Since Monday was the first day of spring, it seems like an auspicious time to do a “story behind the story” for my erotic short, Persephone Remembers the Pomegranates.
Way back when I was in third grade (or so), my class got to visit the library once a week so we could listen to a nice volunteer read us a book of Greek mythology.
I was hooked.
I fell in love with mythology at that moment, and I haven’t looked back since. That’s where I first heard the myth of Persephone’s abduction. And, even at eight years old, that story was just unsatisfying.
In its stripped down version, the typical story goes like this: Hades erupts from the Underworld in his terrifying chariot, grabs the innocent Persephone, and takes her back under the earth with him (rape wasn’t included in the “safe for children” version, but it’s implied). Poor little Persephone then wanders around the Underworld, depressed and alone, eating six/five/four pomegranate seeds in a moment of weakness.
Meanwhile, Persephone’s mother Demeter unleashes hell on the moral world, until finally the gods relent and return Persephone to her mother. Persephone then gets to live in the mortal world but, because she ate those seeds, she must return to the underworld and live with Hades for six/five/four months of the year.
Most versions end with: “And that’s how those primitive cultures explained the changing seasons,” rendering this myth just another pretty, outdated story.
What a bummer, right?
Because there’s so much more to this story!
The myth of Persephone and Hades isn’t just an allegory for the seasons. To me, it’s a myth about womanhood, and about the conflicting desires women experience as they leave their families and establish their own lives as sexual beings. It’s also an allegory for motherhood, both a cautionary tale about the dangers of holding on to your children and a richly evocative picture of what it’s like to let those children go.
What’s more, I don’t think most re-tellings do justice to the characters of Hades and Persephone.
Persephone is the goddess of spring. Spring is usually portrayed in Hallmark-style illustrations of fluffy bunnies and fuzzy chicks, as if the season were harmless. But that has not been my experience of spring.
I grew up in Colorado, and I was lucky enough to have outdoorsy parents who dragged their kids into the mountains (and vacationed in a log cabin with no running water or electricity, as described here). Spring is a dangerous, unsettled time in the high mountains; the melting snow is prone to deadly avalanches, and a late snowstorm can destroy a garden. Spring floods, spring freezes. Spring destroys before it creates.
Spring is also a dangerous psychological time. The lengthening days and the return of sunlight can trigger suicidal thoughts in those who have managed to hunker down and make it through the winter. May and June have the highest suicide rates. T.S. Eliot wasn’t kidding when he said, “April is the cruelest month.”
The goddess who embodies spring, I think, would not go quietly into that dark night. She would not mope around the Underworld, and then meekly submit to her prescribed fate.
Besides, Persephone is not exactly meek in the mythology. She’s a key figure in the myth of Orpheus, for example, sitting beside her husband and debating the fate of the singer. Some versions even have her persuading Hades to let Orpheus return to the world of the living with his wife.
I wanted to capture a Persephone who reflected spring, someone who was an equal match for the God of the Underworld.
And speaking of Hades…
Hades usually gets the bad-boy treatment, and not just because of Disney. He is the ruler of the underworld, after all; he’s associated with the unbreachable gulf between the living and the dead, and the capricious nature of our own mortality.
So he tends to freak people out.
But the myths don’t paint Hades as an evil character, or even as the embodiment of death (FYI, that’s Thanatos). He’s not exactly warm and fuzzy, but he’s just, fair, and he mostly sticks to himself. Hades is, as several versions of the myth point out, not a bad match for Persephone.
I like the idea of Hades as a fair ruler, someone who does his best to hold the universe together. And, since people are so afraid of him, perhaps his best has been forgotten..?
I won’t pretend my 5,000 word short story captured these complexities, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you in the direction of Rachel Alexander’s novel Receiver of Many, which is an outstanding Hades and Persephone love story.
Still, I had a blast re-visiting the world of Greek mythology and spending time with the characters who have captivated human imaginations for millennia. And I hope you’ll enjoy it too! 🙂
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