The myth of the abduction of the virgin goddess

by Dr. Oliver Hülden

The memory of very many antique myths is still fresh today. One of these is the story of Persephone and her abduction by Hades. PERSEPHONE have not only chosen this myth as name-giver, they have also given it a new interpretation for their own art. Therefore we felt it made sense to talk about this myth here, a story of love, suffering and longing, of the joy of reunion, new beginning and transience, of life and death. The following description of the myth, of which various antique versions exist, is based mainly on the so-called Demeter Hymn. (Another well-known version comes to us from Ovid in his “Metamorphosis”.)

It must have been a veritable drama that took place in mythical prehistoric time on the banks of the river Kephisos near the Greek village Eleusis. Persephone, also known as Kore, the beautiful daughter of the goddess Demeter, was picking flowers on the luscious meadows of the plains of Nysa together with the daughters of Okeanos. Suddenly, this innocent idyll is disturbed by Hades. The earth splits open and the ruler of the underworld bursts forth on his quadriga, snatches the struggling girl to his breast and makes off as rapidly as he has appeared. Persephone’s cries for help do not however go quite unheard – they reach the ears of her mother. Distraught, Demeter hurries from one place to the next looking for her daughter. Ovid tells us here that the goddess picks a branch of pine in each place and ignites them on Etna so that with the help of these torches she can continue her search in the darkness of night. After 10 days Demeter meets Hecate, who has also heard the calls for help but who is also unable to name the abductor.

Oliver Hülden is a doctor-degree classical archeologist. As well as doing successful work on issues of classical archeology like ancient fortification he is also going in for present receptional work of antique myths.
Together the goddesses approach the sun god Helios from whom nothing whatsoever that takes place on earth is hidden. From him they finally learn that Hades is responsible for the abduction of Persephone. Actually, Zeus himself is behind this plan and has promised Persephone to his brother as bride. This complicates things considerably because the commands of the most senior god cannot be so easily overruled. Restless and full of mourning, Demeter searches through the human realms. Her rancour turns finally into fury and the goddess of fertility, responsible for all that grows and blossoms on the earth, begins to neglect her duties. The result is a terrible famine. All humans are threatened with death which would inevitably result in there being no more sacrifices being made to the gods. This dismal picture of the future rattles Zeus to such an extent, as well as the fact that Demeter cannot be calmed or comforted by anyone or anything, that he orders Hermes to go to Hades and insist that Persephone be returned to her mother. However, Hades is not prepared to give in that easily or quickly. Instead, he gives Persephone a pomegranate seed to eat, knowing that those who eat in the underworld have to return to the underworld. Outmanoeuvered in this way, Zeus is forced to make a compromise which all are finally prepared to accept: in the future Persephone will spend a third of the year as powerful goddess of death in the underworld with her husband and other two thirds with her mother. From then on, her wanderings between this life and the life beyond become a symbol of the changing seasons. Thus, nature blooms when Persphone is on the earth in Spring and dies when she has to return to the underworld.

Those who know PERSEPHONE must be able to recognise certain things in common with the transposition of this antique myth in the paintings of the 19th and 20th century, not least due to the art work of Joachim Luetke. In both cases, the basic artistic attitude is coloured by a certain melancholic mood and is the starting point for a both similar but also very different aesthetic concept.

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