- Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal
Persephone/Kore (Περσεφόνη/ Κόρη) is a goddess, Demeter’s daughter by Zeus, wife of Hades, and queen of the underworld. Her most important myth is that of her abduction by Hades, her father’s brother. In Orphic literature, she is Dionysus’ mother by Zeus. Persephone/Kore is often worshipped in association with Demeter and Hades, but independent cults of the goddess are also attested. Persephone was adopted by the Romans as Proserpina.
Updated in this version
Article and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords and summary added.
In Mycenaean, the names Persephone (Περσεφόνη), and Kore (Κόρη), have been proposed without agreement for the lemmas pe-re- *82 in Pylos and ko-wa in Thebes (TH Fq 126.2). The name Persephone (Homeric Persephoneia, Lyric Phersephonā), whose etymology is dark, presents variants as Persephassa or Phersephassa (Tragic), Pherrephatta, Perrephatta, or Pherrophatta, Perophatta, Persōphata (on Attic vases of the 5th century bce). The term Persephone stresses her persona as Hades’ wife, whilst as Demeter’s daughter, she is often called Kore, “the Girl.” Mother and daughter are usually named together in expressions like “the Two Goddesses” (tō theō), “the Thesmophoroi” (tō Thesmoforō) or, sporadically, “the Demeters” (Dēmēteres). Kore is more usual as a formal title of the goddess in many state cults, but Persephone is also found in Athens, Cyzicus, or among the Locri Epizephyrii. In the context of the Eleusinian mysteries, the expressions god (theos) and goddess (thea) designate Hades and Persephone (I. Eleusis 83 and 239).
Among her epithets, venerable (‘agauē,’ Hom. Od.11.213), awesome (‘epainē’, Hom. Il. 9.457), demanding respect (‘hagnē,’ Hom. Od.11.386), whom none may name (‘arrētos,’ Eur. Hel.1307), or the cult titles Soteria (Σώτειρα), Despoina (Δέσποινα) and Brimo (Βριμώ) stand out as particularly prominent.
Persephone is Demeter’s daughter by Zeus (Hom. Od. 11.217). Hades raped her with Zeus’ consent (Hes. Theog. 912–914). The snatching away by Hades is told in detail in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Hades abducts Persephone when she is picking flowers in a meadow in the plain of Nysa at the edge of Ocean (see Oceanus, geographical) in the company of the Oceanids (see nymphs, Artemis, and Athena). Hades arises through a chasm in the earth and takes her, against her will, to the underworld (Figure 1). Demeter, heartbroken and upset, asks Hecate and Helios, the sole witnesses of the rape, what has happened, and Helios tells Demeter the name of Persephone’s abductor. Demeter shuns the gods and goes to Eleusis, where she lives in the company of mortals. After her failed attempt to make Demophon immortal, Demeter commands the Eleusinians to build a temple for her and withdraws from her normal functions. The complete failure of crops that results causes famine for mortals and lack of sacrifices in honour of the gods. Zeus sends Hermes down to Hades to persuade him to release Persephone, which he does, but Hades gives his bride some pomegranate seeds to eat, with the consequence that she must return. Demeter and Hades agree that Persephone will spend part of the year with her husband in the underworld and part of the year with her mother in the upper world. In this way, the myth associates Persephone both with the earth’s fertility and with the funerary sphere.
The tale of the abduction becomes very popular in Antiquity and various versions seem to have circulated at the end of the archaic period. Among the later literary sources that transmit it, we can foreground Euripides’ Helen (in whose version Demeter is called “the Mother,” 1301–1367), Apollodorus’ account (Bibl. 1.5), the versions attributed to Orpheus narrated in the Berlin Papyrus (BKT 5.1, p.7–18 nº I 2; P. Berol. inv 13044 V), by Pausanias (1.14.3; 1.38.5; 9.31.9), and by Clement of Alexandria (Protr. 2.17.1; 2.20–21), and the so-called Sicilian versions, traces of which can be found in the tragic Carcinus (fr. 5), in Diodorus Siculus (5.2–5), as well as in Cicero (Verr. 2.4.106–108), Ovid (Fast. 4.417–620, Met. 5.337–591) and Claudian (Rapt. passim). The different traditions show variations in detail. For example, in some, Artemis and Athena help Persephone confront Hades, the rape occurred in Nysa, Sicily or Eleusis, and the descent into Hades is placed in Sicily or Eleusis (Figure 2).
The rape promotes the opening of a channel of communication between the upper world and the underworld, which until then had remained closed. As Hades’ wife, Persephone presides over the passage from life to death; she rules the kingdom of the dead and the destinies of the souls. Everyone will eventually come under her authority. Thanks to her, Tiresias retains his reasoning ability in death, as we learn in the Odyssey (10.491–495). She sends the souls of the heroines to Odysseus and subsequently scatters them (11.225–226, 385–386). Hades and Persephone are connected with the Erinyes in their roles as avengers of the murders (Hom. Il. 9.454–457, 568–572). Persephone is not implacable, but listens to reasonable requests. Sisyphus persuades her to let him return to the upper world, to remind his wife that she should give him the proper funerary rites. Moved by Alcestis’ abnegation, Persephone sends her back from death, as suggested by Plato’s Symposium (179b; Apollod. Bibl. 1.9.15), contradicting the canonical story of Alcestis’ rescue by Heracles. As goddess of the underworld, Persephone also plays an important role in the katabaseis of Theseus and Pirithous, Heracles and Orpheus. Theseus aids Pirithous in his failed attempt to get Persephone as wife and their daring is punished with imprisonment in Hades (Hes. fr. 280 Merkelbach-West = Minyas fr. 7 Bernabé; Diod. Sic. 4.63.4–5). Persephone lets Heracles rescue Theseus and Pirithous and carry the dog Cerberus away to the upper world (Diod. Sic. 4.26.1). She saves Menoites, the shepherd of Hades’ cows, from being beaten by Heracles (Apollod. Bibl. 2.5.12). Persephone also gives back Eurydice to Orpheus thanks to his sweet lyre playing (Moschus Ep. Bion. 3.123–124), provided he did not look back when leading her up, a condition that the bard failed to meet.
Apollodorus (Bibl. 1.3.1) calls Persephone a daughter of Zeus and Styx, an infernal nymph, but he returns to the usual parentage when he mentions the story of the abduction (Bibl. 1.5.1–3). Persephone has no children by Hades. (He does once take a lover, Menthe, a Naiad, whom Kore transformed into garden-minth: Strabo 8.3.14).
Persephone also is said to have contended with Aphrodite for Adonis’ love. The young man should spend four months of the year with Persephone, four with Aphrodite and the final four months are left to his own decision: he chooses Aphrodite (Apollod. Bibl. 3.14.34; Hyg. Astr. 2.7.3). In Orphic literature, Zeus, in the form of a serpent, copulates incestuously with Persephone, who is also described as a monstrous being (OF 88–89, 280–281). As a result of this union, Dionysus is born (Diod. Sic. 5.75.4 = OF 283 I). Dionysus is subsequently torn apart by the Titans (OF 301–317) and reborn (OF 327–328). Each mortal has to pay a compensation to Persephone to atone for the crime of the Titans, who are said to be the ancestors of mortals (OF 350.3; 443.1; 485.2; 489.4; 578.4). In the Orphic poems, the goddess is also called Brimo (OF 99). The name appears for the first time in Greek texts on an Orphic Gold Tablet from Pherae (OF 493) and may have been the original name of an autochthonous goddess in this region (Prop. 2.2.11–12; Lyc. Alex. 1180). Brimo is used as a password and an invocation for salvation (OF 493; 578 col. I 5), and the name seems to have been incorporated later into Eleusinian ritual from the Orphic tradition. A poem entitled Kathodos tēs Korēs, Kore’s descent, may be cited in the Berlin Papyrus (OF 397 II). Some Orphic texts (OF 400) assimilate Persephone to Hecate, her companion and guide in the epic tradition.
The abduction of Kore, as narrated in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, may be considered the founding myth of the Eleusinian mysteries and the Thesmophoria, the most important cults involving Kore and Demeter.
Mother and daughter were the tutelary divinities of the Eleusinian mysteries, the annual Athenian festival attested as early as the 6th century bce. The celebration lasted several days in the early autumn month of Boedromion and probably included a re-enactment of the search for Kore by Demeter. The Homeric Hymn alludes to the aetiology of some elements of the rite, such as the torches (vv. 47–50), the seat in a place covered with a fleece, the silence of Demeter, the fast (see fasting), or the drinking of the kykeon (vv. 192–211). The hymn (vv. 469–471, 409–495) attests to the gifts that Demeter and Kore promise to the Eleusinian initiates: the wealth in present life and a better fate in the Netherworld.
The Thesmophoria was celebrated by married citizen women all over the Greek world in autumn with attention to the generation of plants, the procreation of humans, and the definition of the status of citizen women. The names of the three days of the festival, in some places, were anodos (‘going up’ or ‘coming up’), nēsteia (‘fasting’) and kalligeneia (‘fair birth’) (Schol. Ar. Thesm. v. 80), which could recall the myth of Persephone. The distinctive feature was the peculiar sacrifice in which pigs were sunk in underground pits (see pits, cult). The rotten remains, thrown into the chambers (megara), were brought up and put on the altars of Demeter and Kore (Schol. Luc. 275–276 Rabe). This and other late sources associate the rites aetiologically with Kore’s abduction. Clemens Alexandrinus (Protr. 2.17.1) tells that, when the earth opened to receive Hades and Kore, a nearby herd of pigs was swallowed up. According to Plutarch (De Is. et Os. 378E), the Boeotians name the celebration the festival of sorrow, since Demeter is in sorrow because of her daughter’s descent into Netherworld. At Potniai, sucking pigs were sacrificed and thrown into a subterranean shrine (Paus. 9.8.1), a sacrifice that evokes the Thesmophoria. In Hermione, a ritual called the Chthonia was celebrated annually, in honor of Demeter, who was herself called Chthonia (Paus. 2.35.5–8; Aelian HA 11.4). The goddess’ title could reflect her associations with Kore and Clymenus in their roles as rulers of the underworld. It is remarkable that Apollodorus (Bibl. 1.5.1) says that it was only the people of Hermione who were able to tell Demeter what had happened to her daughter. A part of the Chthonia ritual was restricted to four old women alone: they slaughtered four heifers with sickles inside Demeter’s temple. The festival had an agricultural purpose, but probably was also intended as a transition into orderly marriage. As in the Thesmophoria, agricultural fertility and human fecundity were simultaneously addressed.
Demeter and Kore were also probably celebrated at the Scira (see scirophoria), an Athenian festival, primarily involving women, which included rites whose purpose was to promote the fertility of the earth. In Hellenistic times, Kore received sacrifices together with Demeter and Dionysus during the Haloa, another festival, also held by women, linked to fertility.
Kore was celebrated at “festivals of arrival” that commemorate her double character as chthonian and vegetative goddess. The Sicilians celebrated the so called Korēs Katagōgē, the bringing down of Kore (Diod. Sic. 5.4.5–6), when cereal grains reached maturity. At Cyane, in the territory of Syracuse, a spring rose up when Pluto (see Hades) split open the earth and descended with Kore into the underworld. Every year, the private Syracusans sacrificed smaller animals, whilst bulls were immersed in the spring during a public celebration (Diod. Sic. 5.4.2). In Mantinea (IG V 2, 265, and 266), a festival named Koragia comprised a sacrifice and the presentation of a new garment; an association of koragoi leads Kore’s statue in procession. In Mantinea, a perpetual fire was maintained in the shrine of Demeter and Kore (Paus. 8.9.2), whilst at Argos, lighted torches were thrown into a sacred pit in honour of Kore (Paus. 2.22.3).
According to myths, after her rape, Persephone becomes Hades’ wife, which may reflect a connection between the myth and a rite of passage from youth to maturity, as seen from the viewpoint of the girls. Persephone’s cult in some places, notably Locri Epizephyrii, stresses her aspect as the protector of marriage and the women’s sphere, including the protection of children. In this sense, Persephone may be considered a women’s goddess and a kourotrophic deity. The records of the theogamia (see marriage, sacred) in honour of the nether god and his bride at Syracuse suggest a festival celebrating the sacred marriage. Pollux (Onom. 1.37) mentions it by the side of an anthesphoria, the bringing of flowers, to Kore, a ritual that, in the Locrian colony of Hipponium, has been explained as a reminiscence of Kore’s flower-picking at the time of her abduction (Strabo 6.1.5). In Sicily, an anakalyptēria, festival of unveiling, was celebrated in connection with the marriage of Persephone (schol. rec. Pind. Ol. 6.160; see marriage ceremonies, Greek).
In the oldest Orphic Gold Tablets, Persephone is not mentioned by her name, but called the Chthonian Queen (hypochthonios basileia, OF 474.13, 475.15, chthoniōn basileia OF 488–490.1, chthonia basileia, OF 488.7), an expression that stresses her power, as does the title Despoina engraved on another Orphic leave (OF 488.7). In this context, Persephone has a deep relation with human salvation. If Orpheus is the human mediator who, through initiation, indicates the path that souls must follow to achieve salvation, Persephone appears as Lady of Hades, before whom initiates come as suppliants and to whom they address their declarations of purity and liberation to gain access to the Meadows of the Blessed (Figure 3). In the Gurob Papyrus (OF 578.5), an initiate asks the goddess, here named Brimo, to save him. In some Gold Tablets from Magna Graecia (Hipponium, Entella and Thurii), Persephone has a prominent role—a greater presence, a more pronounced status and bigger engagement with the leaf-bearers—that could be owed to the influence of the local Locrian cult of the goddess, in which she presided over moments of transition (marriage, childbearing, and death). In the same way, Persephone’s local cult in the area around Pherae plays a fundamental part for the Gold Tablets coming from this region, in which the goddess is named Brimo.
The epithet Soteira “Saviour” (see soter) seems to emphasize the same aspect of salvation. It is attested at Cyzicus (FD III 3.342), Erythrae (IK 2,201.49), Sparta (Paus. 3.13.2), Megalopolis in Arcadia (Paus. 8.31.1), and in the Athenian demos of Korydallos (Ammonius gram. Diff. 279). Τ he inhabitants of Cizycus had great veneration for the goddess and sacrificed a black heifer in her honour (App. Mith. 12.75) in a festival called Soteria (FD III 3.342), Pherephattia (Plut. Luc. 10.1) or Koreia (Strabo 2.3.4). Celebrations called Koreia (Hsch. s.v. Κόρεια) are attested in Arcadia (schol. Pind. Ol. 7.153a and e) and Syracuse (Plut. Dio. 56.3; the festival should probably be identified with the Syracusan Thesmophoria). In most of these places, the goddess seems to have been worshipped with an independent cult. Kore also had a separate sanctuary, the Koreion, in Attic Teithras (SEG 24. 151.21–22), Sicilian Acrae (IG XIV 217), and Thasos (SEG 49.1173). Also in Smyrna (IK 24/1, 653 and 726), Kore’s mysteries were celebrated and votive plates made out of marble with representations of breasts or pomegranates are attested in her honour (IK 24/1, 746–748).
Oracular functions are attributed to Kore and Demeter at Patrae (Paus. 7.21.12) and to Kore and Hades at Acharaca (between Tralles and Nysa, in Asia Minor, Strabo 14.1.44). Artemidorus (2.39) refers to the healing aspect of Kore because dreaming of her signifies danger to the eyes of the dreamer.
Persephone is invoked conspicuously on curse tablets by her name or by title as Despoina (Syll.31179; see curses). These texts are mostly addressed to Chthonian divinities, such as Hermes, Hecate or Gaia, with the purpose of harming an adversary or demanding reparation for an injustice. Also in the magic papyri (see magic), Kore is part of rites of coercion. In the magic papyri, Persephone is identified with Selene (also in Plut. De fac. 942D–E; Artem. 2.36), and she is worshipped as Lunar Kore (Korē Selēnē) at Smyrna (IK 24/1, 753.21).
In archaic times, Kore and Demeter are barely distinguished from one another iconographically. Sometimes, only the style of robe or the lower height of one of the figures allows us to differentiate the mother from the daughter. At the end of the 6th century bce, Kore/Persephone begins to appears in iconography with her own personality and gradually acquires her attributes. She is depicted as a young woman, often characterized holding a torch, stalks of grain, a scepter, and to a lesser extent, a pomegranate, a poppy or sheaves. She is depicted with a dread aspect, and she usually wears a diadem, a crown or most often, a polos.
The most frequently represented episodes are her role as an Eleusinian divinity (LIMC VIII no. 39–170) and her abduction by Hades (LIMC VIII no. 177248). In the Eleusinian sphere, Demeter or the hero Triptolemus (LIMC VIII no. 39–82 and 83–132) usually accompany Kore (Figure 4), but other figures, such as Eubouleus (LIMC VIII no. 153, 155), Eumolpus (LIMC VIII no. 156), or Iacchus (LIMC VIII no. 147–150) are also present. The scenes of libations predominate (LIMC VIII no. 98–132), while the presence of stalks of grain is less frequent (LIMC VIII no. 88–97).
The motif of the abduction is first attested at the end of 6th century bce. From the beginning, the episode may be depicted as a pursuit of a young woman on foot (LIMC VIII, no. 182–185), or as her kidnapping by chariot (LIMC VIII, no. 186–248). Violence may or may not be manifested. The anodos, or return, of Kore is occasionally depicted (LIMC VIII, no. 249–253), almost always in Attic red-figure vases (see pottery, Greek) that show Persephone emerging from the earth, while Hermes, Hecate, or Silenoi stand beside her (Figure 5). The motifs of flower-picking and the restitution of Persephone are attested only in Roman times.
As queen of the underworld, Persephone sometimes appears enthroned beside Hades (Figure 6) or seated with him in a chariot pulled by black horses. At other times Persephone stands upright and holds a torch or a scepter in the hand. In a significant number of Apulian vases, the infernal couple receives Orpheus, who arrives at their palace as a protector of certain souls (see Figure 3). The role of mediator in front of Hades in the presence of his divine spouse is played by Dionysus on an Apulian volute crater (Figure 7). The interlaced hands of Hades and Dionysus, with Persephone as a witness, seal the pact in favor of the Dionysian initiates: they will receive special treatment in the Netherworld and will find rest from evils. On several Locrian pinakes, various deities pay homage and offer gifts to Persephone, or to Persephone and Hades, on the occasion of their wedding. Attributes, such as the rooster, are found especially in the iconography of this particular cult. In the sphere of the underworld, the adventures with Cerberus and Heracles (LIMC VIII, no. 257–280) are better represented than those with Sisyphus (LIMC VIII, no. 281–288) or Adonis (LIMC VIII, no. 289–293).
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