Persephone: The Reluctant Underworld Goddess

Persephone, daughter of Demeter, is the venerable queen of the underworld, Greek goddess of spring, and holder of the Eleusinian Mysteries. 

One of the most beautiful women in Greek mythology, hers is a story filled with sadness and rage and acts both wonderful and dreadful. A central figure in ancient mythology, Persephone has interactions with all the most recognizable figures in the ancient Greek pantheon.

What Is Persephone Goddess Of in Greek Mythology?

Persephone may best be known as the Queen of the Underworld, but she has also been known and worshiped as the goddess of spring growth. With her mother Demeter, she was worshiped in the Eleusinian Mysteries and was important in many agricultural cults. As Nestis, she is sometimes referred to as the goddess of water, or springs.

The Etymology of the Name Persephone

Unlike many of the Greek gods and goddesses, the name of Persephone is difficult to trace the origin. Modern linguists suspect it may be connected to ancient languages which used the word “persa” to refer to “sheaves of grain” while “phone” does not come from the word for sound, but from a proto-Indian word for “beating.”

Hence, “Persephone” would literally mean “The thresher of grains,” which would relate to her role as a goddess of agriculture. 

Goddess Persephone is also called Kore (or Core) in Greek mythology, which means “The Maiden” or “The Mistress.” She was worshipped in some parts of Greece as Despoina, though that may be a confusion with her half-brother, Despoine. In Latin, Proserpina was the name given to her, while her character remained exactly the same.

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses

How Is Persephone Portrayed?

Persephone is sometimes represented as a young child, alongside her mother, while other times as an adult beside Hades, her husband. Greek art from the classical era shows the goddess holding a sheaf of wheat, and/or a golden torch in her hands. Persephone’s image can be found on much pottery due to her agricultural connection. In these cases, she usually stands behind her mother’s chariot, facing the hero Triptolemos. 

Who Were The Parents of Persephone?

Persephone was the child of Zeus and Demeter. In some myths, Demeter and Zeus had lain together as serpents, and Persephone was their only child. However, Demeter would have other children to Poseidon and the mortal Iasion.

Demeter was quite close to her daughter, and they are connecting in almost all places of worship. The story of Persephone’s kidnapping by Hades, and her time in the underworld runs parallel to her mother’s fearful search for her. It could be said that Persephone was known as two very different goddesses – daughter of Demeter and wife of Hades.

Who Stole Persephone From Her Mother?

While playing with friends, Persephone was raped and kidnapped by Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. “The Rape of Persephone” is one of the most-repeated stories in both Greek and Roman mythology. The majority of the story used here comes from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, while some aspects also come from “The Library of History” by Diodorus Siculus.

Persephone was with the daughters of Oceanus, one of the Greek Titans, “gathering flowers over a soft meadow,” when the earth opened up and appeared Hades, riding his chariot of immortal horses. He “caught her up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting […] she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father, the Son of Cronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice…”

Why Was Persephone Kidnapped?

There is no explicit mention of why Hades decided to abduct Persephone, and no stories relate his interest in the same way they do Zeus and his lovers. However, later parts of the story relate that Hades made real effort to keep her in the underworld.

In fact, Hades seemed to be quite fond of Persephone. In one passage, he says, “while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.”

How Did Persephone’s Mother Find Her?

When Demeter heard that her daughter had been taken by the god of the underworld, she flew into a panicked rage. For nine days, Demeter searched the earth in a frenzy, leaving famine and drought in her wake. “Because of the sweet odour of the flowers growing [in the meadow], trained hunting dogs [were] unable to hold the trail, because their natural sense of smell is balked.”

It was Helios, the Greek sun god, who ultimately was able to enlighten the goddess – Zeus had permitted his brother to take the young woman as his wife. In Helios’ mind, this was a good thing for Persephone. Hades ruled over a third of the universe, and Persephone would never have held such a position of power without him.

Demeter, insulted and disgusted, decided then and there to never return to Olympus, home of the gods. Seeing how distressed she was, and what her mourning was doing to the earth and the people on it, Zeus recognized his mistake.

When Zeus decided to change his mind, he sent his brother Hermes down to the underworld to try and convince Hades to release Persephone to Olympus and let her see her mother once more.

Hermes told Hades that Zeus wanted Persephone to be able to see her mother in Olympus and that it would be best for the world if she was to go up. The dark Olympian readily agreed with the idea, while promising Persephone that, if she returned, she would rule over the underworld with him.

To begin a twisted plan, Hades also convinced Persephone to have a small snack before leaving – a few small pomegranate seeds. According to the Homeric Hymn, a single pomegranate seed was forced upon Persephone, while many other myths say that she took them willingly, unaware of the consequences.

Persephone and her mother were excited to see each other once more, and they embraced immediately. However, as they held each other, Demeter had a strange feeling. Something was wrong.

Why Did Persephone Return To The Underworld?

It was inevitable that the gods would return Persephone to the underworld – she had eaten food there. One of the laws of the gods meant that those who had eaten in the underworld would have to remain in the underworld. It didn’t matter if it was a feast or a single pomegranate seed.

Demeter could feel that something had changed in Persephone. She asked her immediately if she had eaten anything and, to her daughter’s credit, Persephone told her what had happened. She also told her mother the story of her rape and kidnapping from the beautiful meadows of Zeus. Telling the tale was painful for the young goddess, but it was necessary. Both mother and daughter cried, hugged, and found peace once more.

Demeter told the story of her search, and the help she received from Hecate, who would from then on become close with the two goddesses. As the hymn told it, “their hearts had relief from their griefs while each took and gave back joyousness.”

Of course, now they would have to face Zeus and the consequence of Persephone’s meal, even if it had been forced upon her.

READ MORE: Gods of Death and the Underworld

Why Did Zeus Let Hades Have Persephone?

According to the rules of the gods, Zeus had to rule for Persephone to spend one-third of her life in the underworld with Hades, while she was able to spend the other two-thirds with her mother.

After their reunion, Demeter and Persephone prepared for the ruling by the king of the Olympians. Zeus sent for them to meet with the other Greek gods to hear his decision. It was two-fold. Demeter, upon reversing the damage caused by the famines and droughts, would be free to do whatever she wished. Persephone would have to spend one-third of her life with Hades, but would otherwise have all the rights and powers of her mother.

Persephone and her mother remained close from then on and found their home in Eleusis. There, they taught the leaders the “Eleusian Mysteries,” which were described as “awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the gods checks the voice.”

During her time in the underworld, Persephone had no interest in wallowing. Instead, she flourished as queen and would come to be known as a fair and just decider of fates. Many myths and stories have been told about the underworld in which Persephone appears to make the final decision.

Did Persephone Like Hades?

Greek myths rarely cover the deeper motivations of the gods, but it is unlikely that Persephone fell in love with Hades. He raped and kidnapped the woman and then argued to keep her in the Underworld against her will. Mentions of Persephone’s happiness were always in the context of her being with her mother or playing in the meadows of Zeus.

Persephone’s time in the underworld was not wasted. While stuck with her husband, she did not sit back idly but played an important role in how this part of the ancient Greek universe worked. She would intercede on behalf of heroes, make judgements, and punish those who were to be punished.

Do Hades and Persephone Have a Child?

The Erinyes (or Furies, as they were known in Roman mythology) were a group of demons tasked with tormenting those sent to the underworld who had been murderers and criminals.  According to one Orphic hymn, these furies were the children of Hades and Persephone.

However, it is worth mentioning that most recorders instead believed that the furies were the children of Nyx, the primordial goddess of Night. They instead say these creatures were controlled by Persephone, and that the two deities never had children of their own.

Did Hades Cheat on Persephone?

Hades had two lovers outside of Persephone, one of who met a deadly fate at the hands of the Queen. Leuce was perhaps the truest love of Hades, while Minthe was a lover for a short time before Persephone killed her.

Leuce was described as one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, a nymph and daughter of the Titan Oceanus. Like Persephone, Hades had kidnapped her to the underworld and, when she died of old age, turned her into a white poplar. He took the tree and planted it in the Elysian Fields. Leuce has been associated with Heracles and some myths suggest his crown used to celebrate returning from the underworld was made from her branches.

Minthe was a nymph from the “river of wailing” in the underworld. When Persephone found out that Hades had fallen in love with her, “pluto’s queen” stomped on her to death, ripping her limbs apart. In this manner, the nymph became the mint herb.

Is Persephone Good or Evil?

Good and Evil rarely figure in the stories of Greek mythology, but most modern audiences would empathize with the plight of Persephone. She was taken (and possibly raped) by Hades, and then refused to leave the underworld because of a very minor transgression. 

Persephone helped Orpheus try and recover his love, and helped Heracles take Cerberus from the underworld.

However, Persephone became angrier when older and was known to destroy those she believe hurt her. This includes a concubine of Hades, and Pirithous, who had become obsessed with her. She helped plague Thebes with her husband, Hades, and was the mistress of the Furies (underworld demons who would punish criminals).

Who Did Persephone Sleep With?

While Persephone is best known as the queen of Hades, she also had relationships with Zeus and Adonis. It is not entirely clear if her relationship with Zeus occurred before or after her kidnapping by Hades, though the tale seems only to be told as part of the wider Dionysus mythology.

Were Zeus and Persephone in Love?

Most myths describe the relationship between Zeus and Persephone as one in which he seduced her. Nonnus said that Zeus was “enslaved by her lovely breast,” and that he was not the only one; all the Olympians were obsessed with her beauty. Unfortunately, Persephone herself never understood what the appeal was, and preferred to spend time with her friends in nature.

Who Were The Children of Zeus and Persephone?

According to the Orphic hymns, Zagreus and Melinoe were the children of Zeus and Persephone. Both were important figures as deities in Greek mythology, though had very different stories.

Zagreus, sometimes known as “the first-born Dionysus” was given the thunderbolts of Zeus but was killed by the jealous Hera. His spirit was saved by Zeus, however, and he would become the second-born version of Dionysus that is better known in Greek mythology. Less is known about Melinoe except that she was likely connected to Hecate, the goddess of magic. According to the orphic hymn, Melinoe would wander the earth with a retinue of ghosts, and would give people nightmares. Melinoe was recognizable for having black limbs on one side of her body, and white on the other. 

If Melinoe is simply another name for Hecate, that would mean that Persephone’s relationship with Zeus was before she was kidnapped by Hades. However, in Nonnus’ account of the birth of first-born Dionysus, Zeus is said to have slept with Persephone, “the consort of the blackrobed king of the underworld.”

What Other Stories Involve Persephone?

Persephone, as queen of the underworld, plays an important role in the stories of many Greek heroes, including Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus, and Sisyphus. She also plays a role in one of the more well-known stories about Psyche.

What Persephone Myth Included Pirithous and Theseus?

The Greek adventurer Pirithous traveled to the underworld with his more-famous friend, Theseus in one of the darker tales in mythology. They went to the underworld seeking to kidnap Persephone, as Pirithous had fallen madly in love with her. Theseus had recently undertaken a similar mission, successfully capturing Helene of Sparta. Pseudo-Apollodorus recounted the story of how the two men were tricked, and how it cost Pirithous his life.

“Theseus, arriving in Hades’ realm with Pirithoos, was thoroughly deceived, for Hades on the pretense of hospitality had them sit first upon the throne of Lethe (Forgetfulness). Their bodies grew onto it, and were held down by the serpent’s coils.”

Pirithous died in the stone throne, while Theseus was lucky. The hero Heracles was in the underworld, planning to capture the hound Cerberus as part of his labors. Seeing Theseus there in pain, he asked permission from Persephone before freeing the fellow adventurer from the throne and helping him escape.

In the telling of the story by Diodorus Siculus, the fate of Pirithous was worse again. He did not die but agonized forever in the throne of forgetfulness. The story of the arrogance of Pirithous was told many times, with his punishments sometimes including being tormented by the Furies, and being eaten by Cerberus.

What Happened when Persephone met Psyche?

The Metamorphoses of Apuleius tells the story of when Psyche was sent to retrieve the makeup of Persephone and the consequences of her transgressions. While not a very well-known story, it shows a side of Persephone that is often forgotten. The subterranean queen was quite beautiful, to the point of being envied by other gods, and even the beautiful psyche was too tempted at the thought that she could look more like the daughter of Demeter.

The story goes that Aphrodite commanded Psyche to visit the underworld to make a request of beautiful Persephone. 

“Give this box to Persephone, and say : “Aphrodite asks you to send her a small supply of your beauty-preparation, enough for just one day, because she has been tending her sick son, and has used hers all up by rubbing it on him.” Make your way back with it as early as you can, because I need it to doll myself up so as to attend the Deities’ Theatre.”

The trip to the underworld is risky, and so Psyche prepared herself by taking the cake to feed Cerberus and keep him calm, coins for the ferryman to take her across the river Styx, and ensuring she knew the proper etiquette when meeting the queen of the underworld. Despite the perils, Psyche’s trip was uneventful, and it was only after she returned that she made her big mistake.

“Once she was back in the light of this world and had reverently hailed it, her mind was dominated by rash curiosity, in spite of her eagerness to see the end of her service. She said : ‘How stupid I am to be carrying this beauty-lotion fit for deities, and not take a single drop of it for myself, for with this at any rate I can be pleasing to my beautiful lover.’”

Opening the box, however, Psyche found no make-up. Instead, it contained “the sleep of Hades,” which enveloped her like a cloud and she fell unconscious. There she lay for a long time until she was eventually found by Cupid, who was able to return the cloud to its box.

How Persephone Was Worshiped: The Eleusinian Mysteries?

Persephone was rarely worshipped as an individual goddess and was instead almost exclusively worshiped alongside her mother.

As the daughter of Demeter, she was worshipped as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and also appeared in statues and temples around the Greek empire. Persephone was celebrated during agricultural festivities and games, and Pausanias mentions her name appearing on many markers and graves across the land.

Only a few specific rituals are recorded by Pausanias that relate directly to Persephone. In Argos, worshippers would throw lit torches into a pit, symbolizing her ability to move in and out of the underworld. They would also offer up sacrifices of grains and bread to the goddess and her mother. 

In Acacesium, a city of Arcadia, it is said that Persephone is the most-worshipped goddess, using her name Despoina (or “The Mistress”). In the temple, there was once a great scene of statues, including mother and daughter, that were made from a single large block of stone. The Arkadians would “bring into the sanctuary the fruit of all cultivated trees except the pomegranate.” They would also offer up sacrificial animals and, behind the temple, there were olive groves sacred to her followers. Only those initiated in the mysteries could walk its grounds.

The one place where it appears Persephone was worshipped apart from her mother is in Locri. Diodorus Siculus called her temple the “most illustrious in Italy.” For the followers of Persephone in the area, the goddess was worshipped as the deity of marriage and childbirth, not just of crops and spring. Her role as Hades’ queen was more important than her role as Demeter’s daughter. Persephone was also closely linked with Dionysus in this city, despite no mythic tales connecting the two. Fortunately, as the site of the original temple was discovered in the 20th century, we are still learning more about how those in Locri viewed Persephone, and how they worshiped her.

How Is Persephone Portrayed in Popular Culture?

Persephone is not an unknown name to modern readers, partly because of the famous story of her kidnapping, but also because of her continued use in popular culture. From a planet in the cult-Sci-Fi show Firefly to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, the name Persephone appears many times in Eurocentric culture. However, two characters often stand out and are looked at when comparing a modern interpretation and the Greek myths.

Who is Persephone in The Matrix?

Played by Monica Belluci, Persephone is the wife of The Merovingian, a program designed to move information across the wider Matrix. As “exiles” from the main system, it can be argued that they are in a form of “underworld” where other programs can escape the “death’ of deletion. Persephone plays a role “interceding for humans,” just as the ancient Greek character did, and is portrayed as having a similarly complex relationship with her husband.

Who is Persephone in Wonder Woman?

Persephone is also the name of an Amazon in the DC animated movie “Wonder Woman.” The role is a small one, in which the character betrays the Amazons to help the villain, Ares. Similar characters with this name appear in other DC animated movies and comics, all as Amazonian warriors. However, none appear to have parallels to Greek mythology.

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