A quick and dirty rundown on some of your favorite characters from Greek mythology: Zeus is the powerful Father of the Gods who had a complicated relationship with Aphrodite and doted on his daughter Athena, who assisted Hercules (the Roman version of the Greek hero Herakles) in one of his 12 labors.
Confused yet? Take it all in and prepare to add more Greek mythology know-how to your growing knowledge bank because we asked Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, to help us get to know the wife of Hades herself, Persephone.
1. Some Call Her Queen of the Dead
So, who was Persephone, exactly? Otherwise known as Kore (signifying "daughter" and "maiden"), Persephone captured the heart of Hades, who abducted her in his chariot. "She is the wife of Hades, who is the king of the Underworld, and so she can be called Queen of that realm, or even Queen of the Dead," Martin says via email. "But she's not some sort of scary witch figure — she is a beautiful young woman who became the king's bride — exactly how is another, longer and stranger story."
The gist of that story goes like this: Hades became taken with the lovely young Persephone when he saw her picking flowers one day and kidnapped her back to the Underworld. Her mother, the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, then scoured the Earth for her lost daughter. Persephone's dad is Zeus, a figure who fathered more than a few iconic Greek characters, and in some versions of the tale, is responsible for handing over his daughter to Hades. Because of Demeter's distress, she neglected the harvest, and widespread famine ensued.
Zeus then demanded his daughter be returned, but there was a catch: Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds during her time in the Underworld, thanks to Hades' trickery. Because anyone who tasted the food of the Underworld was condemned to remain there (a convenient rule, no?), Hades struck a deal with Persephone's parents: She'd spend four months a year with him, and eight on Earth. Now known as the goddess of spring, Persephone is said to be spending time with her hubby down in the Underworld during the barren months of the year and back above ground when the land comes alive.
"Because Hades has tricked Persephone into eating a pomegranate, the daughter has to return to his realm for one-third of the year — good to know that Greeks in archaic times thought of there being three, not four, seasons," Martin says. "Later versions say she is gone half the year to Hades, and half the year lives above Earth with Demeter."
2. Ancient Artists Usually Portrayed Her in One of Two Ways
"In ancient art, there are two main motifs where we see Persephone," Martin says. "First, the moment when she is abducted by Hades. He emerges from under the Earth in a chariot and carries her away, while her playmates — nymphs and mortal maidens — try to grab at her to prevent this. An amazing 4th century B.C.E. wall-painting showing this event was found in the 20th century in Vergina, part of the Macedonian region of Greece. Bernini and others have given versions of that scene."
The second main motif, according to Martin, is Persephone-in-the-Underworld. "She is often shown sitting beside her royal husband, overseeing the various famous dead heroes or sinners, or, for example, granting Orpheus the favor of retrieving his dead wife. In modern art, there are some great paintings of her reunion with her mother, but this is rare in ancient art."
3. There are Some Slight Variations in Her Story
"The variations usually have to do with the time of her abduction by Hades," Martin says. "In our oldest evidence the so-called Hymn to Demeter, from around 600 B.C.E., she clearly is carried off in springtime. She's attracted by a blooming narcissus flower in a meadow full of other sorts of blossoms, and it then acts like a trigger on a trap door — she goes to pluck it and Hades flies up on his chariot."
But Martin says audiences had trouble with that tale from the start. "Already in ancient times, however, people were wrestling with this whole story both because it is so touching and because it was tightly connected with the all-important Mysteries of Eleusis outside Athens, that promised some sort of eternal happiness after life for everyone," he says. "They tried to explain the details in various ways."
One of those ways involves manipulating the often confusing, usually disturbing overlaps in Greek mythology family trees. "It is weird and disturbing that Zeus, first of all, who is the father of Persephone by his own sister Demeter, basically allows his brother, Hades, to abduct (or even rape) her," Martin says. "In ancient times, allegory was the main tool used to interpret unpleasant or opaque stories. So Persephone was allegorized as spring or the growth of crops; her mother was goddess of grain (called in Latin ceres, hence 'cereal'), making the equation easier. And her disappearance was taken to equal the dead of winter when crops do not grow. So some versions have her disappear in autumn, to make the facts fit the story."
There are other variations too, particularly around the relationship between Persephone and her mom. "In the Hymn to Demeter, Persephone does come back to see her mother, after a spectacular sort of hunger strike by Demeter, who causes crops to wither because she finds out her daughter has been abducted and gets Zeus to tell Hades to let the girl return to Earth," Martin says. "Demeter has the power because without her grain, there can be no sacrifices to the gods, so they get starved out, as it were." Martin is careful to point out that in this particular version, it's not the disappearance of Persephone that causes the lack of crops, but the anger of Demeter. "And again, it's not winter but late spring/summer," he says.
4. Persephone Still Represents Important Themes Today
"In ancient Greece, the myth had multiple simultaneous meanings," Martin says. Here's how he breaks them down:
- "A mother and daughter must separate because the latter grows up and marries — which in traditional cultures meant moving, often far away, to a husband's home and family. It was a 'social death' for her original family — so this mythic story channels some of the everyday experience of Greek women," he says.
- "The story was clearly plugged into cycles of seasons and agriculture," Martin says. "In the Hymn, there is a major subplot about how Demeter in mourning shows up at Eleusis, now a suburb of Athens, becomes a nanny for a royal family, nearly immortalizes their baby (by sticking him in the fire every night), is discovered, and then commands that local people worship her to calm her wrath. Part of the deal is that the family spreads throughout the world the new knowledge of grain-growing."
- "Because Eleusis was where Demeter settled down to mourn her lost daughter, the shrine there controlled Mysteries — which are still secret to this day — in which hundreds of Greeks and foreigners each year would be initiated into some sort of secret knowledge and sworn to keep it secret," Martin says. "It seems that whoever participated in the elaborate ceremony was promised a happy existence in the Underworld after death — the model for this was Persephone, who basically overcomes death (at least partially) by being enabled to keep coming back."
"For the modern world, the first and third stories have resonance," Martin says. "We still seek stories about what it will be like after death (and methods to ensure our happiness), and we still deal with the pain and confusion of the formation of new families by partially breaking bonds of the old — as when daughters marry and move far away."
5. She and Her Mother Were Known as The Two Goddesses
"She was such a familiar figure to Greek women, in particular, that she was often just called kore ('the daughter'), and together with her mother, the two were referred to as The Two Goddesses — in fact, women could swear oaths 'by The Two.' Women had a number of female-only rituals in honor of The Two." One ancient celebration, in particular, known as the Thesmophoria, was a religious festival dedicated to Demeter and Persephone."