CONTENT WARNING: Rape, Incest
As longtime followers know, I’ve talked quite a bit about my interest in folklore and mythology, and for some time have been meditating on ways in which I might further incorporate this interest into my work. Over the course of the coming months, I’ll be exploring both the myths and legends that inspired the names of many of my products, and those of the ingredients themselves (seriously, there is some fabulously interesting folklore about plants!) in a series I’m calling “The Folklore Files.”
I’m happy to kick off the series with the goddess Persephone, the inspiration behind my charcoal soap, the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, and who is generally referred to as the Queen of the Underworld. While I understand that I’m bringing a 21st century perspective to texts from the 6th to 7th centuries BC, it’s incredibly difficult to read any classical Greek mythology without feeling like it should have a trigger warning. The Homeric “Ode to Demeter” is no different, telling the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld.
While out picking flowers, Persephone is particularly drawn to a narcissus. Perhaps this is a subtle condemnation of her perceived vanity, for unfortunately, this particular narcissus was laid as a trap, and when she plucks it, she is promptly abducted by Hades, Zeus’s brother and Persephone’s uncle. (Side note: while incest is rampant in ancient mythology, this seems to be the least of it, as some accounts credit Zeus as the father of Persephone’s son Zagreus.)
As translated by Gregory Nagy (link), the hymn makes specific reference to Persephone “being taken, against her will,” and as Hades rides off with her in his chariot, she cries out for help. Hecate (a goddess often associated with witchcraft and magic) and Demeter hear her cries and search for her, but their concerns are dismissed by the sun god Helios. Helios relays that Zeus gave Persephone to Hades, and that Demeter should be thrilled to have Hades as a son-in-law.
Demeter is overtaken with grief at the abduction of her daughter, and blights the earth so that it remains winter. (Also, it should be mentioned that Homer really goes on about how Demeter, during this period of grieving, appears as “an old woman who had lived through many years and who is deprived of giving childbirth and of the gifts of Aphrodite…,” which just… WTF?)
After some time, Zeus becomes upset that, as a result of Demeter causing a perpetual winter, humans aren’t giving him offerings, and so he sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from his brother. Just before she leaves, Hades feeds Persephone some pomegranate seeds, a link to the Underworld.
Demeter and Hecate are overjoyed at Persephone’s return, the latter becoming Persephone’s “attendant and substitute queen,” and Persephone shares the full story of her captivity with the goddesses.
Ultimately, Zeus decrees that Persephone will be allowed to visit Demeter for a third of the year, and will live with her captor-husband for the remainder of the year, causing the annual change in seasons earthside. In other versions of the tale, it is the pomegranate seeds themselves that have bound her to the underworld, pulling her back annually.
While I may be overly tied to my contemporary interpretations, after reading the hymn I’m most struck by how foundational misogyny feels in our society, in that it could conceptually be linked to something as deeply primal as the changing of the seasons, and that after 2700 years we’re still critiquing the appearances of women (literal goddesses, no less!) and parsing the language of consent. Even 17th century Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini had a better grasp of the situation, when he called his sculpture depicting the abduction The Rape of Prosperina (calling her by her Roman name, pictured at right). What does it mean when we continue to call Persephone the wife of Hades, rather than his prisoner? And how can we divest ourselves from these dated narratives?
While it most definitely was not Homer’s intention, I believe that one avenue to divestment is contained in the hymn itself— through the solidarity of women and femmes. The alliance between Hecate and Demeter is central to the narrative, their discussion of Persephone’s cries an ancient echo of modern calls to “believe women.” When we look at it through this lens, Persephone feels less like a floozy who was distracted by a pretty flower, and more like a woman who literally goes through hell and back to speak her truth.