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The Origins of the Persephone Myth

CW: violence


Persephone, the young goddess of spring and of the underworld, is coming to the Oxford Playhouse this November. But where did it all begin for Persephone? In this week's blog post, Emma Starbuck delves into the origins of the Persephone myth.

 

There are many myths about Persephone but the most famous and the one we will focus on here is the story of how she was abducted by and subsequently married to Hades. This marriage resulted in her living with him in the underworld for half of each year, spending the other half with her mother Demeter. She therefore became known as the goddess of the underworld, as well as of springtime.


In order to fully explain the origins of this myth, we need to begin not in Greece, but in ancient Sumer (modern day Iraq and Kuwait). In Sumerian mythology, goddess of the underworld Ereshkigal was kidnapped by the dragon Kur, and this story has been linked to the abduction of Persephone by scholar Samuel Noah Kramer. Ereshkigal also marries the god Nergal in Sumerian myth, who lives in the underworld with her for half of the year. Obviously these stories don’t map perfectly onto those about Persephone and Hades; if they did, then Nergal would have been kidnapped by Ereshkigal, or Hades by a dragon. But nevertheless, the similarities are there, and if these Greek myths do in fact have Sumerian roots, that would mean that they first surfaced as much as seven or eight thousand years ago.


Moving west from Sumer, we have evidence of both Minoan Crete and Mycenae worshipping Persephone, meaning she was a part of Hellenic religion as early as the fourth millennium BCE. She is also mentioned in one of the oldest pieces of extant Greek literature that we have: Hesiod’s Theogony, likely composed in the eighth century BCE. The Theogony only tells us so much about her: that Demeter was her mother, that Zeus made her Hades’ wife after her abduction, and that she lived in the underworld with Hades. However, the Homeric hymn to Demeter, which we think was composed in the following century, gives more detail about her life. It explicitly mentions aspects of her mythology that are still well-known today: that Hades made her eat pomegranate seeds; that as a result she was bound to the underworld for a third of the year; and that Demeter did not allow any crops to grow while her daughter was gone, creating the winter season.


By the year 8CE, the Roman equivalent of Persephone, Proserpina, had come into existence, and the poet Ovid had written his version of her story. In book 5 of his Metamorphoses, Ovid documents the abduction of Proserpina, and the violent nature of the incident is undeniable. We are told that her kidnapping and rape are engineered by Venus and Cupid, the latter of whom fired an arrow at Pluto (Hades) to make him fall in love with the goddess. Venus says that without this intervention, Proserpina would have remained a virgin, implying that she wouldn’t have voluntarily married Pluto; and later Ceres (Demeter) is told by a nymph that Proserpina has become queen of the underworld, but the nymph noted that her expression was ‘tristis’ and ‘neque…interrita’ – ‘sad’ and ‘not unafraid’ (Met 5.506).


Modern retellings of this story tend to frame the marriage of Persephone and Hades as one that began with love, not violence. For example, the Broadway musical Hadestown omits the violent nature of how their marriage came to be: instead both Hades and Persephone long for the happiness that they had early on in their marriage, since they’ve now been married for eons and have fallen out of love. All that’s said of Persephone’s initial arrival in the underworld is that ‘[Hades] took her home to become his queen’, and since we are told that ‘[Persephone] loved him and the kingdom they shared’, we get a very different picture of what happened compared to what ancient authors have told us.


Such adaptations have led to complaints about how contemporary media isn’t ‘faithful to the original mythology’, and it would be correct to say that modern reception of this myth is quite different to the ancient reception. However, such innovation of mythology is not a new phenomenon, and in fact it can help revive ancient stories: take the story of Dido and Aeneas’ love as an example, which didn’t exist in the ‘original mythology’ (whatever that means). It is thought to have been created by Virgil for his Aeneid, and within this text the story serves as aetiological explanation for the historic enmity between Rome and Carthage, as Aeneas is the mythological founder of the former, Dido of the latter. Simply put, Virgil made dramatic changes to ancient stories because it suited his narrative goals.


Perhaps the story of Persephone and Hades is often modified for similar reasons: in the case of Hadestown, the changes made serve to emphasise how an unhappy marriage can be revived, since the couple do reconcile their love. The notion of their marriage starting out as a happy one adds much more to this particular show than if Persephone had been unhappy from the very beginning. By the very nature of mythology, the stories are told, and retold, and retold again, and they change every time. The world has come a long way since ancient Sumer and Mycenae, and our stories have with it.


Image Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons


Persephone will run 11th - 13th November at the Oxford Playhouse. Tickets are available at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/persephone.