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Myth Monday: The Abduction of Persephone (Greek Myth of Spring)

Myth Monday: The Abduction of Persephone (Greek Myth of Spring)

Blaaagggghhh …. I wanted to do something else for Myth Monday, but my sinuses feel like they’re packed with 25 pounds of concrete apiece, so I’m just going to post this real fast (hey, at least I’m posting something!).

After the Titans had been overthrown, Zeus, the youngest son of the tyrant Kronos and his wife Rhea, installed himself as king of the gods. Many would like to think that Zeus was elected to the position by his two brothers and three sisters, that they were grateful to him for freeing them from their father’s stomach, but it didn’t work out that way; you see, Zeus, his eldest brother Hades and older brother Poseidon all wanted to be king of the gods.

By birthright, the throne of the heavens should have gone to Hades, but Poseidon was ready to go to war to win it. It was proposed by Zeus that they draw lots to see who would inherit the heavens, and who would win the seas and who would rule the Underworld—a dismal place none of them wanted. Seeing no harm in it, the elder brothers agreed, but Zeus, having already rigged the outcome, went first and won the throne. Poseidon chose second and won the seas. Hades was stuck with ruling the Underworld.

As Zeus prepared to take the throne, he decided that his sister, Hera, would be his new wife and queen. Zeus made it clear that even though he was married to Hera, he fully intended to sleep with any woman, nymph or goddess that caught his eye. His mother Rhea, shocked by her youngest son’s disregard to the sacred feminine and to marriage, protested and told him he did not have the right to cheat on his wife. This caused Zeus to go berserk. He went on a rampage until his middle sister Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, agreed to sleep with him in order to calm him down. Together they conceived a daughter, a beautiful young goddess named Persephone.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

Persephone was beloved by all the gods and goddesses—she was as sweet and kind as she was lovely. She spent many afternoons in the company of her sea nymph friends, as well as her half-sisters, the goddesses Athena and Artemis. She was the most precious thing in Demeter’s life, so much so that when Apollo the god of music and prophecy and the messenger god Hermes came around to propose marriage, Demeter drove them off and hid Persephone away.

One day as Persephone and her sisters and her nymph attendants were picking flowers in Demeter’s meadow, Persephone noticed an unusual plant at the far edge. She didn’t recognize it, and she knew all the flowers her mother had created. Wondering where it had come from and who had made it, Persephone decided to pick it to show her mother.

As soon as the woody stem snapped, a horrendous rumble filled the air, and the ground shook violently. Persephone was startled but not afraid—her uncle Poseidon was not only the god of the sea but also the god of earthquakes, and when he was angry he often made the ground shake …

The ground in front of Persephone shattered, ripping apart, opening up like a yawning black mouth—and a chariot pulled by two night-black horses lunged out, their driver a tall man in dark armor and a smoky black cloak. Before Persephone had a chance to take a breath, to realize what was happening, the man reached out and grabbed her by the arm, jerking her into the chariot!

The Fate of Persephone by Water Crane 1877

Terrified, Persephone screamed and fought, striking at the stranger’s arms and chest, kicking at his body. The armored man said nothing, only spinning his horses around, back to the hole. As he turned, Persephone glimpsed one of her nymphs running after them, her eyes huge with panic. The nymph lunged, throwing her hands out, clamping down on Persephone’s belt. She pulled, fighting the stranger’s grip, but the man proved too strong and pulled Persephone back, causing her belt to snap. The nymph fell to the ground as the stranger’s horses dove back into the hole, Persephone’s screams disappearing as the earth closed up behind her.

Horrified that she hadn’t been able to save Persephone, the nymph collapsed in a sobbing heap, weeping so desperately that she turned into a stream of water. Persephone’s sisters and friends arrived soon after and began to frantically search for the girl, finding no trace of her. Alerted by the screams, Demeter raced from her home to the meadow, and the brokenhearted stream floated Persephone’s ripped belt to the surface for the goddess to find.

Seeing the torn belt in the water, Demeter knew immediately that her daughter had been kidnapped, but was agonized that no one had seen who had stolen her. In a panic, Demeter proceeded to search all of the earth for her beloved daughter, accompanied by Hecate, the ancient goddess of magic. They went to every corner of the known world, throughout Greece, into Asia, Egypt and Phoenicia with no luck. Every day that passed without a clue, Demeter withdrew into herself, pulling her divine blessing away from the world and making the plants lose color and life.

Demeter mourning Persephone by Evelyn de Morgan, 1906

Finally, unable to stand the pain that she was going through, the sun god Helios approached Demeter and admitted that he had seen who had taken Persephone: it was Hades, Demeter’s eldest brother and king of the Underworld. Stunned, Demeter rushed to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods and demanded that King Zeus order that Hades return Persephone to her.

That’s when Zeus winced.

Unable to meet Demeter’s horrified stare, Zeus admitted that he had given Hades permission to kidnap Persephone. Months earlier, Hades had complained to Zeus about how he didn’t have a wife and was interested in Persephone. Without bothering to consult Demeter about it first, Zeus gave Hades permission to take Persephone. Really, it was the least he could do, considering how he sorta, kinda screwed Hades out of his inheritance … and he knew Demeter would never agree to it, so …

This of course sent Demeter into an unholy rage. She threatened Zeus, vowing that if he didn’t bring Persephone back to her, then Demeter was going to remove her blessing from all plant life on earth. All the animals and humans would starve. Zeus wasn’t impressed by Demeter’s threat and dismissed her, and the goddess made good on her promise. She made all the plants, all the crops, the fruit-bearing trees, the grass, everything die. With nothing to eat the animals began to die. With no animals or vegetation to eat, the humans began to die. With no humans to worship the gods, the gods began to lose their power.

In a panic, the gods surrounded Zeus and harangued him to order Hades to release Persephone until he finally caved. Zeus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods down to the Underworld to break the news to the king of the dead.

Meanwhile, as Demeter had searched above, below, Hades was having a hell of a time with Persephone; no matter what he did, no matter what beautiful jewels he heaped on her, no matter what flattery and praise he gave her, Persephone just would not return Hades’s love. She also refused to eat anything grown in the Underworld, remembering that Demeter had told her that if the living should eat anything in the Underworld, then they would be bound to that realm forever. Hades was frustrated and concerned, as Persephone had not eaten anything in months and was growing weak.

Persephone and Hades

One day Hermes flew through the gates of the Underworld, over the seven winding rivers and past the gnashing teeth of the three-headed guard dog Cerberus, into Hades’s palace. Hades was outraged that Zeus had changed his mind and was ordering Hades to return Persephone to her mother—he loved her too much to let her leave. But Hades could not refuse the king of the gods, and sadly agreed to let his wife go.

As Hades and Hermes spoke Persephone, weak with hunger, wandered through Hades’s gardens. As she paused to rest, Ascalaphus, the royal gardener, saw how ill she was and, as he had been ordered to do so by Hades, offered her a pomegranate. Desperate for food, Persephone ate six of the blood-red fruit’s seeds.

Ascalaphus escorted Persephone back into the palace. As Hades watched morosely, cheery Hermes took Persephone’s hand and told her that he was going to bring her home. The messenger god asked the girl if she had partaken anything of the Underworld, and, not thinking about it, Ascalaphus answered that Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds.

Elated, Hades told Hermes that now Persephone had to stay in the Underworld. Alarmed, Hermes rushed back to Olympus to tell Zeus what had happened. Enraged, Demeter told all assembled that she would continue to blight the land until Persephone was returned. Exasperated, Zeus brought Demeter down to the Underworld, so they could speak with Hades, Persephone and Ascalaphus the gardener.

Demeter confronted Ascalaphus about his claim and demanded that he admit that Hades had him trick Persephone into eaten the seeds. Ascalaphus insisted that he had seen Persephone voluntarily eat the seeds, and in berserk fury, Demeter dropped a huge boulder on the gardener, pinning him there. (Years later, Hercules would remove the boulder and free Ascalaphus, but Demeter promptly turned the gardener into a screech owl. She wasn’t about to let him get away with what he had done.)

Now Zeus was faced with a dilemma; Persephone had eaten the food of the Underworld, meaning that she had to stay there … but if she didn’t go back to the surface, the Demeter would continue the famine until all life on earth had died out. Thinking fast, Zeus offered a solution: since Persephone had eaten only part of the pomegranate, she would spend part of the year in the Underworld, and the other part on earth. Naturally, both Hades and Demeter objected (no one bothered to ask Persephone what she wanted), but Zeus made it clear that this was the fairest way to settle the matter … and he was king, so what he says goes. Frustrated, Hades relented, and Persephone returned to the surface, emerging at the city of Eleusis. Demeter was overjoyed, and her blessings returned to the land, causing the plants to fruit and flower.

And so, every year, Persephone returns to the Underworld, where she takes her place as the queen of the dead, and Demeter goes into mourning, removing her blessing from the land and causing the plants to die. After six months, Persephone returns to the surface and a happy Demeter restores life to the world. And that’s why we have winter and spring.

The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton, 1891

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