Persephone, Goddess of Spring… and Death

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“I sing of the revered goddess, rich-haired Demeter,
and her long-legged daughter whom Hades snatched
(loud-rumbling, thundering Zeus gave her away)
while she played with the virgin daughters of Ocean,
far from Golden Grain Demeter, who bears shining fruit.
She picked lush meadow flowers: roses, crocuses,
lovely violets, irises, hyacinths-and a narcissus
Gaia grew as a lure for the blossoming girl,
following Zeus’s bidding, to please Lord Hades.
Everyone marveled at the bewitching sight,
immortal gods and mortal folk alike:
from its root blossomed a hundred sweetly
scented heads, and all wide heaven above,
all earth, and the salty swell of the sea laughed.
Amazed, she stretched out both hands to pick
the charming bloom-and a chasm opened
in the Nyssian Plain. Out sprang Lord Hades,
god of many names, on his immortal horses.
Snatching the unwilling girl, he carried her off
in his golden chariot, as she cried and screamed aloud
calling to her father, son of Kronos, highest and best.”
– “Homeric Hymn to Demeter” (1-21) ¹

Persephone Greek and Roman goddess of spring and death

According accounts a daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone is the Greek and Roman Goddess of death and of spring, of grain and the harvest. Persephone was abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, and her mother searched for her for nine days until she learned from Hecate that she had heard her daughter’s scream. Hecate advised Demeter to consult Helios, the all-seeing Sun God, as to the truth of the matter and he revealed what he had seen. He also told Demeter that Zeus had a hand in the abduction.

Demeter was so angry with Zeus that she left Olympus and began wandering the Earth disguised as an old woman. She refused to function as Goddess of the Grain and the crops and the earth became barren. Then the people began to starve. Eventually Zeus was forced to intervene and sent Hermes to the Underworld to petition for Persephone’s release. Hades said he would let Persephone go, but only if she had not tasted food in the Underworld. Unfortunately, she had eaten some pomegranate seeds (the moral here is don’t eat ANYTHING when you are in the Otherworld or the Faery Realm!) and thus had to remain in Hades’ kingdom, according to the laws of the Gods.

As a compromise to keep both Demeter and Hades happy, Zeus decreed that Persephone would spend half the year underground with Hades as Queen of the Underworld, and half the year aboveground on Olympus with her mother. When Persephone was above ground the spring would start and when she went back to the Underworld the land would turn to winter.

Persephone is a Goddess of the Dead due to her association with her husband, and also a Goddess of spring and the crops, in connection with her mother. She is also a Goddess of all things encompassed by the feminine; of girls, women, marriage and childbirth. According to Plato she was called “she who touches things that are in motion” (epaphē tou pheromenou), meaning a lofty being who understands the ever-changing cosmos. Her name may also be connected to the Indo-European *perso- (“sheaf of corn”) and *-gʷn-t-ih₂ (“hit, strike”) which means something like “female corn thresher.”

As Queen of the Underworld, Persephone listens to petitions and requests regarding the dead, and decides their fate. She will grant a happy afterlife to heroes and to those who are properly cleansed, and she metes out punishment to evil doers. She is a Goddess who was once invoked on cursing tablets designed to punish an enemy.

In Greece she shared a number of temples with her mother, Demeter. The most famous was the seventh century BCE Temple of Demeter in Eleusis, home of the “Eleusinian Mysteries” where worshippers re-enacted Demeter’s search for Persephone by torchlight. Persephone was also honored at agricultural festivals where bread and grains were offered to her. In Acacesium, a city of Arcadia, her devotees would bring samples of fruits from cultivated trees (except pomegranates) to her temple. There were Olive groves sacred to her where only initiates could tread and where animals were sacrificed to her.

The Thesmophoria was another celebration of Persephone and Demeter, a three-day festival of married women. In Syracuse, Sicily, by some accounts the area from which Persephone had been abducted, Persephone was presented with sacrifices of small animals and the public drowning of bulls. At the Chthonia festival in the Argolid four elderly women sacrificed four heifers with sickles in her honor. ²

As Nestis, Persephone was sometimes referred to as the Goddess of Water, or springs. ³

Persephone is usually depicted as a young woman with a crown on her head or as a young girl holding her mother’s hand. She may hold a sheaf of wheat or a torch. Her symbols include torches, stalks of grain or ears of corn, scepters, pomegranates, poppies, and occasionally roosters. Her sacred plant is the asphodel (Asphodelus spp.) a Mediterranean plant associated with death and mourning that resembles a lily.

As an Underworld Goddess, offerings to her should be placed upon or buried in the ground. Standard offerings to Greek deities can include incense, honey, olive oil, milk, wine, barley meal, fruits such as grapes, figs, apples or olives, flowers, cakes, and for those who do not wish to offer meat to the fire, breads shaped like animals. But do not offer her pomegranates! Given her traumatic history with those fruits, that would be insulting.

“O vernal queen, whom grassy plains delight, sweet to the smell, and pleasing to the sight: whose holy form in budding fruits we view, earth’s vigorous offspring of a various hue: espoused in autumn, life and death alone to wretched mortals from thy power is known: for thine the task, according to thy will, life to produce, and all that lives to kill. Hear, blessed Goddess, send a rich increase of various fruits from earth, with lovely peace: send health with gentle hand, and crown my life with blest abundance, free from noisy strife; last in extreme old age the prey of death, dismiss me willing to the realms beneath, to thy fair palace and the blissful plains where happy spirits dwell, and Plouton [Haides] reigns.”
– Orphic Hymn 29 to Persephone (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.)

¹ Rayor, Diane J. (1998) “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” Grand Valley Review: Vol. 18: Iss. 1, Article 15. Available at: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/gvr/vol18/iss1/15 accessed 4/19/2023

² Kapach, Avi. “Persephone.” Mythopedia, March 09, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/persephone accessed 4/19/2023

³ Thomas Gregory, “Persephone: The Reluctant Underworld Goddess”, History Cooperative, July 8, 2022, https://historycooperative.org/persephone-greek-goddess/ . accessed April 19, 2023

 

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Ellen Evert Hopman
Ellen Evert Hopman is an Herbalist, author and Druid who lives in an oak forest in western Massachusetts. Her volumes are far-ranging, including Celtic herbals, a trilogy of Druid novels and children’s literature. Her most recent offerings are; “The Sacred Herbs of Yule and Christmas – Remedies, Recipes, Magic & Brews for the Winter Season” and “Celtic Druidry – Rituals, Techniques and Magical Practices” (May, 2024). All her books can be found at www.elleneverthopman.com and they can also be ordered on line in the usual places. She is the Archdruid Emerita and founder of Tribe of the Oak (Tuatha na Dara), a Celtic Reconstructionist Druid Order www.tribeoftheoak.org

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