Lessons from Persephone


Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. You may recall the Greek myth from 6th grade Social Studies class. One day while the innocent maiden is out picking narcissus in an ethereal field of wildflowers with her besties, Hades, god of the Underworld, spots her luscious physique and falls instantly and madly in love. So entranced is he that he skyrockets out of hell on a chariot of black stallions to kidnap her and take her back to his kingdom slyly leaving no trace of his crime. Very romantic.


When Persephone doesn’t return before dark for dinner, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, freaks out, as any mother would. She searches endlessly, calling out for her only child, probably having a panic attack. She begs her baby daddy, Zeus, for assistance and he is absolutely no help at all, preferring to cover Hades’ ass than help a goddess. That’s when Hekate, goddess of the witches and wilderness, steps in to help a sister out and they figure out what had happened. Demeter is pissed off. She doesn’t want her daughter hanging out with “those kind of people,” AKA dead, and certainly doesn’t want her to marry a creep like Hades. She wants revenge.


Since Zeus is useless, she does exactly what is in her power to do and takes an indefinite leave of absence from her duties. Basically, all the fields and plants die off, animals starve to death and famine spreads across the world. Now Zeus is forced to do something. He agrees to return Persephone to her mother, but if and only if, they can prove that she does not want to stay in the Underworld. This is where it gets tricky because Persephone partakes in the seeds of the juicy pomegranate, which casts a spell on all those who eat it and causes them to enjoy the Underworld, even miss it when they’re away. Hence, Persephone now wants to stay in the Underworld, by choice. Zeus’s compromise is that Persephone will spend half the year with her husband, Hades, and reign supreme as Queen of the Underworld, and half the year with her mom, frolicking in the sunshine and flowers above ground.


All of this is to explain why for half the year we have spring and summer, filled with anticipation and the joy of Persephone’s return to Demeter, and the other half of the year we have autumn and winter, filled with pain and loneliness while Persephone is not with Demeter.


This tale certainly speaks to a mother’s great love for her daughter, an infinite and boundless love. It also speaks to the love of a man for his wife, passionate and relentless. But what does it say about the woman in between these two? She is surely the protagonist of this story, and yet she has no agency. Everything is done to her, and she is simply a victim of circumstance. Or so “they” want you to believe.


“In mythology, naivete and the fall into the abyss are the initiatory stages of individuation; they are the signs that a person has set off on the tortuous path of becoming herself.”

– Clarissa Pinkola Estes


Persephone gets a bad rap. She isn’t some poor idiot who can’t think for herself or make her own decisions; she is smart AF. First of all, I think she is totally hot for the tall, enchanting Hades; he is a powerful king who worships her after all. I’m also fairly certain that she eats the pomegranate on purpose; she wants to see the Underworld with new eyes, to understand the realm of spirits and the afterlife. And who wouldn’t want to be a queen and have sovereignty of their own fiery domain?


Oftentimes, this myth is equated with this time of year, Autumn, because this is when we turn toward the dark. We are leaving the sunny active days of summer behind and transitioning into a time of more stillness and solitude. Persephone understands transition more than anyone. She lives between two worlds, always crossing two realms of being, the light and fullness of above and the dark and mystery of below. Just as during this time of year, we are transitioning between the light and darkness. Persephone can be a model for us on how to do it gracefully.


Autumn holds a lot of death energy. Everything is dying back, and we are leaning into the fallow time of winter when there are no bees or fruits or flowers to gaze upon. People are uncomfortable with death because we associate it with grief and fear. And while this is true, death is a necessary part of the cycle of life. Things die, so they can decay in order to create new life. This is seen in the forests, as well as the psyche. We must let go of the old, to make room for the new. And as impossible as it is to release our loved ones into the mysteries of the afterlife, our planet couldn’t sustain immortality and we would never change or evolve as humans if we thought we had forever to get our act together. Though much of Persephone’s tale ends with the outcome of her future decided for her by her parents, Persephone lives on as a great queen. She brings with her the knowledge of both worlds, above and below, life and death, and everything in between. She’s seen it all and uses this to seed compassion and diplomacy in her dominion.


Everyone struggles with change. We want everything to stay happy and easy and perfect, so that we never have to deal with difficulty or discomfort. But unfortunately, that is the naivety of the maiden, not the wisdom of a queen. As Persephone demonstrates, change is as necessary as death for us to learn and grow. That is the only way we will achieve independence and self-knowledge. True happiness and ease do not come with everything staying perfect and the same, but instead with accepting life as it is—tumultuous, enigmatic, irrational and multiplicitous.