PERSEPHONE

Persephone was the daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Demeter, the goddess of grain. A grain goddess herself, Persephone was also the wife of Hades, the god of the underworld*, and thus the queen of the underworld. Greek women worshiped Persephone as the protector of marriage and children. The Romans called her Proserpina.

The most important myth about Persephone describes how Hades kidnapped her and brought her to the underworld to become his wife and queen. Because Persephone was exceptionally beautiful, her mother had kept her hidden on the island of Sicily for her protection. One day while Persephone was picking flowers in a field, Hades rose from the underworld in his chariot, seized her, and carried her off to his domain.

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

While Demeter searched for her daughter, she neglected her normal duties as the grain goddess. As a result, crops failed, and mortals would have starved had Zeus not eventually intervened. When Demeter finally discovered her daughter’s whereabouts, she contrived to win her back. She persuaded Hades to agree to release Persephone on the condition that the girl had eaten nothing while in the underworld. But Hades had tricked Persephone into eating a few seeds from a pomegranate*, and so she was forced to stay. Demeter appealed to Zeus, who agreed to a compromise. Persephone had to live in the underworld as Hades’ wife for four months of the year, but for the rest of the year she was allowed to return to live with her mother on earth.

The myth of Persephone was an important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a Greek cult* in which worshipers believed that Persephone’s return to the world symbolized the possibility of life after death. The myth of Persephone also symbolized the growth and the “rebirth” of plants each spring. (See also Cults; Divinities; Myths, Greek.)

* pomegranate thick-skinned, many-seeded berry about the size of an orange and with a tart flavor

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

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