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good harvest, daughter of Zeus, pomegranate seeds, barren land


Author: Lena Santos

In Greek mythology Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. What was mystifying was the detail that unlike other offspring of Zeus and an Olympian goddess, Persephone had no real title or position in the world of Olympian gods and goddesses.

Demeter was the goddess of the Earth or the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Persephone became part of Demeter’s role in presiding over the harvest of grains, fertility of the land in which grains are planted and harvested depending on the earth’s seasons. Demeter was also the presider of the law of cycle and the sanctity of marriage. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was the practice of incantations that involved Demeter and her daughter Persephone the duo was known as Demeter and the Kore (maiden).

The Abduction of Persephonea

Demeter set up home with Persephone far away from Olympus. She was a goddess after all who took care of the planting and nurturing of plants. It was said the Persephone’s beauty was such that Greek gods pursued her. Among them were Apollo, Hermes (Mercury), Ares (Mars) and Hephaestus (Vulcan). It was told that Demeter refused all the Olympian god suitors of Persephone and that Demeter hid her daughter away from the prying eyes of Olympus.

Demeter must have thought that her daughter was safe. But on a day that Persephone chose to pick flowers on the field of Enna with the nymphs Athena and Artemis, from the bowels of the earth Hades (Pluto) snatched the Kore. Demeter was beyond herself with grief as not even the nymphs saw who abducted Persephone. It was said that Zeus was so angered that he laid his wrath on the two nymphs and turned them to sirens.

It was the god of light (sunlight) who saw everything. Helios (Sol) eventually took pity on Demeter as sorrow ate her up thus forgetting her role as goddess of harvest and fertility. If Persephone continued to be missing, the whole world will be hungry and life on earth might be over. Helios finally told Demeter that Hades took Persephone with the blessings of Zeus.

The absence of Persephone brought famine as Demeter refused to let anything grow as she continued to lament for her lost daughter. There were no grains to harvest and the people cried and prayed to Zeus. Zeus finally have had too much of hearing the people’s plaintive cries that he and the other deities forced Hades to return Persephone. He sent Hermes to retrieve Persephone but before she was released, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds. It was a rule of the Fates that whoever partook of food in the Underworld was forever doomed to spend eternity there. A truce was reached when Hades allowed Persephone to be with her mother for three seasons and a season with him as goddess of the Underworld. The three seasons spent up on Earth were seasons of lush vegetation and good harvest. The season spent with Hades was barren months that coincided with the origin of seasons. The abduction and rape of Persephone was the myth that supported the dying, budding and flourishing of nature.

Persephone in the Eleusinian Mysteries

Sweet Persephone became the dreaded Iron Queen of the Underworld. It was surmised that Persephone stayed with Hades for four months rather than three and stayed with Demeter for eight months rather than nine. The resulting eight months of produce and four months of barren land coincided with the climate of Ancient Greece – four months of dry summer in which drought was a threat. The first rain of the year signaled the return of Persephone to her mother Demeter.

The Eleusinian Mysteries is a secret cult worship of Demeter and the Kore (Persephone). It probably involved the celebration of Persephone’s return to her mother for it signaled the arrival of life and plants on earth. The analogy of Persephone’s return to the Underworld was planting seeds in the winter and her return to earth was the rebirth of all plants comes spring. The Eleusinian Mysteries included the promise of immortality to its participants that is, in the underworld and not on earth.

Persephone as the Queen of Hades

Persephone was referred to as the “Kore” for as queen of the Underworld it was forbidden for mere mortals to say her name. She was the Iron Queen as referred to by Odysseus. She was known to have only allowed one person to go back to the land of the living but with a twist. Orpheus’ wife Eurydice died. The sorrow that Orpheus suffered made him create and play beautiful albeit sad music. Persephone took pity on Orpheus and offered him a deal that he could bring back his wife to the land of the living as long as he guide her out of the Underworld without looking at her face until reaching the surface. A few feet away from safety Orpheus just had to look back to see if his wife was still following him. He lost his wife forever.

A story involving Adonis was also linked to Persephone. Adonis’s birth was shrouded with mystery. It was said that he was the son of an incestuous relationship between a daughter and her father. When Adonis was born he was so beautiful that Aphrodite placed him inside a chest and gave it to Persephone for safekeeping. Persephone was also enthralled by the perfect beauty of Adonis that she refused to give back Adonis to Aphrodite. The feud was settled when Zeus ordered that Adonis stays with Persephone for four months, another four months with Aphrodite and the next four months his choice. Upon the death of Adonis, Persephone was able to fully claim her hold on the handsome youth.

In modern mythology Persephone is one of those life-death-rebirth deities. The works of modern mythologers emphasize the idea that myths are symbolism of rituals that were channels to tweak natural phenomena through imitation magic much like the use of voodoo dolls. Thus the descent to the underworld and the consequent return of Persephone is an example of life-death-rebirth where her descent meant barren land and her rise to earth meant new crops and good harvest.

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