Who is Persephone?
Hades kidnaps Persephone (Amphipolis, 300s BC)
Suddenly Persephone's spooky uncle Hades burst out
of the ground and grabbed her and pulled her into his chariot!
He took Persephone (purr-SEFF-oh-nee) under the ground to his kingdom, the land
of the dead, and told her that he wanted her to be the Queen of
the Underworld and marry him.
Persephone was very sad there under the ground. She wanted to go up into the sunshine again. But Hades would not let her. Persephone was so sad that she would not eat nor drink.
A video version of Persephone's story
Meanwhile, back up in the land of the living, Persephone's mother Demeter was looking everywhere for her and could not find her. She cried and cried. Finally she went to her brother Zeus, who was also Persephone's father, and asked him to help find Persephone. Zeus, sitting way up there on top of Mount Olympus, was able to see where Persephone was. He told Hades to give her back.
But Hades said he would only give Persephone back if she had really not eaten or drunk anything from the land of the dead. Persephone had not eaten much, but it turned out she HAD eaten six pomegranate seeds. So they agreed that Persephone could spend six months a year above ground with her mother, but she would have to spend the other six months in the land of the dead with her uncle/husband. And that is how it has been since then, according to the story: that's why we have the seasons.
If you look at Persephone's story another way, you can see that it is a way of talking about how grain grows. Persephone represents the grain. Like grain, she comes up out of the earth in the spring, and dances in the meadow with her friends. Her mother Demeter is glad to see her and makes the sun shine. In the fall, though, Persephone dies as the grain comes ripe and is harvested. She has to go back under the ground again, as men plant the seeds under the ground. Persephone's mother is sad and cries, like the rain in winter. Then every spring she comes up again.
There are a lot of Greek and West Asian stories that are like this one. Compare for instance the story of Dionysos, or the story of Tammuz or Attis from West Asia, or Osiris from Egypt, or the story of Jesus, who also died and rose again from the dead.
This story appears in Hesiod, but it only says:
(ca. l. 912)
Zeus entered also into the bed
of fertile Demeter,
who bore him Persephone with her white arms,
she that Hades
snatched away from her mother,
and Zeus of the counsels allowed it.
A longer version of the story is in the Roman poet
Persephone and the Pomegranate: A Myth from Greece, by Kris Waldherr (1993). . Not cheap, but beautifully illustrated.
D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire.
Greek Religion, by Walter Burkert (reprinted 1987). By a leading expert. He has sections on each of the Greek gods, and discusses their deeper meanings, and their function in Greek society.
Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, by Emily Vermeule (1979). She's an expert on early Greece, and this book goes into detail about what the Greeks thought happened to people after they died. Harder going.
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