The myth of Persephone is an ancient retelling of the cycle of vegetation portrayed in numerous global stories such as Attis, Adonis and Osiris.  Persephone embodies the renewal of the earth after the quiescence of winter.  One day she was picking flowers with her mother Demeter, when Hades, lord of the underworld, burst upward through the ground, driving a chariot whose horses trampled the flowering earth.  He kidnapped her, took her to his realm, and raped her. This abduction is said to mythically represent the cycle of vegetation that sprouts from the earth in spring and withdraws back into the earth after harvest. This violent act occurred with the complicity of her father, Zeus/Jupiter, which also mythically describes the abduction of the feminine principle that occurred as the patriarchy rose to power.

Demeter grieved for her daughter, or her own lost innocence, and withdrew in solitude to search for her.  Without her the Earth became barren, and people risked starvation.  Zeus sent gods with gifts to influence her, but it was not in his power to command her to make the Earth green.  Nor could the king of heaven order the crops to grow on his own, as the nature of her feminine fertility was not within his domain. This strongly suggests that Demeter was an earlier and more powerful goddess.  In fact, when Demeter was given a genealogy, she was the daughter of the Titans Cronos and Rhea, and therefore Zeus’s elder sister, even though Persephone was said to be his daughter.  Their mother, Rhea, finally intervened, and Zeus agreed to bring Persephone back. At the end of the tale, Demeter taught humanity the secrets of wheat and cultivating grain, pointing toward the deeper meaning of the story.

In Classical Greek art, Persephone is portrayed robed, often carrying a sheaf of grain. She could appear as a mystical divinity with a scepter and a little box, but she was usually represented in the act of being carried off by Hades. Persephone is also known as Kore, and she was Proserpina to the Romans, which means, “to emerge” in Latin. She embodies the principle of rebirth. Her mother is Ceres, the origin of the English word cereal. In some versions of the story, Pluto (Hades), tricked Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds so she would have to stay in the Underworld.  In other versions she ate the fruit of her own accord.  Now Persephone spends four months in Hades and eight months bringing light and warmth to the earth.    

Persephone and her mother Demeter, who is a goddess of grain and the harvest, were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  These rites predated the Olympian pantheon and were celebrated in Greece for 1,800 years. These were the most important rites of initiation in ancient Greece and are believed to have originated in Minoan goddess worship in Crete nearly 4,000 years ago. The road between Athens and Eleusis was called the Sacred Way as thousands of pilgrims from all levels of society, from Greece and beyond, made their way to celebrate the mysteries. The only requirements were never having committed murder and not being a ”barbarian,” that is, unable to speak Greek.  

A binding vow of secrecy was required, and the penalty for breaking this oath was death, so we can only speculate from clues and indirect evidence what actually occurred.  But tradition says that the high point of the ritual was a eucharist where a “sheaf of grain was reaped in silence.” What little is known about the exact nature of the rites bears similarity to the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris, and Syrian and Persian mystery cults, which have similar themes. 

It’s said that the secret mystery ritual of Eleusis held the symbolic key to immortality and the principle of resurrection.  Ancient writers asserted that the rites of Demeter and Persephone promised the initiate a better life on Earth and happiness in the afterlife.  The Eleusinian Mysteries were seen as deeply spiritual and inspiring–a far older and more elevated approach than the intrigues of the battling and scheming Olympians–and offered an alternative religion well into the Christian era, as did the worship of Isis in Egypt.

Each year at the beginning of spring the goddess Persephone returns to the surface of the earth for a joyful reunion with her mother Demeter.  In winter, while Persephone lives in the Underworld as the Queen of Hades, Demeter’s grief causes earth to become cold and barren.  When mother and daughter are reunited in spring, birds sing in the trees and flowers bloom again.  As the long, cold nights of winter give way to increasing light we can take heart and affirm that even after the darkest night of despair the dawn always comes.

Julie LoarBased on and excerpts from Goddesses for Every Day © 2010 by Julie Loar.   Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA  

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