At long last, we have reached the climax of this series of essays: modern day adaptations of Persephone's myth! If you have even a passing knowledge of modern pop culture, it won't surprise you to hear that there's been a massive explosion of media based off / referencing Greek mythology, and especially ones involving Hades & Persephone in recent years – from books to video games to web comics and even a Broadway musical. One list on GoodReads simply called "Hades and Persephone Books" boasts 498 titles. Something that may stand out to you after reading the other chapters of this essay, though, is just how pretty much all of these modern retellings are centered around romance.
Princess Weekes, a writer for The Mary Sue, gives a good summary of the modern, popular interpretation of Persephone's myth (complete with gif comparisons of different interpretations of the characters), and tries to explain why this change has occurred in her article, "The Cultural Reinvention of Persephone: From Maiden to The Dreaded One":
Persephone comes into herself as a woman and as queen through this story and instead of framing it as a violation on top of a violation, there is a desire to transform Persephone into more than just a victim. Allowing Persephone to take control of her own destiny is a better ending to that story than her just being tricked. (Just like the fan theory that Princess Peach and Bowser are in love and kidnapping is their kink.)
Considering how sexist a lot of the myths are written, it makes sense that female writers would want to re-examine them. Instead of a victim, Persephone, much like Belle, finds herself in a bad situation and makes the most of it. She is the dreaded one, the Queen of the Underworld. The goddess of Spring and maybe she wanted to eat the damn seeds.
There is so much to dissect here, oh my god. Just like I said in the last chapter, I understand hating the extreme sexism found in Greek myths and the world as a whole, but the solution isn't to just pretend that sexism doesn't exist! Our current situation is the result of that. Women are rightfully uncomfortable with seeing other women victimized, but rather than seeing that as a problem due to systemic misogyny and male violence, they instead want to take the same situation and rewrite it into a more culturally acceptable, more personally comfortable narrative. "Princess Peach and Bowser are in love and kidnapping is their kink" is literally the best example of this – rather than wanting to acknowledge that, for example, it's fucked up that the one of the only prominent female characters in such a major series only exists as a damsel in distress, they try to reframe it. No, it's actually her choice! She wants this! She's just kinky!
Shows such as Law & Order: SVU have been frequently criticized for having dramatic twists like, actually the girl's lying or the "victim" is actually the perpetrator! This is the same thing – the audience is much more comfortable believing that rape, sexual harassment and assault don't happen and all forms of sexism don't exist -- there's always some convoluted "deeper," individualized explanation for everything.
Look no further than the popular response to Amber Heard to see this individualistic misogyny in action. For context, in early 2022, Johnny Depp attempted to sue Heard for "defamation" after she wrote an article vaguely referring to herself as a "public figure representing domestic abuse" without mentioning him at all. This follows a previous court decision that found Depp had abused Heard on at least twelve separate occasions.
I don't think I can begin to do justice describing the horrific, internet-wide abuse Heard was subjected to as a result of this trial, but this article summarizes it fairly well. The fact that there are countless compilations of the "funniest moments" of a domestic violence hearing on Youtube is disgusting enough, but that's not even the tip of the iceberg!
Guardian author Martha Gill, in her article, "#MeToo is over if we don’t listen to ‘imperfect victims’ like Amber Heard" (2022), explains how this backlash against Heard shows how easy it is to collapse any feminist movement:
Whether or not Heard’s accusers fully realise it then, setting up “bad” victims in opposition to “genuine” ones is a very effective method of unpicking #MeToo. It is only the rare misogynist who outright admits they don’t believe women. Their objection has always been just to this one bitch, who is lying.
#MeToo (the clue’s in the name) attempted to combat this by linking experiences – all those bitches who weren’t believed – so we could see the pattern. In fact, you could say the whole project of feminism is about taking bad things that happened to women, which they thought only happened to them, or were their fault, and calling them by one name. Divide us back into unlinked individuals who might be lying, and the movement is lost.
#MeToo is often framed as having uncovered truths about the world – its success was because women “explained really clearly” what was going on. No. People already knew what was going on. #MeToo worked for the reason any feminist movement works: strength in numbers. It is a political movement pushing against incredibly strong forces in the other direction. There’s no reason to think its work cannot be rolled back.
Gill worries about women becoming "unlinked individuals" who cannot see the patterns of systemic misogyny tying us together, but it's obvious that this has already happened and has, in fact, been the case for quite some time.
For all I criticized about aspects of second wave feminism in the previous chapter, there's one thing that they did remarkably well that the modern day is truly, painfully lacking: consciousness raising, where women gather and openly discuss how sexism affects their lives. Comparatively, most strains of our current version of feminism (if it can even be called that) are so extremely individualistic and, therefore, useless. As Elizabeth Evans says in her article, "Understanding Third Wave Feminisms" (2015): "The confusion surrounding what constitutes third wave feminism is in some respects its defining feature." The only thing the various strains of third-wave feminism seem to have in common is their blind worship of "choice" as a tool for "empowerment" – empty buzzwords, discouraging deeper social analysis. This is a direct contrast to the second wave idea that "the personal is political," which encouraged women to talk to each other and realize that they were all dealing with similar issues and that something had to be done. [I've written more about this topic here, if you were interested!]
Since her first surviving major literary appearance in approximately 700 BCE, Persephone is still essentially a metaphor for how women are treated in society – a reader-insert, if you will. And, like all the other retellings we've discussed, the author's views are inherently projected onto her and the rest of the cast. As a result, it's interesting to compare reoccurring tropes between different modern adaptions of her myth, particularly the theme of "choice."
A quick example is the poem, "Persephone Lied" by Kelly Dalton (2006). It was originally published on her LiveJournal and reposted on Tumblr (available here), then later released as a small collection of poems in 2017. With nearly twenty thousand notes on Tumblr as of May 2023, this poem has obviously had a big influence on how people look at Persephone's myth, directly inspiring various playlists, paintings, and even other poems. The poem was even featured in someone's thesis about Persephone in popular culture. So, let's take a closer look at what's happening in this poem, what it's trying to say, and why that message apparently speaks so deeply to the modern audience.
Narrated by Persephone, it talks about how Demeter wanted a "decorative daughter," a sort of political object who she wishes to marry off to a humble swineherd to improve her own image. Persephone, who has just been dealing with her mother's micromanaging of her life to this point, finds the swineherd unbearably boring and decides to finally do something about it. That's where the titular lie comes in: she just pretended that Hades kidnapped her, but, in fact, she "jumps" into the Underworld herself.
And, in response to being warned not to eat food while there:
I said give me the fucking fruit.
This is the kicker of the poem, the climax, emphasizing Persephone's personal agency. In a moment of hesitation, however, worrying about her mother's grief, she spits out half the seeds and is forced to return to the surface world for half the year – a time she spends waiting for fall to come, so she can return to Hades' side.
(What is Hades like here, you ask? We don't actually hear much about him or what he does exactly, but they are apparently "dark things" and she "like[s] it" and that's (supposed to be) enough for us.)
Just like the suggestion of Peach and Bowser simply being in a "kinky" relationship from the beginning of the chapter, Dalton is reframing the myth to make herself more comfortable, presenting a Persephone who controls her own destiny, pursuing love and freedom and pushing away from her mother's oppressive expectations of what her life should be like.
Like we just saw in Dalton's "Persephone Lied," the demonization of Demeter is another reoccurring theme throughout modern adaptations of Persephone's myth. As Tumblr user @inthehandsofa writes:
“To heroize men, you must demonize women” is a quote that comes to mind when I read these “modern” versions of the myth. To heroize Hades, you must demonize Demeter. In the original myth, she is a grieving mother, a sympathetic figure expressing the grief that so many mothers in history have endured. She did all she could to prevent her daughter from being raped, but was ultimately unsuccessful – but even so, she fought to free her daughter from her marriage. However, in these modern versions, we heroize Hades, the man. And so we must demonize Demeter, the woman. Now, she’s no longer the grieving mother but the abusive mother. No longer a sympathetic figure but a controlling bitch.
This is the case in one of the most popular current retellings: Rachel Smythe's webcomic Lore Olympus (2018 – present). Set in a pseudo-modern yet still mythical AU, Persephone is a college student interning in the Underworld, which is basically a company of which Hades is the CEO. As early as episode six, Persephone is shown having nightmares about her mother locking her in a greenhouse without doors to "keep her safe." Similarly, a major conflict impeding the development of Hades and Persephone's relationship is a sorority Demeter pressured her to join, The Goddesses of Eternal Maidenhood (TGOEM), which was supposed to keep her safe from dangerous men but ended up just making her feel too ashamed to come forward when she was sexually assaulted.
In episode 89, Hades asks if she really wants to be a member of TGOEM and she just worries about disappointing others. After a bit more reflection, she says:
I'm trying to work out if it was my choice, or if everyone just told me it was my choice.
Considering our modern culture, I think it does make sense that retellings would go this sort of route. Like I said previously, the original myth was likely meant to show Persephone as a parallel to the average women, and that's basically what's going on here: she's a college student and goes through normal college struggles, like trying to figure out what she wants in life and falling in love. Unfortunately, rates of sexual abuse and assault are also incredibly high on college campuses, as well as the men in charge refusing to take action due to fears of damaging the rapist's "reputation" (Smythe, ep 58). And, in the modern world, independence means leaving your parent's sphere of influence. In this way, Persephone's decision to be with Hades is "empowering," when compared to how her mother wants her to remain a virgin…
But, I still feel like this is a slap in the face for a number of reasons – specifically, the emphasis on finding love. In the ancient world, as we've already established, women didn't have a choice; they were forced to get married. In Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae, for example, Persephone is accompanied in the meadow by her fellow virgin goddesses and they try to help her when she is initially kidnapped by Hades, because:
their common virginity goads them to arms and makes them
bitter at the crime of the wild ravisher (Lincoln 225).
Zeus stops them from actually being able to protect her, but, still, in a world where you're forced to marry (and raped as a result), virginity is something to fight for! Now, however, virginity is held up on a pedestal, as a symbol of virtue, and thus we end up in this very difficult situation where, like Persephone, it's difficult to tell what we actually want and what we've simply been conditioned into wanting by patriarchal society. You're still judged, either way.
So far, we've talked about Persephone and her personal agency and how Demeter is seen as infringing on that, but how does Hades fit into all of this?
Often, Hades is seen as a refuge for Persephone, desperate to escape her fate, whatever it may be. In Dalton's "Persephone Lied," she doesn't want to be forced by Demeter to marry a boring swineherd and finds an exciting, nonjudgmental lover in Hades. In Lore Olympus, Hades and Persephone are unexpected kindred spirits who bond over similar feelings of familiar pressure and hidden inner darkness. In Sarah Diemer's The Dark Wife (2011), Persephone initially hides in the Underworld to avoid Zeus and is comforted by a female, surprisingly nice and even "motherly" Hades. In these stories, Persephone finds the support and warmth she is missing from her mother in Hades. But is this always the case?
American poet Louise Glück shows another side of the myth throughout her collection of poems, Averno (2006), which also doubles as a pseudo-memoir. One major difference is that Glück criticizes the idea of romantic love altogether. In "Prism," for example, the speaker describes how her sister said falling in love is like "being struck by lightning," but she 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. Meanwhile, the other retellings we've discussed in this chapter have been based entirely around the romance between Hades and Persephone, where the major draw for someone to read it is because they already ship them.
Similarly, Glück argues in "Persephone the Wanderer" that the myth
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 think that really speaks to the bigger issues we see today. No one stops to ask what Persephone (or average girl she represents) actually wants, not even her. Like in Lore Olympus, she is only given the "choice," the false dichotomy, of empty Eternal Maidenhood or fulfilling romance. She desires romance because every story she reads centers romance.
But, in reality, you don't have to either base your life around romance or the lack of thereof – you can, in fact, live fully and genuinely for yourself, achieving your dreams with friends and family by your side.
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.
Glück, Louise. Averno. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Digital.
Lincoln, Bruce. "The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women's Initiation." The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 72, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Oct., 1979), pp. 223-235. Online.
Princess Weekes. "The Cultural Reinvention of Persephone: From Maiden to The Dreaded One." The Mary Sue, 2018. Online.
Smythe, Rachel. Lore Olympus. Webtoon, 2018-2022. Online.