BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Demeter and Persephone and Hades, For Children

Demeter. Persephone. Hades. Three names well-known from Greek mythology. Like Perseus slaying Medusa, or Theseus with his ball of thread, the story of Persephone's descent to the Underworld* is one known even outside Pagan communities. The details might be lost, but most people can recite the broad outlines of the tale: Hades kidnaps Persephone and takes her down to the Underworld and her mother, Demeter, is so upset that she withholds her blessings from the Earth. Winter sets in. Only when her daughter is returned does Demeter  allow the crops to grow again.

Like I said: broad outline. There are many, many different ways to interpret this myth -- coming-of-age tale, the reason for the seasons, origins of a mystery tradition, incorporation of a foreign Deity into the indigenous pantheon, and so forth. There are also different versions of this myth -- ancient, modern, feminist, and even (re)written Christian morality plays.

The story often appears in children's collections of Greek and Roman mythology. One of the oldest which has been continually reprinted is Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. Originally published in 1853, Hawthorne (who uses the Latin Deity names) explicitly notes in his introduction that he sought to render the old myths "presentable to children." He continues: "These old legends, so brimming over with everything that is most abhorrent to our Christianized moral sense. [....] was such material the stuff that children's playthings should be made of! How were they to be purified? How was the blessed sunshine to be thrown into them?"

Given his goal of "purification," Hawthorne strips the story of most of its violence and all of its sexuality. It becomes a Christian moral fable and coming-of-age tale. Proserpina is a child. King Pluto, who is never identified as her uncle, is neither evil nor sexually interested in Proserpina; he is, instead, a lonely man, who "had never been happy in his palace, and that was the true reason why he had stolen away Proserpina, in order that he might have something to love, instead of cheating his heart any longer with this tiresome magnificence."

I may not be Christian, but I love Hawthorne's language and use of imagery (see his description of Cerberus greeting King Pluto). And any parent or teacher will appreciate the common sense advice laid forth in the book: don't wander away from your parents. Stay where you are told. Be wary of strangers. Eat healthy food, not sweets. And, of course, the true treasures of life are the people we love, not material things.

Laura Geringer and Leonid Gore use Hawthorne's tale as the basis for their recent picture book adaptation, The Pomegranate Seeds. Here, Persephone is a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Demeter is a busy working single mother. And grim, lonely Hades yearns for a "lively little girl to run upstairs and down, and brighten the rooms with her smile." Geringer's text is rich with emotion -- longing, misery, love, and joy -- while Gore's acrylic and ink illustrations have a dreamy, hazy quality.

In her 1924 adaptation, Margaret Evans Price (cofounder of Fisher-Price Toys) brought the romance back into the story, at least on Pluto's part. After being pierced by one of Cupid's arrow, the King of Erebos falls instantly in love with Prosperpina. When Mercury comes to claim her, Pluto cannot deny her what she truly wants (to return to the sunlit surface), but he cannot bear to be parted from her either. So he reluctantly agrees to allow Proserpina to split the year between the two realms.

While I love Price's old-timey illustrations, I find her depiction of Proserpina annoying. She has no agency whatsoever. None. Pluto and Ceres have all the power in the story. Proserpina is not allowed to make any decisions of her own and not once is she shown to have any romantic feelings for Pluto.

Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee take a similar approach in Persephone. While Hades describes her as the "flower of my life," there is only the slightest hint that someday -- maybe -- Persephone will come to care for him, too: she finds the pomegranate seeds juicy and tasty and licks her lips in appreciation.

While Clayton's text is enjoyable enough, I love Lee's illustrations. The cover alone would have made the purchase worthwhile: Persephone, disconsolate, lies in the Underworld clutching a pomegranate while winter rules the world above. The stalactites have the appearance of crystalized roots, while the amethysts at her side imitate the lush grapes Persephone would have enjoyed with her mother. And there's that great two-page spread of Hermes flying above a dying, brown earth .... Awesome. 

In contrast to Price and Clayton's texts, the Goddess ultimately makes her own decision in Kris Waldherr's Persephone and the Pomegranate. While she is taken against her will to the Underworld, in this lush retelling, the adult Persephone comes to care for the grim Pluto. When Demeter comes to rescue her daughter, Persephone opts to return with her mother -- but only for a time.

The most strikingly, wonderfully different rendition of the story which I have found is by Charlene Spretnak. In Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Spretnak has penned a feminist, Goddess-oriented fable. Here, the emphasis is on the bonds between mother and daughter, and the daughter's deliberate assumption of responsibility; Persephone chooses to become an adult, to take her place in the world. There is no Pluto or Hades here; rather, Persephone comes to feel compassion and pity for the spirits of the dead; she realizes that there is no one else to care for them -- so she will.

The above are just a few examples of children's books featuring Demeter and Persephone and Hades. I am sure there are more. I want there to be more -- a lot more. With the exception of Spretnak's Goddess Spirituality version, I know of none which might be classified as explicitly Pagan in their creation and target audience. Books which treat this tale as a (fictional) story are fine; but I want children's books which relate a spiritually-rich, meaningful Myth. Come on, all you Hellenic and polytheist and Pagan-friendly authors and illustrators out there. Demeter and Persephone and Hades are great Gods who deserve a great children's book. What do you say?  


*There are actually many other stories about these two Goddesses, but the Descent gets most of the attention. As that is the story which most often appears in books, we'll focus on it here.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


  • Sharon Fargo
    Sharon Fargo Sunday, 09 June 2013

    After the birth of my daughter three years ago I was filled with so much joy that it was almost painful. Still am. Shadowing that joy is my fear that I will lose her, or that I will die while she is young. I find myself identifying strongly with Demeter.

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