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Hades and Persephone: A Greek Tragedy
On second thought, perhaps seizing Persephone and throwing her screaming, thrashing body into his chariot hadn’t been the most romantic move. But what was he supposed to have done? Even Zeus, King of the Gods, never actually asked his nymphs and princesses and priestesses if they wanted to be his latest conquest, just carried them off in the guise of one animal or other. At least Hades had kept his humanoid form while he hid in the tall, twitching grass of the meadow and watched Persephone play with her nymph companions. She had picked flowers with a bad attempt at sedateness, but she had also abruptly leapt up and danced in an ecstasy of joy, singing one of the women’s spring songs in a strong but tuneless voice. And all the while her wild black curls streamed unbound down her back and her gorgeously wide mouth laughed.
She had been so beautiful, so full of light and mischief and happiness, so unlike anything in the Underworld where he was both ruler and prisoner. And suddenly he had wanted her, needed her, needed her but most of all needed her happiness. He wrenched himself back to the Underworld, and all the while he was brushing down his black steeds and readying his silver chariot for the dramatic kidnapping he was quickly formulating, he was telling himself fiercely that he deserved her—that every other god, even deformed Hephaestus, had a wife or lover—that no matter how afraid she was at first, she would grow to love him.
Right now, while she stood glaring at him from across his black marble throne room, that last part didn’t seem at all likely.
“Take me back up,” she said, again, her thin, determined voice echoing off the cavernous ceiling. Her screams and tears had stopped sometime during their chariot ride through the misty Underworld, past a snarling Cerberus and the dull, staring eyes of the shades of the dead. Now her face was pale and set, its luminous beauty from earlier in the meadow chased away by her anger and—that shrinking, cringing thing he saw in her shining black eyes—could that be fear? “I’m not some river nymph, I’m the daughter of Demeter and Zeus himself. They’ll find me in a few hours, no matter what you do, but if you take me back up right now, maybe Zeus won’t imprison you in Tartarus for the rest of the Iron Age.”
“No,” he said, again. He didn’t tell her that the fact that Zeus wasn’t already here to recover Persephone meant that he was tacitly giving his brother permission to seduce his daughter. “You—you are to be my queen.”
She scoffed, again, but this time the sound had the hint of a sob in it.
Weeks later, that was still all they talked about. She demanded to be taken back up to the world of men, he would not allow it on the grounds that she was to be his queen, she refused to eat, he stomped off to stroll alone by the Lethe. Hades had never had anyone to fight with before—the shades and Charon took his orders without question, Cerberus barely dared to growl at him—and at first the fighting was exciting. It made the ichor pound in his ears and his stomach twist and grind like he had drunk sour nectar, and the galvanizing friction of will against will, mind against mind was a totally new experience for him. But as Persephone’s accusing silences lengthened and her fast continued, the fighting grew very tiring very quickly.
Even in the Underworld, Hades received snatches of news from the world above, news he was careful to keep secret from Persephone. Persephone’s mother Demeter was searching the whole earth for her and had refused to let any crops grow until Persephone was found. All mankind was starving to death and Olympus was overwhelmed with their sacrifices and prayers, but Hades couldn’t bring himself to care much. Anyway, the more humans that died, the more work Persephone had. In one of her rare lapses from silence she had complained to him that she was bored, and so he had offered her the job of welcoming new souls to the Underworld. To his surprise, she had accepted. To his even greater surprise, she was good at it, calming the more hysterical shades with one imperious word and leading the wrongdoers off to the Fields of Punishment with a dark, foreboding look that only served to increase their panic. Sometimes she even seemed as though she was enjoying herself. She never laughed, not like she had in the meadow anyway, but once or twice she smiled wanly, and each time she did Hades felt as though one of Zeus’s lightning bolts had passed through him.
And then, one day when they were sitting together in Hades’s throne room and playing a nice game of Petteia, one day when he thought they had made progress, she ruined everything.
“I want to visit my mother,” she said suddenly, scattering all her white pebbles—not uncertainly, like a good mortal wife asking an impossible favor from her dread sovereign husband, but confidently and proudly, a goddess insisting on her just due from her worshipper.
His heart sank, and he blurted, “No! I won’t let you!”
He immediately regretted it. Persephone’s eyebrows knitted together and her black eyes flared.
“I don’t understand you,” she said finally, her voice tight and strained with anger. “You say all you want is for me to be happy, but then you forbid me from seeing my mother—”
“I do want you to be happy!”
Her voice rose, almost to a wail. “But only with you, is that it? I can only be happy with you?”
She was right, but when she said it like that it made him sound so callous, so heartless. “But I—I—I—I love you!” he said.
He had meant to make this declaration in the pomegranate garden where she liked to walk, and he had meant to say it more eloquently, and he had meant to make it sound as though his love was just a passing diversion for him and not as though the mere thought of her leaving him made him feel like Prometheus’s eagle was devouring his liver. But the words were said now.
With a snort, Persephone dismissed them. Hades could almost hear them shattering on the cold marble floor. “You don’t love me,” she said, cruelly. “You love who you think I am.”
As the weeks passed she grew harder and colder, and her beauty grew harder and colder as well. The awed shades of the dead whispered amongst themselves, calling her “grim Persephone” and “the Iron Queen”. Hades watched her transformation with mounting fear. The light and the mischief he had fallen in love with were evaporating like morning dew, and what was left was a tortured, frustrated, lonely being who reminded him all too much of himself.
When Hermes came, Hades was expecting him. He already knew what Hermes was there to tell him—that Zeus was finally going to intervene, was going to force him to give Persephone up, that Hermes was there to escort her back to Earth. Hades had to give in to the King of the Gods, but he could not let his brother take Persephone from him.
“You still haven’t eaten anything since you came,” he said, not able to look at her as he handed her a pomegranate from the garden where she had walked so often.
She gave him a tentative smile, by his count only her seventh in all the time since he had brought her to the Underworld. He tried not to look too ecstatic as she ate six pomegranate seeds.
She returned to him six months later, as he knew she would, as he knew she would have to.
“I hate you!” she screamed, throwing a painted amphora at him. It crashed to the ground in front of him, thousands of jagged shards all that was left of what had once been something beautiful. “You’ve chained me here for six months out of every year, and on top of that you’ve stolen my life up there! I used to love the sun and the flowers, but now they look too bright and too innocent, and I used to think my mother was protective, but now she’s just clingy! I can’t live with you, and now I can’t live without you!”
“But I thought—after six months—you’d—be happier—like in the meadow—” Hades stammered.
“Well, you thought wrong,” she said.
And as Hades watched, horrorstruck at what he had created, what he had killed, the last piece of the laughing girl in the meadow died.