In Ancient Greece, the changing seasons depended on a magnificent mother and daughter duo named Demeter and Persephone.
The bringers of food and fair weather, these golden goddesses were worshiped in lush harvest celebrations.
But their story has a darker side – one involving violence, tragic compromise, and a bittersweet resurrection, revealing the true depths of a mother daughter bond, and important information about the environment, gender, and the cycle of life and death in Ancient Greece.
As the goddess of agriculture, Demeter spent her time not on Mount Olympus but wandering farms and fields.
She had one child with Zeus, a wheaten-haired goddess known as Kore, or “the girl” who would later become Persephone.
While Zeus played the part of absent father (classic), Kore was always by her mother’s side But as she grew into a kind and lively young woman, she was being watched from afar.
One day, Kore was picking wildflowers with the water nymph Cyane when the ground began to shake beneath their feet.
A jagged crack tore through the earth, belching noxious smoke and enveloping the women.
As the smoke cleared, they saw the ghastly figure of Hades, God of the dead and the underworld of the same name, in his ebony chariot.
Before Cyane could react, Hades grabbed Kore and descended back down into the underworld.
Countless tellings of this abduction exist.
Most of the older versions portray Kore’s kidnapping as a moment of sexual violence, and Hades (who is also Persephone’s uncle) as a predator.
Later versions revise this dynamic.
Some omit references to abuse in translation, while others portray Hades as a lonely god whom Kore eventually comes to love.
What’s clear is that Kore was taken to the underworld without her consent, resulting in chaos for both Gods and mortals.
At the scene of the crime, Cyane wept, her tears falling so fast that she became one with the river.
By the time Demeter realized her daughter was missing, Kore and Cyane were nowhere to be found.
Distraught, Demeter sought help on Mount Olympus.
Many gods had witnessed the abduction – but Zeus himself had set it in motion.
Without Kore’s consent or Demeter’s knowledge, he had granted Hades his daughter’s hand in marriage.
He had even instructed Gaia, the earth goddess, to make particularly stunning flowers grow that day in order to lure Kore to the spot.
Cowed by Zeus’ authority, the other gods stayed silent.
And so, Demeter lit her torches from the volcanic fires of Mount Etna, saddled twin dragons to her chariot, and searched alone.
Day and night she looked for Kore, crossing land and sea without stopping for rest.
In her absence, the crops grew fallow.
Plants withered and died, color seeped from the flowers, and mortals began to go hungry.
Ever imperious, Zeus ordered Demeter to return to her duties – unsurprisingly, she refused.
Eventually, Demeter came to the site of Persephone’s abduction.
Reduced to a pool of water, Cyane had lost the ability to speak.
But she had retained a key piece of evidence for the goddess.
Demeter spotted Kore’s hair ribbon, floating in the water.
Clutching the ribbon, she sensed violence and struggle but did not yet know where her daughter was trapped.
Meanwhile, deep under the earth, across the river Styx and through the gloomy realms of hell, Kore was fighting her own battle.
Hades expected her to serve as his wife, but she rejected his propositions and refused all food and drink.
She knew that one bite of the food of the dead was enough to bind her to Hades forever.
As she slowly began to starve, she prayed that her mother would find her soon.
Finally, Demeter found the information she needed.
In some reports, it was the all-seeing sun god Helios who revealed Kore’s whereabouts.
In others, the nymph Arethusa or the goddess of magic Hecate sounded the alarm.
Armed with this knowledge, Demeter headed straight to Zeus and demanded the return of their daughter.
However, it was too late.
Zeus informed Demeter that Kore had eaten pomegranate seeds down in the underworld.
Again, accounts vary about how Kore came to eat the seeds.
Some say that Hades forced her to eat the food of the underworld.
Others claim she willingly ate the fruit after Hades’ seduction.
And there are accounts where Kore just finally gave into her hunger and snuck a few seeds.
Either way, this threatened to ensnare her forever.
Of course, Demeter was not prepared to accept this.
She told Zeus that she would abandon her duties forever, letting the earth grow barren and mortals go hungry.
Zeus balked at this prospect – but at the same time, the laws of Hades couldn’t be broken entirely.
With the help of the Fates, shoutout to our first episode, they reached an uneasy compromise.
Kore would reside in Hades for several months, one for each seed.
For the remaining months, she would be permitted to rise to the earth.
This compromise provided the Ancient Greeks with a frame for understanding season change.
When Kore was in Hades, the land grew barren and cold as Demeter retreated in her grief.
But when she ascended to the earth, their joyful reunion caused the world to burst into bloom.
While Kore’s ascent was associated with rebirth, her descent to Hades and the coming of the winter months were inevitable.
For this reason, in her adult role Kore was commonly known as Persephone, or the “bringer of destruction.” Persephone stands for the bittersweet cycle of life, in which regeneration and decay are twinned forces.
The myth also has a dual message when it comes to gender roles.
On the one hand, Demeter and Persephone epitomize the power of divine femininity.
But this power varies, depending on the source.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the goddess is lauded for her steely determination.
But Hades also has significant sway – at times, everyone appears to be at the mercy of him and Zeus.
This is also the version that Helios, another male god, informs Demeter about Persephone’s fate.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis gives women a different role.
Nymphs generally move the plot forward, from Cyane offering the hair ribbon to Arethusa sounding the alarm.
Across different versions of the myth, there’s a power struggle at play between the men who appear to make the decisions, and the women who subvert them.
It may seem like this subversion only works to a point.
Demeter does not manage to negotiate permanent freedom for her daughter, and Persephone is forced to marry a man she did not choose.
This reflects real social conditions in Ancient Greece.
Women had little control over their affairs, with their fathers, brothers or husbands presiding over their education, economic, and marital lives.
Teenage girls could be married to much older men, including their uncles – and that’s not the only parallel between Persephone and Ancient Greek brides.
Some Greek wedding vases depict a married couple riding in a chariot, or the groom leading the bride away while her mother carries a torch.
These have been interpreted as echoes of Persephone’s abduction, the separation of mother and daughter, and Demeter’s torchlit quest.
In another parallel, women who died before marriage were termed “brides of Hades.” In these examples, the myth of Hades and Persephone looms over rites of passage for young brides, and the broader power imbalances therein.
Of course, as goddesses, Demeter and Persephone can overturn these imbalances.
Demeter’s formidable power over life on earth allows her to threaten and ultimately cut a deal with Zeus, while Persephone’s resurrection is a triumphant moment for both mother and daughter.
While in Hades, Persephone ruled over the dead as her husband’s equal.
Classical texts refer to her as “dreaded Persephone,” depicting some mortals as too afraid to utter her name.
She can also set the Furies on mortals that displeased her, or resurrect heroes from the dead.
On earth, she marked the turning of the seasons and the cycle of life, and was often celebrated in lavish ceremonies.
Her ascent to earth was at the center of the Eleusinian mysteries – one of the oldest and most secretive rituals in Ancient Greece.
Celebrated at harvest time, these rituals occurred at Eleusis near Athens, a place Demeter was believed to have stopped for rest during her search.
Subsequent interpretations of the myth have explored its gendered power dynamics in new contexts.
Artists and writers have used Persephone to explore the experience of women under patriarchy throughout time, as well as the power of the mother-daughter bond.
In her poem “The Pomegranate”, Eavan Boland imagines her younger self as Persephone wandering through unknown worlds, before she becomes Demeter watching her own daughter grow up.
There’s also a flurry of texts that imagine Persephone’s story as both a coming-of-age tale and a romance, from TV specials to fiction and graphic novels.
Some of these rework the source material – like the episode of nineties drama Hercules where Persephone gradually falls in love with her captor.
Others paint a more complex picture.
Set in our modern day, the web comic Lore Olympus imagines Mount Olympus as a patriarchal kingdom rife with abuse.
But at the heart of the story is a slow-burning love between Persephone and Hades.
Whether her story is presented as violent abduction, environmental parable, coming-of-age tale, or forbidden love story, Persephone is rarely disempowered.
Far from being a naïve figure who either becomes enamored with Hades, or functions as his victim, she is a formidable goddess in her own right.
As the goddess of rebirth and a terrifying bringer of destruction, Persephone holds unique power over both the living and the dead.
As Greek mythology’s most important liminal figure, Persephone retains the precious balance between creation and destruction, abundance and deprivation.
Year after year, she resurrects herself and single handedly sets the cycle of life and death in motion.