The Dark Queen

The Kore is the innocent Little Girl, but just how ‘little’ is the mythic Persephone? By implication if not direct statement she is almost old enough for menarche and marriage, which adds a layer of complication to the story. It can be inferred that she is actually entering the Hebe phase of the female life cycle.

Hebe is the Goddess of Youthful Beauty, daughter of Zeus and Hera. She is considered to be the embodiment of the allure held by girls on the cusp of sexual maturity, still flush with the sweetness of virginal youth but ready to cross over into the dangerous realm of sensually aware womanhood. Ancient Greek men gave themselves the out over and over in myth that they were simply helpless in the face of such charms. Apparently even the mighty God of the Underworld is not immune.

Unbeknownst to Demeter, plans for her daughter’s nuptials have been arranged between the Kore’s father, Zeus, and his brother Hades. While we hope it would have been rare for such an occasion to occur without the consent of the mom, it was technically legal as of course women had no societal say in such things. But Zeus, who tends to be in the crosshairs of the women in his life, attempts to sidestep the storm by granting Hades permission and then being simply too busy running the universe to get involved in any further details.

The takeaway is that poor old Hades can’t be held accountable for abducting his niece. She is, after all, a girl in the Hebe stage which no male, mortal or immortal, can be expected to resist. He’s not a pedophile, but, like most fellows of the bygone age, a Hebeophile.

Hey, it worked for Joe Arpaio!

We’re not privy to what goes on in Tartaros between the newly married couple, not even the wedding itself. The Hymn focuses on Demeter’s wandering and mourning, and we’re left to speculate how things unfold for the ruler of the realm of death and his dewy young bride.

This is incredibly fertile ground for modern writers, and many have leapt down the chasm to peek voyeuristically into the dark bedchamber.

We’ll sidestep the many interpretations, theories, arguments and historical revisionist attempts, delightful though they are, and focus in on what the Hymn actually says.

Demeter’s mourning turns to wrath as she broods over the treacherous story of her family’s connivance in wresting away her daughter (her grandmother Gaia planted the narcissus to help Hades), and she takes her revenge by blighting the crops. As the human race starves, offerings and libations to the Immortals begin to taper off, alarming the host on Olympus. Zeus appeals to Demeter to relent, but she’s in no mood for his importunings. In desperation Zeus sends his messenger, Hermes, to the Underworld carrying his divine command to give the ‘chaste maiden’ back.

But chastity in those days relied on appearances, not the presence of a hymen. Any girl who spent the night unchaperoned with an adult male was considered to have had sex, willingly or no, in actuality or no. And it’s pretty clear how the ancient Greeks considered this case, as the royal couple is actually in bed (or as some translators have it a ‘funeral couch’) when Hermes shows up. She is now called Persephone, which seems to have roots in an archaic verb meaning ‘to destroy.’ The implication of the bedchamber is that she has been bedded and is now accorded mature female status.

And, of course, that the innocence of her girlhood has been destroyed.

The Hymn says that the young woman is “much under duress, yearning for her mother, and suffering from the unbearable things inflicted on her by the will of the blessed ones.” So while modern reinterpretations are fun and fascinating, it’s pretty clear that the archaic view of the Bride is that she’s not having a romping good time.

Hades listens to Hermes recount the boss’s instructions, and we’re told he ‘smiles with his brows’ which is a fascinating tidbit. It’s conventionally interpreted as a ‘knowing smile’, suggesting that Hades knows more than he’s letting on. If you really want to have fun with psychological unpacking, in Greek society arching eyebrows actually signals a negative, so while Hades smoothly agrees to return his bride, his body language is giving away his intent to do no such thing.

He starts off seeming to go along with the plan, encouraging Persephone to return to her mother and to think of him with kindness, but adds, “I will not be an unseemly husband to you, in the company of the immortals. I am the brother of Zeus the Father. If you are here you will be queen of everything that lives and moves about, and you will have the greatest tîmai (glory) in the company of the immortals.”

Note the verb form, indicating that not only that he’s a fine fellow and an excellent catch, but also the confident assumption that he’s going to continue on as her husband, that their partnership does not end with the visit to Mom. And of course, what status and power she’s going to enjoy as the Queen of the Underworld, where all living things end up, as well as among her own kind, the gods.

His words can be looked at as his wedding gift to her. Telling her to be chill, quiet the crying and consider his worth. After all, she’ll be queen of ‘everything that lives and moves,’ a fascinating tidbit of information considering the realm in which they’ll be dwelling. Even among the gods themselves she’ll have high honors. Fire and brimstone upon any human who doesn’t worship her appropriately. After he ticks through his list of great selling points we’re told she ‘rejoiced,’ but it’s maddeningly vague on whether she’s rejoicing to hear how blinged out she’s going to be, or simply that she’s about to get away from him.

It’s at this point that he gives her the pomegranate seeds to eat, ‘stealthily peering around him.’ We’re not told how she receives them, but there’s no mention of coercion.

But does he force them upon her as she tells her mother? Or does she peer around stealthily with him before accepting her guarantee that she’ll be back soon with the husband who will make her a Queen?

Hades himself harnesses his horses, but does not accompany his bride back to the surface. In fact, the abduction is one of the very, very few times in myth that we ever see Hades outside of his realm. Hermes takes the reins and triumphantly deposits the weeping girl into her mother’s welcoming arms.

Once the initial bliss of reunion has passed, Demeter’s worries surface and she questions her daughter astutely about having partaken of any food in the underworld. She knows already what that will mean.

Persephone promises to be completely candid with her mom, which immediately raises the question of why she has to forcefully declare her honesty. ‘I swear I’m telling the truth, Mom, honest to gods!’

It comes out that her husband ‘stealthily’ pressed the seeds on her and ‘compelled’ her to eat them.

How many parents have heard a teenager protest thus?

She goes on to recount the story of her abduction, making it quite clear that she was taken against her will.

The fun for the writer is whether you take the girl at her word and go for her simple honesty, or choose to play with the idea that she’s fudging the details, shading the truth to stay out of trouble with her very powerful mother.

Zeus hands down his ruling that Persephone will spend a predetermined amount of time with her husband in the ‘dark mist underneath’ and the rest of the time on Olympus with her mother and the rest of the Olympian gods.

From the time Persephone is done explaining things to her mother we see little of her for the rest of the Hymn. It’s mostly about Demeter being encouraged rather forcefully to get with the program, and her deciding it’s a good time to relent. The party sounds much like a wedding celebration, only without the groom in attendance.

Persephone’s cycle is set.

It is through other sources and stories that we hear of Persephone’s great power. She is both kind and terrifying, sometimes welcoming supplicants to her throne room with soft cushions and feasts, often snatching the living herself and dragging them down to her realm even as she herself was dragged.

Notes:

‘Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 16 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
“Ethemea, of the race of Nymphae (Nymphs), who was stuck with the arrows of Diana [Artemis] when she ceased worshipping her. At last she was snatched away alive by Proserpina [Persephone] to the Land of the Dead.”’

‘Hesiod, Theogony 767 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
“There, in front [of the ends of the earth], stand the echoing halls of the god of the lower-world, strong Haides, and of awful Persephone. A fearful hound [Kerberos (Cerberus)] guards the house in front . . . keeps watch and devours whomsoever he catches going out of the gates of strong Haides and awful Persephone.”’

Whether a Herakles who convinces the Dread Queen to conspire with him to get out of the dark realm alive, or a Pirithous who spends eternity stuck to a chair getting tortured by the Furies for daring to presume that she might look upon him as a suitor, nobody does get the better of her once she fulfills her destiny and take her crown.

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