I’ve been on an Ancient Greek kick lately and I’m realizing something I think is important we all realize about these historical stories.
I know that’ll be obvious to some people, but I also think it needs to be said. We view these stories — whether Greek, Egyptian, Chinese or Scottish — through a modern lens and with a modern bias.
We are presented with these stories as though there’s only one version because that’s what we’re used to. But folktales are more complicated because there are fewer written records.
Greece is funky. In most history classes, we’re told one version of Greece that makes it seem like there was one unified country when there wasn’t.
Modern Greece included various city-states that sometimes got along and sometimes were fighting.
That is a very gross oversimplification of hundreds of years of history.
The image most people have of Greece — as a society of innovation, home of great philosophers and launching pad for democracy — was specifically Athens.
Now, how that relates to the stories is that these city-states were close together with a similar enough religion that many had the same stories. However, they’re not exactly the same.
So, the world has several versions of these stories floating around.
That got even more complicated when the stories were translated to English, because you have multiple translations.
The gist of the stories seem to be the same, or at least similar, and it’s just the details that are different.
But there’s one with drastic differences between versions of the story and it frankly bothers me: the marriage of Hades and Persephone.
The version of this story I heard growing up, and seemingly the most popular version these days, does not build Persephone up and paints Hades in a very negative light.
Persephone is the goddess of spring, Hades is the god of the underworld, where he’s largely left alone. One day, he sees her walking through the gardens, thinks she’s the most beautiful person he’s ever seen and promptly kidnaps her to the underworld so she can be his.
The book I read growing up had a very vivid image of Persephone screaming and reaching for the sky while Hades holds her in his chariot and they head into the underworld.
Her mom Demeter gets depressed without Persephone, nature wilts and Zeus gets worried.
He tells Hades to return Persephone, but at this point she has accidentally eaten six pomegranate seeds which are supposed to tie her to the underworld.
They compromise that she’ll spend six months of the year in the underworld and the rest with her mom. This is why we have winter.
Now, this shows Persephone not having any influence over her own life and Hades as this villain.
While that’s a valid translation, there’s another version of the story that I wish was more popular for the young women reading the story.
It hits the same beats, however, the context is different.
Hades doesn’t kidnap her in this version. Rather, they’ve been talking for some time and Persephone is miserable in her life. He helps her leave an unhealthy situation and brings her somewhere she can flourish.
Persephone is the queen of the underworld and has a lot of power in that position. They rule as equals.
It still upsets Demeter and that creates complicated situations.
When Persephone finds out what’s going on, she makes the conscious decision to eat the pomegranate seeds to tether herself to this place where she feels empowered.
Even after Zeus says she has to return to her mother, back into an unhealthy situation where she isn’t happy, she still is tied to the underworld and has to be allowed to return there.
Rather than painting Persephone as a damsel in distress and Hades as a senseless villain, this version shows her as an empowered young woman who finds a way out of a situation where she’s unhappy/ Hades is a caring man who loves her for who she is.
Other stories about them actually show Hades as arguably the best husband in the Greek pantheon.
Regardless, I think this second version has a better message for its readers.
It tells young women they are in charge of their lives and can decide for themselves. It tells young men they can’t just kidnap somebody because she’s attractive.
Finally, it tells people who are in unhealthy situations it’s OK to ask for help and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about doing what’s right for themselves.
While both versions are steeped in history and valid interpretations, I wish we heard the second one more often because it has a better message.
Michael Shine is a contributing writer for the Daily American Republic.