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Listening to Persephone

I’ve been obsessed lately with a new musical called Hadestown which is opening in London at the National Theatre next month, in advance of a Broadway run in 2019. Based on a concept album by Anais Mitchell and developed for the stage by director Rachel Chavkin, it’s an updated gospel/folk/jazz version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

But despite their many charms, it isn’t the star-crossed young lovers that grab my attention. I’m bewitched instead by Persephone, played in this version as a sexy and subversive middle-aged goddess.

Warning: This is not your Intro to Classics Persephone.

That version (as told by Homer in the Song of Demeter) goes something like this: Entranced by the beautiful young Persephone, Hades, god of the underworld abducts (i.e. rapes) her and carries her down below to be his wife. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, becomes despondent, and then furious. In her rage, she causes all of the plants on earth to wither and die. Winter arrives on earth for the first time.

Finally, when the gods can stand the bad weather no longer, Zeus intervenes and convinces Hades to let Persephone return. But before Persephone departs, Hades feeds her 6 pomegranate seeds, sealing her fate as his Queen of the Underworld. This means that Persephone has to return to Hades for half of every year. Each time Persephone takes off, Demeter weeps, and brings winter upon the land. And when she returns, Demeter rejoices and spring arrives.

I’ve been a Persephone fan for quite a while, actually. I’m writing a book about the uneasy relationship between feminism and environmentalism and Persephone’s story seemed ripe for re-interpretation. Well, at least part of it. My research team and I liked the focus on mothers and daughters, harvests and gardens, winter and spring. We didn’t quite know what to do with the whole “rape of the young maiden” bit though.

We figured since it was an ancient myth, we could take some liberties. Rachel Zucker’s Eating in the Underworld helped us to re-imagine Persephone as a rebellious — and romantic — goddess-in-training who really needed some space from her mother. We settled on the name Persephone Project and started looking for images for our website.

Problem was, it wasn’t just Homer who got off on the whole idea of abducting young maidens. Most of the (male) artists who have represented this tale — from the ancient Greeks to the present — chose to depict just one scene: the lustful Hades carrying off a screaming Persephone to his lair under the earth. Our website remains unfinished.

And yet, I wasn’t willing to let go of Persephone. I knew she had something to say and I wanted to find a way to hear it.

And then I discovered Hadestown. And there was my Persephone at last. She leapt out of my earbuds and into my imagination.

My Persephone is still the beacon of spring with all of its many promises, but she is also a woman who knows how to adapt to change. No longer a helpless abducted maiden, this Persephone has been married to Hades for centuries. She has made that journey from the underworld to the living earth and back again, more times than she can count.

Not only that, she knows an environmental catastrophe when she sees it. When she steps off the train in Hadestown for her annual visit with her husband, she is shocked at what can happen when a god has a mid-life crisis. Hades has invented electricity, built factories, dug coal mines, created an industrial empire.

Persephone is furious: “In the darkest time of year,” she demands, “Why is it so bright down here? Brighter than a carnival; It ain’t right and it ain’t natural!” Hades demurs, claiming he did it all for the love of her. She is having none of it: “In the coldest time of year, why is it so hot down here? Hotter than a crucible! It ain’t right and it ain’t natural!”

This Persephone, with her double vision, above and below, within and without, sees what Hades cannot. Hades has upended the natural order. He has turned a sacred space into a nightmare of greed and corruption. Persephone is the only one who dares to tell him the truth. Will he hear her? Will we?

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