1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Proserpine

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22255121911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 22 — ProserpineJames George Frazer and an anonymous author

PROSERPINE (Proserpina), the Latin form of Persephone,[1] a Greek goddess, daughter of Zeus and the earth-goddess Demeter. In Greek mythology Demeter and Proserpine were closely associated, being known together as the two goddesses, the venerable or august goddesses, sometimes as the great goddesses. Proserpine herself was commonly known as the daughter (Core), sometimes as the first-born. As she was gathering flowers with her playmates in a meadow, the earth opened and Pluto, god of the dead, appeared and carried her off to be his queen in the world below.[2] This legend was localized in various places, as at Eleusis, Lerna, and “ that fair field of Enna ” in Sicily. Torch in hand, her sorrowing mother sought her through the wide world, and finding her not she forbade the earth to put forth its increase. So all that year not a blade of corn grew on the earth, and men would have died of hunger if Zeus had not persuaded Pluto to let Proserpine go. But before he let her go Pluto made her eat the seed of a pomegranate, and thus she could not stay away from him for ever.[3] So it was arranged that she should spend two-thirds (according to later authors, one-half) of every year with her mother and the heavenly gods, and should pass the rest of the year with Pluto beneath the earth.[4] There can be little doubt that this is a mythological expression for the growth of vegetation in spring and its disappearance in autumn. According to Theopompus there was a Western people who actually called the spring Proserpine. As wife of Pluto, she sent spectres, ruled the ghosts, and carried into effect the curses of men. The lake of Avernus, as an entrance to the infernal regions, was sacred to her. From the head of a dying person Proserpine was supposed to cut a lock of hair which had been kept sacred and unshorn through life.[5] She was sometimes identified with Hecate. On the other hand in her character of goddess of the spring she was honoured with flower-festivals in Sicily and at Hipponium in Italy. Sicily was a favourite haunt of the two goddesses, and ancient tradition affirmed that the whole island was sacred to them. The Sicilians claimed to be the first on whom Demeter had bestowed the gift of corn, and hence they honoured the two goddesses with many festivals. They celebrated the festival of Demeter when the corn began to shoot, and the descent of Proserpine when it was ripe. At Cyare, a fountain near Syracuse which Pluto made to spring up when he carried off his bride, the Syracusans held an annual festival in the course of which bulls were sacrificed by being drowned in the water. At Cyzicus also, in Asia Minor, bulls were sacrificed to Proserpine. Demeter and Proserpine were worshipped together by the Athenians at the greater and less Eleusinian festivals, held in autumn and spring respectively. In the Eleusinian mysteries Proserpine no doubt played an important part. One Greek writer, Achemachus, identified Proserpine with the Egyptian Isis.[6] At Rome Proserpine was associated with Ceres (the Roman representative of Demeter) in the festival of the Cerealia (April 12 to 19), she was represented as the wife of Dis Pater (the Roman Pluto), and was sometimes identified with the native Latin goddess Libera. The pomegranate was Proserpine's symbol, and the pigeon and cock were sacred to her. Her votaries abstained from the flesh of domestic fowls, fish, beans, pomegranates and apples. In works of art she appears with a cornucopia or with ears of corn and a cock.[7] The regular form of her name in Greek was Persephone, but various other forms occur: Phersephone, Persephassa, Phersephassa, Pherrephatta, &c., to explain which different etymologies were invented. Corresponding to Proserpine as goddess of the dead is the old Norse goddess Hel (Gothic Halja), whom Saxo Grammaticus calls Proserpine.

See L. Preller, Demeter und Persephone (1837); R. Foerster, Der Raub und die Rückkehr der Persephone (1874); A. Zimmermann, De Proserpinae raptu et reditu (1882); J. A. Overbeck, “Demeter and Kore” in Griechische Kunstmythologie, ii. (1878).  (J. G. Fr.; X.) 

  1. Some, however, regard Proserpina as a native Latin form, not borrowed from the Greek, and connected with proserpere, meaning the goddess who aided the germination of the seed.
  2. The story is reminiscent of the old form of marriage by capture.
  3. The idea that persons who have made their way to the abode of the dead can return to the upper world if they have not tasted the food of the dead appears elsewhere, as in New Zealand (R. Taylor, New Zealand, pp. 233, 271).
  4. Hymn to Demeter; Ovid, Fasti, iv. 419; Metam. v. 385.
  5. Aen., iv. 698 seq. It appears to have been a Greek custom to cut a lock of hair from a dead man's head, and hang it outside of the house door, in token that there was a corpse in the house. At least this seems a fair inference from Eurip. Alc., 75, 76, 101–104. The lock so cut may have been that which was kept sacred to the gods and unshorn (Etym. Mag., s.v. άπεσκολυμμένος). For examples of hair dedicated to gods, see Il. xxiii. 141 seq.; Plut., Thes. 5; Paus. viii. 20, 3. In Tibet a lama (priest) is called in to cut off some hairs from the head of a dying person, in order that his soul may escape through the top of his head, which is deemed an essential condition of a good transmigration (Horace de la Penna, in Bogle and Manning's Travels in Tibet, ed. C. R. Markham, 1876). We can hardly doubt that the intention of the Graeco-Roman custom was similar. In modern Greece the god of death, Charos, is supposed to draw the soul out of the body, and if a man resists the Arachobites believe that Charos slits open his breast (B. Schmidt, Volksleben der Neugriechen, 1871, p. 228). There are other instances of incisions made in the body of a dying person to allow his soul to escape (cf. A. Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte, 1860, ii. 342). The custom probably dates from the times when death in battle was the usual death. In the legend of Nisus and Scylla there is a trace of the custom which was still observed in classical times in the sacrifice of animals. The practice of cutting off the hair of the dead prevailed in India, though it does not appear in the Vedas (Monier-Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, p. 281). We are reminded of the practice ofg the Pawnees and other North-American Indians, who shaved the head with the exception of one lock (the scalp-lock), which was removed by a victorious enemy (Catlin, North American Indians, ii. 24). The Sandwich Islanders also cut a lock from a slain foe (W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, 1834, iv. 159).
  6. Others regarded her as originally a moon-goddess.
  7. As the wife of Hades she was represented with the insignia of royalty and a torch.