Greek Mythology Stories: Persephone and the Origin of the Seasons

By David NaarLast Updated Apr 5, 2021 2:20:35 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Frederic Leighton/Wikipedia

Humans have embraced the natural cycles of death and rebirth throughout history, acknowledging how they symbolically play out in countless aspects of life. From day and night to the periodic shifting of the seasons, myths from almost every civilization are embedded with tales about these fundamental truths of continuous balance and change.

It makes sense, then, that the masters of myths — the ancient Greeks — have plenty of fascinating stories that serve to explain why people believed these cyclical events took place centuries ago. The concept of seasonal renewal in particular plays out in the Greek myth of Persephone, whose yearly travels were said to usher in different phases of the year.

Hades Rises From the Underworld

The Greek legend of Persephone and the seasons begins with a group of powerful giants who attempted an uprising against the powerful ancient gods. Though the giants were a fearsome lot — some with 100 arms and others breathing fire — they were ultimately defeated by the gods and buried under Mount Aetna.

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Photo Courtesy: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Furious over their defeat, the giants’ struggles to escape their prison shook the earth and caused the mountain to breathe fire, resulting in what people later called volcanoes. The eruptions ultimately became so violent that Hades, the god of the underworld, began to fear they would open a portal between the upper world and his own.

So intense was his concern that he decided to visit the upper world to ensure that whatever was occurring there wasn’t threatening the security of his kingdom. Unfortunately for Hades, his trip to the upper world did not go unnoticed by Aphrodite and Eros, both of whom were Greek gods of love.

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Upon spying Hades, Aphrodite got a sneaky idea. She remarked to Eros that many of the other goddesses, like Athena and Artemis, had begun embracing their independence a little too much for her liking, and this was making it difficult for her to fulfill her role of causing people to fall in love. She was afraid that others, such as Persephone, the young daughter of a goddess named Demeter, would follow their example and continue the cycle.

To put a stop to things, Aphrodite convinced Eros to shoot Hades with a potent love arrow to show that not even the god of the underworld could escape the power of love. The plan worked, and it wasn't long before Hades found himself completely captivated by Persephone. The fact that Persephone didn't explicitly return his affections didn't stop him from whisking her off to the underworld, where he made her his bride.

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A Mother's Grief Sparks Interworld Travel

When Persephone turned up missing, her mother Demeter was frantic to find her absent child. Day and night, she searched the earth to no avail. Given that Demeter was the Greek goddess of the earth and agriculture, it was no surprise that eventually, her grief caused crops to suffer, plunging the world into a period of famine — an explanation for the time of the year that we now know as winter and associate with dormancy.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikipedia

Eventually, Demeter was tipped off to her daughter's fate by a nymph named Arethusa, who verified that she had seen Persephone in the underworld. Upon learning that her daughter had been forced to marry Hades, Demeter was furious, as the king of the underworld was far from the perfect husband she’d had in mind for her daughter.

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Thus, Demeter took up her case with Zeus — king of the gods, Hades' brother and Persephone's father. Seeing how the earth had suffered along with Demeter, Zeus had the girl fetched from the underworld and reunited with her mother. Unfortunately, Hades had foreseen this and had tricked his new bride into eating some pomegranate seeds. The sweet arils had a drug-like effect on Persephone, who announced that she wanted to stay in the underworld with her new husband.

Finding himself in a tricky spot, Zeus was forced to make a compromise. He decreed that Persephone would be allowed to remain with Hades in the underworld for part of the year but would need to ascend and spend the remainder of the year with Demeter.

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This myth — which exists as lore in both ancient Greek and Roman mythologies — is said to explain why the earth flourishes during some seasons, such as spring and summer, and remains barren and dead during others. During the winter when nothing much grows, Persephone is said to have returned to the underworld, causing her mother to resume her annual cycle of mourning. During the spring, however, the earth rejoices along with Demeter at Persephone's yearly return by providing bountiful crops.

Modern Spring Celebrations Have Roots in Persephone’s Tale

Stories of death and rebirth are common among countless cultures to this day, and it’s typical for many of us around the globe to celebrate the period of renewal in particular. Each spring, Christians worldwide celebrate Easter, which is meant to signify the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross. Easter is traditionally observed on the first Sunday following the Paschal full moon, usually on or just after the spring equinox. Thus, the celebration of Jesus’ revival coordinates with the earth's agricultural resurgence as spring arrives in the northern hemisphere and drives out the dark days of winter.

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Photo Courtesy: Steven Gerner/Wikipedia

Each spring, Wiccans, Druids and other pagans celebrate Ostara or Eostre, a holiday from which the name "Easter" is believed to have originated. The holiday marks the annual spring equinox and celebrates the return of fertility, light and abundance to the earth.

In India, the return of spring is marked by the Holi celebration, which is sometimes referred to as the "festival of love" or the "festival of colors." During Holi, which takes place just before the beginning of spring, communities gather to light bonfires, dance and shower each other with water balloons and brightly colored powders. The holiday, which dates back to the fourth century, celebrates the return of spring after winter and symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.

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Meanwhile, Central Asian communities usher in spring with an elaborate celebration called Nowruz, an ancient custom that's believed to have originated in the sixth century BCE. This holiday marks the beginning of the new year on the Iranian calendar. Now celebrated by people from various religions and countries, Nowruz memorializes the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow similarly to Holi.

The holiday, which can last from two weeks to an entire month, involves plenty of dancing, feasting and various rituals involving water and fire. The festivities are meant to drive out the evil energies of misfortune and ensure healthy life and abundance in the coming year.

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