Live Through This

Persephone and Me

A myth that became my reality.

Illustration by Leanna

I met her on my eighth birthday. Flipping through D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, a gift from a family friend, I was drawn immediately to the image of the blonde girl wearing a white dress and a flower crown, her arms raised in distress as she’s pulled into a dark pit by a bearded, toga-clad man in a chariot. The flowers she’d been picking fall from her hands, and four pigs that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the earth opened up tumble into the abyss alongside her. It was totally disturbing, but also gorgeous.

I read that book cover to cover so many times I lost count, and developed favorites among its pantheon of gods. I was a bookworm already planning for college in the third grade, so I idolized Athena, the goddess of widsom, who sprung fully grown from Zeus’s head. Even though Pandora, who was responsible for unleashing every human misery upon the world, freaked me out, I could relate—I would have been curious, too, if someone gave me a present and said I couldn’t open it.

But the one whose story I read most often, the one I became obsessed with, was Persephone. Her myth, which in part explains the origins of seasons, was told in three pages of text and four images. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, always kept her daughter close by her side, and Persephone’s childhood was spent dancing around meadows with nymphs. Then one day Hades kidnapped her and made her queen of the underworld. Hades’s palace was dismal, full of dead souls and surrounded by a garden without flowers or birds or life, save for a pomegranate tree, which Persephone at first refused to touch, because eating the food of the dead meant being trapped in the underworld forever. Meanwhile, Demeter was so upset over the loss of her daughter that she refused to let anything grow, so Zeus ordered Hades to let Persephone go. But in her hunger, the girl had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, and thus an arrangement was made in which Persephone had to return to the underworld for a few months each year, during which time Demeter grieves and the earth is barren.

I’m not sure why I loved this (admittedly pretty dark) story so much. Maybe it was because I loved stories—like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Chronicles of Narnia—where kids went off to strange worlds and had adventures. Maybe I was trying to figure out why Persephone was made to suffer even though she hadn’t really done anything so bad. Or maybe I just liked her because her name rhymed with mine.

Image via D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

By junior high, all of my books with pictures had been boxed up and handed off to my mom, who squirreled them away somewhere along with my stuffed animals and favorite T-shirts. But I wouldn’t let her take my book of myths (I argued that it was “literary”). And over the years I looked at it a lot. Eventually the book’s cracked spine would automatically open to the page about Persephone, and her story began to take on new meanings for me as I became a teenager. I began to understand how that girl, plunging into darkness with those poor pigs, might have felt.

There were two sentences in particular that grabbed me: “One day as Persephone ran about in the meadow gathering flowers, she strayed away from her mother and the attending nymphs. Suddenly, the ground split open and up from the yawning crevice came a dark chariot drawn by black horses.” It implied cause and effect: Persephone wandered away from the one who watched over her, and then the ground split open.

Like Persephone, I was super close with my mother when I was little. We ate cookies together in her bed. We discussed the books I was reading while she gardened or combed the tangles out of my long, thick hair. Every winter we went to see a performance of The Nutcracker together.

But for some reason, things changed around the time I was in fifth grade. We started to clash over everything, it seemed: She didn’t like the music I was listening to—Madonna was too sexual; Metallica gave her a headache. She was annoyed that I suddenly “needed” to spend so much money on clothes, and told me I was too young to wear makeup. She refused to let me go to sleepovers with friends she didn’t know, or else came up with all these embarrassing stipulations, like having to meet everyone who would be there.

I felt like she was preventing me from having a life of my own, so we got into a massive fights where I would end up yelling or throwing my hairbrush at her. I once slammed the door so hard I cracked the leg of a wooden Nutcracker ornament that she’d given me, which I kept on my doorknob year-round. How’s that for symbolism.

I always screamed that she didn’t understand, but what I didn’t say was that even if she wanted to protect me from danger and/or pain—in other words, from growing up—she couldn’t. She couldn’t replace my best friend who had moved away, or remedy the aching loss that lingered in her absence. She couldn’t do anything about the fact that my friends were talking about me behind my back or that the guy I’d spent an entire year crushing on asked another girl to the dance. I had to deal with the awful feelings of alienation and ugliness rioting inside of me by myself. So when I idly flipped to the picture of Persephone while listening to the radio or talking on the phone, I began to recognize the distress on her face—something was happening to her, something she didn’t choose and couldn’t control, and she realized she would have to fend for herself.

Naturally, high school was its own hell. I saw my friends’ hearts get broken and their biggest secrets spread around school. I saw them harden. Sometimes it was in small ways. Instead of sitting with our group in the auditorium before school or at our usual lunch table, they’d be off in the corner with headphones on, listening to Tori Amos. Some of us, myself included, sought numbness and escape in more dangerous ways, sometimes ditching school to smoke weed or drop acid. We were all seized by forces we didn’t always understand, and forced to cope with them more or less on our own. I even met my own Hades—an abusive boyfriend who treated me like shit, including one time when he refused to speak to me unless I had sex with him.

“Wordlessly, she walked through the garden at silent Hades’ side and slowly her heart turned to ice,” the D’Aulaires’ version goes, and that’s exactly how I went, too. When I landed in the underworld, I accepted it as my fate. I believed that I belonged there; I even romanticized it—I was a victim in this dark place, just like Persephone. I stayed there for a long time. Eventually, I listened to my mother and decided to stop wasting my life.

Image via D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

Persephone is “joyful” to leave the underworld, D’Aulaires’ tells us, but it doesn’t talk about who Persephone is after she returns home. I used to have a million questions, like: Wasn’t she traumatized? Broken? Didn’t she live her life dreading her yearly stay down there? There is a description of Demeter hearing Persephone’s “light footsteps” every year, which seemed wrong to me. How could Persephone come back the same bouncy girl she was before? Was there nothing more to her story? I kept reading about her, finding books at used bookstores, reading essays online.

It turns out there are a lot of ways to read Persephone’s story—some people say it’s about the violence of men, others that it’s about the connection between women and the earth, or about loss and grief. But the interpretation that rings truest to me is the most universal: that Persephone’s story is about what happens when you grow up. We all slip from our parents’ grasp at some point. For some of us, this can just mean the awful realization that the people who raised us are capable of making mistakes, and that we cannot keep them by our side forever. Others, like me, have to fall into some real darkness for a while. But those first steps into adulthood are always difficult, and fraught with fresh anguish. We don’t expect to have our hearts broken; when we do, we don’t know yet that they will heal. We make bad decisions, we hang out with the wrong people, we lash out, we get angry and destructive. But we also figure things out. We learn how to cope.

Maybe that’s why we are still light of foot when we resurface from our underworlds. We aren’t the same people, but we haven’t lost our capacity for happiness. As Persephone teaches us, the first fall is the hardest. There will be others, but we’ll be back on our feet so much faster from now on. ♦

46 Comments

  • Blythe January 15th, 2013 7:22 PM

    I love my copy of Daulaire’s with the passion of a thousand suns and, like you, one of the pages it opens most easily to is the beginning of Persephone’s myth.

  • Clairebearscare January 15th, 2013 7:31 PM

    I used to read that book all the time when I was little! I never found anyone else that had it.

  • llamalina January 15th, 2013 7:38 PM

    beautiful. persephone and hades has always been one of my favorite myths. i love how you interpreted it.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • Style Walrus January 15th, 2013 7:52 PM

    Pure Perfection! I love you Rookie!

  • litchick January 15th, 2013 7:54 PM

    This article is beautiful! I’m going to have to check out D’Aulaires book, as well.

  • DE January 15th, 2013 8:08 PM

    This is beautiful and totally relevant to my present situation. Thank You (:

    PS: I had a border line weird obsession with greek myths as a kid! The story of Athena’s birth was my favorite.

  • lemonlye January 15th, 2013 8:26 PM

    I love this! A friend sent me to this essay because I’m in the middle of writing a Persephone-based novel, and that D’Aulaires book was the exact same one I became fascinated with as a kid. Originally I liked the spookiness of getting kidnapped into the Underworld, going hand in hand with an interesting explanation of the seasons. But later I started thinking about how the story is also about Demeter grieving that her daughter has grown up and gone away from her, a grief that nearly any family member can relate to. It also fascinates me that Persephone becomes a *queen*, a goddess of a very powerful place, via this strange marriage. She doesn’t just get kidnapped and locked in a closet; she gains power. But it’s a dark and possibly unpleasant type of power. So…yes, all very complex, and no wonder so many of us are kind of obsessed with the myth.

  • teevee January 15th, 2013 8:39 PM

    Oh man, I loved Persephone & Hades when I was in high school! Persephone had such a pretty name. Another way to spell it was Prosperpine. I kept trying to find ways to fit it into short stories or on my notebooks. Later, in college, I read “A Room with a View” and the flower garden kiss was pretty much Persephone & Hades. That book had a lot of what you mentioned in growing up and new worlds as well. And Helena Bonham Carter’s hair; I regret each morning I wake up and don’t have her hair. D:

    Eros & Psyche was another amazing myth! I hope you do a series on these!

  • brennachan January 15th, 2013 9:07 PM

    I have also had a connection to Persephone since I was in grade school, (thanks to the same book!) so this really hits home. AMAZING article :)

  • StellaBerlin January 15th, 2013 9:19 PM

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED this. Thank you so much!

  • theabee January 15th, 2013 9:44 PM

    I absolutely love the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths!!! One of my absolute favorites :) I have always loved the stories, and the illustrations are fabulous.

  • Anaheed January 15th, 2013 9:54 PM

    Woah this illustration is SO BEAUTIFUL, Leanna.

    • Leanna January 15th, 2013 10:52 PM

      Thank you! It was a fun one to draw.

      • justbouton January 16th, 2013 12:59 PM

        Agreed– beautiful work!

        • Stephanie January 16th, 2013 4:09 PM

          Seriously. I was so so SO thrilled when I saw it. Love the Rookie illustrators :)

  • OonaTuna January 15th, 2013 10:31 PM

    When I was really young, D’Aulaires was literally my favorite book of all time. My dad would read a myth from it out loud to me every night, and, like you, I read it cover to cover at least 14263718 times. Even more coincidental is that I recently revisited this book and I found,like you, that my relationship with my mother is like Persephone and Demeter’s relationship. Isn’t that funny?

  • eee January 15th, 2013 11:07 PM

    thankyou for your story, and that illustration is unbelievable.
    has anyone else read the poems by Ron Koerge about Hades, Persephone and Demeter? They’re really beautiful, and I love the way they play around with the “official version”

  • Lorelei January 15th, 2013 11:13 PM

    My older brother was obsessed with Greek mythology when he was in elementary school. He had that same book and he’d never let me touch it. But I liked the stories so I’d steal it and read it anyway. He hasn’t been into it for years so sometimes I take it with me when I babysit and use if for bedtime stories. Persephone was one of my favorites.

  • jenaimarley January 15th, 2013 11:31 PM

    Thank you for this, Stephanie.
    I just turned 18 and although it’s just a number, all the feelings of growing up and changing are somehow held in that line and infinity sign.

    • izzabounce January 17th, 2013 1:31 AM

      yeah, my birthday is in a week, comforting to hear im not the only one going through a 1/5 life crisis.

  • redwoodtreespirit January 16th, 2013 2:39 AM

    this reminded me of a poem i read recently about this same idea except from the other perspective: that of the mother. the poem is “the pomegranate” by eavan boland. i found it very beautiful in that as a mother, the poet understands that her gift to her daughter is that of understanding the tragedy and mystery of life as she grows up, and not sheltering her from it. (at least that’s how i interpreted it.)

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15385

    • Anaheed January 16th, 2013 3:21 AM

      Woah, that’s beautiful.

      • Stephanie January 16th, 2013 4:12 PM

        Thanks so much for sharing that poem! So gorgeous! I must send it to my mom.

  • AmyL January 16th, 2013 9:02 AM

    That was so beautiful!!

    intergalactic-dragons.blogspot.com

  • Mintvirgin January 16th, 2013 10:37 AM

    Greek myths are so invisible and magic. I always think a lot about my life after reading something about gods, monsters, nymphs and wonders. why? because they let us see magic in simple thing like rains or lightings, the change of seasons or days. they return us in ancient world of myths when there were no physics, only fairy tales.
    I loved this article. I understand you. Myths are strange, mysterious and beautiful, but a little ugly.

    mintvirgin.blogspot.com/

  • Lorf96 January 16th, 2013 12:19 PM

    That was so beautiful I can really relatex

  • neenah January 16th, 2013 12:26 PM

    This was a really touching article for me. I’ve loved that book since 4th grade when I unearthed it from my elementary school’s library. I would check it out nearly every week until I found my own copy. I think one of things that draws us to myths and fairy tales at any age is the desire to see magic can still exist. While high school sure had it’s ups and downs, it was elementary school that was hell for me. I needed that book to feel a connection to beauty and mystery and things that were more simply good and evil. The images that accompany the stories are what inspired me to make art and even now as an adult, that book has a prized place on my bedroom bookshelf. Thank you.

    • Zebbie January 17th, 2013 11:22 PM

      I think we all need to know that magic and heroes and triumph over evil are still possible in this world. There is no greater beauty or mystery than the infinite possibilities of the imagination. :-)

  • ♡ reba ♡ January 16th, 2013 2:12 PM

    loved this article, once again rookie has that magical way of being relevant to my life at the exact right moment….. xxxxx

  • AnnaH January 16th, 2013 2:14 PM

    I really love all the illustrations they fit
    perfectly

    http://cheekyprawn.blogspot.de/

  • serena05 January 16th, 2013 5:56 PM

    When I was in elementary school, there was a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths in our library that I would check out back to back to back to back. At the end of the school year one year, I remember pretending I’d lost the book so I could try to keep it for myself. This story resonates so much with me.

  • oharnoldlayne January 16th, 2013 6:19 PM

    Great article! D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths is so good (I particularly love Artemis). However, I’ve always been more of a fan of Norse myths, and D’Aulaires Book of Norse Myths got me into them. If it’s possible to have a crush on mythological character than I have a crush on Loki.

    • Zebbie January 17th, 2013 11:20 PM

      I too am fascinated by stories of mythology. Have you ever read Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” or Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces?” Carl Jung’s “Man and His Myths” was the inspiration for much of Campbell’s work. I in fact had not heard of D’Aulaires’ series until now but have it on my list to look into. Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series are terrific works of modern fantasy fiction that use mythological characters as players in the story. I imagine there is at least (at least!) one person here who is a fan of Gaiman and Riordan. :-)

      • oharnoldlayne January 18th, 2013 11:50 PM

        Well you have found at least one fan of Riordan! At least, I like the Percy Jackson series. I haven’t read those other books, but I hope to check them out at some point!

  • darksideoftherainbow January 16th, 2013 8:01 PM

    this was a very beautiful read. thank you. i also loved greek myths as a kid. i love how you applied your story to the story of persephone!

  • la fee clochette January 16th, 2013 11:07 PM

    heartbreaking and beautiful, thank you

  • Sarah January 16th, 2013 11:41 PM

    one of the best rookie posts ever omfg

  • izzabounce January 17th, 2013 1:29 AM

    I love this book so much, man something everyone should own.
    I always liked to imagine that Persephone was so tired of her overbearing mother that she secretly planned her kidnapping with hades and kinda liked the mysterious underworld and her bad boy lover hahaha.

  • Caterina Maria January 17th, 2013 7:21 PM

    This song! This song is perfect.

    http://vixyandtony.bandcamp.com/track/persephone

    A copy of it somehow made its way into my collection, and now I put it on my favorite mixes.

  • Zebbie January 17th, 2013 11:15 PM

    Hi Stephanie, great article, and kudos to the illustrators for a lovely set of images.

    I consider myself a philosophical/spiritual person and love to read into the similarities of comparative mythology. Joseph Campbell wrote extensively on the subject, drawing from the works of Freudian disciple (who later developed his own branch of humanistic psychology) Carl G. Jung.

    I have always understood the Persephone myth as in comparison with the Judeo-Christian tale of Adam & Eve, in which Eve consumes the “forbidden fruit” and is “lost” to the garden (as is the case with Persephone). Knowing the tales of other cultures is why I cannot accept much of the Bible as historical fact, but rather a short-story collection that borrows extensively from others’ myths so as to be familiar in many ways to potential converts.

    As such I have always wondered why polytheistic (multi-god) religions such as those of the Greeks, Hindu and Chinese traditionalism have been more inclusive of female power (goddesses) than the monotheistic (one-god) religions, namely the Abrahamic “Big Three” of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Christ’s mother Mary is not even given the same stature as His Father, in many cases revered but primarily as a “surrogate” of sorts with only earthly ties and not supernatural prowess.

    I do not intend to start a debate about religion here. I only intend to say that I love hearing other people’s interpretations of the same story. This to me is what debate and commentary is really all about. Not the way many people still react even in this day and age. :-)

  • Kallieish January 18th, 2013 1:32 PM

    My mom named me Persephone (bouncing between that and Ariadne) before I was born and when she told my dad the names he FREAKED out and was like NO WAY.

    It didn’t stop it from being one of my favorite stories for being so beautiful.

    Please tell me you’ve read The China Garden by Liz Berry.

    If not, go read it now. I’ve read it at least 30 times.

  • walkingparadox January 19th, 2013 1:07 AM

    my mom’s name is persephone! she said as a child she hated it because she’s a twin and her sister got the “normal name” but that as she’s grown up, she’s grown into it and she really likes it now. she loves the myth as well and bought that book for me as a child.
    ily mommy

  • Atalanta January 19th, 2013 4:51 AM

    I study classics, and have never encountered this interpretation – I love it!

  • stellar January 19th, 2013 2:22 PM

    wonderful post!! it’s weird how it can echo in yr own growing up; ultimately it’s about awareness and learning to be responsible for yr own life rather than overly dependent upon others’ behavior.

  • Cinders January 24th, 2013 2:28 AM

    There’s a book by Jeff Noon called Pollen that incorporates Persephone’s story. It’s a speculative fiction novel, but it’s probably one of the best interpretations of this Greek myth that I’ve ever read.

  • Hannnah January 28th, 2013 5:59 AM

    I like the symbolism of Persephone going back down to the underworld every winter again; it echoes the swing of bad times/good times. When I first hit puberty, I went through a couple of years of anxiety that were a bit hellish, particularly because I didn’t think I would ever come out of them – I didn’t even realise that they were a “period” until afterwards, when I felt a bit like I had before. Now, when I feel very low, in some distant way I take it for granted that I’ll feel a bit better sooner or later. But on the flipside, it’s guaranteed that however content I may feel at any time, I’ll have to go back down to the darkness at some point, if only for a little while. You never escape it completely.