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Women of the Classical World | Dread Persephone

The rape of Persephone is one of the earliest recorded Greek myths, and the most often misappropriated. Persephone’s capture by Hades is an allegory for the Greek institution of marriage, but what’s often overlooked is how closely this myth correlates to the real-life horrors of marriage and womanhood in ancient Greece.

Before Persephone’s capture, she lives with her mother, Demeter, and is known by the name Κόρη, which literally translates to “girl” or “virgin.” When the god Hades - her much older uncle - sees her, he falls instantly in love, and asks Zeus, Persephone’s father-uncle and Hades’ brother, for her hand in marriage. When Hades carries her away on his chariot, she is still a young teenager, probably between thirteen and fifteen years of age - the Greeks’ idea of a healthy marriageable age for girls.

ἁρπάξας δ’ ἀέκουσαν ἐπὶ χρυσέοισιν ὄχοισιν
ἧγ’ ὀλοφυρομένην· ἰάχησε δ’ ἄρ’ ὄρθια φωνῇ,
κεκλομένη πατέρα Κρονίδην ὕπατον καὶ ἄριστον.

And he seized the unwilling girl up on his golden chariot
as she wailed, and she cried out in her clear voice,
pleading with her father, Zeus the best and highest. (Hom. Hymn 2 to Demeter)

So Persephone goes down to Hades as an unwilling bride. This parallels a traditional Greek marriage ceremony, in which the bride was led through the streets by her new husband, who gripped her by the wrist as she looked at the ground and followed him, submissively, to his house.

Persephone’s myth has a supposedly happy ending: It’s said that she grew to consider the Underworld home, and that she rivaled the other gods in power. Hades was faithful to his wife, unlike most Greek gods, and because she was a goddess, Persephone was granted the concession that she would be able to visit her mother for a few months every year - a concession that mortal women might not have been given. In short, the myth of Persephone and Hades tells us two things: First, the Greeks believed that a woman who was forced would come to love her husband; and second, that the Greeks believed that a woman could only become powerful by accepting the wishes of her father and husband and learning to make the best of her new home after marriage.

You can read Homeric Hymn 2, in which Persephone’s story is told, here. The story is also told in Apollodorus’ Library 1.29, Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 5, and referenced in Cicero’s In Verrem 2.4, among others. Photo credit to Luminous Lu.

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