Persephone and the Discomfort of Darkness

by Carrie Gessner

Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.

Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.

When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” [1]. And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:

Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. [2]

Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1912

Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.” [3] What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?

stqI think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology [4], but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” [5]. As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.

A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.

[1] Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] “Questions about The Star-Touched Queen.” Goodreads, Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.

[5] Chokshi, Roshani. The Star-Touched Queen. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 171.


Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

by K.P. Kulski

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words can be found in many sources from the ancient world. But there’s so much more to the existence of the Pythia that captures my imagination, it is what she represents—a remnant of even older belief systems.

serpentThe serpent brings instinctive fear. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Devil, in the form of a serpent who tempts Eve, who, along with Adam are cast out from the Garden of Eden as punishment. The Medusa of Ancient Greek mythology with her head writhing with nest of serpents could turn a man to stone. Early civilization abounds with the association of women with serpents, something that continues into the Ancient Greek world. The very title “Pythia,” is a reference to themedusa great Python, the serpent beast who originally guarded the Delphi site.

Snakes frequently nest in crevices and the underground. They emerge from the Earth itself, as if born forth from a womb. Much like humanity, they can be beneficial but are also dangerous. The Oracle is the conduit, much like the Earth, or a mother for what thing that emerges. She is the womb of prophesy, just as filled with potential and uncertainty as humankind. While controversial, the studies of Marija Gimbutas bring entirely worthwhile connections. If the serpent is representative of what can emerge from the Earth, what other connections can we find? Gimbutas says upon death European Neolithic cultures may have believed, “new life grows from the remains of the old…symbolically, the individual returned to the goddess’ womb to be reborn.”[1] She goes on to place a direct correlation between what she calls the “tomb as womb.”[2] That is to say, in death everyone returned to the womb of the Earth and then ultimately were reborn.

The site at Delphi likely represented that regenerative cycle, further because of the presence of the fault line within. The Pythia was further reported to have drank from a spring that ran underground and back to the surface near Apollo’s temple.[3] The spring is yet another strong cyclic signifier. The mythological story of Apollo slaying the Python of Delphi and claiming the site as his own also points to this cultural memory. Some have argued that Apollo acts as a patriarchal symbol slaying a matriarchal belief system. If we interpret the serpent and Earth as female symbols, it is not hard to see a patriarchal connection to the slaying of the Python.

virgil_solis_-_apollo_python“Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her (Python): Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth…but here shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.”[4]

But even as Apollo takes control (by force) over prophesy, he cannot eradicate the origins of the Delphi site. Note that the Pythia, like many oracles in the ancient world, was a female specific position. While the Ancient Greeks believed that Apollo gave the words of prophesy to the Pythia, the oracular significance remains female. Joan Breton Connelly asserts that, “the Pythia Pythia Aegeus Themis Delphi[1]exerted considerable control over the oracles that she delivered,” and that while male priests existed they did not perform as oracles and further were not the ones who were the subject of attempted bribery.[5] Meaning, they had little control or influence over the Pythia and further, she likely was quite purposeful when she delivered her highly influential answers.

I suppose, some things don’t change after all.


[1] Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999), 55.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 76.

[4] “The Homeric Hymns.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Accessed 28 OCT 2017.

[5] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 78.