The story of "Persephone, Demeter, and Hades" is probably one of the most well-known of Greek myths and is used to explain the coming and going of the seasons.
The myth of Persephone's annual symbolic death and resurrection was the basis of one the largest religious celebrations in ancient Greece, known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Both Persephone and Demeter were the stars of these celebrations. The Mysteries date to way back in the day and are said to have gone on for about two thousand years.
The Eleusinian Mysteries began as secret ceremonies, but then got pretty mainstream towards the end. Initiates believed that taking part in the rituals guaranteed them a happy afterlife. Eventually, the Mysteries were displaced by Christianity, which has its own story of resurrection and promise of eternal life. (Read more about the Eleusinian Mysteries here.)
The less PG title of this myth is "The Rape of Persephone," which would imply that Persephone's abduction by Hades, lord of the dead, was more terrible than it's sometimes described. Though the myth is very old, it was famously retold by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Many later European retellings are based on Ovid's version of the tale.
Don't think Persephone has dropped off the face of the map. You see echoes of the myth in the poppiest of pop culture. Persephone is name of a character in the last two Matrix movies. This character is married to The Marovingian, a powerful lord of the underworld. (Hmm, we wonder where they got that idea?) Also recently, Persephone and Hades pop up in the Percy Jackson books and movies.
The myth of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades takes place in two locations that couldn't be more different: the land of the living and the land of the dead.
Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, so she's closely tied to the land of the living. In fact, it's Demeter that allows the crops to grow that keep humans alive. Hades, on the other hand, is the king of the dead. He rules the underworld, the place where all souls go when they die. Since these gods are like polar opposites, it's no wonder Demeter is so p.o.'ed when her daughter is married off to Hades and dragged underground.
In this myth, the world of the living isn't all flowers, strawberries, and sunshine, though. When Persephone is with Hades, Demeter doesn't allow anything to grow – it might as well be the underworld because of the plants are dead and humans struggle to feed themselves. During the part of the year that Persephone gets to live with her mom, though, Demeter brings the earth back to life.
Like the ancient Greeks, the Acoma Native Americans had a legend that explained the seasons. Their story involves a battle between the Spirit of Winter and the Spirit of Summer for a woman named Co-chin. Co-chin starts off married to Winter, but she doesn't like him because he's cold and his presence in her village kills all of the corn. When Summer and Winter battle, neither really wins (though Summer gets the girl), and they decide to each rule for half the year.
The full legend is worth a read. You can find it here.
The myth of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades definitely has some parallels in other cultures. Some have compared it to the myths surrounding the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Osiris, like Hades, was said to be the ruler of the underworld, and his wife was Isis, a mother goddess among many other things. Isis is like a lot of Greek goddesses squished together, Persephone and Demeter among them.
Probably the biggest myth of Osiris and Isis the one in which Osiris is betrayed and dismembered by his brother, Set. Isis puts him back together again, and he is reborn. So, like Persephone, Osiris came to represent the renewal of life. It's interesting that, in this Egyptian take on the theme, it's the lord of the dead, himself, and not his wife, that's reborn.
The tale of Persephone has a lot of similarities to myths surrounding Adonis, Aphrodite's (a.k.a. Venus) hunky lover. In some stories, Adonis had to spend part of the year in the underworld and part of the year above, which once again represents the seasons. Interestingly though, it's Persephone herself who demands that the dreamy Adonis be with her in the realm of the dead part of the time, instead of letting him live year round with his true love, Aphrodite.
For much more on this, check out our guide to "Venus and Adonis."
You probably noticed that the myth of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades is an origin story – it's used to explain the origin of the seasons, and why food crops don't grow in the winter. When Persephone is in the underworld with Hades, Demeter refuses to let any plants grow. When Persephone is in the world of the living with Demeter, the earth and plants return to life.
Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, which is why she can mess up the growing season for all of us humans. If we take a step away from the seasons and think instead about seeds and crops, we can see the myth as the allegory for the planting seeds. Persephone is like a seed. Each year she must go under the earth, but she's reborn again in the spring when she returns to the world of a living. This is exactly what happens to a seed: it's planted underground, and then it sprouts in the spring.
Demeter, who was called Ceres by the Romans (like cereal), was most closely related to crops of grains. That's why in his telling of this myth, Thomas Bulfinch, of Bulfinch's Mythology fame, says:
There can be little doubt of this story of Ceres [Demeter] and Proserpine [Persephone] being an allegory. Proserpine signifies the seed-corn which when cast into the ground lies there concealed—that is, she is carried off by the god of the underworld. It reappears—that is, Proserpine is restored to her mother. Spring leads her back to the light of day.
We agree, but don't be fooled: Greeks and Romans didn't have any corn. Last we checked, corn didn't make it to Europe until after Columbus landed in the Americas in the late 1400s. In your mind, just imagine he's talking about wheat, or some other grain.
Pour yourself a glass of POM Wonderful juice. Rub on some Burt's Bees pomegranate anti-aging lotion. And break open an Odwalla Strawberry Pomegranate granola bar. It's time to talk about pomegranates.
The pomegranate is a highly symbolic fruit for several different world religions, and not because of its high anti-oxidant content. In Judaism, the pretty, red fruit is considered sacred because it is said to have 613 seeds, the same number as the commandments in the Torah. Some also say that the fruit that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate. (POM Wonderful agrees.) This is interesting to think of in context with the myth of Persephone – here we have two women who really should've avoided the taste of the pomegranate.
In Orthodox Christianity, the pomegranate is associated with resurrection and eternal life, and it's often shown in depictions of both Mary and Jesus. (Check out this Botticelli painting of Mary with Jesus and a pomegranate.) Some have linked Persephone's yearly return from the underworld with Jesus' bursting from his tomb, so it makes some sense that Christians have adopted this pagan symbol.
To this day in Greece, pomegranates are traditionally eaten on Christmas and other important holidays.
Many centuries after the ancients, the basic story of Persephone's myth – innocent maiden abducted by death-figure – morphed into the theme of "death and the maiden" found in European art. This idea of an innocent girl seduced by death was popular all the way up to the Renaissance and afterward. What can we say? Sex and death – people are always going to be fascinated.
Want to read some other "death and the maiden" type stories? Check out Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" and Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death."
For more on the "death and the maiden" motif, particularly in art, click here.