You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Persephone’ tag.

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Figure of Ceres with a Polos on her head (2nd century A.D, Roman)bronze

Greco-Roman civilization featured many objects and icons which are instantly familiar to us today.  We know all about cornucopias, tridents, and the fasces (Hey! Why are those on the official seal of the U.S. Senate, anyway?).  Yet other common symbols from that world are perplexing to us today–like the lituus which represented augury in classical mythology.  Today’s post features a symbol which may or may not have made sense to the Greeks and Romans, but which was instantly understood in the context of their religion—the polos.  The polos was a cylindrical crown worn by goddesses of supreme importance: Rhea, Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite, and Artemis (though not Athena, apparently), however it was seemingly not worn by queens or high status women in the real world after the 5th century.   We know what it looked like, but we are perplexed as to what it was made of (insomuch as it was an object of the physical world at all).

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Archaeological finds from the Mycenaean era (1600BC-1200BC) indicate that living women of the ancient palace kingdoms of Greece and Crete once wore these headdresses. You can see a polos above on a Mycenaean figure—yet by the classical Greek era, these do not seem to be worn in the real world.

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Examples from statues of Cybele and Rhea make it seem almost as though it was woven or carved out of some organic material.  Perhaps the Polos was a symbol of fertility and abundance (which would expliain why the virginal Artemis of Ephesus wears such a thing yet the virginal Athena does not.

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Artemis of Ephesus. Statue from the Amphitheater of Lepcis Magna

It is possible that the polos was a cultural object which came into Greece from the near east (there are certainly equivalent crowns in Mesopotamian and Persian art) and existed in religion but not in common culture (Christianity is filled with such symbols, when you think about it).  However it seems more likely to me that the polos was important to the Greeks because it was ancient and mysterious.  It had the same place in their culture that their gods and symbols do in ours—a venerable symbol of otherworldly power

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Seated Aphrodite wearing a high polos (4th century B.C.) terracotta

Minthe

Minthe (source unknown)

Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story.  The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course.  Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought.  There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament.  Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case,  Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention).  Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene.  The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!

Persephone and Minthe

Persephone and Minthe (an enigmatic unattributed image from Deviantart.com)

Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created.  The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay.  The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients.  Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought.  Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!

Peppermint

Peppermint

Psyché obtenant de Proserpine l'elixir de beauté (Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1735)

Psyché obtenant de Proserpine l’elixir de beauté (Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1735)

This blog has addressed many different deities of the underworld, but one of the most important figures of classical Greco-Roman underworld mythology has been left out.  Persephone (or Proserpine to the Romans) was the queen of the underworld, the reluctant consort of Hades who ruled over a dark and mournful kingdom (as pictured above).  However Persephone was one of the few figures in classical mythology who could leave the underworld.  Like her mother Demeter, Persephone  was a vegetation goddess—a deity that dies and is reborn with the annual growth cycle of plants.

Persephone was not just the queen of the underworld, but also the goddess of spring.  When she emerged from the underworld, winter ended and life begin to grow and flower again.  The vase below shows her returning with Hermes from the dark realm so that spring could once more come and winter’s darkness be banished for another year.

The Return of Persephone (Attic Red Figure Vase, Greek Classical Period)

The Return of Persephone (Attic Red Figure Vase, Greek Classical Period)

Wild Asphodels (photo by Paul & Pam Markwell)

Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers.   Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves.  These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime.  The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.

Asphodel tenufolius

This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld.  Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld.  To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks.  Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture.  In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.

Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities.  Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead.  So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.

In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss.  William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life.  Here is a poignant fragment:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
			upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
			to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
			if you will,
with flowers.  So that
		I was cheered
			when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
			Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
			when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
			asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
			as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
			Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
			but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.

During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras.  One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.

Statue of Pluto (Roman, ca. First Century, Marble)

The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:

Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld.  He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance.  The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak.  A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity.  Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)

Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans.  When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.

Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse.  The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy.  The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses.  The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead.  No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion.  The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.

Rape of Proserpine (Niccolò dell'Abbate, ca. 1571, oil on canvas)

Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath.  She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved.  The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.

Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities.  Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship.  There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”.  Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.

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