Persephone (Proserpine to the Romans) was the beautiful daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of agriculture. Persephone also goes by the name of Kore or Cora, and she is thought of as the maiden goddess of spring and grain. In the most popular myth of Persephone, she's the unwilling wife of Hades, lord of the underworld, and must spend a few months out of the year with him in the land of the dead. Nothing grows on earth when Persephone is among the dead, because Demeter is so sad about her daughter's fate. And so the myth of Persephone is used to explain the seasons.
Interestingly, in earlier myths Persephone is depicted as the perfectly willing queen of the dead who rules the underworld beside her husband, Hades. In these myths, she wasn't depicted as an innocent maiden at all, but the stone-cold goddess of the dead. In The Odyssey, for example, Homer calls her the majestic queen of shades. This earlier version of Persephone was often called Despoina, which translates to "the mistress." People called her this because they were afraid to say her real name.
Eventually, it seems Persephone's two personas blended together, and so she was thought of as a goddess of both life and death. Whatever the case, Persephone is almost always associated with the death and resurrection of the earth through the cycle of the seasons. She and Demeter were the central figures in Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult practice which promised its initiates everlasting life. (See "Context" for more on the Eleusinian Mysteries.)
Hades (Pluto to the Romans) was known as the lord of the underworld and god of the dead. He definitely comes off as the bad guy in this little story when he drags the maiden, Persephone, down to the underworld and forces her to be his bride. Not only does he kidnap the innocent goddess of spring, he also tricks her into eating pomegranate seeds so that she has to return to the underworld for part of every year. What a jerk, right?
In some versions of the myth, though, Persephone rules beside him of her own free will, and together they regulate the world of the dead. So, maybe he's not as big of jerk as he's made out to be.
For much much more on Hades, click here.
Demeter (Ceres to the Romans) is the Greek goddess of agriculture, grain, and bread. The story of her daughter Persephone's kidnapping is the most widely known myth of the goddess. It seems like everybody can sympathize with this poor lady as she searches all over the earth for her lost daughter.
Persephone's abduction into the underworld and return to her mother was the basis of most of the cults that worshiped Demeter. The most famous rituals celebrating the agricultural goddess were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised participants everlasting life. (See "Context" for more on the Eleusinian Mysteries.)
It seems like the king of the gods, Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), is always causing some kind of trouble. In this myth, he decides it's a good idea to let his brother, Hades, marry his daughter, Persephone. Zeus decides this, of course, without bothering to tell Persephone or her mother, Demeter, of his matchmaking scheme. It all blows up in Zeus's face, however, when Demeter causes famine to plague the earth. This myth is pretty interesting in that the all-powerful king of the gods gets punked down by a goddess. It looks like the patriarchal (male-dominated) system on Mount Olympus isn't quite as fool-proof as Zeus would like it to be.
We've got a lot more to say about Zeus. Check it out here.