Goddess of the Week: Persephone (Proserpine)

George Wilson (1848-1890), The Spring Witch (c 1880), oil on canvas, 106.7 × 80 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

Persephone (Greek Περσεφόνη), also known to the Greeks as Kore (Greek Κόρη) or ‘the maiden’, and to the Romans as Proserpine, is the goddess of the plant world and vegetation generally. She is the result of another of Zeus’s many extramarital relationships, this time with Demeter. Her attributes are the pomegranate (from the myth told below), ears of wheat and grain seeds, flowers and deer. In painting, and more generally, she’s known mainly from the extended myth telling how she became the wife of Hades, ‘queen of the underworld’, and a goddess of the Spring.

Much of the story of Persephone is set on the island of Sicily, on the slopes of its active volcano Mount Etna. Hades, god of the underworld, lives in fear of the volcano’s eruptions, and periodically leaves his dark kingdom in his chariot, to check that all remains well.

One day, as Hades is on one of his surveys, he is seen by Aphrodite, who decides to get her son Eros to make him fall in love with Persephone, the young daughter of Demeter. Eros selects his finest arrow, which strikes Hades in the heart. Meanwhile Persephone is playing and picking flowers by Lake Pergus, an idyllic spot.

Hades makes off with the young girl in his chariot, passing a pool where the nymph Cyane lives. She tries to stop them, but Hades opens up a cleft in the ground, and drives quickly through it down to his kingdom. Cyane is heartbroken, and melts away in tears of grief which colour a lake blue.

Demeter has missed her daughter, and starts searching the world for her. As it’s getting dark, she looks for somewhere to rest, only to be insulted by a boy, who is transformed into a spotted newt. Demeter continues the search for her missing daughter. She reaches Cyane’s pool, but after her transformation that nymph is unable to tell her what happened. Guessing that her girl had been abducted, Demeter tears her hair and clothing. The harvest of Sicily is destroyed by her grief.

At last, Arethusa tells Demeter of Hades’ abduction of her daughter. Demeter goes straight to Zeus, Persephone’s father, and pleads the case that the girl should be freed from Hades. Zeus agrees on the condition – which is set by the Fates – that Persephone hasn’t eaten while she was in the underworld. Sadly, that proves not to be the case, as she nibbled at a pomegranate, for which Ascalaphus is transformed into a screech-owl for being sole witness. The daughters of Achelous, water-nymphs who were playing with Persephone when she was abducted by Hades, are tranformed into the Sirens, half-woman and half-bird, for their inattention to her care.

The compromise reached is that Persephone shall spend half the year, the winter, with her husband Hades in the underworld, and the remainder, the summer, with her mother Demeter. Thus it is that her time with Demeter is the period during which the land is fertile and food can be grown. When she returns to the underworld, the earth above lies barren through the winter.

Niccolò dell’Abbate (1510–1571), The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570), oil on canvas, 196 x 220 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Niccolò dell’Abbate’s The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570) gives a fine account of Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses using multiplex narrative. Under ink-black clouds associated with Hades, the god is seen carrying Persephone up a hill. At the far right, he is about to drive his chariot into a huge cavern, which will take them down into the Underworld.

In the foreground, Cyane is by her pool, and about to literally dissolve into tears in its water. Six other nymphs, the daughters of Achelous, are also protesting at the girl’s abduction.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Abduction of Proserpina (c 1631), oil on oak panel, 84.8 x 79.7 cm, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Proserpina (c 1631) is probably the earliest masterpiece to show this story, although it deviates significantly from Ovid’s version. Hades is trying to drive his chariot away, with Persephone inside it. She is putting up fierce resistance, though, and trying to fend him off.

Hanging on to the hem of Persephone’s floral dress is a woman who should perhaps be her mother Demeter, but bears the crescent moon normally associated with Artemis. Hades’ chariot is being drawn by two black horses, through an ethereal almost fluid carpet of flowers. The horses and chariot are about to disappear into a black cleft in the earth, and make their descent to the underworld.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Proserpina (1636-38), oil on canvas, 180 × 270 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens also shows a composite story, in his superb Rape of Proserpina (1636-38). Hades’ face looks the part, his eyes bulging and staring at Athena, who is trying to stop the girl from being abducted. Below the chariot, the basketful of flowers which Persephone had been picking is scattered on the ground.

Rubens shows irresistable movement to the right, as Hades struggles to lift the girl into his chariot. Two winged Cupids are preparing to drive the black horses on, once the couple are secured inside.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), The Fate of Persephone (1878), oil and tempera on canvas, 122.5 × 267 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Crane’s standalone account is conventional for a narrative painting of its time. He too shows Persephone at the moment of her abduction. She had been picking spring flowers in the meadow with the three other women shown at the left, and is seen still holding her posy, the link with the previous moments. Hades brought his chariot, complete with its pair of black horses symbolising the underworld, and is seen gripping Persephone’s right arm, ready to move her into the chariot and make off into the future, the dark cavern to the right, which will take the couple down to the underworld.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Proserpine (1882), oil on canvas, 78.7 × 39.2 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late years of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s career, he became quite obsessed with Persephone, and from 1871 made at least eight paintings of her. The image above show his last, Proserpine, which he completed shortly before his death in 1882. She stares into the distance, clutching her partly-eaten pomegranate, an oil lamp guttering below. The verses at the top right read:

Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door.
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here
Afar those skies from this Tartarean gray
That chills me: and afar, how far away,
The nights that shall be from the days that were.

Afar from mine own self I seem and wind
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring,)
“Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine”!

George Wilson (1848-1890), The Spring Witch (c 1880), oil on canvas, 106.7 × 80 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, an almost unknown Pre-Raphaelite, George Wilson, painted two works derived from this myth. His Rape of Proserpine is in a private collection and I’ve been unable to locate a usable image of it, but The Spring Witch (c 1880) was inspired by Zeus’s compromise in which she spends half her life in Hades, and half above.

Wilson shows Persephone when she has just emerged from the underworld, to start her six months sojourn with her mother. She holds a fateful pomegranate in her left hand, from which a magical fibrous band emerges to wind around her body.

Persephone also has a minor role in some paintings of Orpheus visiting the underworld, but her moment of stardom is this elaborate account of the origin of the seasons.