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Hell is a teenage girl: innocent, cruel Persephone

Hell is a teenage girl: innocent, cruel Persephone

 Translated by Silvia Colombi

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Illustrazione di Nataša Ilinčić

Illustration by Nataša Ilinčić

There is a young girl, thin ankles, who plays in a flower field. Something terrible is going to happen to her and she will have no choice. She will scream her father’s name but he will not help her.
Or, there is a woman, merciless and arrogant, who reigns on the underworld. She inspires both reverence and terror, she has the power to curse the unjust and can bend anyone to her will. Which story do you want to hear? Maybe there is no need to choose: Persephone, the Greek goddess of the underworld, is both a maiden and a queen and today we are talking about her.

The story of this young girl may seem simple. She is an unaware victim, a puppet inside the game of powerful gods. While she is picking up flowers in a sun-drenched field, the ground opens below her feet and Hades, the lord of the dead, comes out of it. He kidnaps her even though she fights and screams because that is Zeus’ will.
Her mother Demeter, an all-powerful goddess, angry and in pain, casts a famine on Earth, forcing Zeus to demand that her daughter be given back to her. But Hades makes the young girl eat a pomegranate seed, and everybody knows that who eats the food of the dead is doomed to stay among them forever. The compromise was that the girl would spend half of the year in the living world, taking spring and life with her, and the other half in the underworld where she would reign as Hades’ wife.
Rarely, in this story, is she called Persephone: instead, she is Kore, the Perfect Daughter.

Less known is the story of the queen, perhaps because we are aware of her existence only through names. We do not know who her parents were. We only know she is called cruel, worthy and pure, she has the power to make people’s curses happen and she controls the souls of the dead. It would be easy to assume that she is the future version of the young woman kidnapped by Hades, but it is actually the opposite: we find news of merciless Persephone, the queen of the dead, in the Iliad and the Odyssey (1) – known as the most ancient proof of the Greek culture – but there is no trace of innocent Kore. Nonetheless, it was her who became the most worshipped of the two, together with her mother Demeter; it was her tale – as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter – which became the most famous. And yet, when she arrived, the queen was already there.

However, myths are hardly ever set in stone and it would be very difficult for two faces of a deity – so different between them – to be next to each other without affecting one another. And that is precisely why, in the common ground between the defenceless girl and the cruel queen, if we look hard enough we can find one more story.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the episode where Kore eats the fateful pomegranate seed is written in two very different ways: first the story is told using the third person (2), then the floor is given to the vivid voice of the character of Persephone, in a direct speech where the goddess talks for herself (3). For those of us reading the hymn today, the change of point of view may seem insignificant, but during the oral performances, for which these poems were conceived, the public was able to lose itself into the story and could almost hear the goddess’ voice, thanks to the performer’s incredible mimetic skills.

Now, in the third-person version sang by the poet, when Hades agrees to let Persephone go, he smiles at her but gives her, at the same time, tremendous powers. She is finally happy because she can go back to her mother, or so it seems. Then Hades gives her the pomegranate seed, but the narrated scene shows no trace of violence. On the contrary, the poet tells us that Persephone, here described as “smart, sharp and wise”, secretly receives the pomegranate seed and goes back to her mother: here, she throws her arms around her and she is finally happy. Demeter asks her if she ate something and, in that very moment, the poet stops reporting the facts from the outside and lets the goddess speak for herself. Surprisingly, she tells a whole different story: a story of violence, where Hades forced her to eat the seed.

The end of both tales is the same, but the reasons that stand behind the differences between the poet’s story and Persephone’s are still unclear. Perhaps the hymn is composed of two different and antithetical perceptions: a feminine one, which lives the violence on her own body, and a masculine one, which looks at that same violence from the outside and understands it, tames it and keeps it quiet. So when we hear Persephone speak for herself, she is finally able to reveal the abuse suffered, while the poet, who agrees with Zeus’ actions , could not care less about her point of view.

It is also possible there is no contradiction, and it is Persephone herself choosing which events she wants to describe and which ones she wants to reshape in order to steer her story in the direction she prefers. And if you allow me to apply psychological categories to a mythical character – methodologically wrong procedures mode: on – I would say that in this second interpretation Persephone simply grows up. Demeter loves her, she is her mother, and Persephone does not want to hurt her. However, she did choose to eat that red, sweet, intoxicating pomegranate seed. Because if she could not be the one to end her childhood, she now wants to be the maker of her own adulthood.

In this interpretation the goddess is not just a young woman, nor only a queen who sits motionless on her throne: she is an in-between creature who transforms her own pain in the source of her strength. Poised between the world of the living and that of the dead, between fragility and power, this moody and resilient goddess speaks to our deepest humanity. If the symbols of that primordial and untouched strength are precious, as the terrible queen in the Iliad and Odyssey is, it seems to me that the symbols of transformation are even more important. Like this manipulated and hurt teenager who, dragged into the shadow, from that shadow gains new strength. And she seizes the power to curse the unjust.

(1) The goddess is mentioned two times in the Iliad (9.457 e 9.569) and eleven times in the Odyssey (10.491 = 10.564, 10.494, 10.509, 10.534 = 11.47, 11.213, 11.217, 11.226, 11.386, 11.386, 11.635); The only adjectives attributed to her are “cruel” (evpainh), “worthy” (avgauh) or “pure” (a´` gnh). Nobody says that she is Demeter’s daughter, nor they talk about Hades’ kidnapping. Kore as a name is never used.

(2) Homeric Hymn to Demeter, vv. 357-374

(3) Homeric Hymn to Demeter, vv. 406-413

Calame, C., Poétique des mythes dans la Grèce antique, Paris 2000
Clay, J.S., The Politics of Olympus. Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns, Princeton 1989
Foley, H.P., The Hymn to Demeter. Translation, Commentary, and Interpretative Essays, Princeton 1994
Suter, A., The Narcissus and the Pomegranate. An Archaeology of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ann Arbor 2002
Zuntz, G., Persephone. Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Grecia, Oxford 1971


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