Female Archetypes in Greek Mythology – the Maiden

We’re going to begin the series with the Maiden.

Everyone’s first and favorite Maiden Archetype is Persephone, flower-faced daughter of the Mother Goddess Demeter. Almost everyone has encountered the basic story at some point. While the Mother is busy calling the plants forth from the earth, her little daughter plays with her friends in the flower fields. Her uncle, Hades, ruler of the Underworld, catches sight of her and decides to abscond with her. He erupts from his dark realm in his chariot, snatches the maiden and disappears with her into the depths. Demeter wanders, mourning her daughter’s loss, refusing to allow the crops to grow. The Gods finally intervene and Hades is pressured into giving up his Bride. But he persuades her to eat some pomegranate seeds while she is still in the Underworld, guaranteeing that she will have to return to spend the same amount of months with him as seeds she consumes (the numbers vary).

The story is generally presented as an Innocence to Experience story and indeed it fits that trope perfectly. But of course, there’s more.

When we first meet our maiden, playing on the broad plain of Nysos, she doesn’t even have a name. It wasn’t unusual in the ancient world to put off naming babies until they reached a certain age, as infant mortality was so uncertain. It would be unusual to let a kid go nameless until pubescence, but such was the case with Demeter’s daughter, who was simply referred to as Kore, which means Maiden or Little Girl.

The Kore’s childishness and innocence is emphasized by this. Her name, and with it her attendant identity and power, are bestowed upon her later when she achieves status as a married woman.

That’s as far as most take it. Little girl, passive, featureless, without identity, just a pretty little cipher, playing in the flowers with her little friends, her only words a scream for her mommy as the earth closes over her little head.

But let’s backtrack and take a closer look at this girl.

She’s on the plain of Nysos, at least in the Homeric hymn. Other ancient authors from other places like to claim the honor. Herein lies one of the rabbit holes down which you can romp like a wild hare and procrastinate on actual writing for days. Consider yourselves warned.

Nysos is a spot sacred to the God Dionysus, famed for his wild, ecstatic female followers, the maenads. Right at the start of the tale, this puts an intriguing frisson of feral power into the tale of our girl.

Next let’s take a look at her playmates. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter lists an overwhelming roster of ancient aristocracy, but two especially interesting ones are Artemis and Athena (whose archetypal characters we’ll be exploring further in later entries).

Two of the Parthenoi, or Virgin Goddesses, Artemis and Athena are females who are not subject sexually or otherwise to men, and whose wildness and ferocity make them objects of disquiet and even fear. Their presence at the scene prior to the abduction can be mansplained away easily enough, but it should still give one pause. That the Huntress and the War Goddess find the Kore interesting enough to hang out with indicates that the Little Girl, while genuinely innocent and childish, possesses a dangerous ferocity that is just waiting, like her sexuality, to bloom.

Certainly the language surrounding marriage and mating in ancient Greece make it plain that Greek men looked at the whole affair as domesticating wild things, much as one would break a mustang mare.

That Hades should see and desire her would not have been considered unusual. While the Kore is a Little Girl on the one hand, she is also assumed to be right at the cusp of menarche and soon to be of marriageable age. Tradition considered this to be the most desirable and dangerous point of a woman’s life, coming into a sexuality that was so overwhelming that poor men could not be expected to resist it. This animal magnetism intrigued and terrified, and the God of the Dead was just as subject to it as any other shlub.

That he was her uncle would also have been relatively common. There was even a specific term for girls like the Kore–epikleros–which meant a girl who was the father’s heir. Obviously Zeus had lots of sons, but not with Demeter. While not Zeus’s wife, Demeter is a powerful goddess in her own right, and her daughter with the ruler of Olympus would have corresponding status.

As for permitting the Kore’s marriage without her mother’s consent, in ancient Greek society he would have had the absolute authority to dictate where his daughter married, with or without the consent of the mother.

The situation is complicated when the mother is THE Mother, and a goddess who takes her own sphere of ruler-ship as seriously as she does her motherhood.

Hades erupts from under the earth and snatches the girl, an event mirrored in marriage rituals all over the region for millennia. Her terrified screams for both her father and mother (dismissed as mere surprise by revisionist authors) are a stark reminder that she is indeed a child and she is being carried off by none other than Death Himself.

In our next segment we’ll look at what happens to her when she reaches the Kingdom of the Dead and how her archetype morphs into that of the Dark Queen.

In the meantime, bear in mind that Maidens are not just cute, malleable and innocent–they’re also feral, unpredictable and supremely dangerous.