Persephone: Queen of the Underworld

Persephone, the maiden of Greek mythology, holds a dual role as both youthful progeny of Zeus and his sister Demeter and the cold and solemn wife of Hades.  This exhibit focuses on the latter aspect of Persephone, the goddess who is inexorably entwined with the dark realm of death.  Persephone draws influence from her position as a ruler of the dead, and her prominence in popular Greek mystery cult.

Persephone’s tale, as told by the Homeric hymn to Demeter, begins with her abduction from the surface world by her uncle Hades, at the direction of Zeus.  She is swept away, carried down in to the underworld; forced to become the betrothed of the lord of the dead.  However, Persephone was not destined to dwell forever inside the dark depths of the earth.  Thanks to the efforts of her mother she was able to escape the blackness and return to the surface world for two-thirds of the year but resigned to dwell with Hades for the remaining portion.  Thus Persephone is associated with death and rebirth, through her yearly cycle of somberly descending to the land of the dead and her joyous ascension to the world of the living.  These attributes of Persephone can be explained more clearly than the simple juxtaposition of the two Gods with which she spends her time: Demeter, the goddess of bounty and fertility and Hades, sovereign of souls.  The contrast between the two is clear and, while they may be polar opposites in nature Persephone retains aspects of both.

“[I] then say prayers to the gods, to the almighty god of death and dread Persephone.” The Odyssey – book 12, lines 51-52”

Though Persephone was queen of the dead and must have garnered some influence through her position, there is little physical evidence regarding her role as a monarch of the underworld.  This is not to suggest that she had none; in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus travel to the underworld and encounters the souls of the dead he prays to both rulers of the netherworld, not just to lord Hades.  Odysseus’s inclusion of “dread Persephone” in his prayers, indicates a reverence for Persephone and her station and also implies that Persephone may have held actual power in the affairs of the dead and her title was not in name only.  Another interesting note is that Odysseus refers to Persephone by name while Hades, original ruler of the underworld, is not. The direct use of a name by Odysseus in his prayer can possibly interpreted as a direct appeal to the goddess, rather than her unnamed husband, and if so would reinforce Persephone’s importance in Greek theology.

If a functionalist mindset is applied to the idea that Odysseus’s prayer to Persephone in the Odyssey denotes her importance in the matters of the underworld then it is possible to argue that this Odysseus’s reverence towards Persephone may have been a reflection of Greek cultural attitudes towards her.  Scholars believe that certain details and aspects of Homer’s works did manifest themselves in Greek life and that the traditional Greek gods were canonized with the writings of Homer and contemporary Hesiod, if these assumptions are applied to Greek culture then it is entirely possible that the attitudes concerning Persephone present in Homer may have presented themselves in the mindset of Greek culture.

This red figure mixing krater is of Athenian origin and now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of art.  The image on the side presented depicts the return of Persephone from the underworld, reunited with her mother.  There are four figures total, two being Persephone and Demeter, the remaining two are representations of Hermes and the goddess Hekate.  In the scene Persephone is springing forward from an opening in the earth accompanied by Hermes who wears his traditional travelers garb and his signature wand. Hekate is the older female wielding dual torches and appears to be presenting Persephone to Demeter, who is holding an ivy tipped staff at the far side of the scene. (Richter, 246) All figures on the vase are labeled.  The atmosphere of the image is solemn and captures the gravity of the important reunion and its symbolic implications. (Richter, 246)  Richter also points out in a summary article about this piece the discrepancies between the traditional myth and the artistic representation of the myth.  For example, Homer states that Persephone was returned by Hades in golden chariot, and Hekate was not actually present at the reunion; however, the chariot is not depicted and Hekate is clearly present. (Richter, 247)  Variations in the depictions of myth were commonplace and scholars believe that differences may arise when artists follow different versions of myths unknown in modern times. (Richter, 247)

The significance of the image depicted on this vase is derived from the significance of the myth itself, for the plight of Persephone and Demeter is the corner stone for one of the most important religious experiences in ancient Greece, the Eleusinian mysteries.  Therefore a representation of this myth would be reminiscent of this important mystery cult and the importance it played in the minds of those who revered the sacred knowledge gained through the mysteries.

“Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom…”  (lines 480-87, Evelyn-White 323)

The Eleusinian mysteries held the keys to success in the afterlife for any unpolluted, Greek speaking individual.  As the above lines from the Homeric hymn to Demeter iterate, partaking in this event was essential for anyone to find peace after death.  The promise of a “happier” afterlife through the participation in the mysteries is similar to the use of pyramid and funeral texts by ancient Egyptians.  Both are considered to be exclusive phenomenons which bestow benefits in the afterlife to those fortunate enough to have the proper access. The “secrets” of the Eleusinian mysteries are lost due to the immense secrecy surrounding the event.  What is known is that the festival was nine days long, the amount of time in which the grieving Demeter searched for her daughter. (Keller, 50)  The mysteries begin in Athens and make their way over to the city of Eleusis, a short distance from Athens.  A remarkable feature of the festival was its yearly influence over all of Greece.  The Eleusinian mysteries were revered by all Greek society, enough so that “all warfare was to cease for two months, safe travel was to be assured, and no legal proceedings were to be conducted during the festival’s nine days.” (Keller, 50-51)  This halting of Greek life (certain parts) more so than anything signifies the importance and precedence of Persephone’s festival. Furthermore, archaeological evidence has revealed the temple site had been rebuilt several times, indicating a continued interest and focus on the Eleusinian festival in spite of destruction by outside forces. (Keller, 50)  The clear grip the mysteries had over pan-Hellenic society supports a functionalist viewpoint that the mysteries and therefore Persephone, maiden of honor in the mysteries, played a significant part in Greek thoughts regarding death.  The reverence and respect for the Eleusinian mysteries by Greek people underscores their reverence of Persephone for role in the mysteries and as queen of the dead.

 

Alec Jolicoeur

Works Cited

“Attributed to the Persephone Painter: Bell krater depicting the return of Persephone (28.57.23)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/28.57.23 (October 2006)

Evelyn-White, Hugh, translator’s “Introduction” to Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Keller, Mara Lynn.  “The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality, and Rebirth.”  Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 4 Spring 1988: 27-54.

Richter, Gisela. “An Athenian Vase with the return of Persephone.”  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol 26 Oct. 1931: 245-248.

The Ecole Initiative. U. of Evansville. 1 May 2007 <http://www.uwec.edu/philrel/faculty/beach/publications/eleusis.html>