The maiden of life and the queen of death Persephone is not a true Olympian but as the daughter two Elder Olympians and the wife of a third she is a very powerful and prominent goddess in the ancient Greek religion. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus (though there are some hints that in earlier, Mykenean times it may have been Poseidon who fathered this goddess) and Demeter – the goddess of the earth’s fertility and distributor of the crops grown from it, though in the Orphic telling of her birth she is the daughter of Rhea who takes the name ‘Demeter’ after giving birth.
The Iron Queen, the Lady of the Golden Sword and Glorious Fruits, Persephone is also known by the name Kore which means maiden and refers to her aspect of the maiden of life and is the name that she was known by before her decent into the underworld. As the queen of the dead she was known by the name Persephone which can be broken into two parts; the later seems to be related to the word meaning ‘to show’ and is associated with light while the former part of her name derives from the word meaning to destroy, making Persephone ‘the destroyer of light’.
The chthonic, or underworld aspect of Persephone is her most well known, though there seems to be many variations of it. There has been much research of late indicating that Persephone’s cult and worship can be traced back into Minoan or even Neolithic times. Some variations of the myth have Persephone willingly descending into the underworld and reigning alone over the land of the dead, even in later myths she is sometimes seen as the sole or at least chief ruler of the kingdom. She is the final judge of souls (while Minos, Aiakos and Rhadamanthys are judges in the underworld; she is the judge of the underworld) parceling out where souls spend eternity after death; in the Orphic tradition Persephone is the ruler of reincarnation and decides weather souls will be placed back onto the wheel of rebirth or pass into the Blessed Lands.
The most known variation of her myth is her abduction by Haides. In some versions Demeter hid her daughter from the eyes of the gods after Hermes, Hephaistos, Apollo and Ares had all sued for her hand in marriage. Aphrodite was distraught that Persephone’s tendencies seemed to cause her to follow Artemis, Hestia and Athene in retaining her virginity, keeping her outside the sphere of Aphrodite’s influence and she instructs her son Eros to inflict Haides with love for the young goddess. Persephone had been picking flowers in the Nysan Field with a group of nymphs (or with Athene and Artemis according to the Homeric variation of the myth) when Haides burst forth from a chasm in the ground and stole away the goddess taking her down to the underworld to be his bride. The poor nymphs who had been accompanying the goddess were turned into the sirens by the furious Demeter.
In her wanderings while searching for her missing child, Demeter failed to pay attention to the earth and all that grew withered and died and the earth was covered in winter (though in some myths the devastation was done in a deliberate attempt to force Zeus to order Persephone’s return). While in the shadowy kingdom Persephone ate the seeds of the pomegranate, the food of Haides and because of this was sentenced to be forever connected to the Great Below and so while she was freed to return above for most of the year she must always return below, bringing light and renewal to the barren underworld but darkness and winter to the earth. In some of the variations of this myth she eats six seeds sentencing her to half the year below, others claim four – the four winter months in the Greek year and still others say seven. It was thought, in ancient times when autopsies on human bodies were not performed and information gleaned only form animals that the human uterus had seven lobes; as well the underworld in the Near Eastern mythologies (which had considerable influence on the Greek, particularly in this instance the myth of Inanna’s decent to the underworld) had seven gates thus making it one seed per gate to death, one seed per gate to life (there are also seven stars in the constellation Ursa Minor which revolves around the pole star, possibly related to seven celestial gates as well). There are also remnants of early marriage rituals in this myth. In many cultures marriage occurred when a woman was abducted by a man and taken from her family to his home, (this – abduction – is the ancient definition of rape which may imply but does necessarily mean a forced sexual encounter) it is quite possible that this is the origin of the myth, the etiological explanation a later addition.
It was this story, of Persephone’s perpetual shift between the worlds that was at the core of one of the most famous mystery cults of the ancient world – the Elusian Mysteries, in fact the myth was likely played out for the participants to watch. These mysteries, which preached eternal life, probably involved the use of a psychotropic drug, ergot from rye or perhaps an opiate derived from poppies which were important symbols in the cult. The brilliantly coloured poppy was processed to produce a substance used as an anestetic and could, with a lage enough dose, bring about a painless death. A fitting flower to represent this goddess.
In most sources Persephone has very few lovers and no children (though in at least one source Plutus, the god of underground wealth is called her son, though his mother is usually Demeter making him her half brother) however in Orphic tradition she is mother to Zagreus, the divine child who was cannibalized by the titans and reborn as Dionusos. Peiritheus, friend of Theseus who helped the Athenian king abduct the child Helen of Sparta, had once dared to enter the underworld in order to abduct Persephone but was prevented by Haides. Aidonus, the Syrian consort of Aphrodite, was one of her lovers, who like Persephone herself was sentenced to spend four months of every year in the underworld.
Persephone shares many characteristics with goddesses within the Greek pantheon as well as those related to it. The Romans knew her as Proserpina and the Etruscan goddess Alpanu shares many qualities with her. The Arkadian version of Persephone was known as Despoine – ‘The Lady’ (her true name could not be spoken by the uninitiated and like so many of the secrets of the Mysteries remains lost) and was the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon. Empedocles uses the name Nestis as a byname for Persephone (as her true name was considered too powerful) in his list of correspondences with the four classical elements (attributing water to her while Hera receives earth; Haides, fire; and Zeus, air).
Persephone and her mother were often considered two aspects of the same goddess (in much the same was as were Demeter and Rhea) and were referred to as ‘the Demeters’ or often as ‘the goddesses’. Linear B tablets refer to ‘The Two Queens’ and many scholars have connected Persephone with the Kretan ‘Mistress of the Labyrinth as well and possibly was known by the name Ariadne (who in later myth was mortalized as a princess and became the wife of Dionusos, who in Classical times was sometimes worshiped as Persephone’s husband and a lord of the underworld himself.
In Canada we wear poppies in November for Remembrance Day to honour our fallen veterans. On my altar sits the poppy from my veteran grandfathers casket, it is for me, a powerful and fitting symbol of Persephone. In ritual I offer her libations in the name of my ancestors and through her, I am connected to all those who lived and died before me.