By Talia Miller
About the Author: I am a 1st year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Health Science. As well as my keen interest in science and medicine, I have always loved ancient history. I have a particular fascination for modern reinterpretations of mythology which I have continued to pursue through my electives.
Hades and Persephone have often been the subject of fascination within society, their myth constantly reinterpreted to fit with current cultural norms, values, and contexts. This essay argues that within the 20th and 21st century, the myth of Hades and Persephone is used in entertainment and popular culture. This myth is shaped by social contexts such as war, postmodernism, and feminism. In order to examine how the myth has been used in the entertainment industry in light of these contexts, this essay will examine evolving role of the entertainment industry; in particular, how Hades and Persephone have been presented differently in art, music, literature, and film within the last two centuries, and how their portrayal in entertainment and popular culture has been influenced by their respective social contexts.
Hades and Persephone have often been the subject of fascination throughout history, their myth constantly reinterpreted to fit with current cultural norms, values, and contexts. This essay argues that within the 20th and 21st century, the myth of Hades and Persephone is used in entertainment and popular culture. Reimaginings of the myth are shaped by social contexts such as war, postmodernism, and feminism. In order to examine how the myth has been used in the entertainment industry in light of these contexts, this essay will examine evolving role of the entertainment industry; in particular, how Hades and Persephone have been presented differently in art, music, literature, and film within the last two centuries, and how their portrayal in entertainment and popular culture has been influenced by their respective social contexts. The three thematic contexts are World War I and II, the rise of postmodernism, and feminism. It is evident that these post-war, postmodern, and feminist contexts provide a lens in which the mythic characters are depicted differently, which the entertainment industry uses to entertain, engage, and relate to the target audience in both the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Original Hymn and Significance of Context
The Homeric Hymn 2 (To Demeter) (Maurizio, 2015) tells the well-known tragic tale of the abduction of Persephone, Demeter’s daughter and wife of Hades. It was popular in Ancient Greece within the Eleusinian Mysteries, and was used to demonstrate Demeter’s power as a goddess of agriculture, associated with funerary and agricultural rituals (“Persephone – Greek Goddess of Spring, Queen of the Underworld (Roman Proserpina)”, n.d.). Foley postulates that Homeric Hymns were composed for “feasts, contests, and seasonally recurring festivals” (Foley, 1994, p. 28). Examples of these festivals and rituals include the Thesmophoria, a fertility ritual, which was closely linked to Haloa – a ritual of planting and harvesting crops (Maurizio, 2015). Originally, the myth was also used in Ancient Greece to explain the changing of the seasons: when Persephone dwelt in the Underworld, it was winter. Without Persephone’s powers of fertility, and the sadness and anger of Demeter as she causes crops to wither and die, spring only returned to the mortal land when Persephone did (“Persephone – Greek Goddess of Spring, Queen of the Underworld (Roman Proserpina)”, n.d.). According to Rudhardt, the Greeks perceived Persephone initially as a passive and “nubile” virgin, who lets her fate be decided for her during the course of the drama (Rudhardt, 1994, p. 204). It is this passivity that morphs over the centuries, reshaping the power dynamic of the mythic characters, giving them new self-autonomy over time, demonstrating the significant impact of post-war, postmodernism, and feminist contexts on how the myth is reimagined and critiqued.
When exploring how myth has been used in the 20th and 21st century, Phillips stipulates the importance of context in providing meaning, and that any omitted or new details are likely the product of the author and not part of the original myth (Phillips, 1978). It is evident that Persephone undergoes a larger transformation than Hades, as a result of differing social contexts. While Persephone is eventually portrayed in a context of feminism and postmodernism, gaining independence and power, Hades never loses power, and his only transformation is from ‘evil’ to seemingly cold and apathetic. Examples can be seen in the 1997 Disney film Hercules, and the 2010 film Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where Persephone is sympathetic and powerful as a queen and Hades is the power-driven antagonist, and in the 2016 Broadway play Hadestown, which portrays Persephone as the lovely goddess of spring and Hades as an uncaring totalitarian ruler. Their differing roles may be a result of accepted social and gender norms, as well as a result of marketing – the entertainment industry needs to present a story with a protagonist and antagonist, and no matter that even the Ancient Greeks perceived Hades as benevolent and inevitable, death is still portrayed as ‘evil’ and unwanted. These examples of the myth in the entertainment industry connote the evolution of the myth over the centuries and the change in power dynamics, and continue to denote the importance of context in entertainment and popular culture.
20th Century Depictions – Post-War
In 20th century entertainment, Hades and Persephone were depicted in entertainment in roles similar to the original myth, with Hades as a fear inspiring king who steals away a lovely young virgin, possibly as a result of a post-war context. This portrayal is evident within 20th century music and art. Poduska’s Classical Myth In Music lists music associated with various classical mythological figures. 20th century songs associated with Hades often reference the Elysian Fields and his wife, as well as the topography as noted by Homer in the Odyssey. Examples include Rebecca Clarke’s 1941 song Lethe, the 1968 Logothetis electronic orchestral music titled Styx, and Pape’s 1987 song Cerberus, referencing the three-headed guardian dog of the Underworld. These three songs all refer to ‘monsters’, the dismal nature of the afterlife, and the ‘fear of those being ferried to the land of the dead’, demonstrating Hades’ malignant role as ruler of the dead (Poduska, 1999, p. 223). Persephone is referenced in songs such as the 1934 Persephone by Igor Stravinsky, and appears often in music for ballets and operas focusing on her abduction – continuously portrayed as the embodiment of spring and life, and always as a victim.
In 20th century art, the myth of Persephone remains a popular source of inspiration, and according to Bernstock, the myth is depicted through a more humanist approach, addressing current ‘social stresses’ (Bernstock, 1993, p. 154). Bernstock suggests that the prominence of the Rape of Persephone in 20th century art was due to the prevalence of depictions of violence and struggles in art at the time, alluding to negative attitudes surrounding facism and World War II. It is this context of social concern that has resulted in 20th century art limning the myth of Persephone in a dismal light, using the goddess’ abduction as a vehicle to entertain and resonate with the general population after the frustrations of World Wars I and II. The focus on death and Hades as a force of evil is perhaps in light of the heavy casualties experienced as a result of these wars in the 1900s, with the light and delicateness of Persephone a representation of the value of the women and children who suffered during this period. For example, a 20th century artwork, The Reaper (Miro, 1937) (see Fig 1), was made in response to the Spanish Civil War and is an example of post war protest art that condemns the cruelty, loss of life, and violence of war (Najmi, 2016). The title alludes to Hades – Hades was not a reaper, but was associated with death as King of the Underworld. Protest art made a political statement, and modernism was often traded for realism to protest against fascism and dictators – seen through other artists such as Renau and Aragon. This black and white dismal protest art demonstrates how Hades, and subsequently, death, was depicted in a post-war context, compared to pre-war art such as Maxfield Parrish’s peaceful painting of Proserpina (Parrish, 1908) (see Fig 2). This post-war context clearly portrays a disparity in the power dynamic and autonomy of the titular characters, as 20th century art and music uses the myth to entertain audiences and resonate with their fear and grief over Death through depictions of Hades, and the unfairness of innocent lives lost through the abduction and rape of Persephone.
21st Century Depictions – Postmodernism and Feminism
The 21st century context of postmodernism and feminism in popular culture reinterpreted the myth through literature and digital art, giving the titular characters more self autonomy and freedom of identity. Postmodernism is a 20th century movement generally characterised by realism, skepticism, and subjectivism. It includes discussion of the meaning of Truth, embraces reason and logic, and tries to explain nature, the social world, and human nature as a social construct (Duignan et al., 2019). In the 21st century, postmodernism focuses on the collective experience of an individual, centering around the human experience – which includes commentary about death, relationships, human rights, and conformity. Postmodernism has had a major impact on 21st century art, cinematography, and literature, especially when concerning reinterpreting classical mythology. Feminism is a belief that has gained worldwide momentum, focusing on economic, social, and political equality for female-identifying individuals (Brunell and Burkett, 2020). It centers around empowering females and promoting equality in all aspects of life, giving women freedom of identity and autonomy. Feminism is present in all areas of entertainment, including but not limited to literature, film and television, and art. While aspects of feminism can be seen thousands of years ago, it emerged most prominently after the Suffrage movement, influenced by the Enlightenment, with modern feminism rising circa 1848 during the Seneca Falls Convention (Rampton, 2008). The contexts of feminism and postmodernism on 21st century entertainment, have clearly impacted interpretations of the myth of Hades and Persephone.
21st century entertainment has allowed Persephone to be depicted as a powerful autonomous goddess, in control of her own life and choices. Hades has also been reinterpreted, morphing from a feared god of the dead to a benevolent, inevitable force who is morally ‘grey’ – that is, he is neither good nor evil, but a necessary part of the life cycle. Although this seems like a new concept compared to 20th century versions, this is also how the Greeks saw Hades in the original myth (Maurizio, 2015). It is likely his depictions in ancient festivals and myth as a cruel rapist and abductor were more for entertainment purposes as it was in the 20th century. By allowing Persephone to take on a more important and central role within her own myth in the 21st century compared to her objectification and submissive role as Hades’ lover in the 20th century, historians can see that she is becoming more prominently used in feminist literature to address female objectification and freedom of choice.
Persephone’s role in modern feminist theory is most evident through modern poetry and the 2018 Webtoon Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe, as the myth is retold through a feminist viewpoint with emphasis on female empowerment. Poetry includes Nikita Gill’s collection Conversations with Persephone and Persephone and Hades. Through her poetry, Gill demonstrates how Persephone has been reinterpreted in the 21st century as a strong, independent character who chose her own fate, “you saw that the ichor that resides in me/demanded its own throne”, “what Hades gave me was a crown” (Gill, 2018). Another example of poetry that presents Persephone as an autonomous individual is Daniella Michallen’s poem Persephone Speaks. Here, Michallen portrays how the myth of Persephone is used in feminist literature, owning both her sexuality and her choices, “I asked him for it…for the sin…I ran away…” (Michallen, 2017).
More recently, the website turned app ‘Webtoons’ has gained popularity as a platform for digital art that tells stories. Portrayed as a ‘webcomic’, Rachel Smythe’s Lore Olympus is a modern retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone (see Fig 3). While staying true to the myth, Smythe uses her platform and narrative to give new life to the story, empowering females and addressing topical issues that are still relevant to the myth – issues such as rape, abuse, and identity. Smythe uses Persephone as a vehicle to convey the value every person has, emphasising 21st-century postmodern values of the human experience through an ancient narrative. As well as using feminist values to empower Persephone as she embraces her sexual identity and autonomy, Smythe incorporates postmodern values in her interpretation of Hades. Similarly to the 1997 Disney film, Hades is depicted as synonymous with the colour blue. Unlike the film, Smythe’s contemporary 21st century webcomic embraces the character as a protagonist who is the perfect male feminist, giving Persephone more autonomy and power; Persephone finds power in Hades (Fletcher, 2019). This begs the question: do feminist reinterpretations truly give Persephone more self-autonomy and freedom, or do they allow Hades to take on a more minor role as a method of combatting toxic masculinity?
Why Context Is Significant
These contexts and examples are important when looking at how the entertainment industry has used the mythic narrative to explore the contexts of war, postmodernism, and feminism. Frauenfelder stipulates the importance of the entertainment industry, noting how entertainment not only allows classical myths to be used differently and studied differently in a more entertaining and interesting manner, but it allows the audience to recognise the profound effect that good stories can have on cultures (Frauenfelder, 2005, p. 210). Horbury sums the importance of entertainment as a vehicle for retelling classical mythology, as every retelling reveals changes in the relationship between the natural world and humans, specifically major shifts in social power (Horbury, 2015, p. 170). Horbury further notes how feminist theory in heroine television shapes Persephone (Horbury, 2015, p. 170). Hence, the Homeric Hymn 2 (to Demeter) has had a ‘profound effect’ on 20th and 21st society, and has been reinterpreted and reused to show changing ‘shifts in social power’. Entertainment and popular culture evidently use Persephone and Hades in various forms of art, music, film, and literature to explore social contexts. These reimaginings encourage and romanticise feminism, and how it allows females to gain self autonomy and independence. However, forms of entertainment can also be used to critique social contexts – seen in the 20th century’s critique of war and the loss of innocent lives. Thus, the myth of Hades and Persephone has been reinterpreted in the 20th and 21st century, used in entertainment and popular culture to both support and critique the social contexts the myth is shaped by.
As such, it is axiomatic that the myth of Hades and Persephone has been reinterpreted in a myriad of ways over the 20th and 21st century, and is prominently used in entertainment and popular culture, shaped by contexts such as war, postmodernism, and feminism. This is discernible through the evolution of Hades and Persephone, as Persephone gains more autonomy, power, and independence than her 20th century ‘damsel in distress’ depiction, and Hades becomes less feared and more benevolent in context of a new power dynamic. While the original myth was used to explain science and the changing seasons, 20th century art and music used the myth to critique and lament loss of life as a result of World War II, preserving the delicate image of Persephone as a victim with Hades as powerful and in control. In contrast, 21st century literature and digital art further reused the myth, using the modern context of postmodernism and feminism to change the power dynamic and give Persephone more self autonomy and independence. The entertainment industry during both centuries ultimately used these myths with their own contexts in mind, allowing the audience to engage with and relate to the material, not simply supporting modern contexts but also providing criticism of past and present social norms.
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