Persephone: Queen of the Underworld

‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’

That is the petition that Odysseus of Ithaca makes upon the mortal bank of the river Styx.

He has come following the instructions of the witch Circe. He has come to seek counsel from the spirit of Tiresias. He has come to find a way home.

He draws a line in the muddy bank with his sword and fills the furrow with a sacred mixture. First honey. Then milk. Now wine. Now ram’s blood. 

It is a feast and the dead swarm to it like flies. They rise from the underworld as a fog, one so thick that it obscures the opposite bank entirely. Their formlessness unnerves Odysseus. He has held fast in the thick of battle. He is a veteran of vanguards and a survivor of onslaughts, but will these revenants, little more than whispers and curling vapour, fear the bronze of his blade?

He has come too far to turn back.

‘I seek the spirit of Tiresias. I pray you, Hades, Lord of the Dead, King of the Underworld, let the blind prophet come forward.’

A shiver runs through the fog like a sharp intake of breath. 

Then a light. The pale flame of a torch beating in the heart of the fog. Odysseus prays it is Tiresias, and not Hades himself come to bargain; it is an ill omen to look upon the Lord of the Dead.

But it is neither man nor god who steps forth from the fog. The maiden walks barefoot, and each footprint she leaves in the muddy bank pools with liquid gold. 

When she speaks, it is to mock him: ‘You do not look as I imagined, Odysseus of Ithaca. You are old. And worn. My subjects describe you as more lion than man, the beast who sent them on their way to my husband’s hall.’

It is then that Odysseus drops to his knees. He has recognised dread Persephone, Hades’s queen.

He begs forgiveness. He speaks words of honour and humility. But Persephone laughs, a sudden thing that cuts like no bronze ever could.

‘If you wish to speak with Tiresias, it is not my husband whose indulgence you should seek. It is mine. Ask the Muses, let them cure you of your ignorance.’

The Muses’s song begins in a meadow strewn with flowers. Persephone is picking a bouquet for her mother, Demeter of the good grain, when the ground begins to tremble. To smoke and shake and split. From the wound appears Hades, Lord of the Dead.

He pulls young Persephone into the chariot, and like a great whale cresting from the waves, his train of horses plunges back into the rent earth.

Hades explains the abduction to her plainly, without exaggeration, without justification or pretence. She is to become his wife; Zeus, father of Gods and Men, has arranged it all, as is the custom of Olympus.

But Persephone laughs, a sudden thing that cuts like no bronze ever could. Her stay in the underworld will be short. Her father may have sanctioned this marriage, but her mother will not abide it. 

And sure enough, in her desperation to see her daughter returned, Demeter threatens the very contract on which Olympus is built. She withdraws her boon to the world: abundance, fertility, fecundity. And without it, there can be no prayer to the gods – for before long, there will be neither beasts to sacrifice, nor men to slay them. To divide the mortal portion of meat from the deathless portion of bone, and cook it all upon the flame.

But in that time, Persephone has seen the kind of husband Hades might be. He may be solemn and sombre, but he will never be cruel. For he does not share the tempestuousness of his brothers, Poseidon and Zeus. No, his hallmarks are curiosity and stability – he is as much the underworld’s rivers, its forests, its structures and bureaucracies, as he is its custodian and its king. And as for Persephone herself – well here, she is a queen.

Six pomegranate seeds later, and the change is as final as death itself. Demeter can rave and rage all she wishes, but Persephone has consumed a portion of the underworld, and now she can never be free of it.

An arrangement is agreed then. Half the year, she will dwell on the good black earth with her mother, and half the year, she will reign with her husband beneath it.

As Odysseus of Ithaca listens to this sweet song of the Muses, he begins to recall other tales, other stories shared about the flickering campfires of Troy. The failure of Orpheus and Eurydice. The bargain of Adonis. The invasions of Theseus and Heracles. Every hero, every heroine who has returned from the underworld has done so with the blessing of Persephone alone. Returned from below the good black earth like seeds unburied, like the goddess herself.

Once more, Odysseus drops to his knees, and the dread queen smiles. When he looks up again, it is the prophet Teiresias who stands before him. 

And as for Persephone, all that remains of her are footprints in the mud, and the liquid gold that pools in them.

Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse