It really annoys me that when we think of Persephone (or Proserpina in the Roman pantheon), it’s most often in the context of The Rape of Persephone, an event which has inspired men to make some admittedly jaw-dropping art, but art that celebrates and memorializes Persephone at her most powerless, most vulnerable, and most scared. It’s a great excuse for dudes to paint or sculpt a young, nubile, naked woman, and many of the said dudes have seized the opportunity and run with it (although props to Rosetti for painting her fully clothed). Great art is great and all, but the event depicted is undeniably horrifying.
In Greek mythology Persephone is the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of grain and agriculture. Gods like Ceres and Persephone (Mother and Maiden) appear in many ancient cults and religions, and the Persephone figure is always connected both to Spring and fertility as well as to death and the Underworld. In the Greek and Roman traditions, Ceres refuses all suitors for Persephone, and mother and daughter live happily together. The earth reflects their happiness, and harvests are full and plentiful. One day Hades (brother both to Ceres and to Zeus, the king of the gods) rides out from the Underworld in his chariot drawn by black horses. He catches sight of Persephone, who has wandered away from Ceres and plays alone in a field. He falls in love with her at first sight and kidnaps her, dragging her down below the earth to become his queen.
Ceres, frantic with grief and worry at the disappearance of her daughter, refuses to visit Mount Olympus or to allow the earth to produce fruits or grains until she can learn Persephone’s fate. She roams the earth, searching and weeping salt tears, and a desert spreads in her wake. As famine and despair take hold of the world, Helios, the sun, finally tells Ceres what he witnessed the day Persephone disappeared. An enraged Ceres rushes to Mount Olympus to beg Zeus for her daughter’s return. Overwhelmed by prayers from famished mortals as well as entreaties from the other gods, Zeus agrees to persuade his brother to free Persephone. Hades is unwilling to release his queen, and he tricks her into eating six pomegranate seeds, knowing that those who have eaten the food of the dead can never return to the living. As neither Ceres nor Hades will relinquish their claim on Persephone, a compromise is reached: Persephone is permitted to live again upon the earth for six months of the year, returning to the Underworld for six months in turn. When Persephone walks among the living, Ceres rejoices, and the earth brings forth plants and flowers and fruits and grains. When Persephone returns to Hades, Ceres grieves, and the earth grows cold and barren.
This story has some serious ick factor, and unlike some Tumblr artists I came across when I was researching this post, I had exactly zero interest in depicting the marriage of Hades and Persephone as a “good girl gone bad” story, or as the story of a straight-laced girl who needs a walk on the dark side to really feel complete, or as a story with Persephone as the Ana to Hades’ Christian Grey. Hades is her uncle, he steals her away from her life, he tricks her out of her freedom, she has to return to be his wife in the land of the dead every year, and she has no say in the matter. That’s fucked up.
I also had no interest in portraying her at the moment of capture, see my first paragraph. It’s disappointing to me that the only time Persephone is a main character is during her capture and sort-of rescue, but those aren’t her only appearances throughout Greek mythology and literature. In her role as queen of the Underworld she appears frequently in other myths and texts, a figure of terror and awe. She is the queen who carries out curses upon the souls of the dead, and her beauty and power inspire devotion and fear in equal measure. Her yearly resurrection is a symbol of hope, assurance that death is not the end of all things.
I wondered what would it be like, to be a girl, and free, and then a queen, and captive. To gain your freedom and return to the light, to your home, to your family, knowing that in six months you would descend beneath the earth once more. Would darkness ever be really dark again, and would light ever be wholly without shadow? Fresh and blooming things would be haunted by promise of future decay, and the darkness of the Underworld would never be permanent, since there is divine assurance that a shaft of light will break through to lead you back up to the sun. As the riotous colors of Spring and Summer give way to the fading leaves of Autumn, how would you prepare for Winter?
2016 has been a dark year, and it genuinely looks like we have a dark Winter ahead of us, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve felt a lot of despair and worry in the last few months, as well as some self-recrimination for things I have done, and for things I have left undone. Thinking about Persephone, about the symbol of Spring who ventures into the darkness, makes me wonder about what I’m taking into the darkness with me. Am I taking only my despair, or is there work I can be doing, that I should be doing, that will bring light, both to myself and to the people around me?
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LINGERIE: ‘Andromeda‘ bra, brief, and suspender belt by Harlow & Fox (c/o). Harlow & Fox produces decadent luxury silk and lace lingerie exclusively for DD-G cup sizes. Previously: the full-bust bridal editorial, The Lady Detective, The Secret Agent, a Lingerie Tea Party, and a review of the Alexandra collection.
STOCKINGS: ‘Provoke‘ stockings by Fiore (c/o).
PHOTOGRAPHY (and owner of Cerberus): Michi Rezin