46 Persephone’s Story in Fragments

The Beautiful Daughter: Persephone’s Story in Fragments

By Miranda Mattlin


This week, I was thinking a lot about our conversation around the fragments and gaps in If Not, Winter, and it made me wonder whose story is really being told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The story has a lot of different components, and while Demeter’s part of the story had the real life impact of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Persephone’s legacy is tied up in the story of her abduction – who took her, who took her back, but always with her as an object. Of course this is a hymn addressed to Demeter, but so much of it is Persephone’s story too, and this textual version of it doesn’t seem to live on as a story about her. Alternatively, we reinterpret the story and put our own ideas into the afterlife of a text, like when people suggest that Persephone was in love with Hades, or sexually liberated, and chose to eat the pomegranates and be the badass queen of Hell. As we’ve discussed in class, this ‘girlboss’ narrative looks a lot less empowering when you consider the specific wording of the story in the Hymn to Demeter, ignoring the portrayal of her as a young child and leaving behind Persephone’s voice, which she uses to explicitly say in this version that it was all against her will. So what does her story actually look like, and how does she actually use her voice in this version of the story?


To explore this, I first wrote down all the words used to refer directly to Persephone across this and one other translation and put them into a word cloud. In this translation, the words ‘daughter’ and ‘beautiful’ came up far more than any others. This makes sense, but also goes to show that Persephone’s role in this story is to be someone else’s beautiful daughter, rather than a goddess in her own right. In some ways this helps show how young she is and how she was harmed, but in other ways it continues to put Persephone in a secondary position, always referred to in relation to someone more powerful. I would be curious to see what kind of word cloud we could build with a greater pool of text and more computer science skills, but this is a quick start.

Word cloud with biggest word being daughter, next beautiful, and them words like queen, goddess, child, piercing, noble, thoughtful, scream, young, radiant, delicate, holy, etc. In smaller size

Then I copied the text and deleted any part of it that didn’t seem to be immediately centered on Persephone’s story, and substituted gaps with brackets, like Anne Carson did with Sappho’s poetry. It seemed like our class as a whole got so much out of the fragmentary nature of the Sappho texts and talking around a partial image almost helped the story feel more relatable rather than being told exactly what happened. I would also be curious to see how the story would look if re-written in a more affective style, but for now: this is not quite a counter-narrative, not quite a response, not quite an afterlife, but an attempt at using a re-fragmented version of something to construct a hidden whole truth. Some things I noticed were the way that nobody really hears Persephone scream, how little we hear about her time in the underworld, and how the absence of certain lines almost felt like Persephone’s side of the experience of being absent from her mother, since most of her mother’s story was removed in the process.



[                ] her slim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus

seized; Zeus, heavy-thundering and mighty-voiced, gave her,

without the consent of Demeter of the bright fruit and golden

sword, as she played with the deep-breasted daughters of Ocean,

plucking flowers in the lush meadow— [  ]

which Earth grew as a snare for the flower-faced maiden [    ]

The girl marveled and stretched out both hands at once

to take the lovely toy. The earth with its wide ways yawned

over the Nysian plain; the lord Host-to-Many rose up on her

with his immortal horses, [  ]

he snatched the unwilling maid into his golden chariot

and led her off lamenting. She screamed with a shrill voice,

calling on her father, the son of Kronos highest and best.

Not one of the immortals or of humankind

heard her voice, [   ]

Except [  ] Hekate of the delicate veil.

And lord Helios, brilliant son of Hyperion [   ]

Against her will Hades took her by the design of Zeus [             ]

So long as the goddess gazed on earth and starry heaven,

on the sea flowing strong and full of fish,

and on the beams of the sun, she still hoped

to see her dear mother and the race of immortal gods.

For so long hope charmed her strong mind despite her distress.

The mountain peaks and the depths of the sea echoed

in response to her divine voice, and her goddess mother heard.

[                         ]

“who of the immortals or mortal men

seized Persephone and grieved your heart? [                ]

The daughter I bore, a sweet offshoot noble in form—

I heard her voice throbbing through the barren air

as if she were suffering violence. But I did not see her with my eyes.

[           ] Tell me the truth about my child. Have you somewhere

seen who of gods or mortal men took her

by force from me against her will and went away?” [    ]

I greatly revere and pity you

grieving for your slim-ankled daughter. [  ] Zeus,

who gave her to Hades his brother to be called

his fertile wife. With his horses Hades.

snatched her screaming into the misty gloom.

[                      ]

Then golden-haired Demeter

remained sitting apart from all the immortals,

wasting with desire for her deep-girt daughter.






Never, she said, would she mount up to fragrant

Olympus nor release the seed from the earth,

until she saw with her eyes her own fair-faced child

[                          ]

When Zeus [  ]

heard this, he sent down [        ]

to wheedle Hades with soft words

and lead back holy Persephone from the misty gloom

into the light to join the gods so that her mother

might see her with her eyes and desist from anger

[                    ]

Hades [   ] reclining on a bed with his shy spouse, strongly reluctant

through desire for her mother.

[         ] Father Zeus

bids me lead noble Persephone up from Erebos

to join us, so that her mother might see her with her eyes

[             ]

He urged thoughtful Persephone:

“Go, Persephone, to the side of your dark-robed mother,

keeping the spirit and temper in your breast benign.

Do not be so sad and angry beyond the rest;

[    ] when you are there,

you will have power over all that lives and moves,

and you will possess the greatest honors among the gods.

There will be punishment forevermore for those wrongdoers

who fail to appease your power with sacrifices,

performing proper rites and making due offerings.”

[         ] thoughtful Persephone rejoiced.

Eagerly she leapt up for joy. But he gave her to eat

a honey-sweet pomegranate seed, stealthily passing it

around her, lest she once more stay forever

by the side of revered Demeter of the dark robe.

[                        ]

She mounted the chariot and at her side

With one look she darted

like a maenad down a mountain shaded with woods.

On her side Persephone, [seeing] her mother’s [radiant face],

[left chariot and horses,] and leapt down to run

[and fall on her neck in passionate embrace].

[While holding her dear child in her arms], her [heart]

suddenly sensed a trick [  ] drew back

from [her embrace] [      ]

” My child, tell me, you [did not taste] food [while below?]

Speak out [and hide nothing, so we both may know]

[For if not], ascending [from miserable Hades],

you will dwell with me and your father [  ]

But if [you tasted food], returning beneath [the earth,]

you will stay a third part of the seasons [each year],

but two parts with myself and the other immortals.

When the earth blooms in spring with all kinds

of sweet flowers, then from the misty dark you will

rise again, a great marvel to gods and mortal men.

By what guile did the mighty Host-to-Many deceive you?”

Then radiant Persephone replied to her in turn:

“I will tell you the whole truth exactly, Mother.

The Slayer of Argos came to bring fortunate news

from my father, the son of Kronos, and the other gods

and lead me from Erebos so that seeing me with your eyes

you would desist from your anger and dread wrath

at the gods. Then I leapt up for joy, but he stealthily

put in my mouth a food honey-sweet, a pomegranate seed,

and compelled me against my will and by force to taste it.

For the rest—how seizing me by the shrewd plan of my father,

Kronos’s son, he carried me off into the earth’s depths—

I shall tell and elaborate all that you ask.

We were all in the beautiful meadow—

Leukippe; Phaino; Elektra; and Ianthe;

Melite; Iache; Rhodeia; and Kallirhoe;

Melibosis; Tyche; and flower-faced Okyrhoe;

Khryseis; Ianeira; Akaste; Admete;

Rhodope; Plouto; and lovely Kalypso;

Styx; Ourania; and fair Galaxaura; Pallas,

rouser of battles; and Artemis, sender of arrows—

playing and picking lovely flowers with our hands,

soft crocus mixed with irises and hyacinth,

rosebuds and lilies, a marvel to see, and the

narcissus that wide earth bore like a crocus.

As I joyously plucked it, the ground gaped from beneath,

and the mighty lord, Host-to-Many, rose from it

and carried me off beneath the earth in his golden chariot

much against my will. And I cried out at the top of my voice.

I speak the whole truth, though I grieve to tell it.”

Then all day long, their minds at one, they soothed

each other’s heart and soul in many ways,

embracing fondly, and their spirits abandoned grief,

as they gave and received joy between them.

Hekate of the delicate veil drew near them

and often caressed the daughter of holy Demeter;

from that time this lady served her as chief attendant.

[                   ]

his daughter would spend one-third

of the revolving year in the misty dark and two-thirds

with her mother and the other immortals.

[            ]

Mother and daughter were glad to see each other

and rejoiced at heart.

[      ]

and your very fair daughter Persephone[.]


Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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