The Enigmatic Persephone

WHERE IS PERSEPHONE?

The first time I laid eyes on Persephone, I had no idea as to her history or the significance she would hold for me in time to come. I was in Berlin and the antiquities collection of the famous Pergamon Museum was on my list of cultural must-sees. Seven years later I would arrive in Locri, Persephone’s hometown in present-day Calabria, with just a suitcase in hand to teach English to the descendants of her disciples. 

Somehow, another seven years would slip by… And then this past autumn I decided it was high time to see her again, but with a much different eye.

I wasn’t exactly sure where in Berlin she was. Part of the Pergamon was closed for restoration, and some antiquities had been moved to the Altes Museum next door. I walked into the Pergamon first and asked at the ticket and information counters. “No, sorry. Never heard of her.” The same responses at the entrance and in the bookshop of the Altes Museum, which I thought was odd for such an important marble statue. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their classical antiquities collection, so I bought a ticket and entered.

PERSEPHONE FOUND?

The hallowed halls of the neoclassical edifice host a stunning exhibition of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. It was difficult not to linger in the face of such masterpieces, but I pushed on to determine if and where Persephone was on display. And then, turning into the end wing, there she was, sitting in the middle of the exhibit space, perched on her throne, sitting straight and tall, and exuding a calm dignity as she beckoned with her half smile.

The Author with Persephone, Berlin

The Author with Persephone, Berlin

I was clearly in the presence of a goddess. Her official museum title was, “Enthroned Deity, So-Called Goddess from Tarentum.” Ah, therein lay the confusion. No wonder the staff wasn’t aware of a Persephone in their midst. One had to read further for any mention of her. Later, looking more closely at the museum’s website, I would see that she was chosen as one of only eight objects to feature in their online image gallery, with the same designation in German, Thronende “Göttin von Tarent.”

The location of origin, however, was given as Tarentum (ancient Taranto in Apulia) or Locri, with an acquisition date of 1915. The mystery continued with regard to her identity: “The enthroned woman represents a goddess but the lack of attributes does not allow for a definite identification. Persephone, Hera or Aphrodite were discussed as possible choices. It can be assumed that she once held an offering bowl in her right hand. Most certainly, the monumental statue served as a cult image in a sanctuary in Southern Italy.” The museum appeared to have it narrowed down to two ancient cities about 228 miles apart by today’s roadways.

LOCRI EPIZEPHYRII OR TARENTUM?

In Calabria the prevailing theory of the statue’s history is that it came from Locri (Locri Epizephyrii was the official name of the ancient city) and was illegally smuggled out by sea with its first stop being Taranto, thus the discrepancy. After my recent viewing of the statue, I ran across a book written in 2014 by an archeologist from Taranto that claimed to have the definitive story. Angelo Conte’s La dea del sorriso (The Smiling Goddess) says it all with the subtitle La Persefone o Afrodite dei tarantini (Persephone or Aphrodite of the Tarantino People). In a nutshell, Conte doesn’t believe a Calabrian eyewitness account of the statue’s presumed discovery in Locri and he asserts that in Taranto the statue was found in a deep well, which he concludes would never have been a transitory hiding place for such a heavy object.

Conte’s theories on the subject were challenged at the close of 2015 by a Calabrian writer. In the wonderfully entitled Sulle tracce di Persefone, due volte rapita (On the Trail of Persephone, Twice Kidnapped) Giuseppe Macrì reiterates the case for Locri and backs it up with an opposing interpretation of the documentation regarding the course of events while also emphasizing the special connection Persephone had with the Locrian people. So in addition to the intricacies of the statue’s 1905 discovery and concealment that were revealed 61 years later by an aged farmworker who had taken an oath of secrecy as a young man and wanted to unburden himself of the archeological secret at the end of his life, the question as to just who this figure represents is also integral to the case.

WHO IS PERSEPHONE?

The daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest, Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to his underworld where she was offered fruit. Although she only partook of several pomegranate seeds, she was obliged to remain in the infernal region for eternity. Her mother Demeter reacted by initiating a long, cold winter, depriving the mortals of their mild weather and rich harvests. Zeus intervened and considering that Persephone hadn’t actually eaten a whole piece of fruit, but only some seeds, it was determined that she would remain in the underworld for half the year and in the spring return to earth as the personification of vegetation, and of course, to be with her mother.

Pinax of Persephone and Hades from Locri

Pinax of Persephone and Hades from Locri

This myth explaining the alternation of the seasons was important for the Greeks and was brought to Southern Italy with the establishment of the colonies and cities known as Greater Greece. Interestingly, Locri Epizephyrii had a particular affinity for Persephone and had a major sanctuary dedicated to the goddess. In addition to small statuettes of Persephone and other votive donations discovered in the area, the sanctuary also contained a treasure trove of what are known as pinakes or terracotta tablets with bas-relief illustrations that represent the cult’s myth and rituals. Unique in the Greek world, the pinakes were donated to the sanctuary by young maidens ready for marriage in the hope of receiving Persephone’s protection during the transition into womanhood. Mostly created in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, the pinakes show scenes of daily life with people, animals and objects of both mythical and cultural importance. The kidnapping of Persephone is the scene most often portrayed.

Does this prove that the statue is from Locri? No, however, a monumental Persephone such as the statue in the Altes Museum would certainly have been in keeping with the Locri sanctuary dedicated to this goddess.

PERSEPHONE OR APHRODITE?

In addition to all the intrigue with regard to the statue’s origin, place of discovery and its eventual path to Berlin, the goddess’ identification has been deemed by some to be uncertain. Although the marble has traditionally been referred to as Persephone, a proposal of Aphrodite has also been put forth. In order to fit in this role, however, the more familiar goddess of love would have to tend more towards the stately lady who presides over marriage and a young girl’s passage to adulthood. A bit like Locri’s Persephone?

At a distance of almost 2,500 years, an ancient culture’s concept can get lost in modern translation. The mysterious goddess dates from 470-450 BC.

Persephone, Altes Museum, Berlin

Persephone, Altes Museum, Berlin

She is still as elegant as ever, despite her sufferance of unspeakable damage by disreputable handlers in the years after her discovery. Ill-treatments include having had her head chopped off as well as an attempt to separate her body from the chair. She sits as though not bothered by the loss of her forearms.

The soft curves of her attractive, regal physique are draped with elaborately detailed vestments. Her underdress is overlaid with a garment that is wrapped around her shoulders and finishes in natural waves at its hemline resting on her knees. A little remaining color on the back of the chair hint at the brightly painted environment of these ancients.

Her archaic smile denotes poise in a calm face framed by crimped hair that flows in long tresses over her chest. Holes in her ears and her crown indicate that she would also have been adorned with metal jewelry.

Persephone is nothing short of spectacular.

PERSEPHONE IN SOUTHERN ITALY?

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’m convinced that the statue represents Persephone and that her home is Locri. To me, it makes sense. I believe the old man who came out of the woodwork, urged by his parish priest to clear his conscience. But long before he came forth with his story, there were strong indications in favor of Persephone and Locri Epizephyrii. And what would the original motive have been, to have mentioned Locri, if it wasn’t somehow involved in the story?

Bust of Persephone

Bust of Persephone

As it stands, and as it will surely remain, Persephone holds court in Berlin. The statue, which sits just shy of 5-feet tall, is a pivotal piece of the collection, listed as a “highlight” on the museum’s website and described as “taking centre stage” in the section on the Greeks in Southern Italy. The Germans paid dearly for the statue that was smuggled out of Italy 100 years ago – the equivalent of 150 million Euros today. Without the “so-called” confusion of it all, however, the “So-Called Goddess from Tarentum” would certainly have a name and a place of her own. Or at least, a name and an origin proudly displayed on her accompanying label.

She still means a lot to the people of Locri. As a matter of fact, it was a middle school English student who first made me aware of her connection with the area. She wasn’t just a beautiful statue in a museum for him; she was Persephone from Locri. There was no “so-called” about it.


Read more about Calabria from ancient to modern times in Calabria: The Other Italy, my award-winning, nonfiction book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot.

More on ancient art on my blogposts Reflection on the Riace Bronzes, Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria and Monasterace Museum and Archeological Park and of more recent creations on The Palazzo della Cultura, Contemporary Art in the Catanzaro Park of Biodiversity, MuSaBa: Not Just a Museum and An Artist in Amantea.

Watch a video of this blogpost on my YouTube channel: Persephone Video.

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Comments 9

  1. A VERY interesting article! I, of course, also think that she is a goddess from Locri!
    Nice picture of the woman beside her …….. and SHE, thankfully, has arms!

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  2. Hi. I’m the author of “Sulle tracce di Persefone, due volte rapita”. Thank you for the “wonderfully”!

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      Yes, it most certainly does. And there’s nothing like seeing such a majestic statue to inspire you to want to find out more. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  3. Rather late in coming to this, but glad I did because the statue is indeed beautiful. In support of the Locrian point of origin, I would note the similarity between the Locrian pinax of Persephone & Hades and this statue: similar coiffeurs, and even a similarity (in reverse) of the elevation of her arms. It would make sense that the pinax image would have been copied from the shrine’s statue. In the pinax Persephone holds a rooster (?) in her lowered right hand and what I take to be shoots of wheat in her raised left hand. Hades holds a bowl and another branch I can’t identify. Rather than a bowl perhaps the statue once held such items (and maybe was paired with a similarly posed statue of Hades?). It makes sense, too, that the reportedly matrilineal Locrians would have had a special devotion to this goddess intervened to extricate her (for six months) from her rapist “husband!”

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      Good eye on the hairstyle and I would image that if Persephone’s chair hadn’t been so damaged, there may have been a similarity, as well. The bird is indeed a rooster, which represents fertility, and the wheat, the changing of the season. You make good points – thanks for your contribution.

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