Nasty habit the Greek myths have: they leave out the agency of their central female characters. Myths, like many other forms of storytelling, were used as morality tales and to explain the world around their storytellers. The Persephone myth, for instance, explains why we have seasons: Hades was said to have abducted Persephone while she was out in the forest. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and Persephone’s mother, let the crops die in her grief. Hades then tricked his new bride into eating pomegranate seeds that would keep her trapped in the Underworld for several months every year. So every year, when Persephone must travel down to the Underworld and reign as queen, her mother mourns, letting fall turn into winter. When Persephone returns, spring blooms.
In this version of the story, Persephone is a pawn; the story is really about Demeter and Hades. Persephone’s wants and needs are nowhere to be found. It also reinforces archetypes seen in other stories: the nurturing mother, the dangerous villain intent on harming a young woman. Hearing this version, mothers could tell it to their daughters to remind them of the dangers of the outside world. Stay with me. Don’t go venturing off alone, they’ll insist. Just look at what happened to Persephone.
Modern retellings of this myth look beyond its face-value characterization by questioning the motives of each of their characters. It’s a type of media analysis that is happening more and more, looking at the maligned figures of history and discovering how those that tell the story stand to gain by following a set narrative. The retellings that look more closely at the speaker, as well as the characters, leads to a Rashomon-style of storytelling, where each character views the situation differently, through their own lived experiences. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
In the poem collection, Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters, Nikita Gill peers more critically at Demeter. What if Demeter wasn’t protecting her daughter, as she would likely claim, but trapping her in a gilded cage? This inversion of the Earth Mother archetype gratifies. It challenges and complicates this archetype with a more nuanced portrayal. In her poem “Demeter to Persephone,” it’s clear Demeter cares… but at the expense of her daughter.
The recent novel Neon Gods by Katee Robert similarly looks more closely at the Earth Mother archetype. In it, Demeter still controls agriculture, but she wields the archetype to hide her ambition. She smiles in public, but schemes in private. She insists that Persephone do the same. She still loves her daughter, but it’s a love that feels moveable, conditional on getting what she wants.
Importantly, both Gill and Robert aren’t interested in trading one archetype for another. Demeter isn’t flattened into a villain for having ambition or by playing by the rules given to her. Instead, she is complicated and conflicted: she loves her daughter but she has a hard time listening to her. She wants power and is willing to make sacrifices to get it. It’s possible, both stories suggest, to love someone and still try to control them.
Hades goes through a similar transformation in both works. He is no longer the heartless attacker who steals Persephone away. Instead, he offers her a haven where she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone she’s not. In Great Goddesses, he sees the darkness that Persephone harbors inside of her as a strength. In Neon Gods, he is a brooding dominant (a delightful archetype found in many romance novels), but one who also communicates and dotes. Suddenly his role as villain looks orchestrated, in order for Zeus, the king of the Gods, and Demeter to concentrate their own power. Left to rule the Underworld alone, Hades is weighed down with the enormity of the task. Persephone becomes his equal, someone he can rely on to effectively rule.
Which leads to a central question: In these retellings, how do Persephone’s wants grow? How do the authors fill the negative space? In Gill’s poem “Persephone to Demeter,” Persephone interrupts the original narrative given to her, insisting she doesn’t belong in her mother’s world. She has a darkness within her that causes plants to wither in her hands. It’s that same darkness that attracts her to Hades and makes her run to him. In Neon Gods, Persephone feels trapped in the rigid rules of the upper-crust society found in Mount Olympus. She is expected to bat her eyelashes and smile on command. It’s a role she chafes against. It’s relevant that she is twenty four going on twenty five, a prime time for young adults to learn how to step into the world on their own. Hades sees her for what she truly is: not just a young girl, but a queen.
These adaptations make readers look closer at the original myths. While each hit similar beats found in the original myth, these stories are also interested in the world that Hades, Demeter, and Persephone inhabit. Both stories are interested in figuring out who these characters needed to be in order to get to the moment the myth begins. It’s a lesson writers and creators can embrace.