Hades and Persephone: Stockholm syndrome, or rare romance?

Analysis of a mythical marriage

Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of life and fertility, who lived forever in the light spring of her life. Her mother never let her out of her sight in the green fields of Olympus - but she was watched by another, from another place. Hades, Lord of the Underworld, had become besotted with her. One day, as Persephone tumbled loosely over hills and into the Vale of Nysa, she picked a flower - and suddenly the ground erupted underneath her. Immediately, she was spirited away into the Underworld and soon married to Hades. After she was tricked into eating a pomegranate seed, she was bound to the Underworld for half the year and lived above with her mother the other half. Yet he showered her with gifts, love and praise, and after a while, she found she began to like Hades. With her mother, she knew contentment - but with him, she was Queen of the Dead.

This myth seems, on first glance, disturbing. Upon closer study, it’s still disturbing – but more interesting. And it’s even arguable that Hades and Persephone had a true romance – a rarity in the world of the Roman gods. On the one hand, Hades did essentially stalk her, kidnap her, then trick her (and I’ll talk about whether Stockholm syndrome was the nature of their relationship) – but in some ways, unlikely as it sounds, Hades was a rather kind, good husband.

Hades, instead of approaching Persephone, seemed to think it was necessary to swallow her into the world of the dead, having loved her from a distance for a long time. It was probably partly because of Demeter’s extreme protectiveness of Persephone (which might have been why she was partly happy to leave). But did Hades have ill intentions for her? Perhaps it’s a testament to his love that he was, in fact, blinded by it, and didn’t understand how else to get to her. However, although he is very kind to her, showering her with gifts and affection, there is something malevolent in the deceit of the pomegranate seeds. His purposes, whilst not trying to harm her, are selfish in trying to keep her. Manipulation – which his presents arguably were too – could have skewed her. It is notable that the agreement about Persephone’s future was created between Zeus and Hades, and neither mother nor daughter were asked.

Additionally, whilst Demeter loved Persephone, her love was also quite fearful and defensive, not letting her daughter go out of her sight or even grow up. So, in this interpretation, once the deal was struck, Persephone was essentially being chivvied between two controlling forces in her life, orchestrated by her father, Zeus, who didn’t really care about her. She gets a tragic destiny in some ways- depending on how unhealthy their relationship was, which I’ll examine.

Some have theorised that their relationship was a mythological example of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological effect (not technically a syndrome) where the captive paradoxically develops a love for their captor. But to properly understand whether this was a case, look at the symptoms:

Stockholm syndrome is foremost defined by “a severely uneven power relationship”. Yet Persephone rules the Underworld as Queen, alongside Hades. He is willing to share power, with her, and isn’t overcontrolling of her: he let her go for half the year on request, not because he had to. And if you explore the power dynamic further, it seems that Hades is as much emotionally in her power as she is physically in his, as he must truly prove himself to her by wooing her for months with adoration and presents. However, by contrast, this could show that she was being manipulated into what she thought was love. Thus, the power relationship is debatable – but in my opinion, she showed her own mind (having affairs) and was not his mental captive, which is important.

The next symptoms are “the inability to want to leave” and thirdly, “negative feelings towards their friends and family” – Persephone doesn’t fit this, as she agrees to leave every year to be with her mother and chooses to come back. Both Hades and her mother do truly love her… but as I discussed, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s happy with either, or that she’s entirely complicit in the bargain made about her. Another symptom is that “in the absence of violence, the captive is disproportionately grateful and happy”- yet it took Hades months of wooing and overflowing kindness for Persephone to start to love him. Therefore whilst Persephone’s happiness is arguable, I still don’t think it’s Stockholm syndrome. Persephone doesn’t exhibit the classic blind faith in Hades typical of Stockholm syndrome: when Hades cheats on her, she cruelly punishes his lover, turning her (Minthe) into a plant, hence the mint plant.

About the reading of the story: the myth can be read many ways, and I used quite a modern reading where they do seem to fall in love. Some versions show Persephone freely wandering into the Underworld and choosing to stay. Other interpretations are far less forgiving of Hades, making a less interesting debate… I think it’s interesting that whilst the prevailing interpretation since the Middle Ages has been that Hades was evil and violent in abducting Persephone and portrays it as abduction, modern reception is surprisingly in favour of their relationship, portraying it as Persephone finding maturity and independence from her mother. However, it is in most implied that Persephone “grew a liking” for Hades, and I think whilst he was in almost every interpretation creepy and unjustified to varying degrees, their relationship never exhibits symptoms of Stockholm syndrome.

Eleanor VI