The Persephone story

The Persephone story

Bell krater showing Persephone (L) returning to her mother Demeter (R). She is escorted by Hermes (winged helmet) and Hekate (bearing two torches).

I've always been fascinated by the Persephone myth. Her story is much older than most Greek myths, and it says so much about abuse of power in a short tale. As I became involved in the caviar trade as a scientist, thinking about the problems I worked on through the lens of this story helped me keep looking forward when things weren’t going well.

The oldest story we have on Persephone is a song from the time of the Homeric epics. In this earliest version, as king of the gods, Zeus saw it as his right to “give” Persephone to his brother Hades- against her will. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was furious, but she was also very clever. Demeter turned her role as goddess of the harvest against the other gods. She refused to let a single plant grow. As humanity began to starve, the gods had a sobering realization: without humans’ sacrifices, they would starve as well. 

Zeus buckled. He ordered his brother Hades to restore Persephone to her home. 

Later versions of this story focus on the moment when Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds, turning her journey into a just-so tale explaining the seasons. But the oldest story we have about her paints a very different picture. Persephone’s story is one about the price of abuses of power; of knowledge gained at terrible cost; that our fates are linked more than we know; and what can unfold when the powerful refuse to abandon the weak.