Who was Persephone in Greek Mythology?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Today, Persephone is not one of the best known figures of Greek mythology, but every person in ancient Greece would know that name. In this lesson, we will look at the legend of Persephone and see what role she played in Greek mythology.

Persephone

Who was the most important deity of ancient Greece? It is a hard question, but those who truly understand the Greeks could not ignore one candidate: Persephone. As goddess of the Underworld, Persephone may not seem like someone who the Greeks would count on to protect their lives, but this complex deity was also a goddess of grain and agriculture. In fact, the ritual worship of Persephone was seen as absolutely necessary for the survival of humanity. If you want to understand the relationship between the ancient Greeks and their gods, you cannot ignore Persephone.

Persephone, identifiable by the grains she holds, seated next to Hades in the Underworld
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Persephone's Origins

Persephone was the child of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and Demeter, an ancient goddess of grain, agricultural fertility, and life. When legends talk about Persephone in the early stages of her existence, they generally refer to her as Kore. This name represents a daughter or youthful maiden, and Kore/Persephone was worshipped as a goddess of daughters as well.

Persephone and Hades

According to Greek mythology, Demeter absolutely loved Persephone and wanted to be with her all the time. Unfortunately, however, Greek mythology never seems to work out that way. One day, while Persephone was picking flowers (allegedly on the island of Sicily), Hades, the god of the Underworld, saw her and was overcome by her beauty. He kidnapped her and took her into the Underworld to be his wife. Some versions of the myth imply that Persephone's father, Zeus, was complicit in the abduction.

Persephone and Hades
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Demeter was stricken with grief. She searched far and wide for her daughter, before either Helios or Hermes told her what Hades had done. While trying to find a way to get Hades to release Persephone, Demeter arrived at the city of Eleusis. There, she disguised herself as an old woman, befriended the prince and eventually revealed her true nature to the people. She demanded that a temple be built there, and she made it her home. The temple was considered one of the most important religious sites in ancient Greece.

From her temple, Demeter developed a plan to force Hades to release Persephone. She created a drought that began to kill off the Greeks in droves. If there is one thing that caused the Greek gods to panic, it was the thought that nobody would be left to worship them. Finally, the gods appealed to Zeus to make Hades release Persephone from the Underworld. Hades relented, but sneakily convinced Persephone to eat a pomegranate seed. In one version of the myth, the taste compelled her to stay, and in another version, Persephone was not able to leave because she ate the food of the Underworld.

Both versions agree, however, that because she ate the pomegranate seed, Persephone was trapped and the drought continued. In the end, Hades and Demeter struck a compromise. For half of the year, Persephone could live in the world with Demeter. For the other half of the year, however, she had to reside in the Underworld with her husband.

The Meaning of the Myth

Greek myths often explained the cause of natural phenomena. So what was the meaning here? Well, think about it. Do most plants grow year-round? No! They grow in spring and summer and then die during fall and winter. Most historians assume that the Greeks used the story of Persephone to explain the change in seasons. While she was in the world, this goddess of grain and agriculture promoted growth and life. However, when she returned to the Underworld her agriculture-goddess mother went into mourning and the crops died.

There are other interpretations of this myth, in which Persephone lives in the Underworld in summer, not winter. This idea is supported by the fact that the Greeks planted their seeds in autumn and hid them away from the heat in summer. Either way the connection between the agricultural seasons and Persephone's annual change of address is clear.

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