Winter Harvest is Ioanna Papadopoulou’s darkly luminous and intensely original reimagining of the tale of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, and what happens when her daughter Kore is abducted by Hades and eventually becomes Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. While the story is well-known to anyone with even a cursory interest in Greek mythology, Papadopoulou makes it clear from the first chapter that this story about Demeter is different. Because the book begins not with Kore and Demeter’s relationship or any mention of Hades and the Underworld, but with Demeter’s birth, right before she is devoured by her father, the titan Kronos.
In the darkness and closeness of Kronos’s belly, Demeter meets her siblings: first her older sister Hestia who has already been in Kronos’s belly for a time, and then, as they too are devoured one by one, her younger siblings: Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. For a time they live there together, in the darkness of Kronos, with nothing and no one but each other. While the siblings find some comfort in each other, Demeter learns early on that their essence, their divinity, can be used both to bond them closer together, and as a weapon, giving them the power to hurt each other: “It scared me that such monstrosity resided in me. It scared me that within my core, I had the capacity for such hunger, such desperate desire to consume all.”
It’s a darkly surreal and visceral beginning that sets the tone for a book that is unlike any reimagining of this myth that I’ve read before.
Demeter is the narrator of Winter Harvest, and Papadopoulou tells the story tightly, intimately, from her point of view, giving us a singular perspective on the world of the Olympian gods. One of the many things Papadopoulou does extremely well in this book is to make Demeter feel both relatable and (almost) human at times, while she also remains undeniably Other—an immensely powerful being capable of mercy and generosity, but also capable of being utterly pitiless and unconcerned with the petty lives and troubles of mortals.
Forget being likeable, this Demeter is a formidable goddess, and a formidable character.
Once the siblings have been rescued from Kronos’s belly by their haughty baby brother Zeus, Demeter becomes the goddess of the harvest, but while she grudgingly accepts Zeus’ power-grab to become leader of the gods, she fights, fiercely and stubbornly, to maintain her independence and gain the respect she believes she deserves from the other gods.
“I was not to be a Goddess of sisters or mothers, or of fidelity or whatever else Zeus considered apt and fitting for females.”
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In Winter Harvest, as in Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses are locked in a constant power struggle where love, sex, deceit, violence, rape and war, are used as weapons. Papadopoulou doesn’t shy away from or romanticize the brutal reality of this power struggle, and she doesn’t shy away from the harsh choices Demeter makes in order to gain and maintain power for herself. But in Papadopoulou’s skilled hands, this isn’t just a story about gods behaving badly, but also a story about generational trauma in “a family of kin slayers” where devouring your children, killing your parents, and rending the world apart to get what you want, is the order of the day.
From the very start, Demeter understands that monstrosity and divinity are entwined in each of them, especially herself. “Are we monsters?” a young Demeter asks her sister Hestia. “No,” Hestia answers. “Not yet, at least.”
In all her interactions with gods and humans, Demeter is proud and perilous, refusing to play nice with the other gods, refusing to conform by getting married and living in Olympus under Zeus’s rule, refusing to make herself small in order to make others feel comfortable. And when she is pushed to the brink, when her daughter is taken and the other gods refuse to help bring her back, it brings out the darkness, the monster, that has always lurked inside her. In the process, Demeter ends up transforming not just herself but the entire world.
Many retellings of Demeter’s story focus on her relationship with her daughter Kore/Persephone: on the loss of her child, and her desperate quest to find her again. While that part of the story is central to Winter Harvest, Papadopoulou always keeps the focus on Demeter herself, not primarily as Kore’s mother, but as a powerful goddess, a goddess marked by the darkness she has carried with her from the moment Kronos swallowed her, a goddess willing to inflict immense suffering and devastation in order to get her way. As Hera tells Demeter:
“You always talk about Kore in relation to you… She is always an extension of your state of being…. It isn’t simply about getting her back. It is about ensuring that your power and position will never be diminished again.”
Demeter changes many times throughout Winter Harvest, just like she changes many times in the ancient myths and tales. Her appearance changes, and so does the way she uses her divine power. Even her name changes. For a goddess, these are not superficial changes, they change her very nature and how she interacts with the world and the other gods. The Demeter that loses Kore is not the same Demeter that is eventually reunited with Persephone and she knows it:
“I had been the one who changed myself. I had transformed myself, again and again, so I could win this battle and finally stand my ground.”
By then, Persephone, too, has changed in ways that go beyond acquiring a new name:
“We have changed, sweet Mother… We are not the same creatures that once walked in this place. We are not the same Goddesses.”
Papadopoulou’s intimate knowledge, and deft use, of the rich, mutable, and multifarious tales surrounding the Greek gods add luster and depth to Winter Harvest and its sharply drawn portrayal of Demeter. The book is also firmly rooted in the Greek landscape in a way I don’t always see with retold and reimagined myths. Demeter’s Greece is not some generic, paint-by-numbers background scenery. The towns and villages, the mountains and caves, the sea and shores, the shrines and temples, all are drawn with loving, incisive detail that brings the world, and its inhabitants—gods and humans—to life.
The end result is a tale that is dark, strikingly beautiful, and strange in the way that Demeter herself is strange—refusing to be the woman, the goddess, the story, you might expect.
Winter Harvest is available now from Ghost Orchid Press.