I finally started writing my version of the Demeter/Persephone tale from ancient Greece. I’ve been researching on and off for almost 10 years. It’s going to take a long time to write and an even longer time to edit.
As I’ve researched, I’ve gathered key plot points and catalogued all the different versions of them. For instance, the set-up of Persephone’s encounter with Hades has at least 10 variations, such as
- Persephone gathers flowers on a hillside alone in order to make a garland for Demeter.
- Persephone plays with the sea nymphs. She runs to gather flowers in order to make necklaces for them but is soon far afield.
- Persephone gathers flowers in the cool, moist woods with Demeter, then notices a narcissus. She wanders off in search of more.
- Persephone gathers flowers in a meadow along with four river nymphs.
The variations go on. What’s clear is that each writer has hir own imagination, as well as hir own agenda. Whether she’s picking flowers by herself or with others may not have much portent, but what about the question of whether or not Hades rapes her?
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Greek religions knows how common male-on-female rape is. Zeus seems to be the greatest criminal in religion (well, maybe Satan is worse). The general consensus of feminist critique is that these stories of rape reflect the violent takeover of one region by a dominant Greek one. Invade a city-state, rape their goddesses. That sort of thing.
I grew up on stories of Persephone’s being abducted by Hades. It wasn’t until later that I became familiar with the feminist reading of that abduction as a cover story for rape. It makes a lot of sense, in both a historical sense and a mythic one.
A digression: One of the things I love about Paganism is that you can find a deity for any state of being. For instance, the physically challenged need only look to the Greek god Hephaestus, who was lame. This idea of making all facets of the human experience divine is one that I find endlessly fascinating as well as comforting. No matter what’s going on in one’s life, one can always find a story to go along with it.
In the case of Persephone, reading her abduction as a cover story for rape creates a powerful story. As I read in one feminist critique, it positions Persephone as incredibly powerful; she goes fully into a state of violation, despair, and negation—and she creates. This has echoes of the Hindu goddess Kali but it’s not quite the same. It tells us (women in particular) that we can be at the lowest point of our lives and still find the power of creation within ourselves. We may not believe it, but here’s a story that holds out a vision for us.
So I’m faced with the choice of which story point to use: abduction or rape? What strikes me as I collect the re-tellings is how many of them don’t mention rape. They don’t mention love. They don’t mention any motivation for Hades’ appearance at all. Of course, some depict him as hell-bent on wielding power over Persephone and some say he’s a victim of Cupid’s arrows, but most of the interpretations I’ve read don’t mention a motivation. I find that curious.
The story of Persephone’s descent to the Underworld is obviously a coming of age story. What I like about this lack of motivation for Hades’ actions is that it avoids casting him as an evil being who attacks Persephone. It tells a story where Persephone is not a victim per se; rather, the things that happen to her happen because they happen to her. They just do. In a sense, it’s just time for them to. When it’s time to put away childish things, it’s not always because some evil-doer comes along and oppresses you. Sometimes it’s just time.
This interpretation appeals to me because it allows broader identification with Persephone. I am telling the story from all three characters’ points of view, including Hades’. Everyone has trouble reconciling Persephone’s faithful marriage to Hades with the whole abduction thing, and that point becomes more problematic if he raped her. Keeping him as a more passive figure, as an agent of time rather than of evil, makes it easier to transition to the relatively balanced relationship they share.
Aside from all these storytelling niceties, one of my sources noted that the earliest Orphic tellings of the story make it clear that it was an abduction, and only later versions turn it into rape.
In a way, it’s analogous to Set’s place in the Egyptian pantheon. He is now often perceived as evil, but he originally was the destructive side of nature that makes it possible for creation to happen. He represents the flooding of the Nile each year that destroyed villages and livestock but which also left fertile soil in its wake. There are many reasons why he got a bad rap later on, but the earliest stories make it clear that he is not evil incarnate. That idea comes later, seems rooted in the Middle East, and seems to be a product of dualistic religions which split all the world into good or evil. Other religions’ deities are more nuanced—more like human beings.
Back to Persephone—I am writing a story about mental illness, about depression. She goes into the Underworld again and again—but she also comes out into the sun-lit world again. Yes, it’s a story of the seasons on the one hand, but on a psychological level it’s a very personal drama of the soul’s descent into madness and its eventual recovery—repeatedly. Her strength lies in how she navigates these cycles.
Lastly, I am writing the story in part for my nieces and goddessdaughters, and when it came time for me to decide whether it would be abduction or rape, I decided to go with abduction. They are young and will discover the realities of sexual violence soon enough. I don’t want it coming from me.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.