As the daughter of Ceres, and as the wife of Pluto, this goddess appears in a twofold aspect; as a beneficent deity, virginal and smiling,—and as the queen of death and of hell, stern, pale-faced and sable-robed. Her name has been variously interpreted, some say it signifies '' one who showers food;'' according to other authorities it means "light-destroyer," or "death-bearer," (from phero, to bear, and phonos, death).
The story of the rape of Persephone was a favorite theme among the ancient poets. Light-hearted and merry, the youthful daughter of Ceres was gathering flowers in a meadow, when suddenly Pluto appeared in his chariot drawn by four coal-black horses; he strikes the earth with his two-pronged sceptre; an abyss opens and he disappears with the wildly crying maiden, who now becomes the queen of the nether world.
Torch in hand, her despairing mother seeks for her beloved in every land. Distressed by grief, she forgets her function as fructifier of the earth; year after year no harvests appear, until finally Zeus, to save perishing mankind, commands Pluto to yield up Persephone. But as the latter, before her departure from Hades, had eaten some seeds of the pomegranate, she is bound to return for a time to the realms of Pluto, like Eurydice in the story of Orpheus. It was finally arranged that she is to spend three (according to other accounts, six) months with her mother above the ground, but the rest of the year with her gloomy consort below. Hence, when each year Persephone reappears on earth, all nature rejoices with Ceres, and gladly yields its increase; while, when again she disappears, the skies weep and all nature mourns during the dreary winter months.
As the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and plentiful harvests, Persephone clearly represents, in the natural sense, the coming of spring and renewed vegetation. Her emblems, in this connection, are ears of corn and a cornucopia, and as such she is often depicted as the consort of Bacchus. But as the melancholy queen of Hades she represents winter, and she is now depicted as partly veiled, holding a pomegranate in one hand and a torch in the other. A black cock is also among her emblems.
Persephone, as a maiden and the harbinger of spring, fitly represents the youthful natural affection of truth, while Ceres, the goddess of harvests, represents good works, or natural good in the Church universal. In this light, the story of the rape of Persephone becomes the story of the Ancient Church, and of every Church, in its decline, when the affection of truth is separated from good works by means of Pluto, the merely literal understanding of the Word,—a process which we may see illustrated in the Roman Catholic Church, where external good works remain, though deprived of the affection of truth, the love of spiritual things. In this Church the clergy have usurped for themselves the wine of the Sacrament and also the reading and interpretation of the Word, just as Pluto violently carried away Persephone, while to the people is left the bread alone, and external good works as the sole means of salvation, (Ceres left alone). As in the Christian Church, so also in the Ancient Church, this spiritual rape was committed by those "plutonics" who are represented by Ham and the sons of Ham, the Church of Babylon.
The ever-recurring reappearance of Persephone represents, on the other hand, the fact that the affection of truth, or the love of spiritual things, is bound to reassert itself in the Church after every state of spiritual winter, as it did in the Christian Church at the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, as it has done in the New Church after the establishment of the Academy, as it does periodically in the life of every regenerating man. "For during all the days of the earth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.'' (Gen. viii: 22.)
As the queen of Hades, seated beside her husband upon an ebony throne, with her face veiled like Isis, and in her hand the pomegranate and the torch, Persephone would seem to signify, in a good sense, the Divine Mercy which tempers the stern decrees which would be meted out to all, were Truth alone to reign. Nevertheless, justice must be done: the good rewarded and the evil punished, as symbolized by the pomegranate and the torch. The cock, also, signifies judgment. As Pluto, here, is identical with Osiris, so his wife, Persephone, is identical with Isis, the veiled goddess. One Greek writer, Archemachus, in fact identifies her with the Egyptian goddess. The veil may refer to the inscrutable decrees of Providence which judges not as we would judge.
In the opposite sense, however, Persephone when separated from her mother, and as the queen of hell, strikingly represents the state of the affection of truth when separated from good works and conjoined only with the fallacies of the- merely literal sense of the Word,—a state of faith alone, gloomy and forbidding, "light-destroying" and "death bearing" to the souls of men.