For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday I have chosen the figure of the Greek Goddess Persephone. She is a deity who began as a goddess of springtime and flowers, which made sense given her mother was hearth goddess Demeter. She would become Queen of the Dead when she married the god of the Underworld, Hades!
In older versions of the tale it was not marriage, but instead simple compassion that drove Persephone (or Kore, meaning maiden) to become Queen of the Dead. In this earlier (goddess-centric) version of the tale she heard the cries of the dead, and knew they needed someone to care for them. That is when she chose to spend part of the year with them, and the rest of the year with her beloved mother!
The most common version of the myth stated that one day when Persephone was out picking wildflowers with her handmaidens she was abducted (sometimes referred to as raped) by Hades. This would lead Demeter to go on a long quest to find her daughter. It is this quest, and the ensuing decision to keep Persephone in the Underworld for three months of the year, that would be at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries!
Demeter eventually learned of her daughter’s whereabouts through Hecate, goddess of witchcraft (who herself resided in the Underworld). In this part of the myth Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate are symbols of the three aspects of the goddess (maiden, mother, and crone respectively). The truth was Zeus had sanctioned a marriage between his brother Hades, and his daughter (Persephone was fathered by the king of the gods). Demeter was incredibly enraged to learn what had happened without her knowledge or her daughter’s consent! An irate Demeter insisted that her daughter be returned to her, and Persephone was brought back by Hermes. However, it was discovered that she had ate three pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld (this was the food of the dead, and made her a part of the Underworld). This is when Zeus decreed that she would spend three months of the year in the Underworld with her husband, and the rest of the year with her mother! It should be acknowledged that in some versions of the myth it was six pomegranate seeds, therefore it was six months with Hades and six with her mother.
As many will remember this particular tale was used to explain the changing of the seasons, and that worked because Demeter would not keep things in bloom when her daughter was in the Underworld (and this became Winter). The months that her daughter returned she was overjoyed, and everything sprung with color (this is Spring). All through Summer she was content with her child, and then Autumn happened because she knew her daughter would soon depart for the Underworld!
In time Persephone was known to fully accept her role as Queen of the Dead, and provided a needed balance to her husband. She was a figure of great sympathy and empathy for the souls in their care. Persephone also figures in tales such as the story of Adonis, where she cared for the young Adonis at the behest of Aphrodite. She became very enamored of the youth, and Zeus had to set out a decree to prevent Persephone and Aphrodite from fighting over him. This decree was much the same as the one he made for Persephone. Only this time Adonis would spend a third of the year with each goddess, and the final third would be spent with whomever he chose. He would choose to spend that final third of the year with Aphrodite!
Persephone is a goddess who grew in her aspects and through her myths. She began as the innocent maiden, as I mentioned one version of her name, Kore, actually meant maiden. She took on motherly aspects through raising Adonis and there are some versions of the myths where she was mother of Dionysus (with either Hades or Zeus as his father). The more common Dionysus birth story is that Zeus and the mortal Semele were his parents, however I needed to mention this alternate tale for this Persephone post. Finally she can be connected to the crone aspect of the goddess through being a goddess of death. If we look at the earlier versions of her story, we see her as a link between life and death within herself!
In the common version of the myth (where she is married to Hades) it is the marriage itself that is seen as a marriage of life to death. Her tale is the original tale of the death and the maiden trope, which I have written about before! This very complex goddess is sometimes robbed of agency in her tale (with the abduction, and Zeus’ decree), however when we look at the earlier tales (and even tales after her marriage to Hades is solidified and she had become accustomed to the Underworld) she really seemed to take to her role over both life and death! She is not just the flower maiden daughter forced to be in the realm of death, she is also a powerful goddess who enjoyed the power that the Underworld gave to her.
Thank you for joining me for this first Femme Fatale Friday after my honeymoon. I hope you have enjoyed learning a little about this complex deity, and please join me here at White Rose of Avalon next week. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Proserpine is the Roman name of Persephone. I found the image on tate.org.uk.
- Persephone Unveiled: Seeing the Goddess & Freeing Your Soul by Charles Stein
- Maiden, Mother, Crone by D.J. Conway
- Goddesses in Everywoman by Jean Shinoda Bolen