So far in our little journey into studying this myth, we've only looked at some of the remaining classical sources and some fairly obscure works from the 1800's. Let's briefly depart from that to look at one of the most well-known, culturally pervasive works of art pertaining to this myth: Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 1622 sculpture, Ratto di Proserpina (The Rape of Proserpina).
Even if you aren't that into art and art history, it's pretty likely you've seen it. In recent years, it's frequently been reposted on Tumblr and other sites, particularly as a detail like I've shown above with a particular focus on how realistic Hades' hand looks gripping Persephone's thigh or otherwise showing off Persephone's figure, conveniently cropping out her anguished expression and the tears in her eyes. These reposts also often have people talking about how sexy it is or otherwise romanticizing it.
One post criticizes how others take the work out of context, but they've received responses saying things like "art is in the eye of the beholder" and can have many different meanings, etc. So, let's talk about it: what does this sculpture mean? What is it meant to communicate to the audience? Before we can answer, there's one more thing to note: there was originally an inscription at the bottom that has since been destroyed which read:
"Oh you who are bending down to gather flowers,
behold as I am abducted to the home of the cruel Dis."
This is apparently a message from the titular Prosperina (Persephone), addressed to any young women who might be viewing, warning them to… not look at flowers? or else they will suffer the same fate as her?? But, as we have previously discussed, this (being abducted by her new 'husband,' who she has likely never even met before) was the fate of all young women – they had no other choice and no rights. It's like the famous quote from John Berger's Ways of Seeing:
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.
Proserpina is simultaneously blamed for getting herself into this horrible situation, while her rape / abduction is sexualized. If anything, it seems that the reactions that you see on Tumblr with this piece grouped thoughtlessly into compilations of various sexy sculptures, paintings, poems, song lyrics, etc, is what Bernini was going for here – it's meant to be a voyeuristic piece. Here, Proserpina is not someone who the viewer is supposed to sympathize with and hope to save, but rather an object to fantasize about.
The fetishization and dehumanization of women in art is a common issue brought up by feminists. For example, one long-running ad campaign from the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist group, criticizes the disparity between the large ratio of female nudes and small ratio of female artists featured in the Metropolitan Museum:
Again, we must ask ourselves: what does this say about our culture and how it views women? How does it affect how women and young girls see themselves when they're only shown as the victims of horrific crimes or, worse, their abuse being romanticized? When all they're exposed to is depictions of women created by men for the pleasure of men?
With the growing feminist consciousness in the 1970's and 80's came a desire to somehow escape or write over the millennia of patriarchal oppression and allow women to start over fresh. In her 1988 article "The Eleusinian Mysteries Of Demeter And Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality, and Rebirth," Mara Lynn Keller argues that this is encapsulated by the rise of Goddess spirituality in feminist circles at the time, along with a particular interest in the idea of pre-patriarchical societies. She describes at length how the earliest matriarchal religions and societies around Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East, which existed around 5000 years ago or even older still, were wiped out and denigrated by later violent patriarchal societies, leaving almost no historical record.
Before we get into it, though, I have to say I have several reservations about this whole Goddess spirituality movement. For example, Charlene Spretnak expresses in the acknowledgements of her book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece (first published in 1978) about being inspired by her young daughter's curiousity about Greek myths, but also wanting to protect her from their extreme misogyny. I too wish that women in these stories were, y'know, treated like human beings with basic personal autonomy and dignity! But:
- Almost nothing remains of these societies. We can say nothing definitively about these times and much of what these feminist scholars are saying seems to be conjecture and clouded by what they want to believe, rather than being based in tangible evidence. I just don't think that makes a good basis for an argument.
- This line of thought seems to inevitably lead into historical revisionism, which I condemn on all levels. I've used this example before, but, as we've seen in Iceland, spinning narratives about how misogyny no longer exists or trying to shield the children from it or whatever doesn't actually do anything to interrupt our inherently sexist world – it just lures women into a false sense of security and makes it more difficult for them to speak out about their concerns. In fact, I believe that these 70's and 80's feminist narratives that we're talking about today directly led into the modern popular interpretation of Hades and Persephone being a "soft uwu" love story, even if that was the exact opposite intention of these authors. (I'll be talking much more about this in the next chapter!)
Either way, considering the massive impact these ideas seem to have had, both on the feminist movements of the 70's and 80's and apparently our modern interpretation of Persephone's myth, I think they're still important to look more into. For example, in the introduction of the 1992 rerelease of Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Spretnak discusses the appeal and importance of Goddess worship, especially to modern feminist women who feel alienated by the misogyny of patriarchal religions:
A woman raised in a patriarchal culture is told that she has the wrong type of body-mind to be taken seriously and to share a sexual sameness with God. Patriarchal socialization tells her that the elemental power of the female is somewhat shameful, dirty, and downright dangerous if unrestrained. Imagine, then, the ontological revolution that occurs within such a woman who immerses herself in sacred space where various manifestations of the Goddess bring forth the Earthbody from the spinning void, bestow fertility on field and womb, ease ripe bodies in childbirth, nurture the arts, protect the home, guard one's child against the forces of harm issue guidance for a community, join in ecstatic dance and celebration in sacred groves, and set love's mysteries in play. The woman's possibilities are evoked with a joyous intensity. She will create the ongoing completion of each mythic fragment. She is in and of the Goddess. She will embody the myth with her own totemic being. She is the cosmic form of waxing, fullness, waning: innocent virgin, mature creator, wise crone. She cannot be negated ever again. Her roots are too deep – and they are everywhere. (xiii – xiv)
While patriarchal religions continuously depict women as evil (Pandora's box, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, etc) or lesser than men and existing only to serve them, the Goddess upholds women and unites and celebrates them and their bodies. It's certainly a pleasant sentiment…
But, again, even here, I have several issues. It seems very biologically essentialist, for one – it seems that still this is saying that women's purpose is to have children, that women are inherently nurturers, etc. And the idea of a woman encompassing the "innocent virgin, mature creator, wise crone" is still defining a woman by her relationship to a man, is it not? It's basically basing the stages of a woman's life on whether a man hasn't had sex with you yet, if he has had and is currently having sex with you, and if he no longer wants to have sex with you, isn't it? What if a woman doesn't want a man? What if she has her own hopes and dreams, completely unrelated to motherhood? Where does she fit into this religion??
Furthermore, while I'm sure this is a wonderful state of mind and everything, how does this actually help fight patriarchy? What actual power does this give women? It seems similar to a landlord simply painting over old, rotting walls to make them seem less immediately repellant rather than, y'know, repairing the house, or even demolishing it altogether and starting from scratch. Like, I'm not necessarily saying that that's the only option, but I just think this whole business of trying to delude yourself into thinking a fresh coat of paint somehow makes these problems go away is absurd.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand, Keller notes that several different cultures around the Mediterranean were in frequent contact, freely trading, traveling, exchanging ideas with each other for thousands of years (28). Thus it became popular to try to compare what was known about different religions in the region to "reconstruct" the "original" versions of the stories – this is specifically what Spretnak aims to do in her book. For example, she saw deep connections between Persephone and Isis of Egypt, the Goddess of the Underworld who could pass back and forth freely, and, after "becom[ing] that Goddess as much as possible," she came up with this: 
Demeter and Persephone share the bountiful fields, enjoying the beautiful earth, and watching over the crops together. One day, Persephone asks her mother about the restless spirits of the dead she has seen hovering about their earthly homes. "Is there no one in the underworld to receive the newly dead?" she asks. Demeter explains that she rules over the underworld as well as the upper world, but her more important work is above ground, feeding the living. Reflecting on the bewilderment and pain she has seen in the ghostly spirits, Persephone replies, "The dead need us, Mother. I will go to them." After trying to persuade Persephone to stay with her, Demeter relents: "Very well ... We cannot give only to ourselves. I understand why you must go. Still, you are my daughter, and for every day you remain in the underworld, I will mourn your absence." (Keller 39)
You will notice that in this retelling, Hades doesn't seem to exist at all. Instead, Persephone chooses to go into the Underworld to help comfort and bring peace to the dead. Later on, Demeter still becomes upset and prevents crops from growing out of mourning for her daughter, like we see in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but Persephone comes back up periodically, bound to the Underworld only by a sense of personal duty to help others (Keller 40). As a feminist retelling, I guess this makes sense – it genuinely is her choice to go the Underworld and help however she can.
It still seems extremely sanitized and boring, especially compared to the original Hymn, though. The characters don't have much personality and only seem to worry about caring for others – and, again, it seems to promote an idealized, shallow image of "feminine strength" and other "feminine virtues" like putting another's needs and desires above your own. Whereas in the Hymn, we see Demeter as a fairly well rounded character, experiencing a wide range of emotions (ex: lashing out at Zeus for taking her daughter, condemning the mother of Demiphoon for not trusting her unconditionally, experiencing a deep devasting bout of depression but eventually softens due to a stranger's joke, joy at reuniting with her daughter, etc). While she is obviously suffering in a patriarchal society, she is still an independent, prideful woman who stands up for herself and does what she has to, to make herself heard (even if it involves almost killing all of humanity in the process). She's a character who has many facets and who the reader can likely see themself in, projecting their own experiences of grief onto her, finding comfort in the realization that they aren't alone in their suffering.
I don't see why that would not be a story that you would want to tell your daughter, honestly. I still think it's much better to show women continuing on with their lives, fighting back, even in a horrifically misogynistic world, rather than simply pretending misogyny and other problems don't exist.
This is just an excerpt. You can read the full reconstruction here, starting on page 7, if you were curious. This version is reprinted in a periodical from the Worldwide Rosicrucian Order, which is apparently a group that is particularly interested in ancient religions and practices, especially involving death, the afterlife, rebirth, etc… The whole issue is devoted to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Persephone. ➥
Keller, Mara Lynn. "The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality, and Rebirth." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 27-54 (28 pages). Indiana University Press. Online.
Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths. 1992. Beacon Press. Print.