Nine Depictions of Persephone in Popular Culture to Sproing Your Spring

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

Persephone is a goddess from ancient Greek myth who has taken on meaning as she moves through modern culture the way our ears have become the place to hang jewelry, air pods, sunglasses, masks, and adaptive devices. Like the ear, Persephone is tough and tender, fleshy and firm, and keeps proximity to a deep dark hole wherein lurks the root of all our desires from underworld of medulla oblongata to the Olympus of the frontal lobe. She is all our deep and dark, she is all our soaring and sweet. We hang everything on her because she is powerful enough to carry it.

Accordingly, depictions and interpretations of Persephone are varied and rich; projections of all we seek in a goddess and in ourselves. As we enter her season of emergence from death and watch her decorate the earth with life once again, let’s look at her in the multifaceted mirror of multimedia.

9. In 2010, a very bad film adaptation of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels was made. Though the movie was critically panned and disappointing to audiences alike, it did have a few bright spots. One of them was Rosario Dawson as Persephone. Dawson played the goddess opposite her hot-tempered rock star husband Hades as petulant, tired of the underworld, fiery, and totally fearless. In this poor excuse for a pantheon, she’s the only bringing the good god stuff. She’s the one to convince the god of the underworld to spare the half-god hero, turning the story away from one ending and toward its rightful conclusion.

8. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions gave us Persephone in the human form of Monica Bellucci, inarguably one of the most beautiful actresses ever to distract us from the plot of a subpar sequel. Married the Merovingian, a mysterious program of unknown power within the Matrix, Bellucci is woefully underutilized. With few lines, she appears primarily for her glossy hair and meaningful gaze while someone explains the sci-fi philosophy of the simulation that traps all mankind. (It might be a metaphor!) Yet this name is no accident; even with so little to work with, this Persephone still manages to portray the difficulty of loving the man who shepherds the dead, and the promise of emergence if we wait for the right season to strike.

7. Disney’s early days were filled with classical allusions and connections to myth that the entertainment juggernaut would treat with minimizing humor in the decades to come. The same folks who in 1997 would reduce Hercules to a jock with a sneaker deal and Hades to an ill-tempered meddler gave us Persephone as Goddess of Spring in 1934’s Silly Symphonies. In swoops of Technicolor and a flower crown, this Persephone is young and vibrant, as in love with nature as it clearly is with her. Though she is not given her true name, her story plays out the same as it ever was: horned Hades appears and attempts to woo her. Failing that, he simply carries her off.

6. In 2020, Supergiant Games released Hades, a roguelike dungeon-crawl adventure that was a smash hit among players and mythology nerds alike. In this one, Persephone is mother to player character Zagreus. The player must get the protagonist out of his dad’s hell and back to his mother in the mortal world. The art depicts her as clearly the daughter of Demeter, the grain goddess who always has a sheaf of wheat and a basket of plenty, and whose powers are mostly in verdure. She summons vines out of the ground and their growth is a real threat within the game; a goddess of gardeners for gamers.

5. Most painted depictions of Persephone focus on the same moment in her cycle of stories: her return to the earth which brings forth spring. This is true of George Wilson’s nude from 1880, “The Spring Witch.”

4. And with Frederic Leighton’s 1891 fully-clothed mother-daughter reunion “The Return of Persephone.” May we all be so enrobed when our mother catches us climbing out of our older boyfriend’s seedy pad.

3. Not so with J.W. Waterhouse’s “Narcissus,” which depicts, tantalizingly, the moment before abduction. This 1912 pre-Raphaelite version of the goddess takes one last look at the maiden who is sometimes called Kore before the moment of her Katabasis. Far off, against the horizon, we can see the gathering darkness even as in the foreground, she is gathering flowers. We know what is coming, but we can only watch.

2. The ancients would have preferred a depiction of their gods that offered both glorious depictions and told their story; it has to be said that graphic novels reach back to a much older form of storytelling than simple prose. And so it is that the Image comics series The Wicked + The Divine puts forth a fitting tribute to the young goddess of the underworld. In an event whereby humans become the recurrence of gods from throughout human history, Laura Wilson becomes Persephone. She recognizes the road to hell is also the road out of it, in an intricate, glamorous, and moving story. It is worth a read no matter which gods you prefer.

1. Most glorious of all, however, is a feast for all the senses and a return to that hole into the underworld: the ear. 2019 Broadway sensation Hadestown gives us our all-singing, all-dancing queen of death and rebirth. In Anaïs Mitchell’s folksy, ragtime-ish, bluesy, gospel-inspired retelling of the Orpheus, Persephone is the owner of a speakeasy where she sings her songs of resentment, resignation, and return about the cycles of her life. This version of the goddess takes us on a journey of song, from the underworld of the medulla oblongata to the Olympus of the frontal lobe, and reminds us that along the way it is best to listen closely and never look back.