The Story of Hades and Persephone: Rape and Romance

Contemporary graphic novels romanticize the element of rape in the myth of Persophone in a way quite alien to the Greek and Roman sources of the story, argues Chloe Warner (’20)

Persephone, by Rachel Smythe, from Lore Olympus, Episode 3 (2018). Illustration.
Persephone, by Rachel Smythe, from Lore Olympus, Episode 3 (2018)

The story of the abduction and subsequent rape of Persephone, the young and beautiful goddess of spring, at the hands of Hades, the king of the Underworld, is a famous and heart-wrenching tale. As told by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (7th or 6th century BC) and, much later, in the canonical version by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) in the Metamorphoses, it is a story of stolen innocence and the division of a loving family, with the only cause being Hades’ rapacious lust.

It seems obvious to say that their story is in no way a romantic or loving tale, as their marriage occurred against Persephone’s will and without her consent. Even Ovid, who typically highlights comedic aspects of mythology over the more serious ones, still emphasizes how cruel the story of Persephone is. He writes that she was “Terrified, in tears,” and Cyane, in her plea to Hades, describes what she has seen of Persephone with “this girl, frightened and forced.” (Ovid Metamorphoses 5.399–419) However, many modern adaptations and iterations of their story frame their relationship as just that— loving and consensual. This change does not seem to occur with other mythological rape stories, which raises the question of why modern versions of Greek mythology insist upon romanticizing the story of Hades and Persephone. This may be largely due to the resemblance of the rape of Persephone to the tale of beauty and the beast. Hades, perhaps the evilest figure in Greek mythology, fills the role of the beast well, while Persephone, a sweet and innocent young woman, fits the role of beauty. My thesis is not only that the rape of Persephone tends to be romanticized in modern culture, but also that this is due to the fetishization of this “beauty and the beast” archetype of romance.

The weekly webcomic series Lore Olympus (2018–) by Rachel Smythe is a modern retelling of Greek mythology that mainly focuses on the story of Hades and Persephone, framing it as a slow-burn love story. The widely popular web series takes place in a modern-day Olympus where the Greek gods still rule over the mortal realm and have adopted human technological advances, such as cars and phones. Hades is a grumpy, wealthy bachelor and Persephone is a college student studying to become a sacred virgin. They begin a tentative romance that has yet to reach fruition after eighty-five episodes due to their age difference and the general taboo of their coupling (Episode 1).

This taboo is exactly what seems to make romanticizing the two mythological characters fascinating. Hades and Persephone are, in a sense, emblematic of the relationship between the yin and the yang. They represent darkness and light as, if one were to oversimplify their roles, Hades is the god of death and Persephone is the goddess of life. This is exactly what the archetype of the beauty and the beast is based upon. Opposites being romantically attracted to one another is a popular modern trope within the romance genre, which seems to be why there is such a fascination with the relationship between the ultimate and original two polar opposites being joined, whether it was consensual or not.

As for the issue of consent, Lore Olympus deals with the problematic aspects of Hades and Persephone’s story by altering the way in which they meet. At a party, during which Hades sees Persephone for the first time, he remarks that she is even more beautiful than Aphrodite. Aphrodite overhears Hades’ comment and forces her son, Eros, to sabotage Hades’ chances with Persephone as revenge. This plan involves getting Persephone extremely drunk and placing her in the backseat of Hades’ car to the effect of Persephone thinking that Hades was attempting to take advantage of her. Alternatively, Hades does not notice her presence until he arrives home later that night. When he does, he asks where she lives in an attempt to take her home but, when she is too delirious to answer, he takes her to his guest room and acts like a perfect gentleman (Episodes 3–5). This only endears the two to each other more and their relationship carries on from there. Although Smythe borrows many plot points from the original story, such as Zeus facilitating their union, Lore Olympus still generously alters their tale to the point that it no longer seems significantly problematic.

Another excellent iteration of the story of Hades and Persephone is the graphic novel Epicurus the Sage. This limited-edition DC Comic series, written by William Messner-Loebs and inked by Sam Kieth, is centered around the famous philosopher Epicurus as he ponders the truths behind well-known Greek myths. Accompanied by Plato and Alexander the Great, Epicurus reveals the supposedly real story behind the myths, framing the actual myths that are familiar to the reader as fictitious stories that are only loosely based upon the truth.

In the first of two editions of the series, titled “Visiting Hades,” Epicurus’ character visits the story of Hades and Persephone and explains that the entire abduction was apparently a facade, although that part of the story was never written down. He goes on to describe the fictitiously “real” series of events, according to which Hades and Persephone were actually in love for a long time before her supposed abduction, which was actually faked in order to allow them the opportunity to run away together. In this version of the story, Demeter was framed as an overbearing mother who would not allow Persephone to pursue her true love. Out of fear that she and the other judgmental gods would not approve of their public relationship, the couple decided to stage Persephone’s abduction so that they could continue to enjoy their relationship in private.

This example highlights the theme of creating excuses for the abduction of Persephone in order to romanticize her relationship with Hades. Decorating an instance of rape with fanciful ideas of what may or may not have occurred behind closed doors is an extremely problematic view. Furthermore, doing so in order to obtain a romanticization of the victim and their abuser is far from an endearing love story of a star-crossed couple. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter emphasizes Persephone’s lack of consent: “Seizing her by force, he began to drive her off on his golden chariot, with her wailing and screaming…” (lines 19–21, trans. Martin West). Attempting to idealize this heinous abduction by interjecting the possibility that it was simply fake is a very weak avoidance of the issue of rape, showing just how ludicrously far modern depictions of mythology will go in order to romanticize Hades and Persephone.

Although it is difficult to decipher the exact message behind the Greek and Roman source material for Hades and Persephone’s tale, it is still clear that it is not the same as Smythe, Messner-Loeb’s, and Kieth’s messages. The abduction of Persephone is a natural aetiological myth explaining the seasons, so it may be entirely possible that there was no other intended message or moral. The Homeric Hymn focuses much more upon Demeter’s struggle during her daughter’s abduction than on Persephone herself, which may point towards themes of loss, mourning, and justice (lines130–330). Ovid also placed an emphasis on the tribulations of Demeter, but not before heavily solidifying the injustice that has occurred to Persephone. For example, when Cyane sees Hades escaping with Persephone, she yells, “No further shall you go! Thou canst not be the son-in-law of Ceres against her will. The maiden should have been wooed, not ravished” (Ovid 5.414–16, trans. Melville).

Both ancient authors seem to emphasize the injustice of Persephone’s rape and subsequent abduction as well as how hard the heartbroken Demeter fights to be reunited with her daughter. Therefore, if there was one central message in this myth, this shows that it would be centered around how inseparable the connection of family and motherly love is, even in the face of a gross injustice. Furthermore, even Homer and Ovid emphasized how unjust the abduction of Persephone was, which is shown to be very substantial by the rarity of this acknowledgment in other rape myths. This simply makes the romanticization of the story even more absurd, as even authors who often excused plot points of rape still emphasized the sad and unjust nature of this event.

The story of Hades and Persephone, despite being an instance of rape, is romanticized in popular retellings of the myth, often by feeding off of the romantic archetype of the beauty and the beast. This is an especially strange and unhealthy alteration to the myth, in strong contrast to classical authors, who depicted the rape as a gross injustice. These examples, among countless others, show how modern creators alter classical accounts of this myth in order to fetishize them through the romantically archetypal lens.

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