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Hermes helps Persephone to leave the Underworld and return to her mother Demeter. 1891 painting by Frederic Leighton.

In Greek mythology, Persephone (in modern English; also called Kore)[1] was the Queen of the Underworld, the korē (or young maiden), and a daughter of Demeter and Zeus. In the Olympian version, she also becomes the consort of Hades when he becomes the deity that governs the underworld. She is the symbol of vegetation which shoots forth in spring and the power of which withdraws into the earth at other seasons of the year.

The figure of Persephone is very well-known today. Her story has great emotional power: an innocent maiden, a mother's grief over her abduction, and great joy after her daughter is returned. It is also cited frequently as a paradigm of myths that explain natural processes, with the descent and return of the goddess bringing about the change of seasons.

In Greek art, Persephone is invariably portrayed robed. She may be carrying a sheaf of grain and smiling demurely with the "Archaic smile" of the Kore of Antenor.

Her Roman equivalent is Proserpina.

Her name

Persephonē (Greek: Περσεφόνη) is her name in the Ionic Greek of epic literature. The Homeric form of her name is Persephoneia (Περσεφονεία,[2] Persephonēia). In other dialects she was known under various other names: Persephassa (Περσεφάσσα), Persephatta (Περσεφάττα), or simply Korē (Κόρη,"girl, maiden").[3] Plato calls her Pherepapha (Φερέπαφα) in his Cratylus, "because she is wise and touches that which is in motion".

Her name is commonly derived from Greek "φέρεις φόνον" (to bring or cause death). Another mythical pesonage of the name of Persephione is called a daughter of Minyas and the mother of Chloris.[4] The Minyans were a pre-Greek group considered autochthonous and the existence of so many different forms indicates that the name was probably borrowed from a foreign language.[5]

The Romans first heard of her from the Aeolian and Dorian cities of Magna Graecia, who used the dialectal variant Proserpinē (Προσερπινη). Hence, in Roman mythology she was called Proserpina, and as such became an emblematic figure of the Renaissance. At Locri, perhaps uniquely, Persephone was the protector of marriage, a role usually assumed by Hera; in the iconography of votive plaques at Locri, her abduction and marriage to Hades served as an emblem of the marital state, children at Locri were dedicated to Proserpina, and maidens about to be wed brought their peplos to be blessed.[6]

In a Classical period text ascribed to Empedocles, c. 490–430 BCE,[7] describing a correspondence among four deities and the classical elements, the name Nestis for water apparently refers to Persephone. "Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears."[8]

Of the four deities of Empedocles's elements, it is the name of Persephone alone that is taboo—Nestis is a euphemistic cult title[9]—for she was also the terrible Queen of the Dead, whose name was not safe to speak aloud, who was euphemistically named simply as Kore or "the Maiden", a vestige of her archaic role as the deity ruling the Underworld.

Queen of the Underworld

There is an archaic role for Persephone as the dread queen of the Underworld, whose very name it was forbidden to speak. In the Odyssey, commonly dated circa 800 to 600 BCE, when Odysseus goes to the Underworld, he refers to her as the Iron Queen.[10] Her central myth, for all its emotional familiarity, was also the tacit context of the secret initiatory mystery rites of regeneration at Eleusis,[11] which promised immortality to their awe-struck participants—an immortality in her world beneath the soil, feasting with the heroes who dined beneath her dread gaze.

Abduction myth

Rembrandt - The Rape of Proserpine - Google Art Project

17th century oil painting by Rembrandt which depicts Hades abducting Persephone.

The story of her abduction is traditionally referred to as the Rape of Persephone. In the later Olympian pantheon of Classical Greece, Persephone is given a father: according to Hesiod's Theogony, Persephone was the daughter produced by the union of Demeter and Zeus: "And he [Zeus] came to the bed of bountiful Demeter, who bore white-armed Persephone, stolen by Hades from her mother's side." Unlike every other offspring of an Olympian pairing of deities, Persephone has no stable position at Olympus. Persephone used to live far away from the other deities, a goddess within Nature herself before the days of planting seeds and nurturing plants. In the Olympian telling,[12] the gods Hermes, Ares, Apollo, and Hephaestus, had all wooed Persephone; but Demeter rejected all their gifts and hid her daughter away from the company of the Olympian deities. Thus, Persephone lived a peaceful life before she became the goddess of the underworld, which, according to Olympian mythographers, did not occur until Hades abducted her and brought her into it. She was innocently picking flowers with some nymphsAthena, and Artemis, the Homeric hymn says—or Leucippe, or Oceanids—in a field in Enna when Hades came to abduct her, bursting through a cleft in the earth. Later, the nymphs were changed by Demeter into the Sirens for not having interfered. Life came to a standstill as the devastated Demeter, goddess of the Earth, searched everywhere for her lost daughter. Helios, the sun, who sees everything, eventually told Demeter what had happened.

Finally, Zeus, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, forced Hades to return Persephone. However, it was a rule of the Fates that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Before Persephone was released to Hermes, who had been sent to retrieve her, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, (six, seven, eight, or perhaps four according to the telling)[13] which forced her to return to the underworld for a season each year. In some versions, Ascalaphus informed the other deities that Persephone had eaten the pomegranate seeds. When Demeter and her daughter were united, the Earth flourished with vegetation and color, but for some months each year, when Persephone returned to the underworld, the earth once again became a barren realm. This is an origin story to explain the seasons.

In an earlier version, Hecate rescued Persephone. On an Attic red-figured bell krater of ca 440 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Persephone is rising as if up stairs from a cleft in the earth, while Hermes stands aside; Hecate, holding two torches, looks back as she leads her to the enthroned Demeter.[14]

In the earliest known version the dreaded goddess, Persephone, was herself Queen of the Underworld (Burkert or Kerenyi).

In some versions, Demeter forbids the earth to produce; in others she is so busy looking for Persephone that she neglects the earth, or her duties as the Earth which she represents, and in the depth of her despair causes nothing to grow.

This myth also can be interpreted as an allegory of ancient Greek marriage rituals. The Classical Greeks felt that marriage was a sort of abduction of the bride by the groom from the bride's family,[15] and this myth may have explained the origins of the marriage ritual. The more popular etiological explanation of the seasons may have been a later interpretation.

The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda, s.v. "Macaria", introduces a goddess of a blessed afterlife assured to Orphic mystery initiates. This Macaria is asserted to be the daughter of Hades and Persephone, though there is no previous mention of her.

Iron Queen

In one version of the myth, Persephone, as Queen of Hades, only mercifully relinquished a subject once; because the music of Orpheus was so hauntingly sad, she allowed Orpheus to bring his wife Eurydice back to the land of the living, as long as she walked behind him and he never tried to look at her face until they reached the surface. Orpheus agreed, but failed, looking back at the very end to make sure his wife was following, and he lost Eurydice forever.

Persephone also figures in the story of Adonis, the Syrian consort of Aphrodite. When Adonis was born, Aphrodite took him under her wing, seducing him with the help of Helene, her friend, and was entranced by his unearthly beauty. She gave him to Persephone to watch over, but Persephone also was amazed at his beauty and refused to give him back. The argument between the two goddesses was settled, either by Calliope, or by Zeus, (depending on the antiquity of the myth), with Adonis spending four months with Aphrodite, four months with Persephone and four months of the year on his own. This later myth placed a god into the position of a goddess in the cycle of the seasons.

When Hades pursued a nymph named Minthe, Persephone turned her into a mint plant.

Persephone was the object of Pirithous' affections. In a late myth, Pirithous and Theseus, his friend, pledged to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen and together they kidnapped her and decided to hold onto her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus' mother, Aethra, and traveled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband, Hades. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast; as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Edith Hamilton called it a "Chair of Forgetfulness" that they sat upon. It also should be noted that Heracles was able to save Theseus from this fate when he was in the Underworld, but Hades forced Pirithous to remain seated forever.

Persephone and her mother Demeter had both a double function as chthonian and vegetation goddesses.They were often referred to as duplicates of the Earth goddess,and were called "the Demeters",or Despoine ( plural of Despoina: "the mistresses") in Arcadia.[16] The story of Persephone's abduction was part of the initiation rites of the Eleusinian mysteries.

Cult of Persephone


There are significant parallels between the cult of Persephone and similar Egyptian and Near Eastern systems, the cult of Isis and Osiris in ancient Egypt, the Syrian cult of Adonis and the Phrygian Cabirian mysteries. These myths and mysteries were probably passed to Greece during the Mycenean period (1600-1200 BCE).[17] This cult of resurrected gods was mixed in Greece with an existing Minoan-Pelasgian agrarian-vegetation cult from the previous bronze age civilizations which flourished from 2000 BCE.[18] Persephone had gone to the underworld (like seeds in the winter) and then returned to the land of the living.

Mycenean Greece

A lot of Greek gods and godesses or their precursors are identified in Linear B (Mycenean Greek) inscriptions on tablets found at Mycenean sites in Crete and mainland Greece dated 1400-1200 BCE.[19] A tablet found at Pylos in southern Greece refers to the two potniai (mistresses) and Poseidon. The two mistresses are identified as the precursor godesses of Demeter and Kore.[20] In conservative Arcadia the nameless Despoina, the "mistress" and goddess of the mysteries of Arcadian cults, was daughter of Demeter and Poseidon Hippios(horse).[21] Despoina was later conflated with Kore[22] and her title was given also to Persephone as a cthonian goddess.[23] Pausanias noticed that in Argos there was the grave of Ariadne (Greek "utterly pure, virgin") in the temple of Cretan Dionysos.[24] Ariadne was a Minoan vegetation goddess with a very characteristic death.[25] A tablet found at Knossos in Crete refers to the "mistress of the labyrinth" who precided over the palace who the mythologist Karl Kerenyi identified as Persephone.[26]

Pre-Mycenean Greece

Karl Kerenyi asserted the cult of Persephone was a continuation of a Minoan Great Goddess worship. This theory is supported by a lot of religious objects found in Crete which have their analogues in classical Greece,and the primitive myths of conservative Arcadia still existing in classical Greece. Among the religious objects are representations of the poppy goddess who probably as Demeter brought the poppy to Eleusis,[27] and the chthonian snake goddesses who probably represent the mother goddess and her daughter.[28] At Phigalia in conservative Arcadia Pausanias noticed in the 2nd century CE that the local cult interpreted Demeter in her archaic form, a Medusa type with a horse's head with snaky hair, holding a dove and a dolphin.[29] Most of them are symbols of the Minoan Great Goddess. It seems that when the first Greek-speaking people came in Arcadia, Demeter took the place of the Minoan Great Goddess and Poseidon Hippios (horse) substituded the male god (greek:paredros) who accompanied her.[30]

Among classicists, this thesis has been argued by Gunther Zuntz (Zuntz 1973) and cautiously included by Walter Burkert in his definitive Greek Religion.On the other hand, the hypothesis of an Aegean cult of the Earth Mother has come under some criticism in recent years.

Consorts and children

  • Hades
    • Macaria The Goddess of blessed death.
    • Plutus (While most sources cited him as the child of Demeter, he was also thought to be the child of Hades and Persephone)
  • Zeus (In Orphic tellings)
    • Zagreus (In some stories, said to be the first name for Dionysus under the name Zeus Katachthonios, meaning 'underworld Zeus'; sometimes cited as child of Zeus and Demeter or Hades and Persephone)
    • Melinoe (Some sources cited her as the daughter of Hades)



  1. Cora, simply a Latinization of Kore, is not used in modern English.
  2. Homer. The Odyssey 11.213
  3. H.G. Liddell-R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon
  4. William Smith.A dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology
  5. Martin Nillson.Die Geschichte der Griechische Relegion.Volume I.Ernest Beck Verlag.
  6. Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, "Persephone" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 98 (1978:101–121).
  7. Empedocles was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who was a citizen of Agrigentum, a Greek colony in Sicily.
  8. Peter Kingsley, in Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  9. Kingsley 1995 identifies Nestis as a cult title of Persephone.
  10. Odyssey, X.
  11. Persephone's numinous presence in the awe-inspiring night-time initiatory ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries is discussed by Károly Kerényi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, 1967, passim.
  12. Loves of Hermes : Greek mythology
  13. As Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 ("Persephone") expressed it, 'So it was arranged that she should spend two-thirds (according to later authors, one-half) of every year with her mother and the heavenly gods, and should pass the rest of the year with Hades beneath the earth."
  14. The figures are unmistakable, as they are inscribed "Persophata, Hermes, Hekate, Demeter"; Gisela M. A. Richter, "An Athenian Vase with the Return of Persephone" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 26.10 (October 1931:245–248)
  15. The theme is explored in I. Jenkins, "Is there life after marriage? A study of the abduction motif in vase paintings of the Athenian wedding ceremony", Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 1983.
  16. Pausanias.Description of Greece. 5.15.4
  17. Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985.
  18. Maureen O'Sullivan(1982) The Four Seasons of Greek Philosophy Efstathiadis Group Athens p.34 ISBN 960 226 334 2
  19. Adams John Paul.Mycenean divinities List of handouts for classics 315.Retrieved 2 September 2006
  20. John Chadwick, The Mycenean world Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  21. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.25.7 8.42.1
  22. The Princeton Encyclopedia of classical sites.
  23. Theoi project "despoine"
  24. Pausanias, 2.23.7
  25. .Martin Nillson.Die Geschichte der Griechische Relegion vol. I V.H.Beck.Verlag. p.315
  26. Karl Kerenyi.(1976).Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life. Part I iii The Cretan core of the Dionysos myth. Princeton University Press p. 89,90
  27. Károly Kerényi.Dioysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life. p. 24
  28. J.A. Sakellarakis.(1978) Herakleion Museum: Illustrated Guide to the Museum. Ekdotike Athinon. Athens p37
  29. Pausanias, 8.42.1-8.42.4
  30. Martin Nillson.Die Geschichte der Griechische Relegion.Volume I. V.H.Beck Verlag p 445


  • Walter Burkert, Greek Religion 1985
  • Lewis Richard Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States, Volume 3 (1906) (Chapters on: Demeter and Kore-Persephone; Cult-Monuments of Demeter-Kore; Ideal Types of Demeter-Kore).
  • Károly Kerényi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, 1960, in English 1967
  • Günther Zuntz, Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, 1973

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Persephone. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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