Persephone VS Godly Indifference

Out of all the mortals of earth and the deathless gods of Olympus, why did Hades have to choose her? What use is a fertility goddess in a place like this? She falls to the cold, barren ground and weeps…

This genre of adaptation of Persephone's myth seems to latch onto themes of divine despotism – the idea that the gods or the Fates or whatever else determine what happens in life – and that all that you can do is decide how you react.

This sentiment shows up repeatedly in Hymn to Demeter. For example, while Demeter is traveling the Earth in disguise looking for Persephone, a villager tells her: "what the gods send us, we mortals bare perforce, although we suffer; for they are much stronger than we" (lines 149-50). Also, later on, when Demeter first hears Zeus' verdict that Persephone can only return for part of the year because she was forced into eating the pomegranate seeds, Demeter rejects the deal entirely and leaves the fields barren. Her own mother Rhea eventually convinces her that, unfortunately, it's the best solution available. Even the gods themselves are powerless against fate!

No one is a better example of this than Persephone herself, so it's no wonder why authors wishing to explore this sort of theme would flock to her.

The first example I have is a pretty obscure work by German author Johan Wolfgang von Goethe called Proserpina (1777-1815). In her essay, Byrne Bodley discusses how Goethe likely wrote this piece as a way to deal with the death of his sister Cornelia earlier that year. He was completely devastated and threw himself into his art, writing multiple poems, plays, and stories in short succession in the following months, all dealing with similar themes of being helpless against fate (38-40). Proserpina was reworked multiple times over forty years – originally written as prose, it was then changed into a poem, a brief play within a play, and, finally, into a Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork," which attempts to combine many forms of art into one (here, namely poetry, acting, stage scenery and effects, costuming, music, and choreography). Byrne Bodley's essay and later book she wrote about this piece go into depth discussing the significance of the combination of music and lyrics and lighting and everything, but I'm only going to be talking about the poem today (which can be found here, also translated by Byrne Bodley). If you were curious, though, here's a brief clip of a modern production I found on Youtube:

Performed by Laila Cathleen Neuman, for the Utrecht Early Music Festival (2022).

Goethe apparently had such high expectations regarding this final iteration of the piece that it was only properly performed once, due to lack of funds (Byrne Bodley 46-7). That single performance apparently really was something, though!

The poem follows Persephone wandering around the Underworld, talking about how terrified she is, how worried her mother must be, how much she misses the sun and the moon. She also talks about wanting to relieve others' suffering around her – how she wishes she could give Tantalus one of the fruits he was punished to never be able to reach or release Ixion from the fiery wheel that Zeus tied him to – but she can't even help herself. And, through all this, she finds one sole solace: a pomegranate tree. Without thinking, she eats a few seeds to remember her home on the surface. The Fates promptly rise up from the ground and laugh – they planted the tree there to trick her into eating, so she'd never be able to leave. From this point, her sadness and fear are replaced with anger. She screams at them:

O if only Tartarus were not already your
Dwelling that I could banish you there!
O if only Cocytus were not already
your eternal bath so that I might have
flames left over for you!
I am the queen
And I cannot annihilate you!
May I be bound to you in eternal hatred!
So draw water, Danaids!
Spin, Fates! Rage, Furies!
In an eternally wretched fate!
I govern you
And so am more wretched than you all.

The way that she changes from a gentle, innocent girl who just wants to help everyone to a cold and sadistic queen – I just think this is a cool interpretation of her character as a metaphor for grief and death.

Hades, while briefly mentioned or alluded to, never actually appears; the poem instead focuses entirely on Persephone's inner journey and I think it really pays off! She comes off as the "Dread Persephone" in a way that's missing in a lot of more popular, modern works (where she's more like a dog with a bark and no bite, if that, even). Now this is what I've always wanted from a Persephone-themed bildungsroman!

Louise Glück shows us a completely different Persephone in her collection of poems, Averno (2006). Some poems have a first-person speaker whose life seems to parallel similar themes to Persephone's (implied sexual assault or other trauma, a complicated relationship with her mother, feeling a lack of control in life, etc) and others are written in third person perspective directly about the mythical figure Persephone, giving further commentary about the myth.

A reoccurring idea throughout the book is that "the earth has no memory" (as said in "Averno"). For example, in "Landscape," section three, the speaker talks about the time a girl from her town set fire to a local farm when she was a child – all the crops were destroyed, leaving only ash. Later, in "Averno," section two, she returns to the same field as an adult and thinks about how, not only has nothing changed, but you even can't tell what happened anymore, under the snow. Then, in section five of "Averno," we hear more about how the farmer feels:

He remembers the day the field burned,
not, he thinks, by mistake.
Something deep within him said: I can live with this,
I can fight it after a while.

The terrible moment was the spring after his work was erased,
when he understood that the earth
didn't know how to mourn, that it would change instead.
And then go on existing without him.

This story about the burnt field tells us that such things are completely out of our hands – while occasionally the gods may hear your prayers and take pity on you, the insentient earth simply exists, indifferent to your struggle.

The image of barren fields comes up in other ways, as well. Like, in "October," section 2, Glück writes metaphorically about summer as the "balm after violence":

It does me no good; violence has changed me.
my body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and weary,
with the sense that it is being tested.

While "the field doesn't become afraid of matches, / of young girls," humans aren't so lucky, unable to just shrug off trauma and continue living life as they did before, like the unfeeling earth ("Averno," section five). This idea is reflected later with Persephone:

The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return. A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.

Then she says, I was not abducted,.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body
. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. ("Myth of Innocence")

You cannot halt life and the change it brings. Also, we see more of the results of trauma – she lies to herself, tries to blame herself for what happened, tries to convince herself that she "wanted" it all along… She refutes this line of thought at the end, believing that it's of no use to hide from reality like this.

Another prominent theme is love, or rather the complications of love and the speaker's rejection of it. In "Prism," she describes how her sister said falling in love is like "being struck by lightning," but the speaker felt it was more like "the electric chair." She talks further about how it was pressed on her as a child that the only option she had was to fall in love and get married and how marriage and romantic relationships, in general, require you to repress parts of yourself.

That's interesting, actually, considering how so many of the modern adaptions of Persephone's myth revolve solely around her romance with Hades and end with the exact same happily ever after that Glück seems to be criticizing. When Hades shows up in Averno, he is nothing like the typical romance protagonist that you would see in a cheesy novel, but (aside from being her uncle, can't forget that!) he is shown to have no clue about her and her wants, needs, or feelings, at all. In "A Myth of Devotion," he builds a "duplicate of earth" that he plans to slowly take things away from (like shadows, the moon, the stars), to help ease her into the cold, nothingness of the Underworld. As he's looking back proudly at his creation, the poem states:

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn't imagine;
no lover ever imagines them. ("The Myth of Devotion")

Hades is living in a fantasy world – he only considers his own desires.

Another poem, "Persephone the Wanderer," shows that Demeter and her motherly love and protection aren't completely innocent in this either:

as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read

as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.

Neither cares about what Persephone wants or what's best for her; they only care about themselves. The second segment of "Persephone the Wanderer" talks about how she doesn't have a say in what happens to her. Just when she has gotten used to one mode of life, either on the surface or the Underworld, it switches on her and the cycle continues.

I also really liked Glück's interpretation; I think it added a lot to the original myth and introduces a lot of intriguing ideas. Like, it seems like every modern version I've seen demonizes Demeter in one way or another, showing her either as a helicopter parent or outright physically and mentally abusive for no reason – I don't think she's evil for being worried about her daughter being kidnapped and god knows what else! Still, Glück shows more reasonably how she fails to consider how Persephone feels in all this, like a child going through a particularly nasty divorce, dragged back and forth like a doll and never allowed to find her own footing or sense of stability.

It's obvious why Persephone's lack of autonomy resonates with a lot of people: powerlessness is inherent to the human condition. So many forces act against us simultaneously, both natural and manmade, and there's (almost) nothing we can do about it. While, with great time and struggle, social changes can be made (and have been made, historically), it can still feel helpless, from the ground. Climate change continues to worsen and the effects seem to be becoming more frequent, severe, and possibly irreversible. And, on top of this, even the richest man in the world could die suddenly from a heart attack – as could you.

But, in spite of all of this, you can't really live life, spending all your time wallowing in anger, resentment, and fear. However it happens, whatever it is, you need to find something to help keep your head above water, at least.

It has taken many years, but she has come to terms with what has happened to her. Nothing can change the past and, furthermore, she acknowledges she doesn’t control the future, either. Still, if nothing else, she has control over her own thoughts and actions…

Still, she can't help but wonder how else life could've turned out…
Try another path?

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. "Hymn 2 to Demeter." Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Online.

Byrne Bodley, Lorraine. "From Mythology to Social Politics: Goethe’s Proserpina with Music by Carl Eberwein." Musical Receptions of Greek Antiquity: From the Romantic Era to Modernism, 2015. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Online.

Glück, Louise. Averno. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Digital.