Myths of Spring

It’s spring, and I’ve been thinking about the myth of Persephone and Demeter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, I’ll tell it here.

Statue of "Throning Goddess," Persephone
“Throning Goddess,” a marble statue assumed to be Persephone, queen of the underworld, 480-460 BC, found in Taranto, Italy.

According to Greek mythology, Persephone (also called Kore, “the maiden”) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Persephone was a beautiful young girl with many suitors, including Hades, the god of the underworld (and Zeus’ brother–her own uncle!). Demeter was very protective of Persephone and refused to consider Hades’ desire to have her for his bride. Demeter didn’t want her lovely young daughter married off to a middle-aged man surrounded by death. Hades was determined to get his way, so one day while the maiden was playing and picking flowers with her friends, he caused the earth to suddenly open up under Persephone’s feet when she stopped to admire a beautiful narcissus flower. Hades grabbed the maiden before she could call for help and took her with him into his underworld kingdom. Although Zeus and Helios, the sun god, saw the abduction happen, they decided not to tell Demeter, as Zeus didn’t want to cause problems with his brother, Hades.

“The Fate of Persephone,” by Walter Crane, 1877.

Demeter was overcome with grief when her daughter went missing and asked her friend Hecate, goddess of the wilderness and childbirth, for help; Hecate advised Demeter to ask Helios if he’d seen anything, and Demeter convinced Helios to tell her what he’d witnessed. Helios revealed that Hades has abducted Persephone, causing Demeter to become enraged with Hades and with Zeus for not telling her he knew what had happened to their daughter. To punish the gods and express her grief, Demeter refused to continue with her duties as the goddess of harvest and fertility, causing great devastation to the earth: The ground dried up, crops withered, animals starved, and famine and death spread across the world.

Zeus heard the cries of the suffering people and decided to do something to appease Demeter and save humanity. He told Demeter that he would ask Persephone if she preferred to stay in the underworld with her “husband,” Hades, or return to Olympus with her mother: If Persephone said she wanted to remain with Hades, Demeter would have to accept this and go back to her duties as the harvest and fertility goddess. Demeter agreed. However, Hades tricked Persephone, who was distraught at having been kidnapped and forced to remain with him. Persephone was lured into eating a pomegranate seed–anyone who ate any food of the underworld would be cursed to miss the underworld if they ever left it. When Persephone was brought to Olympus to tell her father what her wishes were, she said that she wanted to return to be with Hades. Demeter was infuriated by this response, assuming that Hades had somehow deceived Persephone into answering this way. Demeter declared she would never bring life back to the earth. Zeus proposed a compromise in which Persephone would spend 6 months a year with Hades and 6 months with Demeter, a plan that pleased no one; however, all had to adhere to Zeus’ will.

“The Return of Persephone,” by Frederic Leighton, 1891.

The Greeks used this myth to explain the seasons: In the fall and winter when Persephone is with her husband, Hades, ruling as queen of the underworld, Demeter mourns and allows life on earth to die and decay. In the spring and summer, Demeter rejoices at having her daughter return to her and makes the world fertile, then fruitful again.

There are other version of this myth in older and later cultures, as well as similar stories of death and rebirth. One could surmise that such stories are related to celebrations of spring (such as Easter, in which Christians honor Jesus’ resurrection after death and secular people celebrate new life in spring through symbols like eggs, baby chicks, and rabbits; and Ostara, a pagan celebration of the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring).

With my view rooted in the contemporary world, it’s hard to remember to consider the Persephone story from within the context of antiquity and how people in that time viewed family, marriage, the rights of women, and freedom. From a modern perspective, the story evokes thoughts of rape, trauma, pedophilia, and incest. It’s hard to see it as anything but a terrible tragedy and difficult not to focus on the story being about a young girl whose freedom and innocence were taken by her uncle. From a more psychological view, one can also interpret the myth as exploring the struggle of a mother to allow her daughter to grow up and leave home, or a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and budding sexuality (thus, Demeter’s hiding Persephone away from her suitors and not allowing Hades to marry her). Along the same lines, one could interpret the story as depicting the struggle of the old (embodied by Demeter) to pass on the torch to the young (Persephone)–the nostalgia and pain of growing older, seeing the world change, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.

I choose to focus on the hopeful and affirming part of the story–the fact that growth and rebirth are a natural part of the cycle. Acknowledging that death and decay are also a part of life, we can use the reminder of spring and the myth of Persephone to spur us on to appreciate the life we have and to take advantage of renewed energy, new beginnings, and second chances during this time of the year.

“Parting Spring” (left panel), by Kawai Gyokudo, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan, 1916.
“May Flowers,” by Carrie Mae Weems, 2002.