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.

5 thoughts on “The Story of Hades and Persephone: Rape and Romance”

  1. The original myth feels to me like a depiction of how wealthy daughters and mothers must have felt in Antiquity about arranged marriages to older men. These marriages are presented as a necessary evil, like the rains and the frosts of winter, which eventually will lead to the flowers of spring and the fruit of summer: both alluding to the bearing and the birth of children.

    I disagree with how you frame the romantic reading of the myth of Persephone as unhealthy… It isn’t. What these new retellings are trying to do is bringing to the fore woman’s sexuality, which is completely absent/erased form the classical myths (as they were all written by men and within a patriarchal framework). These new retellings are appealing to women’s fantasies because their sexual desires are represented in them. In these “Persephone fantasies”, the man whom Persephone is meant, destined or likely to marry turns from enemy to a lover, and the process of falling in love with the enemy is sensual and satisfying. It is not that modern feminine retellings of the Persephone myth do not wish to acknowledge the existence of rape. It is rather the fact that these new retellings are framing the development of womanhood and sexuality in a more consensual and sexually pleasing light than the first retellings of the myth, which were, as we all know, the product of an extremely patriarchal society in which women were thought as people with no superior feeling or intelligence.

  2. Hi, Gloria, but why should a myth about rape and the unhappy state of a forced bride be the one that is used to represent a healthy female fantasy? Couldn’t another myth, that wasn’t about rape and the tragic nature of forced marriage, be used instead and adjusted as needed to represent modern, healthy sexuality?

    Like, if we were to take a modern example, of some modern rapist who forced some woman to live with him (as has happened), and someone comes along and writes a book and story about how that was actually a really romantic thing and that the victim wasn’t really a victim but wanted it and planned it with the person generally understood to be a villain in more mainstream and common versions of the story about the criminal and the case, wouldn’t it seem like they were taking a bit of a weird position, as compared to choosing another story that doesn’t include these questionable features to adjust or create justifications for?

    What it maybe sounds like also, is that these people who write these white-washed stories that “tell the real story”, might like mythology, as well as modernity, and don’t like rape and don’t respect the original stories (like many filmmakers for example seem to be more in it for making their own story out of things without much consideration for the original materials or their intent or message or capturing their feel), and so they simply try to make it that this thing they like now has a version which doesn’t include something as unpleasant as rape (while it still exists, as well as forced marriages, even in modern societies and the “Western World”).

    I think the concern of the author of this article was warranted, especially considering the current popularity of many abusive and unhealthy relationships being demonstrated in the media, with popular couples like the Joker and Harlequin and a number of others based perhaps on stories like Pride and Prejudice or popular stories about an unpleasant man being won over.

    I don’t think there is all that much benefit in these adjusted stories, but they might act as amusing, except the area they targeted for adjustment and white-washing is perhaps a bit unpleasant and unusual to do so, and would typically be deemed as an odd choice to target if it had been selected by a man to edit in order to eradicate any real “rape” from the story.

    I think anyone defending the choice might simply just like what the artists have done with their stories, but it might in some ways be easy to interpret this decision as having been in bad taste or a little less than thoughtful overall, considering a meaningful social problem and crime that exists and is widely prevalent across the world to this day.

    The “Perfect Gentleman” guy is not as likely, unfortunately, according to the impression so many frightening and disturbing crimes committed daily seem to represent as the reality, so this doesn’t even sound like a “more realistic” or “more relatable” take, or one that should lead females to “give the guy a chance” or “don’t suspect him” and drop their guard or something.

    I think someone drunk like that is possibly much more likely to be taken advantage of than to find the man of their dreams in that state, so what was really the point of their selecting this story to eradicate the element of real rape or force used from it?

    How about women who might, out of some kind of ignorance, fantasize about violent rape (or men, who might fantasize about such), would that be empowering women to be more open about their sexual desires if the story was about desires like that, as natural as they may be, or would that be unhealthy and not really empowering either?

    Doesn’t this change totally take away any weightiness or impact from the story, from a storytelling perspective? Maybe they could’ve written a story about how how the rape did happen, but then she learned to appreciate her rapist, and we’re left questioning if she has Stockholm Syndrome or something?

    I think the author of this article made an important observation and should write more on this and explain further the danger and the strangeness of this particular myth being targeted for changes which eradicate any heinous crime from being committed and giving the traditional villain of the story a good name.

    1. Artis,
      While I 100% agree that rape is horrible and should not be romanticized, there isn’t one version of a myth (especially one this old). Let me explain.

      Over time stories change, especially mythos. There are versions of this do involve rape, yes, but not all do. I would say that Zeus is by far worse in terms of romanticizing rape. Almost (if not all) of Zeus’s flings with mortals are rape. Hades, in comparison to Zeus, is a far better husband and person (god?), he only gets a bad rap because he’s the god of the underworld. (And everyone thinks that the underworld is Hell so that doesn’t help…)

      Sure, Hades kidnaps Persephone, but that’s actually pretty normal by the standards of the time. (So was rape but let’s not worry about that.) In the context of the story and time period, this was ok because Zeus said Hades could marry her. Once Persephone is in the underworld, she starts to like Hades and, possible Stockholm Syndrome aside, Persephone is pretty happy (other than missing her mom).

      She only really went back home because Demeter was killing everything. And sure, Hades gave her the pomegranate seeds so she’d have to come back, this is the only really questionable thing he does in this story.

      And as for the rape bit of the story, the story that I heard isn’t really clear what happened and basically just says Persephone and Hades were sitting on a couch/bed and Persephone looked kinda sad and unwilling when Hermes shows up. This technically doesn’t say anything happened, so they could have just been talking, for all we know.

      If you want to learn more about various myths, I’d recommend Overly Sarcastic Production; Red’s vids are very well researched imho. Here’s the link to her video on Hades and Persephone, if you want to take a look. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ac5ksZTvZN8

      Sorry for the rant, I just really think Hades deserves better than being the de facto bad guy.

  3. While you do make a very healthy point that rape should never be romanticized, I feel that the modern retellings of Persephone and Hades aren’t quite doing that. The Greeks had problems as it was in most of their original writings, romanticizing rape, bestiality, and pedophilia.

    While I have yet to read Epicurus the Sage, I have read Lore Olympus and they actually do touch on the subject of rape. They go into detail in later episodes about Persophone getting raped by Apollo and how it most certainly isn’t a romantic thing. It becomes a larger mental problem for Persephone throughout the series as she struggles with the idea that she shouldn’t tell anyone what had happened to her since Apollo is a known figure in Olympus, and the brother of Artemis, her roommate. Not to mention the declination of her mental health and opinion of herself.

    Though, I see what you mean in that retelling this specific myth seems a bit odd in that it originally was the story of forced marriage and stockholm syndrome, however I don’t believe that stories like Lore Olympus have in anyway romanticized rape.

    If anything I feel we should be questioning why we’re romanticizing another well-known story you mentioned: Beauty and the Beast. The Beast literally kidnaps Belle and the audience is supposed to support their later romance? There are a lot of modern stories and other retellings that have been done in much poorer taste, romanticizing unhealthy relationships and the likes. But nonetheless I suppose that’s better left a topic for another time where I have a much larger word count.

  4. I wish that you would have done more research into the Lore Olympus storyline before drawing the conclusion that it fetishizes rape. That is a wildly inaccurate take on a tale that promotes healthy communication, encourages mental healthcare, and touches on the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. I frankly don’t believe you actually read the available episodes before writing this piece and your argument is significantly weaker as a result. Lore Olympus gets a gold star from me on how it addresses difficult issues of toxic relationships and rape. And honestly it should be required summer reading for young adults.

    Stories are meant to teach us something, educate in ways that also entertain. As other commenters have pointed out, the original myth was crafted through the male perspective. The ancient versions of Hades and Persephone not healthy, and they teach us very little other than men are so dangerous that even an all-powerful goddess isn’t safe. Wildly editing a story isn’t romanticizing it, and these modern retellings recognize that the characters can teach us new things as well. Smythe’s tale could have been just a traditional romance without subtly…but she DOES make an effort to address the terrifying topics of the original through a modern lens. And making the villain someone other than Hades served that purpose best, while still giving readers hope for a happy ending (since we all know Persephone’s ultimate fate).

    The story asks the questions: What do you do when your rapist is generally known as a “nice” guy? What do you do when your rapist is welcomed within your friend circle and has continued access to you? What do you do when you feel like you can’t tell anyone? How do you live up to the expectations of a loving mother when you feel so far from what she wanted you to be? How do you find your own identity when people keep pushing their ideas of who you should be onto you? These are all brave questions for an author to address, and Smyth does so with grace and empathy.

    Why leave a myth to rot on the shelves where it serves us very little, when we can take its themes and craft something new that may help people?

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