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Persephone: Queen of the Underworld

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Persephone is one of the most compelling characters in Greek mythology.

Persephone is one of the most compelling characters in Greek mythology.

Daughter, Wife and Mother of Gods

This article covers all of the known Greek mythology on Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and the wife of Hades, god and king of the underworld. The sections of this article are as follows.

Table of Contents

  1. Who Is Persephone in Greek Mythology?
  2. Top 10 Facts About Persephone
  3. Who Were Persephone's Parents?
  4. Who Was Persephone Married to?
  5. The Rape of Persephone
  6. What Did Hades Do to Persephone?
  7. Demeter's Search for Persephone?
  8. Did Persephone Love Hades?
  9. What Was Persephone's Role in the Story of Orpheus and Eurydice?
  10. Why Did Psyche Visit Persephone in the Underworld?
  11. What Was Persephone's Role in the Story of Theseus and Pirithous?
  12. What Was Persephone's Role in the Story of Adonis?
  13. What Was Persephone's Role in the Story of Heracles?
  14. What Was Persephone's Role in the Story of Sisyphus?
  15. What Was Persephone the God of?
  16. Who Is Persephone's Daughter?
  17. Who Is Persephone's Son?
  18. What Is the Meaning of the Name Persephone?
  19. Was Persephone Raped by Apollo?
  20. Conclusion

Who Is Persephone in Greek Mythology?

In Greek mythology, Persephone ("Proserpina," in Latin) is the daughter of Zeus, the god of gods, and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. As the wife of Hades, king of the underworld, Persephone is considered a Greek goddess and is often coined the queen of the underworld.

In the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," the story is told of Persephone's abduction by Hades. While picking flowers in the Vale of Nysa, she was seized by Hades and dragged down to the underworld. Upon learning of her daughter's abduction, Demeter became distraught and neglected her role as the goddess of agriculture, and widespread famine ensued.

Seeing the need to take action, Zeus tried to negotiate his daughter's return, but because Persephone had eaten the seeds of a pomegranate from the underworld, she could not be completely freed. For the rest of her life, she would be required to spend half of every year in the underworld. Thereafter, Persephone's return to the underworld accounted for the barren appearance of the Greek fields during mid-summer, when, after harvest, the crops dried up until the return of the autumnal rains.

Top 10 Facts About Persephone

  1. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter
  2. Persephone is the wife of Hades.
  3. Persephone was raped by her father, Zeus, twice, and bore two kids by him.
  4. The name Persephone is thought to mean "destroy" and "murder."
  5. Persephone is the goddess of the spring season.
  6. Persephone was abducted by Hades while picking flowers.
  7. Persephone spends half of the year in the underworld and half of the year in the human world.
  8. Because Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds from the underworld, she is required to spend six months there.
  9. Persephone came to love her husband Hades.
  10. Persephone's mother, Demeter, is the goddess of agriculture.

Who Were Persephone's Parents?

Little is known of Persephone from the time of her birth until her fourteenth year. We know that her mother was Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and her father was Zeus, god of 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 was conceived shortly after.

Who Was Persephone Married to?

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 beautiful Persephone. All of the male gods then lined up for their chance of taking the hand of Demeter's daughter.

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 forge.

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 the Titans Krios and Eurybia.

After hearing of Persephone's predicament, Astraeus considered Persephone's time of birth and the alignment of the planets. After his deliberation, 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. She spent her days there weaving as Athena had taught her. Demeter left drakons at the entryway to watch over her daughter while she returned to her duties tending the agriculture of the world. Persephone, in the meantime, took to her work without care. Little did she know that she was unable to escape the lustful eyes of the one god her mother feared the least.

The Rape of Persephone

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

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

As with the other children her husband sired outside of their bed, Hera, Zeus's wife, was furious. Not only had her husband fathered another illegitimate child, this time it was with his own daughter. Not only that, but he had the nerve to bring the child home and sit him on his throne.

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 the baby up and sliced him to 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.

Hades abducts Persephone, who was picking flowers in a field.

Hades abducts Persephone, who was picking flowers in a field.

What Did Hades Do to 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 the other maiden goddesses Athena and Artemis, as well as the nymph daughters of Oceanus. No one expected what would happen next.

Persephone spied the rare narcissus flower and wandered from her playmates to collect it for herself. It was not a mere 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.

The Abduction of Persephone

Hades, the god of the underworld, had also been struck by the arrow of Eros and was in love with the fair Persephone. Knowing he had to marry his Persephone off in order to appease his wife Hera, Zeus decided that making her a queen, albeit a queen 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 bring 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, but her father Zeus, being involved in the abduction, did nothing to protect her. The young goddess Hecate heard the screaming and appeared from her cave to witness Hades riding off with the girl. Helios, the Titan of the sun who had not yet retired his post to the younger Apollo, had also witnessed the abduction. Persephone did not stop her cries for help as long as the sunlight 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. She cried out to Zeus to help her find her daughter, but Zeus ignored her cries since 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, the demigod son of Zeus who ruled 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, for in her state of depression, she was the only one who ate, 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 would never have eaten the boy.

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, Poseidon started following his sister Demeter.

She 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. As a result of this nonconsensual 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 long time except to the followers of Demeter's cult. We have since learned her name was Despoina. Her son assumed the form his parents had taken when he was conceived and was born as the immortal horse Arion.

Demeter's Search for Persephone

During her search, Demeter came upon a cottage. She realized that she had had nothing to drink during her journey, so she knocked on the door of the cottage 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 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.

Finally, after nine days of pain and searching, young Hecate, the daughter of Asteria and Perseus, went to Demeter to tell her all that she had seen. She told Demeter that she had heard Persephone's screams, but admitted that she did not see who took the young girl. 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 all, including 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 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 to marry Persephone, and he was not going back on it.

Demeter Becomes a Nurse

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 in a cave. Then, she travelled from town to town 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 about her well-being. The girls were the daughters of a man named Keleos, and his daughters were Kallidike, Kleisidike, Demo, and Kallithoe. Demeter decided to tell them who she was and why she was there, but 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 be a house cleaner or a nurse. Kallidike told her that there were many honorable families in town, and any of them would take the old woman in. If she would stay where she was, they would go ask their father to accept the old woman into their home, as their mother had recently given birth to a son 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 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 took a seat and sat in silence. She was offered wine, but refused to drink it and asked 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 that 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.

Demeter knew she could do much more than just help raise the boy, whose name was 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 people were 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. She would not be allowed to continue her duties or provide immortality to the boy she had grown so 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 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 rushed to their brother who was 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. They built a 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.

For a year, Demeter kept herself hidden away in Eleusis. All the while, no plants were growing around the world. The mortals were not able to eat or make sacrifices to the other gods. Everyone, mortal and god alike, was praying to Zeus to relieve their suffering, to make Demeter favor the harvest once again. Zeus finally knew he had to do something, so he sent Iris, goddess of the rainbow and a messenger, to find Demeter and arrange a meeting with him on Mt. Olympus. Iris followed Zeus's orders and sped down to Eleusis. She gave Demeter the message and begged her to obey the god 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 without her. One by one she refused, telling them she would not return to Olympus until she had her daughter Persephone. The gods then returned to 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.

King and Queen of the Underworld Hades and Persephone sitting on their thrones.

King and Queen of the Underworld Hades and Persephone sitting on their thrones.

Did Persephone Love Hades?

Meanwhile, in the underworld, Hades had offered Persephone all the riches he 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 ghosts and nightmares (although, according to Greek mythology, Melinoe is in fact Zeus's daughter, as he was disguised as Hades during the time of conception). The baby girl was born with one side of her body colored black in honor of her father, and one side of her body colored white in honor of her mother. 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 nobler 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 Demeter went to Eleusis, as she asked for mint in her drink.

The Eating of the Pomegranate Seeds

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. Others say that Persephone, looking for a way to stay with her husband, took matters into her own hands. Still, others say it was a simple accident.

Whatever the case, Persephone picked a pomegranate from the garden her loving husband had planted 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. 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.

The Return of Persephone

Hermes then brought Persephone back to the world above. Demeter was so happy when her daughter was returned to her that she allowed the plants to grow and bear fruit. The plants continued to grow during the six months the mother and daughter were 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 well as the queen of the underworld, since her return each year marked the start of 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.

Hermes returns Persephone to her mother, Demeter.

Hermes returns Persephone to her mother, Demeter.

What Was Persephone's Role in the Story of Orpheus and Eurydice?

Each year, Persephone returned to her husband in the underworld and resumed her role as queen, and there are many times when she made an impact on decisions regarding the dead. One such story involves the fate of Orpheus, who lost the love of his life, Eurydice, to a snake bite.