In my quest to better understand Persephone, I have found myself pausing at this particular point. Why is it that Hades chose Persephone—or Kore—to be his wife? It was not merely her maidenhood, her sexual innocence; and nor was it her gentle, sunlit nature. To boil it down to her as the ‘essence of spring’ does an injustice to this goddess – for she is the embodiment of change, of all of the seasons, of the natural order. But as Kore, she was not such things. She was just Demeter’s daughter, just the maiden accompanied by nymphs. And yet Hades saw something in her, this girl—or rather, this pretty puppet, a flower not yet opened—and he fell in love with her. The heart of one such as Hades was warmed by her and, inflamed by Eros’ eager smiles, he stole her away.
I believe that Hades recognised his equal in Persephone. He did not part the earth and incite Demeter into almost killing gods and humans everywhere just so that he could have a pretty little doll sit on his lap. No: he brought her into the Underworld and helped her become his equal. And she, in return, accepted the pomegranate seeds—Hera’s seeds; the seeds of marriage—and they were wed.
One might wonder how, and why, Hades and Persephone are equals. Prior to his abduction of her, they were not: in spirit they were, but in terms of influence they were all but opposites. Persephone was responsible only for spring growth, for the gentle blossoming of flowers; and Hades was the King of the Underworld. Persephone was also living her immortal life in Demeter’s shadow; she was watched constantly by her, and those that vied for her hand were turned away by her mother, not by her. If Hades had not abducted Persephone she, arguably, might never have reached her full potential: she would have likely lived forever in her mother’s shadow, responsible only for the beginning of spring.
With the help of Zeus and Gaia, according to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hades was able to steal away Persephone, unnoticed by all but Helios and Hekate. There is significance in this: Helios, lord of the sun, sees everything that occurs throughout the day; Hekate, queen of necromancy and ghosts, would know of everything that occurs throughout the night. Thus the transition of Kore to Persephone—girl to woman—is echoed not only in Persephone’s annual return from the Underworld and the awakening of the earth, but also in the time in which she was taken: at dusk or dawn, the in-between times.
In art and myth, Persephone is often described as a “young” goddess. She is a youth; stolen from the sunlight before she can achieve her true form, and yet she is not a child. She is at the in-between stage, the ‘dawn’ of womanhood: she is the quintessential woman-child. In abrupt, modern terms, she is a teenager. She does not yet know the delights and sorrows of being a woman; she is not a matron, and she will never be a crone. She is caught at a stage of hormones, a twist of cool logic and sharp emotions – and thus can be seen in how she behaves as Queen of the Underworld.
Persephone’s relationship with Adonis (which I will discuss in more detail further on) is an echo of this transition. After his death, he spends half of the year in the Underworld with her, and half with in the world above with Aphrodite. To coincide with this, Adonis would spend the autumn winter months with Persephone, and the spring and summer months with Aphrodite: thus their relationship echoes the themes of life-death-rebirth that are so common in the Greek mythologies.
When Persephone is stolen from the world, Demeter proves that she is willing to go to any lengths to get her back. She refuses to let the living things taste fruit and feel warmth—both fruit and heat here symbolising life, as food and energy are required for most, if not all, life-forms. (It is also ironic, then, that the only fruit that can be found in the Underworld—the pomegranate—still grew without Demeter’s influence; if she had killed that, too, Persephone might never have become the Queen of the Underworld.) Thus both Demeter and Persephone are here goddesses of winter; of the hard, cruel, cold months where—and this would have been particularly true in antiquity—jagged, icy death reigns and humanity becomes the prey, rather than the predator.
And then, when Persephone returns from the Underworld, she and her mother bless the earth with life – the flowers begin to grow; the fruits shine; the snows recede. Demeter and Persephone, then, are goddesses of the seasons—for Demeter brings about the changes of summer and winter and Persephone rules spring (as Kore, the maiden, goddess of spring growth) and autumn (as Persephone Karpophoros, the bringer of fruit, goddess of the harvest).
As Queen of the Underworld, Persephone is a much more merciful, benevolent ruler than Hades – and such is shown in how she treats the (would-be) heroes that find their way into the Underworld. When Herakles entered the Underworld, he was ‘welcomed like a brother by Persephone’ (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History); and according to Apollodorus in his Bibliotheca, Herakles passed up victory in his wrestling competition with the Underworld god Menoites ‘at the request of Persephone.’ When Psykhe reached Persephone’s palace, she ‘declined the soft cushion and the rich food offered by her hostess,’ (Apuleius, The Golden Ass) and when she reported the trial that Aphrodite had tasked her with, Persephone immediately filled the box of beauty for her. Persephone took favour on Sisyphus and released him from the Underworld; and when Orpheus sang of his love for Eurydice, he ‘persuaded her to assist him in his desires and to allow him to bring up his dead wife from Haides’ (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History).
However, Persephone also proves that she is not a goddess with whom one can trifle with; when Peirithoos plans to kidnap her from the Underworld for his wife, the youth Persephone blossoms into a woman and deals swiftly with him: ‘Peirithoos now decided to seek the hand of Persephone in marriage, and when he asked Theseus to make the journey with him Theseus at first endeavoured to dissuade him and to turn him away from such a deed as being impious; but since Peirithoos firmly insisted upon it Theseus was bound by the oaths to join with him in the deed. And when they had at last made their way below to the regions of Haides, it came to pass that because of the impiety of their act they were both put in chains, and although Theseus was later let go by reason of the favour with which Herakles regarded him, Peirithoos because of the impiety remained in Haides, enduring everlasting punishment; but some writers of myths say that both of them never returned.’ (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History).
In discussing Persephone and her transition—after her abduction at Hades’ hands—from child to woman, it is inevitable that one must discuss who she has ever taken as a lover. Unlike many of the gods, Persephone did not have numerous lovers – only Hades (to whom she gave birth to the Erinyes, according to the Orphic Hymns 29 and 70), Zeus (to whom she birthed Zagreus, according to the Orphic Hymn 29, Hyginus, Diodorus Siculus, Nonnus and Suidas; and Melinoe, according to the Orphic Hymn 71) and Adonis.
Persephone’s infamous love-affair with Adonis produced no children, and, strangely, did not incite the jealousy or wrath of her husband Hades (though Ares, only the paramour of Aphrodite, was envious enough of Adonis to kill him, according to some classical writers). It could be argued that Persephone’s relationship with Adonis is symbolic of the process of rebirth. Before his death, Adonis spent a third of his year with Persephone—I suggest that this third was the very end of autumn, the whole of winter, and the very beginning of spring. As such, Aphrodite would be cold and in mourning in the months when sex and love would, especially in antiquity, have not been at the forefront of the minds of humankind; and his emergence from the Underworld would coincide with Persephone’s own. Thus the relationship of Adonis, Aphrodite and Persephone would symbolise the entire theme of life-death-rebirth: Aphrodite as the ruler of life, Persephone as the ruler of death, and Adonis as the transition between their realms. Adding to this, both Aphrodite and Persephone share the epithet Despoina—the ruling goddess, or the mistress—and this, I think, lends further credence to the idea proposed.
Persephone’s relationship with Zeus was one of the most devastating of unions: the King of Life and the Queen of Death. As such, perhaps Zagreus was doomed from the very offset – born of trickery and lies, for, according to such authors as Nonnus, Zeus took the shape of a drakon (a dragon; a serpent) and ravished Persephone. Zagreus was a colossal explosion of Fate—for Zeus and Persephone both influence it, and have been influenced by it—as well as the primal stirrings of desire. Thus Zagreus—and, in turn, Dionysos—is a god with influence over life, death and fate, for he commands his followers to take their destinies into their own hands and twist them into oblivion.
In answer to the question proposed by the very title of this essay—Why Persephone?—I give this: Hades chose Persephone because she was his perfect opposite: feminity to his masculinity, warmth to his cold and light to his darkness. Between them, Hades and Persephone are, also, the very embodiment of two principles that rule supreme in the psyche of humans – the notion of life after death, and the promise of rebirth. They are fair rulers of the Underworld and just governors of fate; and in their capable hands, I am assured that the flow of life, death and rebirth will continue as long as the Moirai—the Fates—see fit.