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Friday, November 13, 2020

The Many Names and Faces of Persephone (Proserpina)

The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone, often referred to as Kore, became queen of the underworld when she was abducted by Hades.  As a goddess associated with the spring fertility of vegetation, she was worshipped along with her mother Demeter in the rites of the  Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised the initiated a more enjoyable prospect after death.  

However her cult was based on ancient agrarian rituals that were practiced around the Mediterranean at Minoan Crete, Egypt, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia, and Libya far earlier.  In Minoan Crete, the female vegetation divinity was identified as Ariadne.  Some scholars suggest the name Ariadne was a "friendly" name, derived from the word for "pure," because of a superstitious taboo about speaking the real names of deities associated with the underworld. In another cult on Crete, Persephone was  conflated with Despoina, "the mistress" of a chthonic divinity, who was considered the unnameable daughter of Poseidon.

Evidence from both the Orphic Hymns and tablets known as the Orphic Gold Leaves demonstrate that Persephone was one of the most important deities worshiped in Orphism. Gold leaves with verses intended to help the deceased enter into an optimal afterlife were often buried with the dead. Persephone is mentioned frequently in these tablets. Those seeking the ideal afterlife strive for the "sacred meadows and groves of Persephone".  Other gold leaves describe Persephone's role in receiving and sheltering the dead. 

At Locri, a city of Magna Graecia situated on the coast of the Ionian Sea in Calabria (a region of southern Italy), perhaps uniquely, Persephone was worshiped as protector of marriage and childbirth, a role usually assumed by Hera.  Children at Locri were dedicated to Proserpina, and maidens about to be wed brought their peplos to be blessed. Diodorus Siculus knew the temple there as the most illustrious in Italy. During the 5th century BCE, votive pinakes in terracotta were often dedicated as offerings to the goddess, made in series and painted with bright colors, animated by scenes connected to the myth of Persephone. Many of these pinakes are now on display in the National Museum of Magna Græcia in Reggio Calabria.

The Romans first heard of her from the Aeolian and Dorian cities of Magna Graecia, who used the dialectal variant Proserpinē. Hence, in Roman mythology she was called Proserpina, a name erroneously derived by the Romans from proserpere, "to shoot forth." In 205 BCE, Rome officially identified Proserpina with the local Italic goddess Libera, who, along with Liber, were strongly associated with the Roman grain goddess Ceres (considered equivalent to the Greek Demeter). The Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus also considered Proserpina equivalent to the Cretan goddess Ariadne, who was the bride of Liber's Greek equivalent, Dionysus.

In Athens, a festival called the Thesmophoria  which included secret women-only rituals was celebrated in the month of Pyanepsion, when Kore was abducted and Demeter abstained from her role as goddess of harvest and growth. The ceremony involved sinking sacrifices into the earth by night and retrieving the decaying remains of pigs that had been placed in the megara of Demeter (trenches and pits or natural clefts in rock), the previous year. These were placed on altars, mixed with seeds, then planted. Pits rich in organic matter at Eleusis have been taken as evidence that the Thesmophoria was held there as well as in other demes of Attica.

Images: Onyx cameo fragment thought to depict an episode from the story of Proserpine and Pluto, Roman, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Closeup of a  votive Kore (Statue of a Young Woman) from the Athenian Acropolis Greek 520-510 BCE Parian Marble that I photographed at "The Greeks" exhibit displayed at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.  Votive statue of Kore or Demeter from the sanctuary at Casaletto, Roman, end of 4th or beginning of 3rd century BCE, that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome. Another votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian, Yet another votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia Roman 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian, Head of Demeter or Kore, Greek, made in Sicily 350-300 BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California, Fragment of the Great Eleusinian Relief, Roman copy from the Augustan period 27 BCE-14 CE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new York, Demeter and Persephone Terracotta from Myrina, 100 BCE, that I photographed at the British Museum, Roman sarcophagus depicting Hades abduction of Persephone, Roman, 200-220 CE that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-22), another breathtaking sculpture at the Galleria Borghese in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Alvesgaspar (digitally edited to enhance sculptural details).

: Onyx cameo fragment thought to depict an episode from the story of Proserpine and Pluto, Roman, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Closeup of a  votive Kore (Statue of a Young Woman) from the Athenian Acropolis Greek 520-510 BCE Parian Marble that I photographed at "The Greeks" exhibit displayed at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois

Votive statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive Statue of Kore from a sanctuary in the Valle Ariccia, Roman, 4th-3rd century BCE that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian

Votive statue of Kore or Demeter from the sanctuary at Casaletto, Roman, end of 4th or beginning of 3rd century BCE, that I photographed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome

Fragment of the Great Eleusinian Relief, Roman copy from the Augustan period 27 BCE-14 CE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Demeter and Persephone Terracotta from Myrina, 100 BCE, that I photographed at the British Museum

Roman sarcophagus depicting Hades abduction of Persephone, Roman, 200-220 CE that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-22), another breathtaking sculpture at the Galleria Borghese in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Alvesgaspar (digitally edited to enhance sculptural details).


Head of Demeter or Kore, Greek, made in Sicily 350-300 BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California


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