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Persephone: Queen of the Underworld

Updated on December 13, 2016
Persephone Picking Flowers
Persephone Picking Flowers | Source

Parents of Persephone

Little is known of Persephone from her birth until she turns fourteen and becomes old enough to marry. We know that her mother was Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Her father was Zeus, King of the Gods and Demeter's youngest brother.

One night while Demeter was in bed asleep, Zeus went to her. We can only assume that she gave herself willingly to her brother that night.

Persephone's father Zeus and mother Demeter
Persephone's father Zeus and mother Demeter

Vying for the Hand of Persephone

At fourteen, Persephone, who was the joy of her mother, had reached the age of marriage. Eros, the god of love, in all his mischief, shot all of the gods with his golden arrow causing them to fall in love with the girl. All of the male gods then lined up for their chance at the hand of the beautiful daughter of Demeter. Hermes asked for her hand and offered his golden caduceus as a bridal gift. Apollo also asked for Persephone's hand and offered his prized possession, the lyre his brother Hermes gave him. Ares was willing to give up his sneaking around with Aphrodite to marry his father's daughter. He offered a spear and a cuirass, armor that covers the torso. What girl wouldn't love that? Even Hephaestus, the god of the forges, wanted to divorce his wife, Aphrodite - who was caught fooling around with his brother Ares, and threw his hat into the ring for the hand of Persephone. He offered a necklace that he had made at his forges.

Persephone's Suitors
Persephone's Suitors
Astrological Map
Astrological Map | Source

Demeter was distraught over the fact that so many suitors were after her young daughter. Of all those who applied, she was especially worried about her innocent girl ending up with the crippled Hephaestus, so she went to see the astrologer, Astraeus, who was the son of Titans Krios and Eurybia. After hearing of Persephone's predicament, he considered all things regarding the time of her birth and the alignment of the planets then he told Demeter that she needed to beware that her daughter's groom would steal the girl but not before another would steal her innocence.

Demeter then devised a plan to protect her daughter. She gathered her up in her chariot and fled to Sicily. She found a cave and hid Persephone away to spend her days weaving as Athena had taught her. She left drakons at the entryway to watch over her daughter while Demeter returned to her duties tending the agriculture of the world. Persephone, in the meantime, took to her work without care but was unable to escape the eyes of the one god her mother least feared but should have worried over the most.

Zeus, Persephone's father, blamed Aphrodite for his curse, but he was unable to control growing passion in his heart for his own daughter. He watched her as she worked at her spinning wheel. When she finally took a break to go to a nearby stream to bathe the sweat from her body, Zeus was watching. He watched her undress then splash around in the water. He could not help himself. He took the form of one of the drakons his sister had left to protect their daughter and after putting Persephone to sleep, he had his way with her.

From the union with her own father, Persephone gave birth to a son named Zagreus. The infant boy, born with the horns of the drakon his father/grandfather had assumed during his attack of Persephone, was quickly taken upon his birth to Zeus's throne. He was so powerful that even as a newborn, he was able to send lightning bolts from his tiny fingers.

Infant Dionysus
Infant Dionysus | Source

As with the other children her husband sired outside of their bed, Hera was furious. Not only had her husband Zeus fathered another illegitimate child, this time with his own daughter, but he had the nerve to bring the child and sit him on his throne shoving the baby in her face. Out of spite, she allowed the Titans, having not yet been overthrown, into the throne room to see the baby. There they tricked the little one into trading his lightning bolts for toys. Once he was defenseless, they tore into the baby and sliced him into pieces. When the Titans were gone, Athena collected the heart of tiny Zagreus and took it to her father, Zeus. He took all that remained of his beloved son and churned it into a potion. He then descended to Earth and found his latest love interest, the Theban princess Semele. Upon drinking the potion from her lover, she became pregnant with Dionysus.

Demeter Mourning for Persephone
Demeter Mourning for Persephone | Source

The Rape of Persephone

One part of Astraeus's prediction had come true. Persephone's innocence had been taken by a monster, but Demeter was still afraid that her daughter would be stolen from her. She continued to hide the girl away from the other gods. The goddess tried to watch over her child as best she could, but she had to continue working. One day while Demeter was gone, Persephone was left to play with other maiden goddesses, Athena and Artemis, as well as the nymph daughters of Oceanus. No one expected what was to happen next when Persephone spied the unusually narcissus and wandered from her playmates to collect it for herself.

It was not a simple coincidence that the narcissus flower was there for Persephone to see, as Zeus had placed the delicate flower there at the request of his brother Hades. For it seems that the god of the dead had also been struck by the arrow of Eros and was in love with the fair Persephone. Knowing that he had to marry his Persephone off in order to appease his own wife Hera, Zeus decided that making her a queen, albeit of the Underworld, was the greatest honor he could provide for her. He agreed to her marriage to Hades, but they both knew that their sister Demeter would object. It was decided between the brothers that Hades would abduct the girl and return her to his realm.

Once Persephone was separated from the other girls, Hades split the earth in two and drove his chariot, pulled by his immortal horses of death, into the upper world. He quickly grabbed Persephone before either Athena or Artemis could move to protect her. Persephone cried out for help, her father Zeus, being involved in the abduction, did nothing now to protect her. The young goddess Hecate heard the screaming and appeared from her cave to witness Hades riding off with the girl as did Helios, the Titan of the sun who had not yet retired his post to the younger Apollo. Persephone did not stop her cries for help as long as the sun light was upon her face, and just before her capturer descended with her to the Underworld, her mother heard her cries.

Demeter quickly returned to the fields where she left her daughter, but Persephone was gone. The goddess cried out in fury that the second part of the prophecy had now come true and she cried out to Zeus for help in finding her daughter. Zeus, of course, ignored her cries as he was involved in the abduction. For nine days, Demeter would search for her daughter, but during that time, much would happen to the grieving mother.

During this time period, King Tantalus, a demigod son of Zeus ruling in Anatolia, threw a dinner party for the Olympians where he served his infant son Pelops as the main course. Perhaps Demeter should have begged out of the dinner, as in her state of depression, she was the only one of the gods who ate from the meal in the process eating the left shoulder of the boy. Hephaestus replaced the missing body part when Zeus commanded that the boy be resurrected. It is clear, however, that in her right mind, Demeter never would have eaten the boy.

The Rape of Persephone by Bernini
The Rape of Persephone by Bernini

After the events of the dinner party, the goddess returned to the search for her daughter. This time she was not searching alone. Having caught wind of the situation during the dinner party he also attended, Poseidon started following his sister. Demeter may have given in to her brother Zeus's passions, but she did not have time to waste on Poseidon. She found a field of mares grazing in Arcadia and assumed their form to hide from her brother. Poseidon being the god of horses, however, recognized the disguise and took the form of a stallion. It was not long before he got what he was after, Demeter. As a result of their union, the goddess of the harvest became pregnant with twins. When the time came for her to deliver them, she gave birth to a daughter whose name was unknown for a very long time except to the followers of Demeter's cult. We have since learned her name was Despoina. Her son with Poseidon assumed the form his parents had taken when he was conceived and was born the immortal horse Arion.

Source

During her searching, Demeter came upon a cottage. She realized that she had had nothing to drink in a long time, so she knocked on the door and asked for water. The old woman who came to the door brought her beer instead. Demeter began to drink. While she was drinking, a young boy, Ascalabus, came to the door and started laughing at the woman who was gulping down the drink. He called her greedy for the way she was consuming the entire thing so quickly. Demeter quickly became enraged and threw the remaining drink in the boy's face, barley and all. The boy instantly stopped laughing when his face started blotching and his arms started to transform. The goddess turned him into a lizard. The old woman who had given Demeter the drink reached for the boy with tears in her eyes, but he ran into a nearby hole.

Helios and the Sun Chariot
Helios and the Sun Chariot | Source

Finally after nine days of pain and searching, young Hecate, the daughter of Asteria and Perses, went to Demeter to tell her all that she had seen. She told the goddess of hearing Persephone's screams and of running to see what was the matter. She admitted that she did not see who took the young girl, but she thought there might be someone else who did. Hecate then lead Demeter to Helios, the Titan of the sun.

Helios, upon hearing the sad tale of Demeter, told her that since he is the sun, he sees everything and he had seen what had happened to Persephone. What he told her, however, not only shocked the goddess but filled her with more anger than she had ever felt. Hades had taken her daughter, and Zeus had helped him.

Demeter Confronts Zeus in Persephone's Abduction
Demeter Confronts Zeus in Persephone's Abduction | Source

Demeter left her meeting with Helios and Hecate and went straight to Zeus where she scolded him. She demanded that he bring their daughter back but Zeus refused. He had given Hades permission and to marry Persephone, and he was not going back on it.

Demeter now had no choice. Zeus was not going to help her get her daughter back and she could not go to the Underworld and retrieve her. All she had left was her sorrow. She fled to Eleusis and hid herself in a cave then she travelled from town to town all while disguising herself as an old woman. One afternoon, she was sitting near a well in Eleusis when four girls came to draw water for their mother. Not recognizing the goddess they asked of her wellbeing. The girls were the daughters of a man named Keleos and his daughters were Kallidike, Kleisidike, Demo and Kallithoe, and Demeter decided to tell them who she was and why she was there only she didn't tell them the truth.

She told the girls that she had been taken by pirates who had intended to sell her into slavery, but she managed to escape. Now she was here in Eleusis looking for someone that would take her into their home where she could clean house or nurse young children. Kallidike then told her that there were many honorable families in their town and any of them would take the old woman in, but if she would stay where she was, they would go ask their own father to accept the old woman into their home, as their mother had given birth to an only son late in life and could use the help of a nursemaid. Demeter agreed to wait and soon the girls returned to bring the old woman to their mother, Metaneira.

When the old woman entered the house, Metaneira seemed to realize that there was something special about her. She quickly rose and offered the stranger her seat, but Demeter refused to take it. When another seat was brought forth, the old woman then took a seat and sat in silence. She was offered wine, but refused to drink it asking only for water mixed with meal and mint. Metaneira then told the old woman that she was too noble to work for her. Demeter insisted that Meteneira was the noble one and she would be honored to help her raise her son. Demeter then took the infant into her arms and he grew content to stay there.

Triptolemus with Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries
Triptolemus with Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries | Source

Demeter knew she could do so much more than just help raise the boy, Demophoon. She had the power to make him immortal and that is what she set out to do. She cared for him in a normal fashion when anyone else was around, but in secret, she covered the boy in ambrosia. At night, she placed Demophoon in the fire to burn away his earthly restraints. This was the same process that would later be used by Thetis to try to save her son Achilles from the possibility of death. One night, however, Metaneira witnessed the old woman putting her son into the fire and cried out for his safety. Demeter was upset at being caught and upset that she would not be allowed to continue and provide immortality to the boy she had grown close to. Out of anger, Demeter threw the boy to the ground. She then scolded the family telling them they had no idea what they have or do not have in life. She could have given their son and brother immortality but now he is doomed to die. She continued by telling them that if they built a temple to her and made sacrifice, she would teach them her secrets and favor them with her blessings. At this, Demeter removed her disguise and revealed that she was in fact the goddess of the harvest. As the girls now rushed to their brother who was still lying on the floor, they found that no one could comfort him. He only wanted to be held by Demeter.

The girls soon told their father Keleos all that the goddess had said. He quickly gathered the men of the town including Triptolemos, a young boy of the town who in sickness was nursed by the breast of the goddess and instantly became a healthy grown man, and built the temple and altar to Demeter. Every man gave sacrifice to the goddess and she made the sight the home of her permanent cult. Triptolemus was then taught by the goddess and became the first priest of her temple at Eleusis.

Zeus Commanding Iris
Zeus Commanding Iris | Source

For a year, Demeter kept herself hidden away in Eleusis and all the while, no plants were growing. The mortals were not able to eat or make sacrifice to the other gods. Everyone, mortal and god alike were praying to Zeus to relieve their suffering, to make Demeter favor the harvest once again. Zeus finally knew he must do something, so he sent Iris, goddess of the rainbow and messenger, to find Demeter and tell her to see him on Olympus. Iris quickly followed Zeus's orders and sped down to Eleusis. She gave Demeter the message and begged her to obey the king of the gods, but Demeter refused.

Zeus then told the gods to go to his sister in Eleusis themselves to talk her into allowing the seeds to grow once again. Each of them went to Demeter and begged her to return to work. The people were starving. One by one she refused telling them she would not return to Olympus until she had her daughter Persephone back. The gods then returned to Lord Zeus and pleaded with him to return Persephone to her mother. The king of the gods knew he had no choice, he sent Hermes to the Underworld to bring his daughter home.

Hades and Persephone - King and Queen of the Underworld
Hades and Persephone - King and Queen of the Underworld | Source
Hades Abducts Persephone
Hades Abducts Persephone | Source

Meanwhile, down in the Underworld, Hades had taken his time with Persephone and offered her all the riches the ground had to offer if she would only stay and love him. In time, the girl did come to love her husband, though she did miss her mother and the flowers of the world above. During her time with Hades, she bore him a daughter, Melinoe goddess of nightmares. The baby girl was born with one side black in honor of her father Hades and one side white for the brightness of her mother Persephone. Their time together was not complete bliss however.

Before falling in love with Persephone, Hades had kept another lover in the Underworld. Her name was Mint, and when Hades cast her from his bed back into the world above, she was unhappy to have lost her place. She told anyone who would listen that Hades would be back for her. He would grow tired of the silly girl and send her back to her mother because she, Mint, was more beautiful and noble than Persephone. When word of the woman's comments reached Demeter, the goddess found her and stomped her to death creating the plant that bears her name today. Apparently this had happened before the goddess went to Eleusis as she asked for mint in her drink.

What happened next, however, differs depending on who is telling the tale. Some say that Hades tricked Persephone when he learned that Hermes was being sent to retrieve the girl. Other say that Persephone, looking for a way to stay with her husband took matters into her own hands. Yet others say it was a simple accident. Whatever the case, Persephone picked a pomegranate form the garden her loving husband had provided for her just outside of their palace. She had eaten no food from the Underworld in her time there, but on this day, she ate six seeds from the fruit. When Hermes arrived to return his father's daughter to her mother Demeter, the truth came out about what Persephone had done. Zeus now had a dilemma, as it was common knowledge that anyone who consumed food from the Underworld was doomed to remain there for all eternity, but if he did not return Persephone, Demeter would starve the world. Zeus finally came up with an answer. He ordered that since Persephone had eaten six seeds, she would spend six months of each year with her husband in the Underworld and the other six with her mother in the world above. Hades was not happy with this solution nor was Demeter, but each accepted the terms as the only way to make peace between the gods.

Hermes Returns Persephone to Demeter
Hermes Returns Persephone to Demeter | Source

Hermes then brought Persephone back to the world above and to Demeter. The goddess was so happy that she again allowed the plants to grow and bear fruit, as it always does during the six months the mother and daughter are together. During the six months each year that Persephone spends with her husband, the earth lies barren. Persephone then became the goddess of springtime as her return each year starts the growing season.

Demeter and Persephone returned to Eleusis where they joined Despoina in building the cult of followers they would maintain for centuries to come.

Orpheus Plays for Hades and Persephone for Eurydice's Return
Orpheus Plays for Hades and Persephone for Eurydice's Return | Source
Orpheus Loses Eurydice Again
Orpheus Loses Eurydice Again | Source

Orpheus and Eurydice

Each year Persephone returned to her husband in the Underworld and resumed her role as queen, and there are many times where she made an impact on the decisions that would be made with regard to the dead.

One such story involves the fate of Orpheus who lost the love of his live to snake bite. It was a terrible fate that caused the death of Eurydice. She and Orpheus were newlyweds and very much in love, but one day she was chased by a satyr and fell into a pit of vipers. Before he husband could find her, she had gone to meet the ferryman, Charon.

Orpheus made the only choice he could, he went to the Underworld and begged for her return. Now for most people, this would be a waste of time, but Orpheus had a special talent for as the son of Calliope, the muse of music, he was personally taught to play the lyre by Apollo, and he was exceptionally good. When he reached the Underworld, he lulled Cerberus to sleep with his music then found the king and queen to beg for their understanding. Once he informed them that it had to be a terrible mistake for his wife to die and leave him, Hades was unmoved. After all, everyone who loses a loved one claims the same thing, but as he played, both Hades and Persephone were moved to tears by the beauty of his playing. He began to sing and the spirits of the dead began to gather around. One of these was his own dear wife, Eurydice. Persephone was so touched by the music and the love between the two of them, she pleaded with her husband to let the two of them be together just as they were. Uncharacteristically, Hades agreed but under one condition. Orpheus was to leave the Underworld just as he had entered and trust the Eurydice was following close behind him. If he started to doubt that Hades was letting her leave and turned around to look, Eurydice would be returned to the Underworld forever.

Orpheus agreed and set off back the way he came, but, of course, the farther he traveled to the world above, the more he worried that his wife was not behind him. Just before he reached the world above, he turned to make certain. She was there, but just as his eyes gazed upon her, she slipped back into the Underworld just as Hades had warned. He begged to return once more to speak with Persephone, but Charon refused to let him cross. He sat down on the bank of the River Styx for seven days and cried.

Psyche Visits Persephone in the Underworld
Psyche Visits Persephone in the Underworld | Source

Psyche

Another instance of Persephone in her role of queen involved the young Psyche who had been sent by her mother-in-law Aphrodite to obtain some beauty cream from the Queen of the Dead. Psyche was being punished for loving Eros but disobeying him by looking upon his face and burning him in the process. Persephone took the box Aphrodite had sent and had something placed inside, but when curiosity got the better of the girl, she found that it included the sleep of death. Not to worry, Eros's love revived the girl and Zeus allowed them to be married a second time even turning Psyche into a goddess.

Theseus and Pirithous Abduct Helen
Theseus and Pirithous Abduct Helen | Source

Theseus and Peirithous

Another story of Queen Persephone involved two kings, one from Lapiths in Thessaly and the other Athens in Attica. The two men, Pirithous and Theseus, set out to obtain daughters of Zeus for their wives. Theseus wanted Helen of Sparta for his queen in Athens and Pirithous wanted Persephone to share his throne in Lapiths.

It was not very difficult to kidnap a thirteen-year-old Helen, after all, Sparta was just another city in Greece. The difficult part would be taking Persephone. They hid Helen with Theseus's mother and set out for the Underworld to get Persephone. They actually made it all the way to the Underworld but sat down to rest after such a journey. When it was time to continue, however, they were not able to stand. When they noticed the Furies flying overhead, they knew they had been caught. Hades had both of them chained to a rock by the River Lethe.

Adonis

Smyrna was the daughter Theias, the Assyrian king, and as many beautiful women were known to do, she ran afoul of Aphrodite. In order to punish her, Aphrodite caused that she would fall in love with her own father. Although it was apparently fine for Zeus to mate with his own daughter Persephone, the same was not the case for a mortal, even a king. After Smyrna snuck into her father's bedroom and laid with him, he learned of her depravity and was devastated. After giving birth to a boy, Smyrna was turned into a myrtle tree while her father killed himself for what he had done despite being unaware at the time. The baby, Adonis, was now abandoned, but he was so beautiful that Aphrodite fell desperately in love with him.

She feared what might happen to the boy because of the his parents, so the goddess of love took the boy to Persephone and begged her to raise him in the Underworld. Persephone agreed, but as the boy grew, she was also taken by his beauty. When Aphrodite returned some time later to collect the boy, Persephone refused to give him up to her rival. The goddesses got into a terrible disagreement that Zeus himself had to moderate. He thought back to how he had settled the dispute between his brother and sister over Persephone then decided that Adonis would spend four months of the year with Persephone, four month with Aphrodite, and since he was not a slave, he would have four months on his own to spend however he chose. Eventually, Adonis fell in love with Aphrodite and decided to attach his four months to hers allowing them to spend eight months of the year together.

What happened to Adonis you ask? He was killed by a wild boar. Why this happened is highly disputed, but when you consider that he was having an affair with Aphrodite and the boar is Ares's sacred animal, it doesn't take much to put two and two together. The version that makes the boar Ares himself killing his rival for the love of Aphrodite makes the most sense.

Aphrodite Grieving the Death of Adonis
Aphrodite Grieving the Death of Adonis
Heracles Controlling Cerberus
Heracles Controlling Cerberus | Source

Heracles

Heracles's twelfth labor took him to the Underworld to retrieve the guard dog Cerberus. When he entered Hades's palace, Persephone welcomed him with open arms. As they were both the children of Zeus, she called him brother. Some say she hugged him so hard that she broke his ribs, which is interesting considering this is Heracles we are talking about. She was ready to give him anything he asked for. When he asked to take Cerberus to the above world, Persephone agreed but knew he was her husband's dog and needed his permission as well. She sweet-talked Hades into helping her brother. He told Heracles that if he could overpower and control the dog with his barehands, he could take him. Persephone also agreed to let her brother return Theseus to the above world.

Heracles managed to pull Theseus free from the rock, though he could not free Pirithous who had actually sought to kidnap Persephone. Despite Hades's doubts that it could be done, the son of Zeus also overpowered Cerberus and took both the dog and the king of Athens to the world above. He quickly returned Cerberus, however, after he proved his point that he could actually get the dog.

Thanatos - God of Death
Thanatos - God of Death | Source
Sisyphus
Sisyphus | Source

Sisyphus

One additional story that involved Queen Persephone shows that she caoud be fooled, but some say it was actually her husband Hades that was taken by Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra and he was not the nicest of people. In fact, he loved to kill people. Eventually Zeus had had enough and ordered Thanatos, god of death, to chain the king in Tartarus. Thanatos is not easily deceived, but Sisyphus was extremely crafty and devious. He pretended to be curious as to how the chains worked. When Thanatos showed him, he turned the tables on the god and chained Thanatos instead. With the god of death chained, mortals could no longer die and Sisyphus simply walked back to Ephyra to resume his life. Ares eventually released Thanatos because he was getting tired of driving men to war that no one could win because no one was dying.

Now that death was possible again, Hades ordered Sisyphus returned to the Underworld, but before he died, Sisyphus instructed his wife to toss his body into the main concourse of the city and leave him lie there. This gave Thanatos a complaint once he arrived at Hades's doorstep. What he did next is the point of contention. Some, probably Persephone, say that Sisyphus pleaded with Hades to allow him to return to his kingdom just long enough to scold his wife for not providing him with a proper burial. Others, probably Hades, say that Sisyphus complained to Persephone that his dying a second time was a mistake and he had to be returned. Regardless of which of the two of them allowed him to leave, he got away a second time, but it would not last. Hermes was sent to retrieve the trickster for a third time, and since it was the god of tricks bringing him to the Underworld this time, there would be no getting away. Sisyphus as sentenced to push a boulder up a hill every day only to have it roll back down for him to have to start over on the endless task.

Conclusion

Queen Persephone, from her birth as a young goddess, lived a life of privilege, but she was also very controlled by her parents. Eventually she found a loving husband who allowed her to be a part of his world and share his power, though she did not let her rule over death deter from her warm and friendly disposition. Somehow, she blended death and springtime in a well balanced fashion and captured the hearts of ancient Greeks along the way.

Persephone's Husband

If you were Persephone's parents, which god would you select for her husband?

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