A Background Story for The Hollow Kingdom

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.


Black Forest waterfall


The Story of Persephone

Folktales of every culture describe a member of the "other" race seeking a bride. Often these girls are human, but they aren't always. In many tales, a human man captures a mermaid or some other magical girl and then forces her to marry him. She often escapes to her own culture in the end.

The most famous and elegant of these capture tales is the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. The Hollow Kingdom is not a retelling of this myth, but there are strong parallels between them. Here is a version of that myth so that readers can decide for themselves what similarities and differences exist between the two stories.

The world of the ancient Greeks was ruled by three great brothers: Zeus, the Thunder God, who held dominion over the sky; gray-haired Poseidon, who possessed the wide oceans; and Hades, who took the whole rocky earth for his kingdom and ruled over the Land of the Dead. While Zeus was supreme in the pantheon of gods, his brother Hades was pleased with his own choice: all the riches that could be mined belonged to him, and every mortal came under his power sooner or later. But it was true that the dark caves of the underworld were a depressing place, and not many of his fellow gods enjoyed his company.

The gloomy Hades watched the progress of his brothers with envy. Zeus had for his queen the Goddess of Wives herself, and he enjoyed the loving attention of many women. Poseidon, married to the gentle Amphitrite, had so many children that they filled the vast limits of the sea. Hades himself had no wife, but he had fallen in love with a girl who was unlike him in every way: Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, who made the grain ripen and the trees give fruit. Like one of her mother's plants, Persephone loved the sun and fresh air. She was always outside, picking flowers or dancing for the sheer joy of being alive.

Did Hades try to speak to Persephone? Probably not. He could have pointed out that it was from his earth that her flowers grew, but his dignity wouldn't allow him to chase after her. She was young, and he was much older: dour, dark, and strange. Most of the gods were a little afraid of him, and in all likelihood, Persephone would have avoided him at gatherings. Still, Hades was a royal god, one of the three rulers of the world. He deserved a queen, and he was determined to have exactly the one he wanted.

Persephone and her maidens were dancing one day in a bright, wind-swept meadow when the ground cracked open at their feet. Through the wide fissure sped four black horses pulling a chariot, the Lord of the Dead at the reins. He seized the frightened Persephone and carried her down into his own land as her companions scattered in terror. The crack in the earth closed up behind them, shutting out the light.

Hades conducted Persephone through his great, dim palace, where disembodied souls flickered like so many candle flames. He led her from one murky cave to another, proudly showing off all of his wealth and the remarkable features of his underground realm. Finally, he crowned her and placed her on an ebony throne as the shades of the dead rustled and whispered together. No one knows what the young girl thought as she sat there beside her grim husband, but the shock and grief must have been terrible.

Certainly her mother Demeter grieved for her. The goddess of growing things walked the earth as an old woman, and all the plants in the world began to die. Humans and beasts starved and prayed for help to the gods, and Zeus himself was forced to intervene. The ruler of the gods issued a decree: Hades must return the stolen girl so that her mother would once again produce the life-sustaining crops.

Angry and dismayed, Hades turned to his only friend, Hermes, the cleverest of the gods. It was Hermes who brought the souls of the dead to their destination, and it was Hermes who was to take Persephone back home. While her husband saw to the packing of farewell gifts worthy of his queen, Hermes walked with Persephone in her underground garden. As he distracted her with talk of the outside world, the trickster god picked a pomegranate and gave it to her. Persephone had never before been able to bring herself to eat the food of the dead, those offerings left by sad relatives on altars and at tombs. Now, hungry and excited, she ate six pomegranate seeds—and belonged forever to the Land of the Dead.

Once again, Zeus had to resolve the crisis, or all life on earth would have perished. He ruled that Demeter and Hades must share the unhappy girl. For six months of each year, Persephone lives with her mother while the crops grow and flowers bloom. And for six months, she lives with her husband Hades, bringing a touch of springtime to that sad dark realm below.


All webpage text copyright 2003-2014 by Clare B. Dunkle, unless attributed otherwise. All photos copyright 2003-2014 by Joseph R. Dunkle, unless attributed otherwise. You may make one print copy of any page on this site for private or educational use. You may quote the author using short excerpts from this website, provided you attribute the quote. You may use the photos in both print and virtual media to promote the author's books or events. All other copying or use of this website material, either photos or text, is forbidden without the express written consent of the author.