Persephone’s Otherworldly Romance

Princess Weekes' article, "The Cultural Reinvention of Persephone: From Maiden to The Dreaded One," gives a good summary of this modern, popular interpretation of Persephone's myth (complete with gifs comparisons of different interpretations of the characters), and tries to explain why this change has occurred:

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.

I do have to admit that I understand the appeal of rewriting Greek myths to be a bit less misogynistic and more consensual – I really do! – but what kills me here is that people act like this is the only option: no, Persephone wasn't violated, she wanted this to happen! She wants to be with Hades! They're just kinky! This is the only version of Persephone's myth that they know (or care about whatsoever) and it's been twisted beyond recognition to be palatable to a modern audience, sweeping anything "unsavory" under the rug.

Like, there are so many romance stories being written now about Hades and Persephone, but, as we've already discussed, the original myth is about a girl being kidnapped and raped, and by her uncle, no less – how could you possibly spin this into a schmaltzy love story?

Authors tend to employ two basic strategies:

  1. straight up denial (reconning the original myths, explaining that everything the audience has heard before is a lie, actually he's a good guy and just misunderstood!, etc) [1]
  2. if all else fails, invoke the magic words: redemption arc



One particularly notable example of the former is Rachel Smyth's webcomic, Lore Olympus (2018-present). This series seems to be what most people today think of first after hearing Hades and Persephone, whether they've read it personally or not. [Note: I've only read season one, so that's all I'm going to be talking about, sorry.]

It has a modern setting, with Persephone going to university and Hades being effectively the CEO of the Underworld. Hera, after hearing about Persephone's crush on Hades, sets it up so she's interning in the Underworld (even though she doesn't really know anything about technology or business) to try and help get them together, but there are lots of soap opera-esque things keeping them apart, like Hades being in a relationship with Minthe, Persephone getting a scholarship from the Goddesses of Eternal Maidenhood sorority, angst about their age difference, and more.


In terms of Persephone's characterization, there's still not that much to go off of. Like, in episode five, Persephone is kidnapped by Aphrodite and her son Eros and secretly put in the back of Hades' car, as an act of revenge for him saying that Persephone was more beautiful than her. Eros asks if this is really necessary because:

She's like the personification of a friggin cinnamon roll!
An adorable pink cinnamon roll.

Despite this, throughout the series, characters allude often to Persephone's name change (what could make her go from "Maiden" to "Bringer of Death"?), as a source of gossip [2]. In the season one finale, it's finally revealed that she slaughtered a bunch of humans after they picked some flowers (nymphs are tied to the flowers and die if you pick them, so she wanted to avenge her friends). So, she is generally sweet with a hidden dark side.

Similarly, Hades generally comes off as a nice, if awkward and shy guy, but, in episode 49, he's shown torturing a tabloid reporter for submitting an image of him and Persephone. This is played off as a joke and Persephone later convinces him to heal the reporter (and return the eye that he gouged out).

Still, they're shown as being bound by acts of cruelty. I do think that's an interesting theme and plays into the popular view you see on Tumblr and the like of Hades and Persephone being a Gomez and Morticia Addams sort of couple, but this particular example is kind of heavy handed and feels weird. Like, in episode 87, they have a heart-to-heart where Persephone asks him about his motivations for torturing the guy. There's a bit more shame there than you'd expect gods to have, I guess – it's an unsatisfying middle ground between human morality and godly indifference to moral life.


Another staple of these romantic retellings is that Persephone's relationship with Demeter isn't very good, and Lore Olympus is no exception. For example, in episode six, Persephone dreams that her mother gave her a beautiful greenhouse, but removed the door.

Persephone thinks about this greenhouse often, as a symbol of her mother's overprotectiveness. Apparently, the only reason she was allowed to live on campus, rather than commuting to school from home, was because a) she promised to join the aforementioned Goddesses of Eternal Maidenhood and b) she was roommates with Artemis, who is a fellow member of GoEM and doesn't allow men in her apartment, except under special circumstances.

One of these rare men who Artemis allows to come and go freely in her apartment is her brother, Apollo, because she believes he's different. In episode 24, however, while spending the night, he breaks into Persephone's room and kisses her. She tries to push him away, but he won't take no for an answer. She starts to think about her life, her status as a future Eternal Maiden, and gets confused. Due to his pestering, she eventually says okay to his advances, but feels absolutely disgusted and dissociates, again, imagining herself, safe, in her greenhouse. Afterwards, she feels guilty about "letting everyone down" by no longer being a "maiden." She keeps this violation to herself and decides to get a job to pay back her scholarship money.

On top of this, there's her budding relationship with Hades, which also causes Persephone anxiety. In episode 89, after Hades asks about her pledge of Eternal Maidenhood, she says:

I can't shake the feeling that it's not right for me.
But am I screwing things up for everyone else because I have cold feet?

Hestia has put a lot of time and effort into preparing me.
And my mother would be so disappointed.

Again, she feels pressured into staying a virgin, not only due to the scholarship but also because she wants to stand up to other's expectations of her.


Considering our modern culture, I think it makes 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, which accounts for how Demeter is treated…

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, for example, women didn't have a choice; they were forced to get married. In Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae, 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 judged, either way.

Again, it seems like the only option women have is to fall in love, rather than pursue her own dreams.




The other common trope you find in these romantic retellings is the redemption arc. This is difficult to articulate, and, in a previous draft, I ended up writing over a thousand words of just this explanation alone (if you're interested, it can be read here).

The summary, though, is that, in the modern era (or at least what I've experienced of it, being in fandom circles all my life), we seem to interpret media more as a collection of tropes or other familiar concepts, rather than viewing each story on an individual level. Books are often described as mash-ups of other things (ex: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or "Great Gatsby but 'queer' (and also there's magic apparently??)"). Characters are delocalized from their narratives and even themselves via "alternate universes" and used more like ragdolls floating in space, that can be made to do whatever the author (or reader) wants. Simultaneously, there seems to be a desire or expectation of simplified morality – we want to immediately know who to route for and who to hate, but, with an unstable connection between character and narrative, these feelings are just as unstable, able to change with the wind. I think these ideas are what form the basis of the "redemption arc" that we see today.

The book we are going to be looking at in this section is Captive in the Underworld (2021) by Lianyu Tan, which labels itself as a "dark lesbian romance novel." Following the same idea from earlier, it'd be best described like Beauty and the Beast, in which Persephone, after being imprisoned and brutalized, slowly comes to find a softer side to Hades (who is female, in this version), and they fall in love.

How does this great change in perception occur? Lewis Jorstad from the blog The Novel Smithy explains that a good redemption arc has two parts: the character should repent their actions and others should recognize how they've changed. He also says the character seeking redemption should have a "weak point," that exposes one of their major insecurities. It seems that Hades' weak point is the world's misogyny. For example, in chapter 15, after saving Persephone from an escape attempt that turned into a kidnapping, they have a heart-to-heart:

"I cannot say that I regret my actions," Hades said, far above her. "But I have done you harm. I could not wait for you to love me. It is not the way of the gods."

Persephone rocked on her heels and wiped a hand across her face. "You're not a god."

"No," Hades said bitterly. "I fall under greater scrutiny. People expect more and are less forgiving." Her voice softened. "I cannot show mercy, not even to you. They would consume me if they knew."

"Knew what?"

Hades knelt beside her and covered Persephone's hand with her own. "How precious you are to me."

I think that this ties into the phenomenon that I discussed earlier because both Persephone and the reader are encouraged to disconnect this side of Hades, a woman struggling to be taken seriously in a man's world, from what we saw earlier in the story, where she forces Persephone to have sex and get married against her will. There's a later development that was also strange, where Persephone finds the document where Zeus and Hades agreed to the marriage dated a hundred years prior to when Persephone accidentally wondered into the Underworld and was captured. It was framed like, 'oh, it was love at first sight and I waited so long, that when I finally got the opportunity, I couldn't resist' sort of thing that I think was also supposed to be "redeeming," but just made me uncomfortable…

To be honest, despite the tagline claiming this to be a "dark romance," I read the first half more like horror and thought it was really good from that perspective, actually! Like, reading about Persephone's escape attempts that both inevitably ended in failure and her losing more hope – the first of which was specifically set up by Hades, leaving her door unlocked and other supplies in reach and the second where she agreed to follow a random man who claimed to be sent by her mother but actually wanted to kidnap and marry her himself. In Lore Olympus and other modern retellings, you tend to see a Persephone that is weak and needs to be repeatedly rescued, but, here, she's genuinely resourceful and intelligent, yet the world is set up against her. I think it's an interesting contrast!

Like, again, this is a "romance," but I think that's the weakest part – or even just the way it's framed as a "romance." From the beginning, Persephone talks about how much she hates Hades, how she will never forgive her. Still, in chapter 13, it says:

Persephone grew, if not fond, then at least accustomed to Hades' attentions, though she told herself she misliked them.

Everything about Hades was a contradiction: her cold gaze and warm hands; her hardened heart and tender words. So perhaps it was no surprise that Persephone learned to both dread and hunger for the night when Hades' touch would set her body aflame. (Tan)

This is apparently a common trope in "dark romances," but it still just makes me uncomfortable how the story seems to try to romanticize what happened to her! Then, after the conversation in the quote earlier, Hades apologizes and pledges to not touch her again without her consent – and Persephone is sexually frustrated, but still hates her. It isn't until a certain life-threatening event where things really change, though…


Oh god, now we have to talk about Demeter! As mentioned before, it's a staple of Hades & Persephone romances to demonize Demeter, either portraying her as an overbearing, overprotective mother or a complete psychopath. This is the later.

Demeter would frequently lock young Persephone up in a cell, isolating her from the world, and demanding total obedience. She is physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive. The plot starts because Demeter kicked Persephone out of their house because Persephone was asking too many questions after having accidentally found out that Demeter had been throwing away all sorts of presents and letters from potential suitors – Demeter wanted to keep Persephone to herself! …So she kicked her out and this led to Persephone wandering around and unknowingly stumbling into an entrance to the Underworld.

Persephone occasionally thinks about her mom and wonders if she's going to come save her in the beginning of the book, but we don't actually hear from her until chapter 20, when she starts the famine that we know from the Hymn and other ancient sources to get Persephone to return. In the meantime, some very unflattering things have been revealed about Demeter, that Persephone had been repressing or didn't realize weren't normal. For example, Persephone never learned how to read or write, or about math or history. Hades got her a tutor and, in reading, she realizes that children typically aren't treated so horribly. Hades also tells Persephone that Demeter was likely about to betray the rest of the gods while they were fighting the Titans all those years ago (this seems to just be something the author made up, which is fun, but kinda weird and isn't really mentioned again). Persephone doesn't really want to accept these things about her mother, but also, she's been in the Underworld so long that, despite all her escape attempts, she has mixed feelings about going home.

Once she returns, Demeter belittles her at every turn and, again, locks her in her childhood cellar. She had a taste of freedom (ironically, in subjugation) and, now, it's all gone! Demeter also has a plot to murder Hades with a specially made poison for having the audacity to take her daughter away. This is the incident from earlier that made Persephone change her mind about Hades: she came back for her in her time of need! Persephone takes a poison-tipped arrow for Hades and, it isn't until fifty years later that she recovers enough to regain consciousness, but Hades is still by her side! This is what ultimately leads to the vaunted happily ever after: Persephone's appreciation of Hades' loyalty and their mutual respect as co-rulers of the Underworld.

This all might sound like a brutal condemnation of the book, but, actually, I really liked Lianyu Tan's writing! I wrote a little review here.


Anyway, back to the idea of a redemption arc: characters shouldn't all have to be "morally correct" and audiences shouldn't expect every story to follow the same basic pattern, of the main characters joining forces with an earlier antagonist (ex: Steven Universe) or want everyone to sit down and talk out their problems (like how the fandom seems to treat Fire Emblem: Three Houses) or whatever else. A story is nothing without conflict.

Also, in a traditional redemption arc, the reader is forced to forgive the character, encouraged to disconnect their past actions (that they're very sorry for!!!) from their 'current' self, no matter what it is they've done, and the narrative sweeps any doubts to the side. I think it's much more interesting to allow characters to be selfish and commit evil acts – and to let the reader come to their own conclusions and think for themselves, if they're actually worthy of forgiveness or not.


Overall, while I think people should be able to make art of whatever they want, I think it's concerning that many reader's first introduction to Greek mythology tends to be popular stories like Lore Olympus or Percy Jackson, which often misrepresent the actual myths. I'm only barely managing to restrain myself here, but, needless to say, scrolling through the Persephone tag on Tumblr or anything is enough to drive a woman to madness! Still, here's a brief example, so you can see what I mean:

@madrewrites
look all i’m saying is that if i found a guy with a stable job, a nice house, and a big dog, i, too, would eat the pomegranate seeds

...He's a fucking rapist!! You shouldn't just ignore that because it makes you uncomfortable or you'd like it better if he wasn't! Similarly, things like Princess Weekes was talking about earlier with the fan theory that Princess Peach and Bowser are a kinky consentual couple also just sweep these problems under the rug, so people don't have to deal with them. But, in real life, problems don't just go away because you want them to go away -- you have to confront them!


Try another path?



Endnotes

  1. It seems that the foundation of the former may come from rise of Goddess worship and belief in the Divine Feminine, which became popular in feminist circles in the 1970's and 80's. Feminist scholar Mara Lynn Keller argues in her article, "The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone" (1988), that the earliest matriarchal religions and societies around Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East were wiped out and denigrated by later patriarchal societies.

    They also tried to "reconstruct the original myths" by comparing similar stories from other cultures, like Isis from Egypt and Inanna from Mesopotamia. For example, feminist author Charlene Spretnak made many such "reconstructions" in her book, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths (1978), including one where Persephone chooses to go to the Underworld for half the year to help lost souls find peace (and Hades doesn't seem to exist). I'm planning on writing more about the 70's feminist interpretations in another post, but it seems like a lot of what we're seeing now in retellings mutates from Spretnak's version, specifically how it's shown as a story of Persephone's empowerment rather than subjugation.

  2. This isn't really that important, but this seems to come up a lot in popular discussions about Persephone, so let's take a closer look at the etymology of her name. Obviously, like many things from the ancient world, we're unable to say with any certainty where it comes from, but, in Rudolf Wachter's article "Persephone, the Threshing Maiden," he discusses a few theories. While he does mention one possibility that effectively translates to "bringer of death," like we see in Lore Olympus and other media, what's important to keep in mind is that linguistics and etymology is like a crazy, several thousand-year game of telephone – there are many tiny changes along the way and not much in the way of concrete evidence to go off of.

    Specifically, Wachter talks about how the only real consistencies among different sources of the Persephone myth are:

    • she's Demeter's daughter ➔ Goddess of Spring
    • she's married to Hades ➔ Queen of the Underworld

    Therefore, many of these attempts to find an etymology for her name end up leaning heavily on one of these themes or the other, either the fertility of nature or the death of the Underworld. Wachter's personal theory is that, based on a particular variation found on multiple ancient pots, her name may come from an archaic phrase which roughly translates to "beater [or 'harvester'] of sheaths [of corn]," which seems valid for the daughter of the goddess of agriculture. Still, again, these are all just theories and it's not really a criticism of the comic, I just thought it was an interesting note.



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.

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.

Tan, Lianyu. Captive in the Underworld. Shattered Scepter Press, 2021. Digital.

Return to selection?