There's another dimension to this story that’s pretty obvious… Considering what I said previously about Persephone’s myth basically be a stand in for the life of the average woman at the time, let's restate the basis of the myth from an ancient mother's perspective: Your daughter is suddenly abducted. This was planned by her father. You have no clue who this future husband is or what he's like. She spends all her time away, taking care of the kids or tidying up the house. You almost never see her, and, if you do, it seems like she's a completely different person, possibly even with a new name… She might as well be dead, right? This metaphor is especially amped up in the case of Persephone, who is literally banished to the Underworld.

This all seems quite dim, but, to a certain extent, Lincoln suggests that hearing about Demeter's triumph in getting her daughter back, even briefly, would've given ancient women some comfort. They aren't completely powerless! There may yet be hope!

Considering the original myth and historical context, it seems difficult for a modern Western audience to imagine how anyone could possibly find a silver lining in it, at all. Instead, you often see people criticizing it for being incredibly depressing and portraying Persephone as a "perpetual victim," which makes them uncomfortable. As a result, many modern authors have written their own revisionist retellings that allege to give Persephone more personal agency (in ways that were both irrelevant and impossible in an ancient context). I'll be talking more about that in later chapters, but, for now, let's try to look at what comfort could be found in a story where a mother and daughter are so cruelly, cosmically separated.

Around 1820, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote her own brief and little-known dramatic retelling of the myth simply called "Proserpine," using the Roman names which were more popular at the time. Before discussing the play itself, though, I think it's beneficial to hear a bit about her life directly leading up to this.

The story behind her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, is basically common knowledge at this point: young Mary Shelley, her husband Percy, and a few friends were at a writer's colony in Switzerland during the 'year without a summer' and decided to have a contest writing ghost-stories. Meanwhile, she, who was 18 years old when the book was originally written in 1816, was experiencing tragedy after tragedy – first, her sister's suicide in 1816, followed by the deaths of her children Clara in September 1818 and William in June 1819. This led her into a deep depression, explains the introduction of the play.

The introduction is so dismissive of Mary Shelley and disgustingly sexist throughout that I feel the need to quote the next bit, so you see what I'm talking about:

[Percy] Shelley, however absorbed by the creative ardour of his Annus mirabilis, could not but observe that his wife’s ‘spirits continued wretchedly depressed’ (5 August 1819); and though masculine enough to resent the fact at times more than pity it, he was human enough to persevere in that habit of co-operative reading and writing which is one of the finest traits of his married life.

At this point, the introduction has repeatedly talked about how every man in Mary Shelley's life (including Percy, her father, various author friends like Leigh Hunt, etc) have tried to convince her to just get over these devastating events. The editor also criticizes her writing for having a "brooding spirit of melancholy of the 'moping' sort rather than the 'musical' sort." She is looked down on for literally having normal human emotions of despair and grief.

What's more frustrating is the story of how this piece (which was lost and forgotten when it was first written) eventually came to be published, at all. The final manuscript, which includes both the short mythology-themed plays, "Proserpine" and "Midas," starts with this note:

The editor came across the unpublished texts included in this volume as early as 1905. Perhaps he ought to apologize for delaying their appearance in print. The fact is he has long been afraid of overrating their intrinsic value. But as the great Shelley centenary year has come, perhaps this little monument of his wife’s collaboration may take its modest place among the tributes which will be paid to his memory. For Mary Shelley’s mythological dramas can at least claim to be the proper setting for some of the most beautiful lyrics of the poet, which so far have been read in undue isolation. And even as a literary sign of those times, as an example of that classical renaissance which the romantic period fostered, they may not be altogether negligible.

The only reason that we are even able to read these plays today is because Percy wrote a few poems to go along with them that the editor happened to like. This is even more of a slap in the face because, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Percy was not really known while he was alive and it was only due to Mary Shelley's persistent efforts in getting his works out there (against Percy's father's wishes) that he has the reputation he has today. Without her, both in life and in death, he would be nothing.

Onto the actual play itself: "Proserpine" starts with the titlular Prosperine [Persephone] playing in flower fields with her nymph friends and suddenly wandering off and being abducted, as you'd expect. What's particularly notable here, though, is seeing how the women in the story respond to Jove's [Zeus] decree that Proserpine can't return to the overworld. Unlike in the original myth where Ceres [Demeter] simply stopped plants from growing on Earth as a form of protest, here she announces that she will leave entirely to be with her daughter and bring her gifts of fertile soil to the Underworld instead. The other nymphs stand beside her and say they'll come, as well. One nymph in particular, Ino, says:

Elysium shall be Enna,—thou’lt not mourn
Thy natal plain, which will have lost its worth
Having lost thee, its nursling and its Queen.

I think this is a really powerful image that it is specifically Ceres (who is also a general stand-in for any mother, just as Proserpine is a stand-in for any daughter) whose thankless work makes the Earth the lush paradise it is. It's also somewhat evocative of more modern day feminist protests, like the 1975 Woman's Day Off strike in Iceland or the 1970 Women's Strike for Equality in the United States, which encouraged women to stop performing any form of paid or unpaid labor for the day to show the impact of their absence.

That section shows the strength of women's solidarity, but the most touching part is at the very end when Proserpine says about her fate:

Six months together we shall dwell on earth,
Six months in dreams we shall companions be,
Jove’s doom is void; we are forever joined.

It may be rather bittersweet, but I think that the reminder that a) even the mother goddess herself, Ceres, experiences tragedies like you (you aren't alone in your suffering), and b) mother and daughter can never truly be separated in spirit, are really what would bring a grieving mother comfort, more than anything else.

Another way this story may impact someone going through the grieving process is shown by a pretty obscure work by German author Johan Wolfgang von Goethe called Proserpina (1777-1815). [1] In her essay "From Mythology to Social Politics: Goethe’s Proserpina with Music by Carl Eberwein," Lorraine 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).

The poem follows Proserpina [again, a variant of the Roman name for Persephone] wandering around the Underworld, shortly after having been abducted. Hades, while briefly mentioned or alluded to, never actually appears; the poem instead focuses entirely on Persephone's inner journey, talking about how terrified she is, how worried her mother must be, how much she misses the sun and the moon, etc. 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 something from the Underworld 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.

Here, Proserpina never reunites with her mother, even briefly. She is all alone in eternal Hell and consumed with fury at the injustice of her imprisonment. It's apparent that this isn't a story of seeking mutual comfort, like we see in Mary Shelley's retelling, but rather it seems to be a way to vent about the unfairness of life.

While in neither of these retellings does Persephone have "agency" over her fate as modern readers have come to expect, she can control her own response – like, in Shelley's, where she defies Jove's punishment by declaring that she and her mother will always be together in spirit, and in Goethe's, where she lashes out violently against the shades of the Underworld. The worst possible outcome would be repressing her emotions all together, like if Mary Shelley had just, as fellow author Leigh Hunt suggested, "[struck] her pen into some... genial subject... and [brung] up a fountain of gentle tears for us," only expressing herself in ways that were acceptable to others rather than being genuine to herself. In some ways, that's what we seem to see more of today, unfortunately: women who are afraid to speak out in fear of backlash or who are crippled by defeatism or who deny sexism even exists to begin with.


  1. A bit more context on the history of the piece itself. 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!

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.

Shelley, Mary. "PROSERPINE" & "MIDAS": Two unpublished Mythological Dramas. Edited by A. Koszul. Oxford University Press, 1922. Online.