The oldest stories are ones that were never written down until years and years after they began to be told. These were passed down through word of mouth, tales told by hearth fires and homes and tavern corners. Stories are living things. They pass through minds and memories and tongues, and change their shape and meaning based on the storyteller and the values of their world. The Ancient Greek tale of Hades and Persephone is no different.
(Disclaimer: I am not an expert in Greek mythology. I have not read the original texts, only various versions of stories, which are effectively SparkNotes versions of the real thing. I just read a lot.)
In the most popular version – and possibly the most recent – the story is more one of a mother and her daughter. In this, Persephone is known as Kore and is a beautiful goddess of grain and vegetation, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and one of the Twelve Olympians. Demeter always kept her daughter far away from the other gods, and Kore grew up in Nature, planting seeds and playing in fields. In this, Hades, god of the Underworld, was in love with the young goddess and with permission from Zeus, decided to abduct her because Demeter, being extremely protective of her child would never allow Hades to marry her. Thus, when Persephone was gathering flowers with the Nereids in a field, Hades burst through a cleft in the earth in a great chariot drawn by black horses, grabbed Persephone, and dragged her into the Underworld. Demeter searched all over the earth with Hecate’s torches and without her attentions, the harvests failed and the earth starved. Zeus thus intervened and told Hades to send Persephone back. She came back to the earth, but because she had eaten some pomegranate seeds down in the underworld, she was bound to the place and had to return there for six months every year. Some say Hades tricked her into this. And thus, the seasons were created. During the Spring and Summer, Demeter rejoices with her daughter, and in the Autumn and Winter, Persephone returns to the underworld where she reigns queen with her husband.
Personally, I don’t completely buy this version of the story.
I mean, it makes sense if you’re looking at it strictly as Demeter’s tale and celebrating Spring and the way a mother’s love can literally change the face of the earth and rescue someone from hell, though you can’t really refer to the underworld as hell. That’s more a thing in Christian theology. From my understanding, the underworld had everything ranging from Tartarus to Elysium, so it was pretty much the place to go to for a final resting location after death.
Also, myths tend to be allegorical and this is a pretty decent explanation for how seasons are formed. It wasn’t uncommon for young maidens in Ancient Greek stories to be little more than props and have no agency, so it’s not strange that the story would have an abduction, but I really don’t think Hades, who kept to himself so much that he nearly never visits Olympus and is thus barely referred to as an Olympian, would turn to Zeus for permission. Sure, Zeus was technically Persephone’s father and Hades didn’t really get out enough to understand the concepts of wooing. He’s no Apollo, but it still looks a bit dicey to me.
Then, there are the two titular characters of this.
Let’s look at Hades first. In this version of the story, he is represented as the evil old man who takes the beautiful young virgin by force. Some regard this as a metaphor for a girl moving to womanhood and Hades representing the archetypal male energy that facilitates this. This, in my opinion, is complete bullshit. It also goes against nearly every other story about him. If you’re looking at Olympians who abduct maidens on a regular basis, take a look at Zeus. Even Poseidon was known for his multiple relations outside his marriage to Amphitrite, though she wasn’t even a fraction as vengeful as Hera. Both of them were also known for their anger (Zeus has thunderbolts at his disposal and Poseidon is the god of earthquakes AND the sea; do NOT piss them off.).
Hades, on the other hand, got a bad name with most people because he was king of the underworld. Note that this isn’t to be confused with the god of death – or personification of death – Thanatos (who has good reason to hate humans if you’re looking at Sisyphus as an example). Still, Hades was not a god whom the commonfolk would build temples or make sacrifices to. He represented death to people, but was more concerned with the balance between life and death. The souls of the dead came to him, he judged them, and sent them to their resting places, good or bad. The only time his anger ever sprang forth was whenever someone tried to cheat death after dying, like Sisyphus, or did something really, truly stupid (looking at you, Pirithous). Considering Zeus’s penchant for destruction, Ares’s passion for war, and Poseidon’s storms, Hades seems to be the person who’s often on the receiving end of their shenanigans. Abduction doesn’t really seem his style (I wouldn’t discount it altogether considering the times, but I imagine the circumstances might have been different.). Also, I wonder when he would have left the underworld at all to have been able to glimpse Persephone (who was jealously guarded by her mother and never once visited Olympus), let alone fall in love with her.
And then, there’s Persephone herself.
The older versions of her story describe her very differently from the innocent, virginal child that she is shown as in the popular tale. In these, she is more a young woman than a young girl, which makes sense, considering that she was born of Zeus and Demeter, and I can assume that this took place very shortly after the Titanomachy and before Zeus took Hera to consort to rule as king and queen of Olympus. This effectively means that Persephone is technically older than most of the other children of Zeus, including Athena and Artemis, who are always known as grown women. In these versions of the tale, she finds the Underworld on her own, or is lured, when she goes adventuring. This also makes sense if you consider how Demeter raised her in effective isolation from all the other gods, keeping her among the nymphs and vestal goddesses and raising her as a child even when goddesses much older than her held positions at Olympus. Note that this does not take away from her relationship with her mother. The strength she learned from Demeter gives her the courage to wander away in the first place, as well as the ability to survive in the realm of the dead.
In even older stories, Persephone ventures into the Underworld when she hears the despairing cries of the dead, and Hades stops her from trying to rescue them as it would upset the balance he reigns sovereign over. Not that she doesn’t influence this later on. Fellows like Sisyphus and Orpheus (for Eurydice, not himself) were given free passes on Persephone’s insistence.
If you look at the most ancient layers of myth, Persephone’s name has a different translation altogether. The more common and recent meaning is “She Who Shines in Darkness”, which shows her as a bringer of spring. In the oldest references to her, she is described as both a chthonic and a vegetation goddess, “She Who Destroys The Light”, showing her as a Goddess of Death as well as a Goddess of Vegetation. This equates her with her husband, who like mentioned before, maintained the balance of life and death, and also shows her as something of a partner to her mother, who brings life and the harvests that sustain it.
Either way, this story emphasizes the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and when it comes to love stories among the gods of Ancient Greece, I like these two the best, though Eros and Psyche have a pretty good story too. Say what you want about Hades, but he had no mistresses or a thousand and one demigod children. (Do not bring up Rick Riordan.) And Persephone, frankly, could be pretty darn terrifying when she wanted to be. I like the idea of her ending up in the Underworld as a result of her own wanderings, effectively stealing Hades’s dog (You named your dog Spot, Hades; are you kidding me?), becoming Queen of the Underworld, and keeping the balance of life and death above and below by working things out with both her husband and her mother.
A few notes:
- Those flowers on the right are asphodels. Real asphodel flowers grow in bunches and are pale with deep red streaks. However, writings have described them as ghostly white and more similar to narcissi than actual asphodels, and considering that one of the symbols of Hades is the narcissus, I tried for a middle ground of sorts.
- The location for this is the Elysian Fields, or Elysium, the highest place of honor for a soul in the Underworld, where dwell great heroes, demigods, and the like who are judged worthy. It was ruled over by Rhadamanthus, who was originally a king of Crete and a son of Zeus, and later became one of the judges of the dead. Also, it has flowers.
- I’ve depicted Persephone holding the pomegranate in her hand to suggest the idea that she may have decided to eat the fruit on her own terms. Also, in this, Cerberus is a giant ferocious puppy that Persephone has wrapped around her little finger.