Persephone – Birth, Family, Meaning, Symbols & Powers
Persephone was the daughter of the king of the Greek Gods Zeus and the goddess Demeter. After she was taken against her will by Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld, Persephone went on to become the Queen of the Underworld.
Her role in the Greek pantheon was to preside over the dead souls in the Underworld. And because she was the daughter of Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and agriculture, Persephone was revered as a fertility goddess. What are the myths surrounding Persephone’s birth story? What symbols were associated with Persephone?
The article below contains everything you need to know about Persephone in Greek mythology:
Myth about Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld and Greek goddess of fertility
Goddess of: Fertility, springtime, underworld
Consort: Greek god Hades
Children: Zagreus, Melinoe
Abode: Hades (Underworld)
Association: Demeter, Dionysus, Rhea, Artemis, Pandora
Symbol: Pomegranate, asphodel, sheaf of wheat, narcissus
Epithets: Queen of the Underworld, The Great Goddess, The Venerable One, The Pure One, The Mistress, The Two Goddesses
Other names: Phersephassa, Persphoneia, Kore, Periphona, Persephatta
Worship place and cults: Magna Graecia, Cyrene, Peloponnese, Alexandria, Eleusis, and Attica
Ritual/festival: Eleusinian Mysteries or the Rites of Eleusis
Roman equivalent: Proserpine (Proserpina)
Norse equivalent: Gerd
Meaning and Epithets
The ancient Greeks had different names for Persephone. For example, her name “Kore” means “the maiden” or “the girl”.
In ancient Rome, she was called Proserpine. The name was most likely derived from the Latin word “proserpere”, which means “to spring up” or “to creep forth”.
Being the wife of Hades, many Greeks maintained a reasonable amount of fear of her. After all, her husband was the ruler of the dead. In some cases, it was even forbidden to utter her name. Only those in her cult could speak her real name.
However, she did have some positive epithets such as “the Maiden”, “the Venerable One”, “the Mistress” (Despoina), and “The Pure One”.
Owing to her close relationship with her mother Demeter, some of her worshipers took to calling the two deities “the Two Demeters” or “The Two Goddesses”. The latter epithet is a testament to the unbreakable bond between Demeter and Persephone – a bond of cosmic proportions between mother and daughter.
Symbols and Depictions of Persephone
In almost all cases, Persephone was seen as the queen of the Underworld – the dominion of Greek god Hades. She is often depicted wearing a beautiful robe. And to symbolize her position in the Underworld, she can be seen carrying a scepter and a sheaf of wheat. However, in the presence of her mother Demeter, the honor of carrying the scepter and sheaf of wheat went to Demeter.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter is depicted carrying a four-tipped torch.
Of all the symbols associated with Persephone, the pomegranate is the commonest. In some cases, it is the seed of a pomegranate rather. The ancient Greeks believed that pomegranate was used to mark her marriage to Hades in the Underworld.
Other symbols of Persephone include the narcissus flower and cornucopia (also known as the horn of plenty), a representation of her role as a fertility deity.
Importance and Powers
Persephone’s importance in the Greek pantheon stems from the myth that her presence on earth makes flowers bloom. Whenever she was on earth, the days were warmer and farmers had bountiful harvest. This power of hers is in perfect harmony of the notion of her being the personification of vegetation.
As the co-ruler of the Underworld, Persephone made several important decisions concerning the souls of the dead. Unlike her counterpart Hera, Queen of Mount Olympus in the sky, Persephone had significant power in the Underworld. She lived in perhaps the most magnificent castles in Greek mythology. She was also constantly showered with numerous precious stones and gifts from her husband Hades.
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Persephone and Hades
According to the myth, Hades abducted Persephone, who went on to become his queen in the Underworld. Prior to this, Zeus had agreed to let Hades marry Demeter’s only daughter Persephone.
The story of Persephone’s adoption states that Hades lured Persephone away from her maidens using a narcissus flower. Once she was alone, Hades immediately swooped in and trapped her with some magic. The king of the Underworld then drove off with her on his chariot to his home in the Underworld. He made sure that no one saw him commit this act. However, the Greek god of the Sun Helios saw everything and informed Demeter about Persephone’s abduction. Nothing escaped the watchful eye of Helios.
Following her abduction, Demeter sunk into depression. The goddess searched in vain for her daughter. The myth has it that Demeter wandered the world, mourning the disappearance of her daughter. As a result, she neglected her duty of tending to the crops and grains. Soon, there was famine as the grains stopped growing. The human beings on earth started to starve and die.
Seeing how his most cherished creations – humans – were, Zeus decided to intervene. Zeus sent a number of gods to Demeter to convince her to resume her work; however, Demeter did not budge. She insisted that the gods reunite her with her daughter.
Therefore, Zeus dispatched Hermes to the Underworld to bring back Persephone to the land of the living so that she could be reunited with Demeter.
However, before Persephone departed the Underworld, she ate some pomegranate seeds that were given to her by Hades. By so doing, Persephone bound herself the Underworld.
Zeus again intervened and struck a deal with Hades. It was agreed that Persephone would spend one-half of the year on the surface world with her mother. In the remaining half of the year, she will spend it with Hades in the Underworld.
And so the seasons of the year were born. The period that Persephone was with her mother Demeter, the grains and crops flourished. However, when Persephone was beneath the earth, crops did not germinate and the plants withered.
The city of Eleusis
As Demeter searched the entire world for her daughter, she took a breather beside a well in a city called Eleusis (a few miles northwest of Athens). Demeter then disguised herself as an old woman and became the nanny of the queen’s son, Triptolemos.
Desiring to make the boy immortal she bathed him in fire every night. One night, the queen caught Demeter in the act. Demeter quickly removed her disguise, exposing her full glory to the queen. Still in agonizing pain from the loss of her daughter, Demeter demanded that the inhabitants of the city build a temple in her honor. Before parting ways with the city, Demeter taught Triptolemos the art of agriculture and other farming techniques.
And so the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Rites of Eleusis was began. Although not much is known about the full detail of the rites, which was practiced between c. 1600 BCE and 392 CE, what we know is that the participants tried to re-enact the path that Demeter took in finding Persephone.
In short, the Eleusinian Mysteries were used to celebrate and honor Demeter and Persephone. It took place twice a year – in spring (Lesser Mysteries) and in September (Greater Mysteries). The goal of the rites were to instill in the participants the courage to not fear death. It taught them that the human soul was immortal, and that humans live temporarily in mortal vessels.
Persephone and Adonis
When both Persephone and Aphrodite fell in love with Adonis, the two goddesses could not decide where Adonis should stay. Not wanting the conflict to escalate any further, Zeus intervened in the matter. The king of the gods ruled that Adonis spend one-third of the year with each goddesses. Adonis was then allowed to spend the remaining one-third of the year with whoever he deemed fit.
However, Adonis loved Aphrodite more, causing him to spend more time with the Greek goddess of love. Enraged by this, Persephone sent a wild boar to take the life of Adonis. Aphrodite would later pour nectar on the body of Adonis, turning him into an anemone flower. In a different myth, the boar was rather sent by Ares. The god of war had grown very jealous of the attention showered on Adonis by Aphrodite.
Other interesting facts about Persephone
- Along with her mother Demeter, Persephone was a very revered figure in the Eleusinian mysteries – a festival that took place during the sowing period in autumn in the city of Eleusis. During the festival, prayers and sacrifices were made to the deities – Persephone, Triptolemus (god of agriculture) and Demeter. Participants of the festival celebrated Persephone’s return to the surface world and her reunion with Demeter.
- Quite uncharacteristic of many Greek gods, Hades is believed to have been a very faithful husband. However, Persephone was still very mindful of Hades former mistress, the nymph Minthe. Minthe once boasted the she was more beautiful than the Persephone. Angered by Minthe’s pride, Persephone turned Minthe into the mint-plant.
- According to the myth, Helios (the Greek god of the Sun) and the Hecate (goddess of magic and witchcraft) were the only two people who witnessed Hades abduction of Persephone. The Greeks believed that nothing than on the Earth escaped the watchful eyes of the Greek solar deity Helios.
- Persephone’s ability to move to and fro the Underworld symbolized her immortality.
- Persephone had quite a significant amount of power in the Underworld. It was Persephone who made the decision on whether or not Heracles could leave with Cerberus (the hound of Hades).
- Greek goddess Persephone’s emergence from the Underworld symbolizes the triumph over death. To the Greeks, this meant that life never ceased; instead it simply changed from one state of being to another. Thus death was not the final destination.
- The term “carried of by Hades” or “wedding Hades” is perhaps a euphemism to describe the death of young girls. Bear in mind, the word “Hades” also meant death in ancient Greece.
- Much of the myth about Demeter and Persephone is found in a famous 6th-century BCE poem known as “Homeric Hymn to Demeter”. The author of the poem remains unknown to this day. The poem is full of themes that highlight the love of a mother, especially the power of a mother’s love for her only child.
- In Plato’s Cratylus, Persephone is called “Pherepapha”. Plato described her as deity full of wisdom. The ancient biographer Plutarch described as the deity in charge of the spring season. Similarly, the Roman statesman and lawyer Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) described as the vital seeds of the fruits that cover the fields.