“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!” —
His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air—
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”
– The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope
Most of us are familiar with this sad version of Persephone’s story, where she winds up as the Queen of the Under World. Against her will she was forced to succumb to Hades sexual advances and ending up married to the old bastard. Her mother, Demeter, was so upset about losing her beloved daughter to the Under World that the entire world went fallow. Zeus convinced Hades to let Persephone return to the Middle World. Hades, being the sneaky bugger that he was, tricked Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds before she started her return to the earth which meant that she would be eternally obligated to return to the Under World for half the year. On this day of the Spring Equinox that she is so strongly associated with, I’m asking you to consider two different versions of the tale and reflect upon the complexities of women’s choices.
The Traditional Story of Persephone
This is a tale of how the seasons came about, but it’s so very much more than this. It’s a story about a woman being confined in a hellish relationship, being a victim of rape and a mother’s love. Then there’s the intervention by Hekate and her frequent companion, Hermes who tends to get most of the credit for saving Persephone (like in the above quote). All the ingredients for a Netflix series.
“Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.”
– The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope
What if This Story was Fake News?
What if this story was fake news? That the texts we have available to us were written from their perspective as white guys of status living in the ancient world? That the story was manufactured to illustrate the fate of every woman? We get the message: don’t mess with men, just accept things as they are and make the best of it. Also, “you had your chance but you ate the damn fruit, so it’s your fault you’re stuck in hell.” Does this sound familiar?
The story of Persephone as victim has been very popular with the white male elite crowd throughout history. Indeed, it is the version of events that remains most popular today. While this isn’t a blog about all the other stories about Persephone, you need to know that there is so much more to her than being enslaved by Hades.
My first encounter with a re-imagined Persephone came from Lost Goddesses of Ancient Greece where she is a self-designated therapist for the poor souls stuck in the Under World. You can read more about this version here. While I like this story quite a bit, I’m afraid that it also reflects the gender stereotypes of the time in which it was written. Women as caregivers was a type of female empowerment for sure, but Persephone was still stuck in a traditional role.
Persephone has been re-imagined as the willing mistress of Hades, too. In this version, she tells her mother “mama, he’s crazy…crazy over me:”
“the tale you and Zeus have cooked up
about the pomegranate seeds
I want withdrawn at once
do you expect people to believe you?
I was not on drugs
I’m mad on him
call me a love junkie if you like
but it’s slanderous to say it was eating seeds that hooked me
it’s like this every visit
each time I try to tell you who I really am
you simply won’t stop crying”
Persephone to Demeter by Kate Llewellyn
There are other re-imaginings of Persephone, but the themes of her as counselor-to-the-damned and the willing Queen of Hell are the two most common examples. There are many sides to any one story and what we think actually happened may not be the truth. Or at least the truth that makes the most sense to us. Isn’t that why we turn to these stories? To help us understand ourselves as reflected in the gods?
Persephone and the Complexities of Women’s Choices
To me, the message of the three different interpretations of Persephone’s story highlight the complexities of women’s choices. In the traditional view, when she is finally given a choice, she eats the pomegranate seeds, apparently undermining her own best interests. This is victim-blaming at it’s best. There’s also the assumption that she didn’t want to eat the seeds. Perhaps she fully understood what she was getting into. She might have wanted to stay, either because she liked it there with Hades but was afraid to admit it, she didn’t want to return to Demeter or she couldn’t see any other way. We often harshly judge women who remain in toxic relationships, but who are we to say what makes them stay? Traditionally, women have had little power to get out of these situations. Even today, economic and familial obligations make it a complex decision to leave.
Persephone and Me
I’ve had a special relationship with Persephone since I discovered her as an adolescent. I identify with Persephone. All three versions of Persephone’s story have applied to me. The traditional one where I was the unwitting victim. Although I, perhaps, didn’t make the wisest of choices, I can’t be blamed for what happened. The caregiver who rushes into hell to save the damned, only to end stuck there herself. And the girl who fell for a bad boy. In all of these relationships, the choices I made were complex. Some of them definitely weren’t in my own best interest, but they made complete sense to me at the time. And I’m certain that others stood in judgment based on the limited information they had as outsiders. Who really knows what’s going on in another’s heart?
We all have our complex reasons for doing things, especially in matters of the heart. Women, in particular, are often judged for making choices that seem counterproductive. There are complex reasons why women stay in a toxic relationships and why they put up with abuse. Perhaps in these days of the “Time’s Up” movement we are witnessing another re-imagining of Persephone. This time as the victor who speaks out regardless of the complex reasons not to do so.