The Goddess Persephone
While there are many versions of the Persephone myth, many of us are most familiar with the version detailing the kidnapping and “rape” of the maiden Goddess Persephone by her male counterpart, Pluto (Hades), Ruler of the Underworld.
For those who are unfamiliar, the kidnap-and-rape version of Persephone’s myth goes something like this:
The beautiful maiden Goddess Persephone is born of Demeter, the Goddess of agriculture, and Zeus, the patriarchal king of the Gods. The beautiful Persephone is very close with her mother, Demeter, so much so that they are essentially inseparable. For whatever reason, Pluto, the Ruler of the Underworld, has his eye on Persephone. One day Pluto conspires with his brother Zeus, to arrange for the kidnap of the beautiful maiden Persephone to be taken down into the underworld to rule alongside Pluto as his wife. Together Pluto and Zeus convince the Earth Mother Goddess Gaia to get on board with their plan and assist in luring Persephone into the underworld. In doing so, Gaia creates a beautiful flower called the Narcissi, and the beauty and intrigue of this unique flower becomes irresistible to the innocent and naïve nature-loving Persephone.
One day, Persephone is away from Demeter in a field somewhere picking flowers with her Nymph friends when she comes across the overwhelmingly beautiful and unfamiliar flower, which had been created by Gaia just for her. She picks the flower, and suddenly the Earth begins to quake and open up beneath her feet. Uncle Pluto arises from the underworld to snatch up Persephone, who then becomes his wife and assists him in receiving and initiating the dead. Demeter is enraged and devastated at the loss of her daughter and, in protest of the grave injustice suffered at the will of Zeus, she refuses to let the crops continue to grow, and the Earth becomes barren. After several months, the humans begin to die off and the Gods are feeling worried. With no humans left, there will be no one to give offerings to the Gods, and as a result, they too will perish. The Gods get together and convince Demeter to return the surface of the Earth to its once fertile state, but only under the condition that Pluto releases her daughter. Pluto agrees to allow Persephone to return to the surface, but since she has eaten a few pomegranate seeds, the food of the dead, she must split her time between her husband and her mother, spending several months out of the year in the underworld with Pluto, receiving and initiating the dead each winter while Demeter mourns her loss, eagerly awaiting her return each spring.
In the post-Hellenic version of Persephone’s story described above, Persephone is dragged unwillingly into the underworld and held captive against her will; however, this is only one version of her story. In the pre-Hellenic transmission of Persephone’s myth, during a time when Goddess culture was believed to rein supreme, Persephone descended into the underworld willingly, acting in service to assist the lost souls wandering beneath the earth by acting as their guide, initiating them into the world beyond the living. There was a need for this work that remained unfulfilled, and Persephone chose the path of courage, diving head first into the role she was destined to play.
[It is worthy to note that the themes found within our legends and myths are representative of the political and social atmosphere at the time of their construction. The kidnap-and-rape version of Persephone’s myth in many ways represents the desecration of the Goddess during the violent and brutal transition away from our connection with Divine Mother brought on by the Patriarchy during that time.]
Combining both versions of Persephone’s myth, we find a more complete picture of the Goddess and her influence as Transpluto. Regardless of whether she was kidnapped or went willingly, Persephone, separates herself from her mother, Demeter, and comes into her own power in order to show up in service of the lost souls in need. Taken together, what these myths also help demonstrate is the fact that if we fail to make the conscious choice to visit the underworld, we will likely be dragged down into the muck and forced to face our demons— for our own benefit, of course.
Layers of Meaning
So, what lesson is Persephone’s myth attempting to teach us? What is the meaning behind the ancient mythology of the maiden Goddess Persephone, who was ultimately destined to rule alongside Pluto as Queen of the Underworld? At first glance, the myth of Persephone and Demeter appears to be a simple story explaining the cycles of the seasons, but upon further examination it becomes apparent that this story carries with it many layers of meaning.
Explaining the Seasons
At its most basic level, the myth of Demeter and Persephone has been interpreted many times over as a story the ancient Greeks used to explain the changing of the seasons.
To put it simply, Demeter’s agony over the yearly period of separation from her daughter is responsible for the cold weather and hibernation of plants and animals throughout the winter months. When Persephone returns from her stint in the underworld, Demeter rejoices. As Demeter’s heart warms at the return of her beloved daughter, so does the Earth, allowing the plants to bud and flower, once again providing nourishment for all of Mother Earth’s creatures.
The Triple Goddess
Also ingrained in Persephone’s myth is the theme of the Triple Goddess and the difficulty of transition through the female reproductive life cycle of maiden, mother, and matriarch (or crone).
In the pre-Hellenic Greek transmission of the Goddess mythology, it is thought that these mother/daughter pairs were representative of the same Goddess in both maiden and mother form. In the case of Persephone and Demeter, their myth is a very direct representation of the biological and social stages of life for a female.
At the beginning of her story, Persephone represents the stereotypical maiden Goddess. Innocent and virginal, she spends her time under the loving care and guidance of her mother, frolicking through fields picking flowers with her nymph friends. Whether she is kidnapped or goes willingly, Persephone is very abruptly stripped of her innocence when she journeys to the Underworld to marry Pluto (Hades). This is Persephone’s initiation into the fertile, mother form as both the womb and the tomb are intimately connected to the Divine Mother Goddess who was honored as both the Giver of Life and the Receiver of the Dead. When she eventually re-emerges and is reunited with her mother, Persephone’s presence causes the land to become fertile once more, giving birth to new life in the spring. Persephone’s transition from maiden to mother is complete.
Meanwhile, during Persephone’s time of separation from her mother, while Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter she is also mourning the loss of her fertile years. She is undergoing a crisis of transition that is commonly experienced by women in the present day. Demeter’s loss of fertility is represented by her refusal to allow the plants to grow— the Earth is no longer able to support new life. In Homer’s version of the myth (dubiously dubbed “The Rape of Persephone”), Demeter physically takes on the form of the “crone” and is taken in by a wealthy family to care for their newborn son as a wet-nurse. Demeter’s transition is from mother to matriarch as she moves away from a period of life focused on biological creation into a stage of life where she finds fulfillment in transmitting wisdom and guidance for future generations. From then on, Demeter is no longer able to create new life each year without the presence of her daughter, Persephone.
Initiation, Death and Rebirth
Within her myth, Persephone’s story embodies a very obvious theme of transformation through the cycles of birth, death and rebirth. The Eleusinian Mysteries were major initiation rites held annually in ancient Greece which involved a celebration and ritual re-inactment of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. While the exact content of the ceremonies have been kept tightly guarded, many believe that the Elusianian Mysteries were meant to invoke a change in consciousness by allowing initiates to experience firsthand the “middle world” between the living and the dead. While open to people of any gender or social class, initiation into the Elusianian Mysteries was primarily undergone by women and was believed to directly unite the initiates with God.
Separation and Integration
In the end, Persephone agreed to spend part of her time living with her Mother and the remainder of her time living in the Underworld with her husband, Pluto. This story serves as metaphor for our own experience of separation from God or the Divine Mother, forgetting our true nature in order to incarnate so that we may experience physical life and exercise our will as independent, sovereign beings. The challenge in this lifetime is to connect with the All in order to re-integrate with the Divine Mother.
The Seeds of Karma and the Narcissus
Persephone’s myth also relates to our karmic connection to this world.
The Narcissus flower that ultimately leads to Persephone’s disconnect from her mother represents the ego-self that we identify with in this reality. It is the force that serves to separate us from the Divine Mother and the Eternal Self. The ego serves to keep us in a state of amnesia and disconnect, and at first glance identification with the ego-self may appear detrimental. Upon further examination we come to realize that the experience of the ego-self is the reason we incarnated in the first place— to experience ourselves as separate from the All. To truly know ourselves we have to embrace the ego-self and become fully engulfed by the world of shadows. It is only then that we find the opportunity to recognize our own innate power and the courage needed to use it.
The pomegranate seeds that Persephone eats represent the seeds of karma that we sew in this lifetime. They represent actions driven by fear and desire which serve to bind us to the karmic wheel, keeping us locked into the Earthly realm of illusion and shadows through the continuous cycles of birth, death and rebirth.
Persephone’s Relationship with the Underworld
It is my sense that Persephone wasn’t “tricked” by Pluto to eat the pomegranate seeds, it seems to me that Persephone was very conscious of what she was doing. She ate those seeds willingly, and she did so because she enjoyed her time in the underworld. She found meaning, purpose and fulfillment in her role as Queen of the Underworld. She enjoyed receiving the dead and initiating them into the realm beyond the living. She saw that the work she was doing was very much needed and that it was her destiny to show up in service of the lost souls who desperately sought her help. At the same time, she knew that she obtained great wisdom and power through her experience and that it was necessary to return to the surface to bring her newfound gifts into the light of day. She needed to tell her story, to be seen and heard and appreciated for the work she was doing.
The return of Persephone marks the return of the Goddess in all her Divine Glory. Rather than a polarizing transition from a hierarchy that is patriarchal into one that is matriarchal, Persephone's return signifies the beginning of a new way of being that embodies true balance and integration between the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine. This phase marks a newfound recognition of the Triple Goddess— maiden, mother and matron, and a renewed understanding of the cyclical nature of our existence. The cycles of birth, death and rebirth take on a renewed cultural importance, along with the understanding of the seeds of Karma and the cycles they create. The return of Persephone is the beginning of a period of true feminine empowerment, during which time the expression of the Divine Feminine power is recognized and encouraged.