Sunday, November 06, 2011


Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Associated with: Greek & Roman mythology
Also known as: Proserpina, Kore, Nestis, Despoina
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1400 BCE
Major texts: Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Pindar's odes, Hesiod's Theogony

I'm going to stop apologizing for the long absences from this blog, and I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with it any better going forward. It's pressures of work, partly, but it's also a general malaise that has me feeling strangely detached from anything I could call "mine." This is an issue for a therapist, not a blog, but in the absence of decent health insurance I may check in here periodically to wrestle with some of this.

The goddess Persephone is one of the oldest of what we call Western civilization, predating the Olympian gods as part of the Eleusinian mysteries celebrated in Mycenaean Greece. Persephone's name has many variants in Greek, possibly because it came from a language other than Greek and was hard for the Greeks to say or spell. She is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and in her own right the Queen of the Underworld.

Persephone is also known as Kore, a name that means only "the Maiden." Her beauty and innocence captured the attention of Hades, King of the Underworld, who came up from below and kidnapped her (with the explicit or implicit permission of her father, Zeus). Demeter, anguished at the loss of her daughter, walked the earth in search of her. While she did, nothing grew or bloomed or bore fruit, and the world starved. Persephone, pining for her mother, refused to eat or drink in the Underworld, and would not let Hades woo her.

Finally Demeter learned what had happened to her daughter. Zeus ordered Hades to release her — and Hades agreed, except that he had managed to cajole Persephone to eat just a few pomegranate seeds. And anyone who ate any food in the Underworld would have to live there forever . . .

Persephone was returned to her mother, but as penalty for the six seeds, would have to return to the Underworld for six months of the year. During those months, the earth dies, and is renewed again when Persephone comes back to her mother.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Pomegranate Seeds" was my introduction to this myth. It's a children's story, so it softens the edges of what must originally have been terrifying. The adult Persephone, in her role as Queen of the Underworld, is a terrible figure in later Greek mythology. In Hawthorne's version, the child Proserpina comes to love her captor (Stockholm syndrome was well known before we had a name for it), and doesn't really mind returning to the Underworld for part of the year. Hawthorne's ending feels benign.

But up here in Maine, at this time of year, nothing feels benign about Persephone's return to the Underworld. We've already had one snowstorm, and frost is heavy on the ground right now. I need to replace my winter coat. I need to buy new ice spikes for my shoes. This may be the year I buy one of those lights to treat seasonal affective disorder. In the meantime I reread Swinburne's "Garden of Proserpine," and am grateful for the extra hour we got last night.