Welcome to my first discussion on popular myths. Please indulge me, but I have to write about one of my all-time favorites first: the tale of Persephone and Hades, Rulers of the Underworld.
This myth has retained its popularity, shifting and changing with the times as the best tales do. It all begins with Persephone’s disappearance. Some have called this a rape or kidnapping, vilifying Hades, but I don’t necessarily agree. After all, multiple myths offer a variety of additional clues about these characters and their motivations. Also, in ancient times the word for rape was the same as “to take”…probably because rape wasn’t considered a crime back then (thank goodness for progress, even if we still have further to go!). Hades definitely took Persephone, but maybe there’s more to the story?
In nearly every myth mentioning Hades, we learn he’s kind of a cool guy. Hades was assigned to rule the Underworld by his brother Zeus. He’s often mistakenly compared to a modern version of the Devil or a God of Death, but that’s not quite accurate. Thanatos is the God of Death, and there isn’t even a Devil-like figure in Greek mythology.
Hades is a King, a dark reflection of Zeus, who rules the dead and the minions of the Underworld. He is not a punisher – minus a few exceptions – or a shepherd of souls (shout out to Charon!). Hades is not like the Olympus gods, who often delight in tormenting humans on a whim. When a mortal begs for help, like the grief-stricken Orpheus, Hades will often hear them out. He sympathizes with the genuine suffering of mortals.
Hades is more of a steward, overseeing the afterlife from his lofty throne. And in the dark bowels of the earth, listening to the wails of the dead, he’s probably somewhat depressed and lonely.
One day, he happens to be out and about, and he spots a singularly lovely maiden. Of course Hades wants her. Persephone embodies everything he lacks – light, beauty, grace, and purity. He shares his feelings with the Olympus gods, begging for her hand. Zeus, her father, brushes off Hades’ request at first, neither saying yes or no. And yes, this makes Hades her uncle…I know, ewww, but Game of Thrones was not the first story to include incest. Maybe gods have different rules? Anyway, Zeus eventually says ok: take my daughter, but don’t tell her mother!
All the red-tape seems silly now because, long after the tale ends, Hades proves to be a loving and devoted mate for Persephone. He’s loyal, unlike the randy and adulterous Zeus who blithely impregnates then abandons often unwilling women around the world. He’s considerate, unlike his arrogant nephew Apollo who turns an infatuated woman into a sunflower that exists only to worship him from afar.
But back to Persephone, our fair young lady. She begins life as Kore, a word that simply means Maiden. Kore is the daughter of Demeter, sister to both Zeus and Hades, who is essentially Mother Nature and in charge of agriculture. Kore is the Spring Maiden, the picture of virtue and innocence, and it’s said flowers blossom in her wake.
Hades steals her away from her mother, racing through the earth into the gloomy depths of the Underworld. No one knows where Kore went – or if they do, they keep their mouths shut. Eventually Hekate spills the beans, but she’s a hardcore goddess who doesn’t fear much. She also has a soft spot for mothers and women in trouble, known for unleashing vengeance on their behalf. Demeter grieves, as any mother would, for the loss of her sweet girl. Eternal Spring/Summer turns to bitter Winter, where nothing grows and life withers.
Humans suffer from Kore’s kidnapping, starving in this new wasteland. Zeus finally steps in, ordering his brother to release the girl. Hades agrees, but here’s where it gets tricky. Everyone knows, gods and mortals both, that eating or drinking anything in the Underworld traps your soul forever (it’s a staple in myths, not just among the Greeks). But somehow we’re to believe Kore mistakenly ate 6 pomegranate seeds. Some say Hades tricked her, some say she was ignorant, but I think that’s an insult to Kore. She might be an innocent maiden, but that doesn’t mean she’s stupid. If she truly sought freedom, why do the one thing that would doom her forever?
Either way, the deed is done. Kore is bound, but only for part of the year. The gods agree that for six months she’ll go home, back to her loving mother, and the Earth rejoices. Spring and Summer return, crops grow anew, and the world is blessed with fertility. When Winter rears its dark and lifeless head once more, that simply means our heroine is back in the Underworld.
But this experience has changed our damsel from maiden to woman. In the arms of her husband, she is no longer the simple and ineffectual Kore. No, she is the Queen of the Underworld, now called Persephone – a name meaning anything from destruction to death-bringer. With a moniker like that, you’d better think twice about messing with this goddess!
To me, this myth means something different than what classic writers would have you believe. I’m not convinced Hades was a villain – a bit obsessed, yes, but his adoration of his bride is legendary. Also, the “trick” with the pomegranate seeds is lame and obvious. I’m more inclined to believe Kore fell in love with him, too. Before her abduction, our lovely heroine has no identity beyond a bland noun that means maiden. She’s literally just a girl, a daughter, a symbol without anything personal to make her unique. After her dalliance with Hades, she unlocks her true powers to become the glorious Queen Persephone.
Read up on some related myths. Persephone is not to be underestimated. It’s she who convinces Hades to free Eurydice for Orpheus, a victory despite the couple’s sad ending. How many powerful men are inclined to heed the advice of their wives, particularly in the ultra-patriarchal past? Another tale shows her jealous side, which indicates some love towards Hades. Persephone punished his former concubine simply for existing (and running her mouth, to be fair), stomping the nymph into the dirt until she becomes a mint plant. Mighty Persephone aids or destroys countless Greek people and deities, earning their love but also their fear.
The myth of Persephone isn’t tragic. It’s not the sorrowful tale of a young girl being victimized. No, this is the triumphant origin story of a fierce goddess, beautiful but lethal, often dangerous but surprisingly compassionate. Daughter of Nature, Beloved of Death, Co-Ruler in the Underworld, Mother of Furies, and Destroyer of Men.
I adore Persephone, one of the first strong and admirable women to emerge from the dusty annals of mythology. Such depth of character and the riveting drama as she shifts from girl to woman, Kore to Queen, is inspiring. Her tale can teach us so much in an age where people strive for open-mindedness, equality, acceptance, and enlightenment. What Kore was not given freely in life, she stood up and claimed as an empowered woman.
There is no happy ending for those who sink into victimhood. We all struggle with conflict, and some of us are tormented by very real villains who seem unbeatable. But that doesn’t mean we’re done for – it’s not easy, but believe me it can be done. Anyone can rise from the ashes of their personal catastrophes, if they choose (and it’s absolutely okay to ask for help!). Some survivors endure tragedies far worse than any fictional tale, ordeals that break the heart and soul. Sometimes we are fortunate to be transformed by such trials to into a new person, wiser and more resilient, able to weather whatever storms will always lurk ahead.
You are the author of your tale. Write what you want, create a victory from the wreckage, and don’t listen to the doubters or haters. Never let them weaken you with condescending assumptions, coddling as if you’re incapable of self-preservation. Prove them wrong by saving yourself, and show the world what endurance and fortitude can accomplish. Be a survivor!
However you choose to interpret Persephone’s tale, remember that this woman could have faded away like so many victimized Grecian ladies – used and abused, discarded, or obliterated. Persephone defies precedence, transcending what could have been a terrifying trauma to become one of the most compelling and bewitching figures of Greek mythology, growing into so much more than the soft Kore obliviously prancing through flowers.
She is an archetype, a symbol of Might, a reminder of the potential within all women. We grow up, leave home, and we learn to live for ourselves instead of straining beneath the weight of others’ expectations. Kore’s position and title come from her husband, the man she later appears to love, but Persephone is never just Hades’ girl. She rules beside him, a vivid reminder to us mortal ladies that embracing our womanhood offers a wealth of power. Her deeds encourage, rather than shame, us in the attainment of our personal desires. Her story is important for women stuck in a world that continues to doubt our natural strength, ingenuity, and inestimable worth.
So there you go – Persephone, the hipster goddess of feminism, proudly displaying her feminine mystique before it was cool. Not everyone interprets myths the same, but their value lies in what the stories mean to you. If Persephone’s tale teaches you ways to improve your life, discover empowerment, and celebrate your finest traits and characteristics – social expectations be damned! – then the myth has done its job.
Now, who’s hungry for some pomegranate seeds?