There’s one thing you don’t do if you find yourself in Hades, the Greek underworld:
You don’t eat the fruit.
Now, everyone in the Greek mythosphere knew that…
To consume food in there, well that is to be enslaved forever.
So why did Persephone, child of the Gods, eat seven pomegranate seeds, offered to her by her uncle and abductor, Hades, Lord of the Underworld?
Was she really stolen, or did she steal herself away?
Persephone’s parents were two Olympians, brother and sister. Zeus, king of the Gods, Lord of the Storms, and Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest.
However, unlike the other Olympians, and the other consorts of Zeus, Demeter wanted nothing to do with him. She really was one of the first single mothers to be celebrated in history; she took Persephone and ran.
She ran to the fields of the humans, those strange creatures her ancestor, Prometheus, had made – and paid dearly for.
These strange creatures were the lifeblood of the Gods; their offerings, their rituals, their stories, all fed the mighty Olympians (and the few Titans who survived the War).
And so Demeter brought them their harvest. She became the Goddess of the fields; the plants that blossomed did so in Her name.
And life was good.
As Persephone grew in young adulthood, she led a joyful life. She played with the nymphs, she knew the magical creatures of the woods and the waters.
She danced on the earth, and maybe, that’s why Hades heard her.
Whatever lured him, he did right by her father, his brother Zeus.
“Can I have her as my consort in the Underworld?”
And Zeus, in characteristic manner, said yes, without a thought of Persephone, or Demeter.
It was Hecate, the triple Goddess of the Crossroads, who witnessed the abduction. She was able to tell Demeter that Hades had grabbed the girl, and taken her down to his realm.
And then Demeter went to confront Zeus, her brother, and the father of her daughter.
Zeus was unmoved.
And down, in the Underworld, Hades offered Persephone a pomegranate.
In this context, a truly forbidden fruit.
And despite knowing better, or maybe because she knew, she ate.
This made her Queen of the Dead.
Above, in the Land of the Living, Demeter wandered mindlessly, numbed by the abduction of her daughter.
Her story at this point takes on elements of the story of Isis from Egyptian lore.
It also takes on elements of the absurdity of sex, aging and reconciliation.
But as Demeter moved listless through world, one important thing happened:
The crops died.
And they kept dying.
The Gods who fed on the human’s offerings, rituals, and stories, were feeling the consequences. Like the barren fields, like the dying Earth, they too were barren and dying.
In time, Zeus was moved.
There’s a great interlude here that I’m only going to speak of in passing.
It involves a very old woman dancing for the Goddess, ending with her thrusting her vagina into Demeter’s face.
The takeaway from the story:
And there was a chance for life to spring anew.
But first, a negotiation…
Zeus bartered with his brother: in order that the Gods may live, please let Persephone be with her mother half the year.
These are the seasons that we lowly mortals now call Spring and Summer.
In exchange, Hades could have his wife for the remainder of the year, the Fall.
And the Winter.
It’s the mourning of Demeter, the separation from her daughter, that causes leaves to fall and the crops to die every year.
Fall and Winter.
The two seasons when Persephone, Queen of the Dead, rules in the realm of the Underworld.
This tale one of the most important Greek myths that has survived. It talks about the seasons, it talks about mother-daughter relationship; it’s about love and loss, and coming of age. It’s also at the root of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret ceremonies based on this tale, a story for another time.
So what does this all add up to?
At some point, we all have to leave the Garden. No Eden can last forever; childhood must find its violent ends.
That’s hard for any parent; there is loss in a child’s coming of age.
It’s also absolutely important for every young adult.
And maybe, just a guess, that’s why Persephone ate the forbidden fruit…
The header image is the Abduction of Persephone, by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, certainly of one of the greatest Flemish masters, one who dealt with Christian and mythic themes.