Master of Arts in Art History (M.A.)
Type of Paper/Work
Vanessa A. Rousseau
In Greek myth, Persephone is Queen of the Underworld and daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. In my qualifying paper, I will argue that Persephone’s unique position as Queen of the Underworld allows her to achieve a state analogous to heroic status, a status for which I will introduce the term heroess to describe her unique position. The term “hero” in Greek describes a mortal or mortal-divine male who achieves kleos (fame) by sacrificing himself for his community, usually through death in battle, and who is commemorated in song and ritual. The feminized term “heroine” is not quite appropriate to describe an analogous status for a female figure, as the root term signifies the subject has ended their heroic journey in death. The women who do sacrifice themselves for their community, like Alcestis or the daughters of Erechtheus, do not have triumphs like heroes, nor are they typically the subject of cults, further making heroine problematic as a term to apply to women. Furthermore, Persephone is unique in being a goddess who symbolically dies by spending time in the underworld, but can never physically die since she is an immortal goddess. However, she has sacrificed a normative life for humanity and returns from the dead, deserving heroic accolades. In my paper, I will describe Persephone’s atypical life, symbolic death, and cultic following to explore what the equivalent of heroic status for a woman would be in the ancient Greek world and how Persephone might be a model for a heroess, someone who triumphs while sacrificing herself for the community. Through my writing, I hope to help others understand more about Persephone’s journey towards heroism and how this is a unique status in Greek myth among gods and mortals that was appealing to Greek women.
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Gillette, Gabriella, "The Problem of the Heroine: Persephone as “Hero”?" (2021). Art History Master's Qualifying Papers. 50.