, Persephone’s myth is often used metaphorically in modern spiritual traditions, with her journey to and from the Underworld seen as a metaphor for personal growth and transformation. Her story is sometimes invoked in discussions of seasonal changes, life, death, and rebirth.
Persephone lived half of the year in the Underworld with Hades and the other half of the year on earth with her mother and family.
As the queen of the Underworld, Persephone is able to send monstrous beasts to find and kill those who have wronged her. For example, when she is slighted by the mortal Adonis, she sends a great boar to hunt him down and kill him.
It was very common for gods and goddesses to have extramarital affairs, and one of Hades’ was a water Nymph named Minth. When Minth started to brag that she was more beautiful than Persephone, Persephone took swift revenge and turned Minthe into what is now known as the mint plant.
Persephone grew to love Hades, who treated her kindly and respected and loved her as his Queen.
Because she’s the queen of the Underworld, Persephone was associated with death. However, she is able to come out from the Underworld, making her a symbol of light and the destroyer of death. This signifies the duality of Persephone’s story.
Persephone is abducted and raped by her uncle, Hades. In some accounts, Zeus, in the guise of a serpent, rapes Persephone who then gives birth to Zagreus and Melinoe.
Persephone’s abduction and her inner duality connect strongly with modern people today. That she exists simultaneously as a goddess of life and death makes her a compelling character for in literature and popular culture. She continues to inspire artists and writers with her story, just as she did back in ancient Greece.