Queen of the Dead
The story begins with beautiful Persephone picking flowers. We should actually call her Kore here, but, to keep from getting confusing, I don't think I will. Anyway, despite what appears to be in the Waldherr painting on the right, Persephone was not alone, she was surrounded by other maidens who were likewise picking flowers. The maidens were the Oceanids, and (according to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter) Athena and Artemis, too. But despite her beautiful and sweet and all those other saccharine-sounding companions, she managed to wander off away from them. I mean, after all, there's only so much time you can spend with a bunch of seriously sugar-y girls. So off she goes. It didn't SEEM like anything was wrong. The sun was shining bright and the flowers were blooming perfectly. But clearly we aren't looking in the right place for a portent. I'll clue you in: it was among the flowers. Yeah, there were violets and roses and crocuses and lots of other things that never actually bloom at the same time, but there were also narcissus. And as you may remember from other myths (or, more likely, you don't), the narcissus is not a happy flower. Nope nope nope. Just so's you know, some people say that the narcissus was the portent of deathly type stuff because of its narcotic capabilities - but there's other reasons, too. So there she is, and as she leans over to pick the narcissus, the earth opens and Hades, the Lord of the Underworld jumps out. Okay. Let's take a moment out and understand WHY King Dead is coming up like so many daisies. See, it all started because Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Now, Persephone had loyalty to her mom, first and foremost, but Zeus wasn't exactly peachy about that whole deal, and without running it by either Persephone or Demeter, he decided to tell his brother (that's Hades, folks) that he could marry our dainty little heroine (oh don't worry, she's not ALWAYS dainty). Anyway. So there's Hades thinking, "Ah, yes, a lovely opportunity to take my wife to her new kingdom," and there's Persephone thinking, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"
So she gets taken down to the Underworld and Hades shows her the sights and stuff - but Persephone isn't too thrilled. Meanwhile, up above ground, Demeter is going nuts. There's a very cool story about it, but I refuse to write it three times, so until it gets to the Myth Pages, you'll have to check it out on Demeter's page. So back to the Underworld. It's really sucking to be her at this point, I mean, let's review who she is. She's called "Kore," and is, essentially the personification of girlhood ("kore" means "girl"). She's all happy and flower-y and she's the daughter of a freakin' NATURE FERTILITY Goddess! So how much of a suck would it be to win the position of Queen of the Dead - the total antithesis of everything she represented as a girl. No longer would she rejoice in flower chains (damn that narcissus), nope, now she gets to wear metal on her head and sit in a shadow world (that is, without Sun) and her only sweet and beautiful companions are dead. Poor kid. Was it any surprise that she wasn't too keen on the idea at first? All she wanted to do was go home. She moped around and didn't eat and didn't sleep and didn't do much of anything. Did I say didn't eat? Well . . . not much anyway. See, there was this one little foible: this annoying little punk named Ascalaphus (see, even his NAME is annoying) got her to eat a seed of a pomegranet (although some say three seeds). She wasn't thinking about it, just sort of stuck 'em in her mouth. But that was enough. Because when Demeter finally found her, Ascalaphus tattled about the food to Hades. Now, this may not seem like a big deal - but it had a meaning. It meant that she had to stay in the Underworld, because she tied herself to it by partaking of the food. Moral: don't take candy from strangers. Anyway, so even though her mom sorta rescued her, she still had to spend lots of time in the Underworld reigning as Queen (a third of the year, actually).
Rape is a really common theme for women in Greek myths (as you've probably picked up reading this site), and far more complex than, perhaps, it ought to be. Rape, in the straightforward sense that we use it today (ie, a person does not give their consent for sex and is forced to have sex anyway) does not really make sense in these contexts. That is not to say that our definition doesn't apply - I would argue that it does in most cases - but there's more going on. Sometimes, "rape" is a synonym for abduction and is a way to get outside the traditional marriage contract set up by the father (as in the case of Medea). In such cases, we can imagine that consent was, in fact, given. In some cases, there seems to be a weird and problematic occurence of a woman is raped but then kinda okay with it. There are times, like here, when a woman is abducted, raped, and married to her rapist (normal, since if a woman was raped the law required the rapist to marry her), and remains in this unhappy state for the rest of her life (although it is said by some sources that Persephone grew to love Hades, and there is even the suggestion that her situation was more a consenting abduction - but that doesn't seem very likely to me). There are also straightforward awful sexual rapes after which the victim kills herself or survives (Caenis is a great example of the latter). There is a lot that this myth can tell us about ancient Greek conceptions of gendered sexuality, but I don't really want to write an essay here, so let's move on.
The Rape of Persephone is one of the strongest surviving myths. Statues still abound. And it was a very strong image throughout the ancient Greek (and Roman) world. Around the complicated relationship between Fertility, Virginity, Death, and Rebirth sprang up the oh-so-mysterious Eleusinian Mysteries. I can tell you nothing about them except that they were so mysterious (really) that very little survives about them except that they were really popular.
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Last Updated January 6, 2008