Thursday 9 April 2020

Abduction of Persephone

This is my favourite depiction of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Fresco from the small royal tomb at Vergina, 340 BC, Macedonia, Greece.

I love the way this fresco is painted. It is full of life and passion. The strokes are free and flowing. The emotions palpable. It is sooo not Formal Greek which all the other depictions of this scene are.

So what's going on here?

The story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is described in considerable detail in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

This is the story in short:

Hades, the god of the underworld fell in love with beautiful Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. He asked his brother Zeus for permission to marry her and Zeus agreed. But knowing that Demeter would not agree to the marriage, Zeus permitted Hades to abduct Persephone. So one day while she was gathering flowers with her friends, Hades burst out of the ground in his chariot, snatched Persephone and took her into the underworld...

Demeter, when she found her daughter had disappeared, disguised herself as an old woman and with lighted torches in her hands roamed the Earth looking for her daughter. In the depth of her despair, she forbade the earth to produce fruit (or she neglects the earth which results in nothing growing).

Finally, Demeter met Hekate, the old Witch. Hekate took pity on Demeter and told her to seek help from the all seeing Helios, the sun god. She did and Helios told Demeter all about how Hades had dragged Persephone into the underworld.

Persephone’s mother, Demeter, then begged her brother Hades to allow Persephone to come back to the world of the living, saying that the young Persephone was not supposed to live in the world of the dead. Hades first ignored her pleadings. But finally Zeus intervened and forced Hades to let Persephone leave. He did that because he was pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the complaints of other deities, who because of the famine, weren't getting their sacrifices...

Hades complied with Zeus's order. But first he tricked Persephone, giving her some pomegranate seeds to eat. And because she had tasted food in the underworld, she was obliged to spend a third of each year (the winter months) there, and the remaining part of the year with the gods above.

So we know pretty much everything about the crime...

Except it is unclear when was Persephone abducted by Hades? Apparently that is a bit of a mystery.

Some say Persephone was abducted at the beginning of spring, because she was abducted while picking narcissus, which is in continental Europe one of the most famous spring flower.

But if Persephone was abducted in the Spring, then why is "the return of Persephone from the underworld each spring" celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries as the resurrection of nature? Which is why Plutarch writes that "Persephone was identified with the spring season".

If Persephone "returns from the land of the dead" each spring, then she must have been abducted at the beginning of the winter, as the winter is the time when the land is dead, when nothing grows and bears fruit...Which is true in continental Eurasia, where cold snow covered wither earth is indeed "the land of the dead"...

But this is definitely not so in Crete, which I believe, is where the story of the "abduction of Persephone" originated. 

In Crete, it is the beginning of winter when the earth gets transformed from withered, dry, yellow, infertile wasteland of late summer and autumn to lush, moist, green, fertile paradise of winter, spring and early summer...

And this amazing transformation is caused by the arrival of the "winter Zeus", "thunder god who rides in a chariot pulled by ibex goats". This Zeus arrives at the end of October - beginning of November, at the beginning of the mating season of Cretan Ibex Goats and brings with him the winter rains. I believe he is also the one who "kidnaps Persephone" and takes her to the "land of the dead" aka winter. That this is not just me inventing crap, Persephone and Demeter were in Eastern Mediterranean, the area where climate is the same as it is in Crete, always linked with Zeus-Eubuleus which apparently "is an euphemistic name of Hades, Chthonian Zeus".

As we have seen, Hades, the lord of the underworld, was by Greeks associated with winter, as Persephone's time in the underworld was equated with winter. So if Hades is the Chthonian Zeus he is indeed also the Winter Zeus.

Which explains a very curious thing that Hades was also Pluto, the god of wealth depicted here sitting on a throne in "The Underworld" (dark, wet, cold part of the year) with Persephone, holding grain...

It is indeed the Winter Zeus, the Chthonian Zeus, Hades, who brings fertility to the land...

So when does the abduction take place again? 

Well the Homeric Hymn of Demeter gives us a lot of clues that all point to beginning of winter.

Clue 1:

Persephone was "gathering flowers over a soft meadow" when she was abducted. A trap was set: " be a snare for (Persephone)...a marvellous, radiant flower. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly...And the girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy; but the wide-pathed earth yawned...and the lord, Host of Many...sprang out upon her, the Son of Cronos, He who has many names..."

There are two types of winter blooming narcissus in Crete:

Narcissus papyraceus with bunches of strong scented white flowers.

Narcissus tazetta, with bunches of strong scented white flowers with bright yellow cups.

They are found all over the island from October-November through to February.

Which one of these two is the "flower which was used to lure Persephone" is not really that important. What is important is that they start flowering in October-November, at the beginning of the Cretan rain season. Right at the time when the Winter (Chthonian) Zeus aka Hades arrives in his Ibex Goat pulled chariots (later to be replaced by horses drawn chariot)...

But that is not the only flower which, according to the Homeric Hymn of Demeter, Persephone was picking before she was abducted, and which also flowers in Crete during the winter.

She was picking crocuses, saffron crocuses, just like the girls do on this Minoan fresco.

This is spectacular Crocus cartwrightianus, the wild ancestor of the saffron crocus, probably the type of crocus Persephone would have been picking. It flowers in November and December.

She was picking irises.

This is Iris unguicularis subsp. Cretensis - often split as the separate species Iris Cretensis - is Crete's commonest iris. Clumps flower in winter and spring, starting from November...

She was picking hyacinths.

This is Bellevalia brevipedicellata, an endemic species of wild hyacinth, restricted to the south-west corner of Crete and Gavdos island. It flowers from December to March.

She was picking violets.

This is Cretan Violet, Viola Cretica. It is a perennial species, endemic to the island of Crete, Greece. It grows mainly in the central and eastern part of the island. It flowers from March to May

I believe that violets were added to the list of flowers picked by Persephone later, on the Greek mainland. There, daffodils, irises, crocuses, hyacinths and violets all bloom in spring.

So does this mean that Persephone was abducted at the beginning of spring?

Well, no.

Because there are other things found in the legend that point at the beginning of winter as the time when the "crime" was committed.

Clue 2:

Remember that, before releasing Persephone, Hades tricked her, giving her some pomegranate seeds to eat. And because she had tasted "food in The Underworld", she was obliged to spend every winter in the underworld...

If there is one fruit which is in Greece associated with winter, it's pomegranate.

The pomegranate picking season starts in October and lasts until January, basically spanning the whole of winter. It is no wonder then that pomegranate is considered a symbol of Christmas in Greece.

So if Hades did give Persephone pomegranate to eat, he could only have given it to her during the winter. And the only way Persephone could taste this fruit again is if she goes back to "the underworld" aka winter.

For this to happen, Persephone had to have been abducted at the beginning of winter.

Interestingly, in ancient Greece, pomegranate mainly symbolised fertility. No wonder, considering it is a huge fruit full of large seeds... Clay pomegranates (often painted) were found at sanctuaries of female deities, especially Hera, the goddess of matrimony and motherhood.

Painted clay models of pomegranates found in a cemetery of the Geometric period and on display in the museum at Vravrona near Athens, Greece (ca. 800-700BC)

So Persephone, the "Queen of The Underworld" aka Winter Mother Earth, which is also The Goddess of Fertility, is directly associated with pomegranate, the winter fruit and a symbol of fertility...

One other proof that Persephone was abducted at the beginning of winter, is this passage from the Homeric Hymn of Demeter which describes the actual moment of abduction:

Clue 3:

"He caught her up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting. Then she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father, the Son of Cronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit..."

Now "olive-trees bearing rich fruit" can only be seen just before the olive harvest, which lasts from mid-November until January. Again spanning the whole of winter...

Clue 4:

Finally, in the "Divinities in the Orphic Gold Leaves: Euklês, Eubouleus, Brimo, Kybele, Kore and Persephone" by Jan N. Bremmer, we can read that according to a passage of Clement of Alexandria and a scholion on Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, both of which go back to the same source, "when Kore (Persephone) was carried off by Plouton (Hades) while picking flowers, one Eubouleus, a swineherd, was pasturing pigs on that spot, and they were swallowed up in the pit of Kore. So in honour of Eubouleus, the piglets are thrown into the pits of Demeter and Kore (Persephone) during Thesmophoria..."

Persephone was even called Pherrephata, "killer of suckling pigs", by the Athenians.

This is very interesting indeed. 

First it is interesting that the swineherd is called Eubouleus, the same as the Winter (Chthonian) Zeus who was the only god directly associated with Persephone and Demeter. 

Second, it is interesting that Persephone was abducted while "Eubouleus was pasturing his pigs". I believe that this means that she was abducted during "pannage". 

Pannage is the practice of releasing livestock-pigs in a forest, so that they can feed on fallen acorns, beechmast, chestnuts or other nuts. Pannage coincides with the acorn shedding season of whatever oak variety grows in the area.

The acorn shedding season of the Eastern Mediterranean oaks, like Holm Oak or Valonian Oak, starts from October-November and lasts until December-January...

The pannage season overlaps with the the main wild boar mating season which in most areas lasts from November to January (Winter). And there are indications that in the past this was also the main mating season of the domesticated pigs too, as can be read in the "Testing transhumance: Anglo-Saxon swine pastures and seasonal grazing in the Surrey Weald". 

Wild boar gestation period is 114 days, and a sow will give birth to anywhere from 1 to a dozen piglets. Which means that piglets will be born between February and May (Spring)

Thesmophoria, in Greek religion, ancient festival held in honour of Demeter Thesmophoros (bringer of treasure or wealth) and celebrated by free married women only. The festival lasted three days, although in Attica it was lengthened to five. The original days were Pyanopsion (October) 12–14. 

So the fact that Thesmaphoria was celebrated in October again points at the abduction of Persephone taking place at the end of autumn beginning of winter. Which falls at the beginning of the pannage season in Eastern Mediterranean, at the beginning of the wild boar mating season... 

The only problem is that there was no way that originally "the piglets were thrown into the pits of Demeter and Kore (Persephone) during Thesmophoria". Because there were no piglets in October. The first piglets were born at the earliest in February, so it was much more likely that piglets were either thrown into the pits during Skirophoria, annual grain threshing festival held on the 12th of Skirophorion (roughly June/July) which was also held in honour of Demeter, the goddess of fruitfulness, and her daughter Kore (Persephone), and which was also celebrated only by women. 

The rotten piglet carcasses were then brought out of the pits during Thesmaphoria, which was a sowing festival. They were placed on the altar with pinecones and serpent and phallus shaped breads. All this was then crumbled and mixed with grain seeds that were intended for autumn planting, to ensure good harvest next year...

Figurine of Demeter with Pig Greece, Athens, 5th Century BC

One other thing. χοίρων is an Ancient Greek word meaning "sow", "young pig", "porker", "swine" but it was also used as a slang for the female sex organ of virgins...

Interesting indeed...

There are suggestions that it is the fact that choiros meant both piglet and to the vulva of virgins, which lead to piglets being offered to Demeter/Persephone during Thesmophoria, as substitutes for (and symbolic of) the sacrifice of a young girls, just as Kore had been sacrificed.

Or maybe what was sacrificed was virginity. You need to kill the piglet (rapture the hymen) in order to conceive, to produce life...

Clue 5:

The pinecones, well known symbols of fertility, which were placed on the Demeter's and Persephone's altar were Stone Pine cones.

The Stone Pine is the source of pine nuts, and one of longest cultivated edible trees. The pine nuts harvest falls between grape harvest and olive harvest, right at the time of Thesmaphoria...

It is interesting that this swineherd, whose pigs were swallowed by the earth that swallowed Persephone, was in Eleusinian Mysteries he is the demi-god of ploughing and the planting of the grain seed...When Cicero calls Persephone "the seed of the fruits of the fields" aka grain seed.

This is interesting because it is at the precise moment when Persephone (the grain seed) is abducted and taken to the "underworld", that winter grains, barley and wheat, are sown. 

Here comes one of my favourite bits of the legend of the abduction of Persephone. 

"Demeter, when she found her daughter had disappeared, disguised herself as an old woman and with lighted torched in her hands roamed the Earth looking for her daughter..."

How long was she doing this?

Well the Homeric Hymn of Demeter says:

"Thereafter, for nine days did the Lady Demeter
  wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands." 

On the tenth day, Hekate came to Demeter and told her that Helios (the sun) knows where her daughter was...

Why nine days?

I always thought that Persephone spend the whole of winter in The Underworld. And she does, if we see Persephone as Winter Demeter, Winter Earth. 

The makers of these faceless female busts found in Cyrene Museum, Libya, which "may" represent Persephone (Demeter), certainly saw her like that. Look at the snake hiding in her sleeve. Snakes are underground during the coldest part of the year, winter, which Persephone (winter Demeter) spends in "The Underworld".... 

I talked about a possible reason why she was depicted without a face in my post "Faceless one".

But if we see Persephone as grain seed, then she indeed spend only 9 days in The Underworld, Under The Ground.

This diagram shows the life cycle of the winter grains (wheat and barley). You can see that after sowing, the seed germinates and sprouts within 10 days...After 10 days the first grain leafs appear above the ground...

Is this why the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is so precise about number of days Demeter was looking for her daughter? 

I will finish this article with one of my favourite works of art. This is the Roman, Augustan period "bas relief of Ceres (Demeter) or Proserpine (Persephone) rising from the ground with sheaves of wheat and poppies". 

Snakes, poppies, sheafs of wheat...Winter has ended. Summer is here. Persephone came back from "The Underworld". Now she is Demeter "the holy goddess with the beautiful hair"...


  1. I believe the legend of the abduction of Persephone took place in Sicily, not Crete, specfically in the ancient, sacred and pagan site of Lake Pergusa, Enna. There was a connection between Sicily and the Minoans through the myth of Daedalus who had escaped Crete and King Minos (not sure if it is "the" King Minos) and found refuge in Sicily under the Sicanian king Kokalos/Cocalos. The Sicanians were the first inhabitants of Sicily, after the Giants/Cyclopes of course. Classical historians/mythographers have differing opinions about where the Sicanians originated. Some argue they migrated from Iberia, others claim they were Illyrian. Like you say, who knows? People travelled... ;)

  2. As someone who simply clicked on this article for a school assignment; This article is a f****** rollercoaster and it's f****** amazing!

  3. Have you seen this stone.
    Could it be connected?

  4. Why the photo is not visible, any ideas? Help!

  5. The story of Jesus sending the demons into the swineherd which then descend off the cliff is a nod to the thesmophoria IMO. Choiros and Kore are certainly linked at least in the mind of someone speaking Greek.

  6. First, about the fresco. It is only natural to be a good depiction, because, IMHO the whole story is a pre greek, Slavic story, so naturally, it is nicely depicted in Macedonia...
    One other hint, just an idea. Persephone ( esp. related to grain germination chart...) when she is underground she is called Kore/Kora - related to Slavic word for root - koren ( in free translation-belonging to Kora)...
    And I admire your work, great text, I enjoyed actively !

  7. what is the date of resource creation