When it comes to Western thought, science, art, religion and knowledge, most roads, if not all, lead to Greece. The age of enlightenment, the renaissance, and the scientific revolution, all owe a debt to that one peninsula, cradled between the Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean seas. And of all the myths, gods, demons, spirits, nymphs, and other fantastical entities that populate the pages of history, none perhaps, enjoy the universality of the Greek pantheon.
Wenceslas Hollar’s famous 17th century etching, The Greek Gods depicts Zeus and Hera (or rather, their Roman equivalents Jupiter and Juno) with Hebe, cupbearer to Jupiter and Iris, Goddess of the rainbow.
Exported to all corners of the ancient Mediterranean and beyond, Greek Gods have outlived their own religion, as powerful markers of identity, and subjects of art, literature, and philosophy. Their origins remain shrouded in mystery, sprouting from the animistic beliefs that populated Anatolia and the Balkans in the second millennium BCE. From these early, hazy beginnings spawned a juggernaut of a religion, encompassing the ecclesiastical and the temporal, containing within it the myths, stories and characters that would go on to have a defining influence on how humankind would tell its stories, even three thousand years later. For the might of the Roman Empire lay in Italy, but its heart lay in Greece. The chisel of Phidias and the voice of Homer echo through time, reborn as Virgil in Rome, Shakespeare in England, and Michelangelo in Italy.
Michelangelo’s Bacchus. The Roman equivalent of Dionysus, God of wine, and very closely associated with Demeter and Persephone. Sculpted at the close of the Fifteenth century, Michelangelo’s work, much like other renaissance artists, was deeply inspired by Greco-Roman art, culture, and religion.
For all the many, many contributions of Ancient Greece to art, philosophy, science, and literature, popular culture perhaps remembers it best for its Gods. To modern sensibilities, the Greek Gods are fascinating, for they are not all-loving, all benevolent, all-knowing and all virtuous. Greek mythology frequently holds a mirror to humanity, in reflecting our own nature, which is base and vile as often as it is sublime, and the motivations of the Gods is more often fear, jealousy or personal glory, rather than altruism.
Jupiter and Semele (1895) by Gustav Moreau. Semele’s tragic death was the direct result of Jupiter’s lust and Juno’s jealousy. To the ancient Greeks, their troubles were frequently the results of the all too human failings of their mortals and their Gods.
As with pantheons of other religions born out of animism, nature played a major role in Greek mythology. In fact, some sources suggest that the religious cults of the Gods and Goddesses of nature had the oldest roots among all, stretching back to the Mycenaean period of the second millennium BCE. To the ancient Greeks, the seasons, the harvest and nature were deeply interconnected by the myth of Demeter and Persephone, together sometimes simply called the “Goddesses”.
The Ninnion tablet has been dated to approximately 370 BCE, and depicts the Eleusinian Mysteries in red clay.
The ancient Greeks were a fascinating society in more ways than one, but one of the most interesting aspects of Greek life was the widespread existence and acceptance of secret cults of different Gods and Goddesses. These cults, or “mysteries” often had a far reaching impact on politics, art and culture, and their very forefront were the Eleusinian Mysteries. Although the associated rites and ceremonies were always kept secret, the Eleusinian Mysteries were a major part of Greek, and later Roman, life with several emperors being inducted to them. They primarily concerned the myth of the abduction of Perspehone, daughter of Demeter.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina. Considered one of Bernini’s four masterpieces, this sculpture was one of the pieces that gave birth to the baroque movement. Bernini was a mere 23 years of age when he created this masterpiece of realism. Note the sculpting of hard marble to represent soft flesh and the texture of skin.
The abduction of Persphone was among the seminal myths of Greek mythology, an epic that, much like the famous Homeric story of Odysseus, involved a long journey and strong supporting cast of characters. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility, agriculture and the harvest. Persephone herself donned many hats, but her best known myth, that of her kidnapping, is the story of how she came to be the Goddess of springtime.
We are very proud to be able to host this handcrafted bronze sculpture of Bernini’s masterpiece made with painstaking detail. At Culture Kraze Marketplace, we are always on the lookout for how to best celebrate the cultural and artistic achievements of humankind.
Hades, God of the underworld, was struck by Persephone’s beauty and immediately fell in love with her. However, knowing that her mother would not allow her to leave for Hades, he kidnapped her. The abduction of Persephone brought about a great rift in the Greek world, understandably causing great consternation for Demeter, and forcing Zeus to try to attempt to mediate between her and Hades. In the absence of her daughter, Demeter grew increasingly upset, neglecting the Earth and leading to a great famine as fields started to go barren. As the people starved, they grew increasingly desperate and offerings to the Gods began to dwindle, leading to both man and deity alike petitioning Zeus to appease Demeter. Under this collective pressure, Hades had little choice but to return Persephone. Before doing so, however, he offered her pomegranates from the underworld. Having consumed the food of the dead, Persephone is linked to the underworld inexorably and forced to spend part of each year in Hades’ realm.
The Return of Persephone by the great Victorian Draughtsman Frederic Leighton (1891). This touching painting represents Persephone finally reunited with Demeter, ushering in the harvest.
The abduction myth thus explained the harvest cycle and the seasons for the Greeks. The Earth blossomed in springtime as Persephone was returned to her mother, while the winter months were characterized by lifelessness and the barren Earth, as she made her pilgrimage to the realm of the dead. Not unlike any other society, agriculture formed the bedrock of the Greek world. This is perhaps what gave the abduction myth its pervasiveness among the Greeks and the Eleusinian Mysteries their place as the foremost cult of the Balkans.
The ancient Greeks found themselves in a large and terrifying world that they did not fully understand and often ascribed the happenings around them to Gods that were supernatural in their powers, but all too human in their psyches. Persephone’s abduction is a microcosm of all that is fascinating about them. It is a wildly captivating story, replete with the presence of the supernatural, and how it’s used to explain the mundane. At its core, perhaps it was this ability of the ancient Greeks to tell stories of great and powerful beings caught up in the trappings of human nature, that best explains our undying fascination with their world.
- Lincoln, Bruce. “The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women's Initiation.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 72, no. 3/4, 1979, pp. 223–235., www.jstor.org/stable/1509722.
- MAKOWSKI, JOHN F. “PERSEPHONE, PSYCHE, AND THE MOTHER-MAIDEN ARCHETYPE.” The Classical Outlook, vol. 62, no. 3, 1985, pp. 73–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43934919.
- Mylonas, George E. “Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries.” The Classical Journal, vol. 43, no. 3, 1947, pp. 131–146. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3293727.