The myth of Hades and Persephone is a popular one that has been developed into many modern adaptations. From the popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the webcomic Lore Olympus, to the award-winning Broadway musical Hadestown, it’s clear that this myth has had a large effect on pop culture. But what was the cultural meaning of the myth to the Greeks? What nuances about marriage customs and wedding rituals inspired this myth? What can we learn about the lives and trauma of women and girls living in Ancient Greece?
The myth of Hades and Persephone goes like this. The God of the Underworld, Hades, fell in love with Persephone, the young daughter of Demeter the Wheat Goddess, and decided to kidnap her to make his wife. It was one of the rare times the God left the Underworld, and he traveled above ground to pursue her while she was gathering flowers in a field. Hades confided his secret in his brother Zeus, asking for help, so the two of them concocted a plan to trap her. Dementer discovered her daughter was missing and caused eternal winter and suffering on earth until Zeus relented and let Persephone return. Hades made Persephone eat pomegranate seeds, which forced her to stay in the underworld, but Dementer bargained and finally a compromise was made: Persephone could stay in the Underworld for half the year and she could stay in the above world with her mother for the other half, explaining the seasonal changes.
To explore the connection between this myth and Ancient Greek culture, we should examine the wedding customs of the Greeks. Firstly, the patriarch of a family became responsible for arranging his daughter’s marriage with a provision for a dowry, a financial package for the groom’s father, whilst he selected a suitable husband and son in law for his family. There were no wedding certificates, so in fact the only thing that made a wedding legitimate was the fact that the family would bear witness. The male head of the household would always be involved, seeing as women had little to no rights of their own. If a woman’s father was dead, her brothers, brothers-in-law and uncles would be in charge. A girl in the classical era (400-ish BC) would typically be married off once puberty started, so 12-14 or 16 if a girl began menstruating later. Disturbingly, men were typically 25-30 when they were to be expected to find a bride. Following the marriage ceremony, the husband and wife were expected to produce offspring immediately.
How can this give us a deeper understanding of the myth? Greek weddings were very interesting because they shared a lot of similar rites with funerals and were in fact meant to play-act the young girl’s “death” and rebirth as a woman. There was to be a ritualistic bath on the morning of the wedding, carried out the same way they would bathe a corpse, and the girl would die metaphorically as she was ripped from her mother to become the property of a man. The societal expectations of marriage that ripped girls away from their mothers and the inherent grief and “death” of that is represented in the myth of Persephone being forcibly taken to the Underworld. Thesmophoria was a spring festival in Ancient Greece that was made up of all women. It served to honor Demeter while providing the singular time in a year mothers and married daughters could see each other. This again mirrors the myth, with Persephone being reunited with her mother in the springtime as a part of the compromise. It was not unusual in Ancient Greece for a father to bargain with his future son-in-law about the fate of his daughter without the knowledge or consent of either mother or daughter, much like how Zeus allowed Hades to marry his young daughter without either the consent of Persephone or Demeter. The myth of Demeter and Persephone became an empowering story for Greek women because the way Demeter fought back against Zeus and almost won her daughter back was a rare occurrence in myths, as Zeus typically showed up as the complete victor in most conflicts. In the deeply misogynistic society of Ancient Greece that often treated women as less than humans, the myth of Persephone and Hades allowed young girls to reconcile with the trauma of growing up and seek brief relief from the abusive system they were forced to live in.