To many, Persephone is a scandalous love story about a young girl taken from her mother by an evil, dark god. Others might view it as a twisted coming of age tale, with some not-so-subtle-allusions between “womanhood,” fertility, and the bright red colors of pomegranate that Persephone eats. A more promising and philosophically poignant meaning lies underneath the tale. What makes Persephone’s tale so tragic is its necessity: the allure of death, and death itself, is inextricable in the continuation of life, rendering us all paradoxes in disguise. We live and thrive in our dissonances and conflicts, our beauty conceived by melancholy.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, Persephone was the alienated daughter of Zeus and Demeter, who were siblings, which made her both a daughter and niece to these powerful deities. Demeter was not only associated with agricultural bounty, but with the inevitability of death. Her daughter was precious to her, and so on that fated day, when her other brother Hades looked at the young Persephone’s graceful figure picking flowers in the spring and brought her down to the underworld, her wrath was fierce. She took away spring and dried up the earth so its inhabitants would starve until she got her daughter back.
Zeus tried to convince Hades to let her go, and he consented only on the terms that Persephone hadn’t eaten any of the fruits of the underworld. It was revealed that she had: the bright red pomegranate was her condemnation. Unlike Eve who was exiled from Eden, Hades made Persephone a prisoner for half the year, bringing us winter and fall. During summer and spring, she was free, reunited with her mother and the blossoming fauna.
In this depiction of her by Rosetti, she looks so awkward and tragic, doesn’t she? The vacant stare in her eyes. The twisted hand holding her forbidden fruit. Ivy, the symbol of death during this era, lurking in the background. She does indeed look like the trapped soul of the underworld that she is.1 We at least have the comfort of knowing that one day, she will see the sun.
Each moment, she lives a paradox. She is the queen of death, but her arrival to earth marks the beginning of spring and summer, the time of renewal and life. She is married to Hades but in love with the beautiful Adonis. She is the symbol of life itself but married to the king of death who is completely sterile.
This idea of life embodying a necessary duality is a compelling one. In our technologically-driven, alienated society we inhabit today, more lines than ever are drawn between our public and private lives. Men who do online dating, creating fake personas, having women fall in love with someone who’s not real. The religious and closeted gay politician. We’ve sorted conflicting identities and put them in different places. Perhaps this is out of fear, out of a distinctly American “black-and-whiteness” that says you have to be one thing or the other. Or perhaps we’ve always lived this way, men with a wife and children who frequent the harlot’s corner, devoted adulterers. Aren’t we this way out of necessity? Aren’t there conflicting needs and desires that are essential to our survival?
Being two things at once is normal. Yet failing to find symbiosis will end in destruction. Just as death gives birth to life, as the decomposition of plants feeds new fauna, people need to reconcile the dualities they embody to move forward.
A goddess like Persephone in our time couldn’t be the emblem of life yet the same woman who tortured a god in the underworld for trying to seduce her, a woman who’s depicted with a symbol of death, the pomegranate, and mint, the herb of innocence and fertility. That’s why a television icon like Dexter in our time is so fascinating and revolutionary—he’s a killer and a good guy wrapped into one, something our habituated American minds can’t comprehend. Our laws are built for black and white, innocent or guilty, victim or criminal, either or, not both. If you’re a liberal, you’re against everything conservative. If you’re an atheist, you’re not spiritual. These labels draw lines, and at the same time, take away our complexity, render us helpless when we’re surrounded by mirrors, each one showing a different angle on us, forcing us to pick one over the other.
Notice how whenever there’s a conflict, it’s about winning. The language surrounding conflicts is always about domination and competition. “You destroyed them in that debate,” “They crushed them in the court room,” “They won the case.” It’s never about a solution. It’s never about finding a common ground, or a lesson to be learned. It’s about extermination.
The tale of Persephone reminds us that contradictions are necessary. They appear in wisdom, they appear in Taoism, they appear in nature and humanity. They’re certainly not comfortable or simple to inhabit, indeed, they transcend our built in thought system which struggles to come to one conclusion, to reconcile paradoxes. But just as we live in the light of the sun, we also inhabit the dark night.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.
1. Rossetti was actually in love with the model who did this painting. She was in a bad marriage that he thought of as Persephone’s underworld and also had an affair with him, which he thought of as her springtime.