Zeus and Persephone
In the myths of the goddess Persephone, she is simultaneously Zeus’s daughter, niece, and sister-in-law.
Zeus was her father while her mother, Demeter, was his sister. She then married their brother Hades in one of her most famous legends.
Such close intermarriage would have been forbidden to mortals, but among the gods the marriage of Persephone and Hades was seen as a way to elevate her status and give Hades a worthy queen.
Persephone and her mother may have objected to the marriage, but it made Persephone one of the most important goddesses in the pantheon.
Zeus was responsible for arranging his daughter’s marriage, but is there more to their relationship?
According to some Orphic cults Persephone and Zeus had a much different relationship. Together, the stories of Zeus and Persephone give historians clues as to how Greek mythology and religion developed from their Bronze Age origins.
According to most versions of the story, Persephone was Zeus’s daughter. Her mother was his oldest sister, Demeter.
It was not unusual for the Olympians to have children with their close relatives. Zeus’s wife Hera was also his sister and their brother Poseidon had a child with Demeter as well.
What is unusual about the story of Persephone is that there is no surviving myth to explain her birth. While other gods have detailed stories about their parentage and marriages, it seemed to be simply an accepted fact that Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter.
This was an unusual omission given that both of her parents were the subjects of detailed myths regarding their other affairs and children.
As both her father and her king, Zeus had the right to give Persephone away in marriage. He arranged to do so without her knowledge, promising her to his brother Hades.
Zeus knew, however, that neither Demeter nor Persephone would be pleased with the match. Hades was the god of the underworld, and the marriage would mean that Persephone would be taken there to live with him.
So instead of telling his sister and their daughter what his plans were, Zeus arranged for Hades to kidnap the young goddess when she was away from her mother. Persephone was dragged to the underworld unwillingly.
The abduction of Persephone is one of the most famous stories involving the goddess in Greek mythology. Demeter’s worry over her missing daughter, and eventual ability to bargain with her brothers for her, was used to explain the changing seasons and cycle of life and death in the Greek world.
The mystery cults of Greece, however, had a different version of Persephone’s legend.
Persephone featured prominently in the mysteries. These cults focused on understanding the secrets of death and the afterlife, making the queen of the underworld an important figure to them.
Many believers in the Orphic mystery cults thought that Persephone was not Zeus’s daughter, or if she was that was not their only connection. They believed that Persephone had once been his lover.
They said that Zeus seduced Persephone in the guise of a serpent before she became queen of the underworld. Their son Zagreus was so beloved by his father that Zeus allowed the godling to sit on his throne.
The Titans, urged on by Hera, killed the child. All Zeus was able to recover of his lost son was a piece of his heart.
The Orphic hymns went on to say that Zeus put the heart into a potion which he gave to one of his human mistresses, Semele. Her son, Dionysus, was the reincarnation of the son Persephone had born.
The relationship between Zeus and Persephone can offer insight for modern historians as to the gods’ natures in Greek mythology and the possible evolution of Greek belief.
Some historians believe that the earliest versions of Persephone’s myths were told before the Greek pantheon as we know it today was developed. In this early period, Zeus had a much broader role.
The earliest version of Zeus was brought to the Peloponnesian by the ancestors of the Greeks during the Bronze Age. These early Greeks kept some of their gods, but also incorporated gods that they encountered among the native people of the region.
Before gods like Poseidon and Hades were introduced, Zeus filled many more roles. He was not just the chief ruler of the gods and the lord of the sky but was also, among other things, the ruler of the dead.
The theme of a beautiful maiden goddess being taken to the underworld to become its queen is far more ancient than even the Bronze Age Zeus. It is attested in Mesopotamian civilizations and may have been brought with the early Greeks or have already existed in the region.
Historians think that Persephone was a native goddess whose name was adopted by Greek-speakers. The many variations of her name in different regions, including Phersephatta and Periphona, suggests that the name may have been difficult to pronounce for native Greek speakers and thus been adopted from a second culture.
If Hades was not yet recognized, Zeus himself would have been the god that kidnapped Persephone to be his queen.
There are also those who believe that Persephone was once regarded as another aspect of her mother, Demeter. Through the ages the belief that winter was caused by the disappearance of a fertility goddess to the underworld remained, but the identities of the deities involved changed.
Some remnants of this earlier story may have been retained in the unusual stories told by the mystery cults. To them Persephone, not Hera, was the true queen of the gods.
The story of Dionysus’s multiple births may have been a later one, but it could retain some elements of pre-Iron Age mythology.
Some scholars believe that Zagreus may have been the son of pre-Hades chthonic Zeus or an alternate name for Hades himself. This could make the early Persephone the mother of the underworld god instead of his wife.
The exact beliefs of the mystery cults are often difficult to reconstruct from the available sources, but it is clear that they ascribed much more importance to the relationship between Persephone and Zeus than mainstream Greek religion did. The story of Zagreus linked both Zeus and Dionysus to the underworld and the rites of these mysterious cults.
While there was no story of her birth, it was generally accepted in ancient Greece that Persephone was the daughter of Zeus. Her mother was his sister Demeter, the goddess of grains and the harvest.
In Persephone’s most famous legend, her father arranged her marriage to his brother, Hades. She was abducted to the underworld without her mother’s knowledge.
Some cults in Greece believed, however, that Persephone herself was the mother of one of Zeus’s sons. This young god, Zagreus, was killed and reincarnated as Dionysus.
The legend of Dionysus having multiple births appears to be a later invention that tied the god of wine into the death-focused mystery cults. But it could also retain traces of earlier mythology that has otherwise been lost to us.
Many historians believe that when the first Greek peoples migrated to the Peloponnesian peninsula in the Bronze Age, Zeus was one of their original gods. Many others were incorporated from outside sources and the beliefs of existing local populations.
This Bronze Age Zeus was a more powerful ruler than the later god, who had no brothers with whom to share power. In addition to being the ruler of the sky, one of his aspects was also ruler of the underworld.
Piecing together this lost mythology, Persephone was the ruling god’s queen in the land of the dead. As the myths developed and new gods were fully incorporated, she became his daughter and Hades was installed as the god of the underworld.
The mythology of Zeus and Persephone was used by the Greeks to explain the advent of winter and the nature of the afterlife, but it can also provide clues to beliefs of the pre-Greek past.