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Persephone as Symbol of Life and Death
Demeter to Persephone:
But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.
- from the Homeric Hymn, Rape of Persephone
With spring comes promise, and the promise is from Demeter, goddess of the Harvest. From the union of Zeus, father of gods and men, and Demeter, came Persephone, goddess of Spring. Persephone, like spring, is the personification of new life, rebirth, and growth. When winter comes and the land becomes cold and barren , it is then that Persephone leaves the world of life and returns to the underworld -- this is the personification of death. Thus, Persephone becomes a symbol of life and death.
Demeter so loved her daughter that she kept Persephone hidden away from the Olympian gods. Hermes, Ares, Apollo, and Hephaestus, gods who wanted to pursue Persephone, found their gifts as well as themselves rejected by Demeter. Persephone was to live in Nature and in peace, with nymphs her only companions.
A child of Nature, Persephone spent her days in the meadows that were filled with flowers. With joy she gathered the beautiful blossoms and thrilled to their lovely scents, the nymphs playfully laughing and dancing with her in those child-like days of radiance and peace.
Yet this state of peace and joy was not to last for Persephone. She knew not that a radiant flower was to be a snare to end her joyous days of bliss. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth (gaia) and the sea's salt swell laughed for joy. (Homeric Hymn 2)
It was Persephone's fate and ill fortune that one of the gods who fell in love with her happened to be Hades, King of the Dead and lord of the Underworld. Zeus gave Hades leave to kidnap Persephone and take her to live in his kingdom as his wife.
As Demeter was away one day, the soft meadows beckoned to Persephone and the nymphs. Roses and beautiful flowers of all kinds, all looking delightful with their fragrances filling the air, drew Persephone out in the meadow and further from home.
Upon seeing the profoundly beautiful plant with a hundred blooms, Persephone forgot all else. She reached out with both hands to take hold of the lovely plant and pull it from Earth. When she pulled and the soil lifted, a great yawning gap opened up. From this gap the powerful immortal horses of the King of the Underworld came rushing towards her, pulling the chariot from the Underworld, with Hades driving them. He snatched Persephone up into his chariot and took her back to his kingdom where no Heaven could be seen with stars glowing brightly, no waters of the sea, no shining rays to fall upon her lovely face from the sun, and where she would not see her mother or people she so loved.
Shrilly crying and calling upon her father Zeus for help, he who was the most high of all gods, Persephone lamented and even her heart was crying out to her people. No gods nor mortal men heard the distress call -- Hekate, daughter of Helios, the Sun, heard from her cave the desperate cries of Persephone. But when Hekate tried to warn her father it was of no use, for he was in his temple receiving offerings from the mortal men who came to pray to him.
"... and the heights of the mountains and the depths of the sea ran with her immortal voice : and her queenly mother heard her." (Homeric Hymn 2).
Helios, when he learned what had happened, told Demeter where her daughter was. Thus began the wrath of a mother whose child was so cruelly taken from her. In deep despair, Demeter, goddess of all that grows and feeds the mortals, forbade anything to grow on Earth till her daughter was returned to her. Zeus consults with Hades and it was agreed to allow Persephone to be returned to her mother before all living things on Earth died. Hades so loved Persephone though that he planned one more snare. Persephone had not eaten anything in her mourning while in Hades' realm. He knew she was hungry. As a parting gift, he gave Persephone a pomegranate to eat. Persephone ate only six seeds.
When Persephone fell into the arms of her dear mother, Demeter asked if she had eaten any food of the dead, for to have done so would make her bound to Hades forever. When Persephone confessed she had eaten six seeds of the lovely fruit, Demeter was again in despair. To eat of the food of the dead meant she could not return to the land of the living. Desperate and threatening more wrath, Demeter speaks with Hades and they come to a compromise. Persephone was to spend one third of the year with Hades and the rest of the year with her mother -- and this is why the winter months are so cold and barren, for Demeter is then in mourning.
The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton (1891)
Public Domain, Wikipedia
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