Celestial Classics: Proserpina

A 3D Model of the asteroid 26 Proserpina – It’s a space pebble. (Credit:
Astronomical Institute of the Charles University, Josef Ďurech, Vojtěch Sidorin CC-BY-4.0)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains Greek Mythology, therefore inevitable discussions about rape and abduction.

The Roman Proserpina and the Greek Persephone are, effectively, the same god. Although Proserpina’s visage was placed upon the old Italic goddess, Libera, it seems, for the most part they served the same function and share the same mythos.

As a result, and because her lore is much deeper, richer and saturated with chthonic (of the underworld) beauty, I am going to refer to Persephone when talking about the goddess, but Proserpina when talking about the celestial body.

So, as a celestial body, what is Proserpina?

Proserpina is an asteroid in the main asteroid belt. It was discovered in 1853, it is quite small, and that’s about all we know about it.

What can I say, it’s a small body, it’s a piece of rock in space and NASA doesn’t necessarily send missions to go look at tiny bits of rock in space. We know very little about it other than that it is there, it’s a 90km space boulder and it has an orbit. Don’t believe me? Check out the Wikipedia page on it!

We’re not here for the astronomy, on this one.

Don’t be upsetti, have a Rosetti! I have mentioned before my love of Pre-Raphaelite works and few can be as obsessively, hauntingly beautiful as Rosetti’s ‘Proserpine’. This is the 1874 oil-on-canvas version at the Tate Britain. What a tale it tells? As if painted by Hades himself in Persephone’s absent, summer months, when he pines for the beauty and vibrancy to liven up his dull underworld. (Credit: Dante Gabriel Rosetti – Public Domain)

We’re here for the myth because Persephone has one hell of a story.

Usually considered the daughter of Demeter (the Roman Ceres – We’ve covered her!) and thus the daughter of cereal, grain and the harvest, weirdly Persephone is more readily associated with the Underworld.

Now I mentioned in my article about Ceres the Mundus of Ceres in which Romans would throw tribute to the underworld, Ceres being the portal. Well, if the mother is the portal then the daughter is the resident recipient. The Queen of the Underworld.

How she got that position is a matter of which myth you choose and how rapey you like your Greek myths.

She was once Kore, literally translates to ‘the maiden’, the daughter of Nature herself and Goddess of all the glorious bounty of spring. She was busily playing in a meadow with some nymphy friends at around about the same time as Hades (or Pluto – he changes his name by deed poll at some point), the God of the Underworld, was getting a bit horny.

Greek Gods being Greek Gods (you wanna talk about rape culture, well they practically fucking invented it) instead of getting on whatever the Olympian version of Tinder was and finding himself a hookup, Hades burst through a cleft in the Earth and snatched the nearest living fuckable Goddess, in this case Persephone.

A 4th Century BCE Mosaic of the abduction of Persephone, Amphipolis, Greece (Credit: Public Domain)

Demeter, in absolute fits that her daughter has been nicked and, presumably in despair knowing quite what it is these Greek Gods get up to (if it’s not persecuting mortals, it’s usually rape), desperately trawls across the Earth, scorching it with the flames of Hecate and rendering it all barren, forbidding anything to grow.

Eventually Helios, the Sun, tells Demeter what happened and she starts a sort of PR campaign. You see by stopping the crops from growing everyone is starving and they’re all praying like “Please can we have some food it’s not our fault the spooky git downstairs stole the daughter of cereal…” and between the constant nagging of prayer and a lot of other Gods getting on his back telling him it’s bang out of order, Zeus gives Hades a call on their Olympian mobile phones.

“Alright.” He says,

“Yup.” Hades replies.

“You do any of that…ya know…just nicking goddesses to rape ‘em stuff, recently?”

“Nah, mate, nah…not that I can think of. We do it so often ya know?”

“You’re telling me. Did I ever tell you about that time I was a swan!?”

“Yes, Zeus, mate…so many times. Anyway, I don’t think I’ve done any recently, nah.”

“No? Persephone? Demeter’s girl?  Ya ain’t seen her, nah?”

“Pers…Percy?”

“Persephone? Come on Hades, don’t play dumb. Demeter’s daughter? Joy of spring? Hangs around with them Oceanids – don’t like ‘em much myself. Persephone, Persephone! You know! PERSEPHONE!?”

“OH! Persephone. Yeah I nicked her.”

“Okay, well, can we have her back, only Demeter’s stopped anything from growing until she is back.”

“Ahh, shame. I really like her. She brightens up the place.”

“Does she?”

“Yeah, it’s a bit grim down here, you know…souls of the dead and that. She gives it a bit of zhuzh, a bit of verve, you know?”

“Well, nobody up here has any verve, they’re all dying of starvation. Sort it out.”

So Hades returns Persephone, but not before feeding her somewhere between 3-6 (depending on version) pomegranate seeds. Now the pomegranate is the very food of the underworld and, having eaten that food she is then obliged to spend a third-to-a-half (depending on version) of her time in the Underworld.

The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton, 1891. Persephone is obviously the one below reaching her arms up to Demeter above, with the aid of the bloke in the funny hat, who is Hermes. Given what we associate Hermes with these days I’m surprised he didn’t just leave Persephone in the van and a card in Demeter’s door telling her she wasn’t in even though she was expecting the delivery… (Credit: Frederic Leighton, Public Domain)

The animistic (giving ‘souls’ or supernatural explanations to inanimate objects, phenomena, plants etc.) implications are obvious to anyone living outside the tropics. This is a beautiful story used as an explanation for seasonality, especially applicable to the regions in which it would have grown as a myth. Europe, and its agriculture, is tied to the seasons.

Demeter blesses us for only so many months, Persephone wandering amidst the spring flowers, before her mother ripens the berries and grains, but then – oh no! – Persephone has to go back to her husband in the Underword so, as  a last farewell, Demeter turns the leaves golden-red hues (Persephone’s favourite colour) and leaves us barren for a few months.

As far as I am aware there are versions where Hades and Persephone’s relationship is not as abusive, and where she is willingly his wife although the abduction and rape motif is the most common one.

Either way Persephone is the chthonic (of the underworld) link between life and death, between withered vines and bursting fruit. In a way she is the covenant between Demeter, ruler of all that grows above the soil, and Hades, ruler of all that dwells beneath it.

Ancient Greeks, going way back, stored seed-grain in containers, pithoi, beneath the Earth – symbolic of placing the future of our bounty, the seed of our grain, the daughters of our Demeter, in the hands of the Underworld – symbolic of Persephone herself.

An Etruscan Terracotta statue of ‘The Deceased Women’, Persephone, sat upon the Throne of the Underworld, with pomegranate in hand (although the hands and feet were remodelled) from the National archeological museum in Palermo, Italy. (Credit: Giovanni Dall’Orto CC-BY-2.5)

Now I am going to leave the interpretation there because I think that is nice and neat and beautiful. However if you really want to go down-the-rabbit-hole – The Eleusinian Mysteries is where you want to go.

Tying Demeter, Persephone and various other gods into a weird agrarian afterlife cult – It gets weird!

But that’s Proserpina, or Persephone. A small comet of little note, but apparently the reason for our seasons.

If you want to read about more Celestial Classics check out;
Vesta
and
Ceres

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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