Persephone was the goddess of spring, flowers and the seasons. She was the daughter ofZeus and Demeter, and the wife of Hades, which made her the Queen of the Underworld. She was the personification of the earth's fruitfulness.
Persephone as a vegetation goddess and her mother Demeter were the central figures of the Eleusinian mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon, and promised to the initiated a more enjoyable prospect after death. The mystic Persephone is further said to have become by Zeus the mother of Dionysus, Iacchus, or Zagreus. The origins of her cult are uncertain, but it was based on very old agrarian cults of agricultural communities. Apollodorus, in his list of Zeus' divine children, curiously calls Persephone a daughter of Zeus and Styx. Elsewhere he gives the usual account where her mother is Demeter.
Persephone was commonly worshipped along with Demeter, and with the same mysteries. To her alone were dedicated the mysteries celebrated at Athens in the month of Anthesterion. In Classical Greek art, Persephone is invariably portrayed robed; often carrying a sheaf of grain. She may appear as a mystical divinity with a scepter and a little box, but she was mostly represented in the act of being carried off by Hades. Her Roman counterpart was called Prosperina.
In a Linear B (Mycenean Greek) inscription on a tablet found at Pylos dated 1400–1200 BC, John Chadwick reconstructs the name of a goddess *Preswa who could be identified with Persa, daughter of Oceanus and finds speculative the further identification with the first element of Persephone. Persephonē (Greek: Περσεφόνη) is her name in the Ionic Greek of epic literature. The Homeric form of her name is Persephoneia (Περσεφονεία, Persephoneia). In other dialects she was known under variant names: Persephassa (Περσεφάσσα), Persephatta (Περσεφάττα), or simply Korē (Κόρη, "girl, maiden"). Plato calls her Pherepapha (Φερέπαφα) in his Cratylus, "because she is wise and touches that which is in motion". There are also the forms Periphona (Πηριφόνα) and Phersephassa (Φερσέφασσα). The existence of so many different forms shows how difficult it was for the Greeks to pronounce the word in their own language and suggests that the name has probably a pre-Greek origin.
An alternative etymology is from φέρειν φόνον, pherein phonon, "to bring (or cause) death".
Another mythical personage of the name of Persephione is called a daughter of Minyas and the mother of Chloris, a nymph of spring, flower and new growth. The Minyans were a group considered autochthonous, but some scholars assert that they were the first wave of Proto-Greek speakers in the second milemnium BC.
The epithets of Persephone reveal her double function as chthonic and vegetation goddess. The surnames given to her by the poets refer to her character as Queen of the lower world and the dead, or her symbolic meaning of the power that shoots forth and withdraws into the earth. Her common name as a vegetation goddess is Kore and in Arcadia she was worshipped under the title Despoina "the mistress", a very old chthonic divinity. Plutarch identifies her with spring and Cicero calls her the seed of the fruits of the fields. In the Eleusinian mysteries her return is the symbol of immortality and hence she was frequently represented on sarcophagi.
In the mystical theories of the Orphics and the Platonists, Kore is described as the all-pervading goddess of nature who both produces and destroys everything and she is therefore mentioned along or identified with other mystic divinities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. The mystic Persephone is further said to have become by Zeus the mother of Dionysus, Iacchus, or Zagreus.
As a goddess of the underworld, Persephone was given euphemistically friendly names. However it is possible that some of them were the names of original goddesses:
- Hagne, "pure", originally a goddess of the springs in Messenia.
- Melindia or Melinoia (meli, "honey"), as the consort of Hades, in Hermione. *(Compare Hecate, Melinoe)
- Aristi cthonia, "the best chthonic".
As a vegetation goddess she was called:
- Kore, "the maiden".
- Kore Soteira, "the savior maiden" in Megalopolis.
- Neotera, "the younger " in Eleusis.
- Kore of Demeter Hagne, in the Homeric hymn.
- Kore memagmeni, "the mixed daughter" (bread).
Demeter and her daughter Persephone were usually called:
- The goddesses, often distinguished as "the older" and "the younger" in Eleusis.
- Demeters, in Rhodes and Sparta
- The thesmophoroi, "the legislators" in the Thesmophoria.
- The Great Goddesses, in Arcadia.
- The mistresses in Arcadia.
- Karpophoroi, "the bringers of fruit", in Tegea of Arcadia.
Persephone's uncle, Hades, was lonely, and wanted a wife. He spied Persephone in the fields one day, and, entranced by her purity and beauty, fell in love with her at first sight.
Persephone was innocently picking flowers with some nymphs in a field in Enna when Hades came to abduct her, bursting through a cleft in the earth. Later, the nymphs were changed by Demeter into the Sirens for not having interfered. Life came to a standstill as the devastated Demeter, goddess of harvest, searched everywhere for her lost daughter. Hecate, minor goddess of magic, then told Demeter she had heard Persephone scream that she was being kidnapped. Demeter then stopped caring for the Earth, and the land didn't flourish and people began to starve and die.
Hades was determined to make Persephone love him, and tried in many ways. She hated him at first for snatching her away from her mother, but soon she came to revel in Demeter's absence as she had never been allowed away from her mother before. Hades very much wanted Persephone's love and, at first, tried to buy it with many gifts. But then he took to spending all of his day with his new wife, working to make her happy. Hecate, the Goddess of Magic, came down to the Underworld and befriended Persephone, and Hades was pleased, because Persephone was not depressed or unhappy when her friend was around.
When Demeter and her daughter were united, the Earth flourished with vegetation and colour, but for six months each year, when Persephone returned to the Underworld, the earth once again became a barren realm: and that is how the seasons came from. In Spring and Summer, Persephone and her mother are together. In Fall and Winter, Persephone goes back with Hades. This is the myth to explain the weather changes in Fall and Winter compared with Spring and Summer.
Persephone was usually depicted as a young goddess holding sheafs of grain and a flaming torch. Sometimes she was shown in the company of her mother Demeter, and the hero Triptolemos, the teacher of agriculture. At other times she appears enthroned beside Hades.