Persephone Thesis: Essay Component
"Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries!
It is generally accepted among historical scholars that the cult of Demeter and Persephone, or Kore, existed in Greece and the surrounding Mediterranean islands long before the traditional Olympian gods became entrenched. Her origins are Cretan . Like Aphrodite, the mother and daughter goddess represent a matriarchal form of fertility worship in the forms of crops and nature, and through this the cycle of birth, growth and death. This myth, however, has taken hold of imaginations from its evolutions into the Eleusinian mysteries of Ancient Greece, to the paintings of Victorian Europe, to today, each with their own distinctive takes and emphases on the story. Perhaps it is the fact that we know so little about the original tale of Persephone the daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility, snatched away into the unforgiving Underworld that creates such curiosity within us. While we are intrigued by ancient myths, the myth of Persephone appears to hold a special place for women.
Unfortunately, the majority of our knowledge of the myth comes through the poet Homer and, later in the Roman era, Ovid. Both working in the strictly patriarchal world of Ancient Greece and Rome, their depiction of Persephones story comes almost entirely through her mother, Demeter, leaving a void where Persephones personality, story and thoughts should take place. We learn almost nothing about her or her forceful husband, Hades, and it is only recently that authors have begun to focus on Persephone as a character rather than a plot device. To place her character and purpose, however, is difficult. While she may have been worshipped long before the Olympians gods we are familiar with were instated in Greece, very little hard evidence of her nature and purpose survive. It is the prominence of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Ancient Greek world that reminds us that Persephone must have been important, to have been a figure of worship in a cult that lasted to the Roman empire. This would suggest she was far more than the kidnapped child that Homers Hymn to Demeter makes her out to be.
Using a mixture of traditional and modern sources, I have attempted through this essay to tease out a more contemporary and believable version of Persephone. A modern audience may not feel at ease with the stagnant, Homeric version of Persephone we are given, yet to move back to a pre-Olympian version of the myth and ignore the better known tradition would be counter-productive. Therefore I wished to study both traditional and contemporary models of the Persephone story before creating my own work. This involved looking at the Eleusinian Mysteries and their cult and the few remains of pre-historic Greek religion, right through to feminist views on the story and modern retellings focussing on Persephone herself.
The Eleusinian mysteries
Before studying any of the literary criticism and interpretations of the Persephone myth, it is vital to research the storys origins and meanings in their traditional contexts. While it is obvious that the myth still resonates with a modern day audience female writers in particular, a cross section of which I will look at later, are fond of revisiting the themes of the story one cannot ignore the original meanings of the myth, and the cult that grew around it.
The Eleusinian mysteries were one of the most secretive cults to flourish in Ancient Greek society. Because of this strict code of secrecy the cults practices remained completely unknown to those not initiated into them, well into the late Roman period and even then, the accuracy of the information leaked is considered dubious. A few solid facts are known about them, though. Firstly, that their worship was concerned with the fertility goddesses of Demeter and Persephone, and the changing of the seasons and growth of the crops. Secondly, some of the most important figures of Ancient Greek society such as Sophocles joined the cult, which resonated so strongly that people would set forth on pilgrimages to Eleusis from other countries simply to become initiated. Thirdly, the Eleusinian Mysteries were open to any and all people provided they were free of blood guilt the sin of murder and that they spoke Greek. This final point is perhaps the most important, for this inclusion wasnt the sort that ruled the Athenian elections, where all simply meant all male citizens of the polis. The Eleusinian mysteries were open to men, women and even slaves, one of the few perhaps even the only cults that were truly inclusive at the time . Evidence of its appeal through all classes can be seen in the manner of offerings left in the temples of Demeter and Persephone; where other gods such as Zeus, Hera and Athena boasted large marble votives, the majority of offerings to these goddesses temples were made of less expensive terracotta, a more accessible medium used by the lower classes . Perhaps its popularity is what made it important enough that every five years, a procession walked from the cemetery of Athens, the Kerameikos, to nearby Eleusis to commemorate Demeters months of searching for her lost daughter, part of which was known as The Greater Mysteries. These mysteries were not confined to Eleusis either, with evidence in other temples suggesting they were carried out across Greece , and perhaps even further abroad. With the cult as wide spread as it was, and with The Mysteries being carried out at Eleusis for almost two-thousand years and well into the Roman era, we can assume that although the rituals and story may have changed over the years, the worship of Demeter and Persephone carried on much longer than this .
While the Mysteries are presumed to be primarily concerned with the harvest and Demeters blessings on the earth, there is an undeniable undertone that they were also about death and rebirth. Thrice happy those among mortals who, having seen those Mysteries, will go down to Hades; only they can have true life there; for the rest, all there is evil, said Sophocles, strongly suggesting that the rites, and what was seen at them was thought to ensure a blissful afterlife in the Underworld, removing the fear of death from the initiates .
Initiates, regardless of gender, at least temporarily took on names with the feminine ending, implying that to truly understand the seasons and mans place within them, one must look at life through the female perspective . This is a very interesting notion due to the fact that Ancient Greece was a highly patriarchal society where women were required to spend the majority of their time within the house, and within their own quarters of the house. This lends itself to the theory that Demeter and Persephone, much like other goddesses such as Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena, were worshipped long before Ancient Greece became a patriarchal society. I shall expand further on this theory later in this essay.
Returning to the idea of Persephone and Demeters worship primarily focussing on the change of seasons and the harvest, the Mysteries appear to have been a later incarnation of a much older cult. It is possible that the two goddesses always shown as extremely close in all the Persephone myths were not originally linked. Demeter is specifically a Greek name, while Persephone is a variant on the non-Indo-European name Persephonia, implying that she may not have originated in Greece at all. The exact meaning of the name is not agreed upon by scholars, but it is always believed to hold negative or ominous associations which link Persephone to the role of a death goddess, even in pre-Greek tradition . How she became associated with Demeter is unclear, perhaps it was an example of religion merging, but it seems that Persephone usurped the position of Demeters original daughter, the maiden goddess Kore. It is possible that Kore already had associations with death perhaps even spending the barren portion of the year in the underground, as the myth goes and that the integration of the two religions was seamless due to similarities in the roles of the goddesses .
Unfortunately, despite the cults popularity and inclusive nature, loyalty to its strict code of secrecy has left us with very few sources about its practises and the nature of their worship. We are even without an original telling of the Demeter and Persephone myths, although something of their nature can be found in ancient sources such as wall reliefs and vase paintings, and through information passed down by Christian apologists, though this latter source must be examined with caution . It is unknown why the initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries were said to no longer fear death no doubt there was a form of divine secret that made them feel closer to the goddesses, particularly Persephone but what this may have been and exactly what the initiation ritual their worshippers went though may forever remain a secret to us.
As previously mentioned, apart from the reliefs and vase-paintings of Persephone, Demeter and Hades, we have been left without an original version of this highly popular myth. This is partially because The Mysteries were so secretive, but also because it is likely that Persephone and Demeters story originated far further back than the recorded Mysteries, even to prehistoric Greece in the form of mother and fertility goddesses.
Charlene Spretnaks 1978 version of the Persephone myth, later re-released in 1992, she claims, is based on what remains of the oral traditions of the myth, pre-Hellenistic and rebuilt around what little evidence has been found. It is a particularly interesting account for us not only because it allegedly adheres to the prehistoric, oral tradition of Persephone, before it was tainted by influence outside of Greece and Sicily, but also because she claims to have not fleshed out the surviving fragments of evidence beyond the word-smithing necessary to weave the facts together . It is a simple myth, in comparison to the Hellenistic versions I shall look at later, and formulaic in nature: Persephone and her mother, Demeter, watched over a winterless world and taught mankind about the plants and agriculture. Persephone notices lost spirits of the dead and questions her mother about their neglect, and we find out that Demeter is the one charged with their care. With her mother concerned about feeding the living, Persephone leaves and descends to the underworld of her own accord, with Demeters blessing. On finding the cavern of the dead, Persephone declares herself Queen over the dead, produces a bowl of pomegranate seeds the food of the dead and initiates (them) into (their) new world . Demeter is distraught at her daughters absence and withdraws her powers from the world, creating the first winter, until Persephone again resurfaces and spring returns with Demeters joy.
There are more than a few noticeable differences between this, pre-Hellenistic take on the myth and the story well known today. There are two in particular I would like to focus on: firstly, that there is no mention of Hades, and secondly that Demeter gives her consent to Persephones choice to rule the dead. While Demeter does mourn and cause winter to fall over the world while Persephone is in the underworld, this expressed permission for her daughters new role is in complete reversal to later versions where Demeter is depicted as completely against Persephones descent. While it could be claimed that this is because the situations are very different, consent is still the main point of disparity. Spretnaks take on the story also focuses largely on Persephone herself, rather than following Demeter like Homer and Ovids Hellenistic and Roman versions. It is briefly mentioned that Demeter searches for her daughter, but it is for her imminent return, not because she has been lost. It is the only version which I have come across in which Persephone is shown as a powerful figure in her own right, still innocent and benevolent but possessing the strength to stand on her own. This version of the myth is also far less complex than any later retelling, lacking the intrigue and adventure elements of a kidnapping and extended search. Both goddesses are benevolent towards humanity a trait typical of fertility goddesses rather than the vengeful figure of Demeter in Homer and Ovids tales.
Also interesting in Spretnaks retelling is the details she offers about Persephones role in the underworld. The other two ancient sources, Homer and Ovid, tell us almost nothing about her time spent with the dead, only that she mourned and fasted until she was tricked or convinced into eating the pomegranate seeds. Spretnaks retelling has an entirely different meaning for the fruit: seen as a fruit of the dead, partially for its colour, it is shown here as part of the ritual in which the dead are reborn:
As each spirit crossed before Her, Persephone embraced the form... She reached for a few of the pomegranate seeds, squeezing them between Her fingers. She painted the forehead with a broad swatch of the red juice
It is without doubt that Persephone, in this scene and story, is the only death deity present. Spretnaks retelling claims that Persephone received and renewed the dead without ever resting or even growing weary. , implying she gained a certain satisfaction from her role as their guide and bringing them forward into a new life. I would argue that this Persephone is a similar version to what would be worshipped in The Mysteries, a strong, guiding figure primed to lead the worthy out of death and into a blissful rebirth, rather than the helpless girl she becomes in later myth.
There is no such figure in either Homer or Ovids versions of the myth. While they differ on details, the points relevant to this essay are essentially the same: Hades saw Persephone, loved her (either with help from Aphrodite or of his own accord), and abducted her through trickery. Zeus, Persephones father figure (notably absent in the previous version of the myths), is aware of Hades intent but, rather than face Demeters wrath, he simply allows the abduction to happen. Demeter neglects her duties to the earth in grief as she searches for her daughter, only to find she is beyond her reach in the underworld. The conflict is solved by Zeus, who not only gave Hades permission to abduct Persephone in the first place, but also has remained aloof to the situation until the end. This ends with Persephones year being divided between her mother and her new husband, and apparent reconciliation between Hades and Demeter. For the myth to follow its original course in any shape or form, this ending is inevitable: Persephone must stay in the underworld for a portion of the year, and Demeter must be appeased enough to restore life to the world when her daughter returns. Those two points are vital for the myth to hold any significance in an Ancient context, yet to a modern audience this almost abrupt, dues ex machina style ending might come up a little short. If Demeters anger is so great about her daughters abduction, is it really believable that she would abandon it so quickly?
Homers version of the myth the official version given by the Eleusinian mysteries concentrates almost entirely on Demeter and her journey while searching for Persephone. Her anger is frequently commented on and, other than her brief interlude as nursemaid for the house of Keleos, her normal maternal nature is hardly mentioned. It appears that the search, rather than Persephone herself, and the deprivation of food from the land is the most important element of the story. Outside of her abduction, Persephone is given very little attention. We learn that she is a maiden, beautiful and modest and very unwilling in her marriage to Hades, but this is about all. Her role as a goddess of the underworld, outside of being married to one, is not referenced at all. Even with her mother at the beginning of the myth, she is not given a specific job or identity. To take this aspect of Kore, the maiden, further we could also say that she is placed among other maiden goddesses in the field. Despite Pallas (Athena) and Artemis being identified, both these goddesses were renowned for being forever virgins, highlighting Persephones Kore persona as innocent, virginal and very little else.
If we are to trust Spretnaks version of the original Persephone myth, even as a guideline, the differences between the peaceful descent into the underworld and the later tales are glaringly obvious. Homer and Ovid are, obviously, writing in a patriarchal society rather than one ruled by mother goddesses.
One theme frequently mentioned in the study of the Persephone myth is that of patriarchy. Ancient Greece, all written records we have of it, is unquestionably a patriarchal society with women at a lower rank. Many historians believe that this was not always the case, and an older, matriarchal religion consisting of female deities such as Aphrodite, Artemis and, of course, Demeter and Persephone existed in a prehistoric society, before the Olympian gods were introduced by invaders from the north . It is believed there were three waves of invasion: The Ionians, the Achaeans and finally the Dorians, and that the patriarchal gods such as Zeus, Poseidon and Hades were brought with them . Much like the Christians did when taking over aboriginal religions, these northern invaders amalgamated the existing goddesses into their own religion, keeping some of their attributes but disempowering them by making them, essentially, more human. Aphrodite became flighty and vain, Artemis practically forgotten and Persephone is changed from a guiding light for the dead into a secondary death god, placed after Hades. This, however, is only taking into account the scant written sources we are left with. Unlike Christianity, there was no set religious text across the Ancient Grecian tradition (or, perhaps, none which have survived), so to take what we see at face value would be to diminish a complex and vast religion. Persephone became a victim of forced marriage and her mother left mourning for her daughter: despite this, both were still revered in their own cult from prehistoric times, through the Roman era and into the Medieval period, before Christianity finally stamped the Eleusinian Mysteries out. Why would a victim of abduction draw such respect that the mysteries were never betrayed, if thats all she was?
Homers version of the Abduction of Persephone, as previously mentioned, has very little to do with Persephone at all, rather focussing on Demeter. While this might have been the official version of the myth commissioned by the cult, it makes very little sense that she was revered as highly as her mother for doing so little. This would imply that Persephones role in the everyday lives of the Ancient Greeks was far more than just a forced-consort role, someone who had been integrated into a system and forgotten. Either Persephone played a far greater role in the Hellenistic versions of the myth than Homer and Ovid let on, or this official version of the myth and not fully encompassing the beliefs of the every-day people. If, indeed, Persephone was pulled into the Olympian family tree simply for reasons of amalgamation and adaptation to an invading nations religion, it seems this transition did not dent her importance. Its likely she was still considered very much a goddess of the death, as was her original role, and whether she was the wife of Hades or not did not matter. She would still complete the role shed always held, such as outlined in the re-telling by Spretnak, and the Mysteries popularity and predominance in ancient Greek culture would prove this.
The Hades and Persephone myth is also often interpreted as a representation of Ancient Greek marriage ceremonies. Arranged marriages were normal in Ancient Greece, with the father of the bride and the husband to be organising the wedding between them. Neither the wife nor daughter are said to have been consulted in the arrangement, much like how in Ovid and Homers versions of Persephone, neither she nor Demeter are approached. The age gap between Persephone and Hades is not so strange in this context either: brides were young in Ancient Greece, and while the average age of marriage was sixteen they could be married as soon as they entered puberty, while the average age for a man to marry was in his thirties. While this may seem strange to a modern audience, the reasoning behind the age difference would have made sense in the context. Girls were married early because it was presumed that at this age, so soon after puberty was upon them, they would still be virgins . Men, however, married later because not only would they be established by their thirties, they would have also finished any military service to their polis-state that might have been expected . A particularly interesting part of the wedding ceremony in Ancient Greece is that, after the official wedding the passing of responsibility of the woman from her father to her new husband she was taken from her home to that of her new partner. Jennifer Powers mentions that this process was mentally painful for the bride but also physical, as the husband grabbed his new wife by the wrists to take her from the house while she said her farewells . When we compare the abduction of Persephone to the Ancient Greek marriage rites, moments such as this do show similarities between the taking of the bride, and the taking of Persephone. I would argue, though, that these similarities were only imposed later, after the Persephone myth was drawn into the canon Olympian pantheon. I feel that to link the traditional Grecian goddess of death, Persephone, to Hades through marriage rather than combing them into one was a smoother transaction for the invading forces, due to gender issues, the abduction situation mirroring a marriage ceremony gives the story greater weight. The primary focus of the myth is on the imposition of the seasons onto the world, and an explanation of death and rebirth rather than the marriage of cultures, although the manner in which the myth changed under Greeces new rulers is quite drastic.
As mentioned previously, before entering the Underworld Persephone is known simply as Kore: a generic title for maiden in Ancient Greece. It is only on entry to the Underworld does she acquire her own name, and through this her own personality and assets, rather than just ones she shares with her mother. When associated with her mother and fertility motifs, it is often difficult to tell the two apart on wall reliefs , however in her role as an Underworld goddess Persephone becomes a completely different creature. While providing a softer side to death, she is also the embodiment of it and the way through it. Hades was the judge of the dead but Persephone, if one goes by the older traditions, was the rebirth afterwards, symbolised by her returning to the earth each spring. This idea follows on from the idea of marriage because in essence, the bride went from her previous, almost genderless existence in the mothers home to a new role as wife to her husband. The marriage ceremony in ancient Greece involved the bride-to-be leaving her childhood belongings at the temple of Hera, symbolising her leaving childhood behind to become a woman and, eventually, mother. Though women in ancient Greece had little power, this change can also be seen in Persephone in her abduction to the underworld. Before this she was a child, Kore, and it is only through marriage and her descent that she become her own person.
As previously mentioned, Persephone has always been a goddess of the underworld, and hence of death. Her very name, when translated, means something similar to Bringer of Destruction, and earliest, pre-Olympian myth tells of her willing descent to the underworld to guide the spirits of the dead. Why has this, more powerful interpretation of the goddess been so comprehensively ignored? Even with the two myths combined say, that Hades abducted Persephone and then she found her purpose in her new life her figure is still one of power, purpose and with a role similar in stature to her new husbands. I would argue this role has been ignored for two reasons: firstly, that we have seen this myth through a predominantly patriarchal history, particularly in the Victorian era; secondly, because feminist interest in the past has focused heavily on the abduction and alleged rape, the intrusion of men upon a womans rights and body, instead of looking beyond this to an image of an adapted Persephone, or if they do they portray the change as a negative experience. I would argue that this is not the case, nor the point of the myth. Rather than the rape portion of the story, the Hellenistic version focuses on the mothers reaction to this abduction. Very little information is given on Hades and Persephones time in the underworld at all. In the original myth, according to Spretnak, There was no mention of rape and even in the Homeric version of the myth, the rape is not mentioned as being a physical rape. The word rape is only used in the context as if she was raped . Certainly it was a distressing time for Persephone both in Spretnaks original myth and the Homeric and Ovid versions both mention her delight on returning home and her fast in the Underworld, and the Hellenistic versions of the tale have her obviously distressed and screaming on being abducted but other than this we are given no information on her conditions or treatment while under Hades roof. While a feared god, unlike his brothers Hades is rarely, if ever, portrayed as cruel or violent: vases and reliefs from the times of the Mysteries show Hades as a devoted consort to Persephone, rather than a malicious ravisher and abductor . Instead this is ignored, favouring instead to portray Hades as a terrible, overbearing rapist and Persephone as largely useless to prevent her own defilement. Its the easy alternative, though a curious one.
In her book Lifes Daughter/Deaths Bride, Kathie Carlson continually uses words such as force, trickery and deception to describe Hades attitudes towards Kore, Persephones name before her decent to the underworld. Carlson is not subtle in her viewpoint; at every possible moment she uses violent language to describe the interaction between Persephone and Hades. However, to take the view that Persephone was unchanged and continuously fighting her entire underworld ordeal is to take a singular reading of it, a feminist reading which while constantly swelling on the intrusion of men into female relations still paints its leading lady as mostly passive. Persephone, according to Carlson, is not a figure we can look up to, as she was in her original myth and mysteries: she is a victim whose only action is to starve herself. Even Carlsons use of Persephones maiden name, Kore, is disempowering in itself. Kore was a widely used name in Greek mythology, meaning nothing more than maiden or girl. It is a name of no description, distinction, and is used frequently to describe other goddesses or their children. It seems that in their constant rage against the male justified by the rape in this story feminism has run out of things to argue about without giving way. But she didnt want it is the constant thread of their argument, but they refuse to move outside of this notion and this is where they fail to do the myth justice.
The majority of modern retellings on the myth focus on Persephone rather than the traditional viewpoint of Demeter given in Homer and Ovids retellings. While Carlsons text on Persephone largely revolves around the ideas of patriarchy and, towards the end, the evil nature of Hades in his breaching of the mother/daughter bond, at the same time I would argue that studies into the myth are now moving away from this more negative aspect of the story to focus on the relationship between Demeter and Persephone and, finally, on Persephones adaption to her own situation. Herta Rosenblatts Three Poems, featured in The Long Journey Home revolve around the two women: The first of the three, The Dance of the Mother Woman is Demeter centric, looking both at her and comparing her to other mythic women in turn. The poem moves between focussing on Demeter as a good mother, in comparison to figures such as Niobe, Mary and Eve, all of whom are considered good women. It also deals with the possibility of Demeters own guilt, finishing with comparisons to Clytemnestra and, perhaps more surprisingly, Medea. The end of Medeas story is highlighted by the unthinkable act of her slaughtering her own children in revenge, so to compare this to Demeters interactions with Persephone seems quite a step. Rosenblatt is likely using this heavily weighted name as the guilty conscience of a mother who has failed her daughter. Coupled with the second poem of the set, A last game of childhood, this might very well be the case. This second poem focuses on Persephones games in the fields in the moments before her abduction. This poem appears to be another manifestation of Demeters grief, with phrases such as Your mother watches you break it/ blessing your eagerness holding a double meaning. Demeter is blessing Persephones joy in picking flowers but, in hindsight, this can be seen as a blessing for the later abduction.
Were you Weeping takes a completely different approach to the myth, focussing on Persephone in the underworld. The poem is not centred around the typical Persephone myth, rather it focuses on Persephones view of another Underworld myth, that of Orpheus quest to revive his wife. Orpheus wife, Eurydice, was bitten by a snake and descended to the underworld and Orpheus, determined to win her back, travelled down to Hades and Persephones domain and when they refused to release her, he played his lute with such skill that the gods and the dead were reduced to tears as they remembered their lives and the world above them. This is an interesting view to take, as such memories would be particularly painful for Persephone, and one I attempted to incorporate into my own retelling of the myth. The relationship between Persephone and Hades here is not shown as violent or forceful.
"when the dark god appeared, in his glory and power,
and, ravished, you died the death of love?
Were you weeping, and your hand
pressing that of your husband?
Were you humming the tune
of that spring day
and he smiled the smile of remembering: "
Despite the word ravished, one wonders how a woman who has allegedly been raped could treat her husband with such affection. The word love is one very seldom used in the myth of Persephone, save perhaps in popular culture, and I would again like to refer back to the fact that arranged marriages were common in Ancient Greek culture. Perhaps we can read this poem as Persephones acceptance of her marriage, however forced, and adaption to it.
A contemporary re-telling of the Persephone myth, and one that heavily inspired my own take on the tale, is the duo of poems written by River Malcolm. Her blend of Persephone as both victim, and then her change to controlled matriarch of the Underworld acknowledges both the Hellenistic take on the myth, with Persephone abducted against her will, yet also lends itself to the prehistoric take of the tale also. Malcolm does not leave us with a weak Persephone always willing to run home to her mother, she instead transforms Persephone into the queen of the dead who is one with her own powers and duties, and even takes on the mantle herself by choosing to eat the pomegranate seeds.
"It is Hades, my husband, who bids me cease,
as those of my fathers generation
that Destiny must be obeyed
even by the Gods. "
This is the one published retelling of the myth I have read that has Persephone choose to eat the pomegranate seeds of her own accord, rather than through trickery of naivety. It is a refreshing change to see her with a powerful mindset, not a cowed, frightened girl. The most powerful image for me, however, were the lines Even Cerberus the fierce/ whines when I approach and begs/ for a pat from his mistress hand. . Cerberus was the three-headed hound of the underworld that guarded one of its many gates to prevent the dead from escaping, and was famously captured by Herecles as one of his redemptive feats. For the typically meek figure of Persephone to be commanding such power, I would argue, is an inspiring take on her situation: not only has she adapted to a situation she couldnt prevent, she has embraced it and taken control of it.
In this poem too we find the tensions arising between mother and daughter. The constant repetition of the line And where was my mother seems to say that Persephone partially blames Demeters lack of attention for her plight, for not protecting her from this arranged marriage. Even at the end of the poem, where the focus shifts to Persephones inevitable return to the earth, the tone is jaded as if I could be again the same girl I was ... I, Queen of Death, Lady of Darkness ending with an almost ominous note as Persephone compares herself to seeds of death.
The Critical-Creative Connection
For my own piece I found my placement of Persephone a difficult one. Until further investigating the myth and its origins I was highly influenced by the popular version of the Persephone myth, mostly based on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Popular culture, however, views this rape either as a non-physical one perhaps to make the myth more approachable or one of seduction, and interprets the myth as a story of love rather than kidnapping and separation from the mother. Amateur authors often borrow the plot or themes of the story and apply them to other characters or situations yet these are almost always love stories . While realising the original story was far harsher than these popular, modern versions, the notion that perhaps the myth isnt completely negative was one that stayed with me. I enjoyed the picture of the stronger Persephone that these retellings often portray, rather than the helpless Homeric girl, and knew that this would be the type of Persephone I would emulate in my own reworking of the story.
Spretnaks original telling of the myth, along with the poems by Malcolm were the two key factors in my own portrayal of Persephone. As a heroine, Persephone has so little power in the majority of retellings that Spretnaks image of a strong woman determined to honour the dead was highly appealing to me and something that I wanted to channel into my own work. Restoring Persephones role to her also gives her a purpose, not only in the underworld but for herself as well: she changes from an object thats passed around to a figure with real power in her descent to the Underworld. Malcolms glimpse into a changed, somewhat jaded figure of Persephone gave insight into how one might, realistically, change and adapt into the situation. Her figure of Persephone wanting to stay in the underworld because of the power she has attained was a very interesting take on the popular notion that Persephone stayed because she wished to, rather than because she was forced to. That she might have enjoyed the power, and perhaps the freedom that came with that power, was something I had not thought of before reading this poem.
In my own retelling I have attempted to meld the better known Homeric version of the myth with these modern and traditional retellings. I wished to explore the change from featureless, innocent girl to powerful goddess and wife, a change which has not been the primary focus of other retellings I have read while researching for this essay. Other retellings focus on her before her descent to the underworld or, alternatively, just after her abduction or a long period of time later, after she has adapted. This phase of adaption, as far as I have read, has yet to be addressed.
The story of Persephone has been given many guises since its evolution into the Olympian pantheon, and not all of these have been positive. Until recently, the primary focus for study of her myth has been in her abduction and alleged rape, rather than in the protagonist herself and her relation to the changing world around her. As we find out more about the traditional role of Persephone in pre-historic Greece and discover her true purpose and power, perhaps it will be easier for us to accept that she is not simply a girl who has been uprooted, but also a goddess in her own right who had a significant role in Greeces religion. This is shown through the prominence of her mysteries, that survived even into the Roman era, and while we will never know the full details of what this cult entailed, its popularity and far-reaching significance imply that Persephone, and her mother Demeter, were far more influential than Homers official version of the myth implies. The myth is still popular, taken up by artists over the years and given new meaning and significance as they apply it. Because much of the myth surrounding Persephone and Hades is unmentioned this leaves the story open for interpretation, so perhaps the appeal to a modern audience is that unlike in ancient times there is no, single official version of this myth and that we can interpret it as we see it. While some choose to highlight the patriarchal influence on the text, I feel that we can benefit more through examining Persephone as a character and how she adapts to her changing world and situation, and how she can triumph through this, rather than leave her as a victim. She was abducted, but it is what we do with her after this which is where the real meaning of the myth lies.