The Rape of Persephone [1]

Three major ancient sources talk about the rape / abduction of Persephone: Hymn 2 to Demeter (~700 BC), book five of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (~8 AD), and Claudian’s epic poem De raptu Proserpinae (~395-7 AD). There are a few differences between them, but they generally tell the same story.

In Hymn to Demeter, while Persephone is trapped in the Underworld, Demeter (her mother) is devastated and travels the world, searching for her. Finally, as a last-ditch effort to get her daughter back, she (as the goddess of agriculture and vegetation) prevents any plants from growing, leading to widespread famine and starvation. Due to the impending threat of the complete annihilation of the human race, Zeus (Persephone's father and the king of the gods) is forced to take action. He confronts Hades (his brother and lord of the Underworld) and asks him to let Persephone return to the surface. Before this happens, though, she is forced into eating some pomegranate seeds which, due to some strange law, means she cannot leave. Eventually, it's decided, as a compromise, that Persephone can come home but only for two-thirds of the year – the remainder, Demeter is plunged into unbearable grief once again, thus creating the seasons. [2]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a bit more embellished and dramatic, but continues in the same basic way. Ceres (aka Demeter) still traverses the earth trying to find her daughter, then appeals to Jove (aka Zeus) to have her returned. This time, however, Proserpina (aka Persephone) eats the pomegranate seeds herself, although she didn't understand the consequences of her actions. It still ends the same, with Persephone being returned but only for part of the year.

Claudian's epic poem, on the other hand, stops abruptly, with Ceres (Demeter) still searching in vain for her daughter, who remains trapped in the Underworld indefinitely. It's assumed that he just died before he could finish it, though.




Bruce Lincoln explains in his article, "The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women's Initiation," that Persephone's story is likely meant to reflect the life of the average Greek woman at the time (223). As women weren't considered full citizens (lacking the right to own property, vote, or otherwise meaningfully participate in society), their lives were largely decided by the men around them (Cartwright). For example, a girl's father was in charge of arranging her marriage – neither she nor her mother had any say in the matter. When it was time, the husband-to-be would simply abduct her and do with her as he pleased (Lincoln 226-7). Unsurprisingly, this is also the case with Persephone. In the Hymn, Helios (the all-seeing god of the sun) tells Demeter:

“Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rhea, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Hades, her father's brother, to be called his buxom wife. And Hades seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly: Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.” (lines 75-87)

Zeus planned for Hades to abduct Persephone, Helios explains and emphasizes that Hades would be a decent husband because of his high status, as King of the Underworld. Again, all that mattered in marriage was status and continuing the man’s bloodline — love had nothing to do with it, unlike how we in the West tend to see marriage today. The best a woman could really hope for was to eventually develop a sort of friendship with her husband, who was free to seek romance outside the relationship with whoever he wanted (Cartwright).

Additionally, before her abduction in the Hymn, Persephone is only referred to as a maiden or Demeter's daughter (with occasional descriptions of her being "trim-ankled" or "deep-bosomed"). It's only afterwards, when she's in the Underworld, that she's called Persephone. Lincoln suggests that this is because she is, in fact, no longer a maiden, so this placeholder name no longer applies. He further explains that it's a common custom across many cultures for young women to change their name after they've completed their rites of passage, namely loss of their virginity (229). In Western culture, for example, women are typically expected to take their husband's last name after marriage. While we lack proper records of daily life in the ancient world, this may suggest that something similar occurred in Ancient Greece, where a young woman would only receive a personal name after marriage (230).

Alternatively, Persephone may just be unnamed at the beginning of the myth to make it easier for young women to project onto her, like how a simple stick figure could represent anyone. Keeping this in mind, hearing about Demeter's triumph in getting her daughter back likely would've given ancient women some comfort – they aren't completely powerless! There may yet be hope! Unfortunately, however, it seems that reality would have been much less optimistic.


Just imagine it from a 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…

She might as well be dead, right?


It doesn't have to end like this…
Try another path?



Endnotes

  1. This is a common subject of discourse about Persephone, so I might as well talk about it now. In English, her myth is commonly referred to as "The Rape of Persephone," while, in Latin, the word used is raptus, which would more closely translate to "abduction" rather than our modern concept of "rape." Some argue that this means that she never was raped and, as you'll see as you read other paths, this is used to justify many "alternative interpretations" of her story, but I want to clarify that this alleged attempt to avoid historical revisionism, is itself a form of historical revisionism.

    For example, in Claudian's epic poem, Persephone says:

    O fortunate are those girls whom other ravishers
    Have borne off! At least they have delight in the usual daylight.
    But along with my virginity, the sky is taken from me;
    My purity is snatched away with the light, and I must depart from earth
    As I am led captive into slavery for the Stygian tyrant. (Lincoln 228)

    Similarly, in Hymn to Demeter, it states:

    She was sitting in bed with Hades, her bedmate,
    Much against her will, and yearning for her mother. (Lincoln 228)

    Yes, the modern idea of consent did not exist in Ancient Greece, but I still think these examples make it clear that she was forced by Hades to have sex against her will – ie: what we would now refer to as rape. Just because this is a difficult topic to discuss doesn't mean we should completely brush over it or try to pretend it doesn't exist! Just because a practice is common in a culture doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful, sexist, or otherwise beyond reproach!

    This is like what we talked about in part one of this essay series, it seems people only care about the fake Ancient Greece and Rome that exist only in their heads, discarding anything that interrupts their rose-tinted fantasies – but to do so disrespects the survivors: ancient, modern, and every time in between! It's important to look at what little evidence we have and try to understand what life really was like back then.

  2. This was a super condensed version of the story! If you were interested, a more in-depth overview of the classical sources and the differences between them can be found here. Otherwise, Hymn to Demeter is fairly short, interesting, and surprisingly readable.


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.

Cartwright, Mark. "Women in Ancient Greece." World History Encyclopedia, 2016. Online.

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.

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