By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Why do we have summer and winter? Although we now have a much fuller understanding of how the orbit of the Earth around the Sun creates the various seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, our ancient ancestors did not have that detailed scientific knowledge.
For the ancient Greeks, it was thanks to Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, that we had four seasons.
The Persephone and Hades myth: summary
Hades, the son of Cronos, was the brother of Zeus (king of the gods in Greek myth) and Poseidon (god of the sea). Hades rules over the underworld, or Hell. This came about because the three brothers divided up the world between them: Zeus took the heavens, Poseidon the sea, and Hades, the underworld.
Hades ruled over the dead, with the help of a whole crew of demons who worked for him. When Orpheus descended into the underworld to beg Hades for his wife, Eurydice, he charmed Hades’ demon minions with his beautiful song. (We discuss the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in a separate post.)
Persephone, meanwhile, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (or, in some versions, the daughter of Zeus and Styx, the female embodiment of the river in the underworld). She was Hades’ niece; this didn’t stop him from falling in love with her and abducting her from the land of the living, taking her down into the underworld.
According to tradition, Persephone was picking flowers on the plain around Mount Etna, on Sicily, when Hades appeared from out of the ground, and she was carried off by her uncle. (Other versions have Persephone’s abduction taking place on Crete, or along the River Cephussis at Eleusis.) She is said to have been pulling a narcissus flower out of the earth when Hades appeared from the small hole underneath where the flower had been.
Zeus aided his brother Hades in this abduction. Demeter, Persephone’s mother, heard her daughter’s screams as she was carried off by Hades, but she was unable to find her. Demeter effectively went on strike, abstaining from her role as earth goddess and disguising herself as an old woman at the court of King Celeus at Eleusis. As a result, the earth became sterile and no crops would grow.
When he saw what Persephone’s abduction had caused, Zeus decided that Hades should return Persephone. However, it was too late by this point, as Persephone had eaten the pomegranate seed, and this meant that she had to remain in the underworld.
To eat the fruit of one’s captor, in Greek custom, was to agree to remain with them; until this point, Persephone had been fasting, but when she gave in and ate the pomegranate seeds, her fate was sealed. (Ascalaphus was in the garden of Hades when she ate the seed, and saw her do it; because this meant she had broken her fast, she was condemned to remain with Hades, especially after Ascalaphus went and grassed her up.)
But Demeter was adamant: she wanted her daughter back with her. Zeus hit upon a compromise: Persephone would spend half the year with Hades in the underworld, and half the year in the land of the living, with Demeter. Specifically, Persephone would spend the winter with Hades and the summer with Demeter. This would be repeated every year, thus explaining the origins of the seasons of the year.
The Persephone and Hades myth: analysis
This story is, at bottom, a vegetation myth: an attempt to explain the cycle of the seasons and the reason why crops will grow in the spring and summer and not in the autumn and winter. As remarked above, the story of Persephone and Hades was the Greeks’ ‘just-so’ story to explain why we have different seasons.
Because she was connected to vegetation, Persephone’s absence from the land led to the failure of crops, and everyone began to starve. In other words, while Persephone was with Demeter, it was summer, the trees were in leaf, and the crops grew; when Persephone was in the underworld with Hades, all was winter, crops died, the leaves fell from the trees, and nothing grew.
Demeter, Persephone’s mother, was the Greek goddess of agriculture, and an ‘Earth Goddess’ distinct from Gaia, who embodied Earth as a cosmogonic element (as Pierre Grimal notes in his informative The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary)).
She was, effectively, the Greeks’ Corn Goddess, and this explains why her daughter’s time away each year in the underworld led to crop failures. Demeter withdrew her patronage from the earth, meaning nothing would grow, whenever Persephone was absent from her. Mother Nature, if you like, withdrew into isolation in mourning for her lost or absent daughter.
In some versions of the myth, Persephone (whose name is thought to be derived in part from an old word meaning ‘sheaf of grain’) is named Kore or Kora, meaning ‘the maiden’. To the Romans, she was Proserpina. Her mother, meanwhile, was known to the Romans as Ceres – from which we get cereal, the word for grain: a nice reminder of what Demeter represented to the ancient Greeks.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.