Persephone’s journey to the underworld

The story of Persephone is one of the most captivating journeys in Greek mythology. She moves from a naïve girl that hiding between her mother’s skirt, to the powerful queen of the underworld, married to one of the original Olympians. As a symbolic journey, it’s one of a young girl growing up, separating herself from her mother, and becoming her own woman.

The story of Persephone

First, let’s shortly go through the story of Persephone, and the other gods and goddesses that are involved in her journey.

It all begins when Persephone, a  young girl, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, walks a field of spring, picking flowers with Artemis, Athena, and some nymphs. As they do, Persephone gets separated from the rest of them for a short while, and the earth suddenly disappears, and Hades in his chariot races forward from the ground. He grabs her and pulls her with him, away from the plain of Nysa, towards his realm in the underworld. She cries out to her father; Zeus, and is heard by Helios, the sun.

As Demeter, her mother, heard of her departure, she despaired. She looked everywhere under the sun, searching anywhere she could reach for her daughter. She heard someone describe what had happened, and reached out to Helios, the sun. He told her that, with permission from Zeus, Hades had come and brought Persephone home as his wife. For a long time, Demeter roamed the earth. She lived among humans and took part in their life – but this is not the story of Demeter, but the story of Persephone. Suffice to know, in her departure from the world of gods and goddesses and her life among the mortals, she abandoned her duties, and as the goddess of harvest and growth, nothing grew, and the mortals went hungry. She was called to speak before Zeus, as he noticed she had ignored her duties, and she pleads for her daughter’s sake. The king of all gods turned to Hermes, the messenger and the mercury of Olympus, and asked him to go down to Hades and persuade him to let Persephone (she with the delicate ankles) go, so that Demeter would be appeased. Hades responded, to Hermes and Persephone, that yes, she could go. And as she went, he offered her the sweet berry of the pomegranate, some food from the underworld.

As she met her mother again, she asked her what had happened. She told her the story, all that took place. When she reached her departure, she said that yes, Hades gave her the seeds, but also by force, compelled her to eat it. As she eat food from the underworld, she had no choice but to return. In the end, a compromise was reached; she would live two thirds of the year with her mother above, and the rest down with Hades, as Queen of the underworld.

What does it all mean?

The story starts with Persephone walking the fields in the sun; the realm of consciousness. She walks with Athena and Artemis, sometimes known as the virgin goddesses, because of their lack of romantic or sexual relationships. The ground opens, and Hades comes forward. That is the first disruption of consciousness, how he comes from underground. When Persephone (the “main character” in our story) disappears, her mother, symbolizing the maternal instinct and motherhood, stops functioning. Demeter feels like nothing without her relation to her daughter, and doesn’t fully function without her (she is also a symbol for an overbearing mother). When Persephone stays missing, she goes to Zeus; to ego, consciousness, and intellect, pleading for her daughter. Hermes, the god of change, alchemy, and transformation (for the Romans, Hermes was known as mercury; used in alchemy to transform one material into another) is sent down to the underworld (the underworld is a symbol for our unconscious, the unexplored depth of our psyche) to talk to Hades about bringing Persephone back. Before she leaves though, he gives her seeds from the pomegranate (a symbol for Persephone, Hera, the queen of Olympus and wife of Zeus, and Aphrodite, the goddess of sexuality and romance), that she eats. Because of it, she stays in the underworld for a third of the year, and the rest on the ground. When she is down in the underworld, she is the queen and guides people that make temporary visits. The underworld and the unconscious are ingrained and integrated into who she becomes, and she is more than she was before.

The common perception of this follows what Persephone told her (overbearing) mother; that Hades forced her to eat them. In the original story though, when the Homeric hymn describes the event, Hades wasn’t forceful at all, but merely gave her the pomegranate seeds. Because of this, I don’t see the story as something wholly negative for Persephone, but that she chose to stay in the underworld. That after having experienced dominion over the unconscious, she didn’t want to leave that world. That world, at least to a large extent, felt like home.

Persephone; a universal story of growth

The story of growing up and separating yourself from your mother is a universal, something that applies everywhere, in any period of time. Growing up, a person can no longer be tied to her mother in the same way she was as a child. And growing up, we all need to get in touch with the unconscious. We cannot live solely in the realm of consciousness. At some point or another, we all need to venture down to Hades.

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