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Persephone: Goddess of Greek Mythology

Updated on March 23, 2017
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Today the most famous gods and goddesses of Greek mythology are mostly male deities; the likes of Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, and Apollo. As a result, the Greek pantheon is often considered a male dominated one. Though there were plenty of important and powerful female deities in the pantheon, with one such goddess being Persephone.

Prosperina (1870)  Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) PD-art-100
Prosperina (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) PD-art-100 | Source

Birth of the Goddess

Persephone was born as a result of the coupling of Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods, and Zeus’ sister, Demeter, another of the deities of Mount Olympus. This exalted parentage did not allow Persephone to be classed as one of the Twelve Olympians, although many other children of Zeus did receive this accolade.

Persephone grew up to be a beautiful goddess though, and as such she was often referred to as Kore, the Maiden. Initially, Persephone’s role in the ancient world was one where she worked with nature, planting and ensuring good growth for the flowers and plants.

The Abduction of Persephone

The beauty of Persephone was such that she soon was the centre of attention for male Olympian gods, and Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her. Persephone rejected all advances, and Demeter ensured that her daughter’s wishes were respected. Demeter’s brother, Hades, though, was not so easily deterred.

One day, Persephone was undertaking her daily work of picking flowers and tending plants with her companion nymphs, when Hades left his underworld domain and abducted the goddess whilst she was separated from her companions.

Demeter was devastated when it became obvious that her daughter was missing, and she turned the nymphs into Sirens for failing to protect Persephone. The now winged nymphs were then tasked with looking for the missing goddess.

Demeter herself wandered the earth looking for Persephone but to no avail. As Demeter searched, so she neglected her own role, and so the world’s crops failed to grow as the land became infertile.

Eventually, Helios, the sun god, told Demeter what had happened to her daughter, for Helios observed everything that happened on the earth’s surface. Knowing that Persephone had been abducted by Hades though helped Demeter little, for in the realm of Hades, Demeter’s powers would be insignificant.

The world continued to suffer, and the people cried out because of starvation, Zeus was faced with the possibility that there would be no one left to offer up sacrifices to the gods; and so the supreme god intervened. Zeus commanded Hermes to go to the Underworld to ask Hades for the release of Persephone.

The Rape of Persephone (1570) Alessandro Allori (1535–1607)  PD-art-100
The Rape of Persephone (1570) Alessandro Allori (1535–1607) PD-art-100 | Source

Persephone Becomes Hades’ Wife

Hades met with Hermes, and although all powerful in his own domain, was not about to go against a command from his brother, but Hades had no wish to lose the goddess he intended to make his bride.

Hades came up with a plan, and so he tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. This consumption of food in the underworld acted as a binding contract, and from that day forth, Persephone was obliged to spend four months out of every year in the Palace of Hades, as the god’s wife.

For the remaining eight months of the year, Persephone is reunited with Demeter, and this division of time gives forth to the seasons. When Demeter is separated from her daughter the goddess mourns, and so winter encompasses the earth, and nothing grows. Spring though comes when Persephone leaves the Underworld, and the earth flourishes.

The Return of Persephone (1891) Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) PD-art-100
The Return of Persephone (1891) Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) PD-art-100 | Source

Role of Persephone

Persephone was commonly referred to as “Goddess of the Underworld” and “Queen of the Underworld”, her role in ancient Greece though was much more than simply wife of Hades. Persephone was the Olympian goddess of agriculture, the harvest and the seasons, for it was her emergence from the Underworld that allowed crops to grow once again.

It is easy today to underestimate the importance of agriculture and a good harvest, and the availability of food is often taken for granted. In Ancient Greece though, a bountiful harvest could be the difference between life and death. As such, Persephone was one of the most revered goddesses in Ancient Greece, with sanctuaries dedicated to the goddess found across the Mediterranean region.

Stories of Persephone

Despite spending only a third of a year in the Underworld, the stories in which Persephone appears predominantly take place in Hades’ realm. The Queen of the Underworld is encountered by many Greek heroes.

It is Persephone who allows Eurydice to follow Orpheus from the Underworld, although the hero’s mistake eventually results in the eternal loss of his beloved. It is also often said that it was Persephone, rather than Hades, who agreed that Heracles could take Cerberus as part of his Labours.

Arguably the most famous tale of Persephone though is one in which the goddess never appears. A story is told of how Theseus and Pirithous descended to the Underworld in order that Pirithous could wed Persephone; both heroes wishing to wed daughters of Zeus. Hades seemingly welcomed the pair, but when the pair were seated, their chairs magically bound them fast. Their imprisoned the pair remained until Heracles came to the Underworld; suffice to say Persephone remained married to Hades.

Proserpina-Statue von Dominikus Auliczek (1778) im Schlosspark Nymphenburg, München Rufus46 This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Proserpina-Statue von Dominikus Auliczek (1778) im Schlosspark Nymphenburg, München Rufus46 This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license | Source

Offspring of Persephone

Persephone was not a goddess widely known for her offspring, and whilst it was common to quote Zagreus, an early incarnation of Dionysus, as a son, less commonly Persephone was also mentioned as mother of Melinoe and the Furies. Persephone was also thought of as a lover of Adonis and Hermes, although no offspring were produced of such relationships.

Conversely, Persephone could also be a jealous wife, and when Hades pursued the nymph Minthe, Persephone exacted revenge by turning Minthe into the sweet smelling Menthe group of plants.

An Overlooked Goddess

The fact that Persephone appears in relatively few mythological stories has meant that the importance of the goddess is overlooked today. In Ancient Greece though, Persephone’s role in conjunction with the seasons and the growth of crops meant that she was an extremely important deity, and one who was widely revered

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