Proserpina, the Queen of the Underworld

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Proserpina is the Roman version of the Greek goddess Persephone or Kore (maiden).

The name may come from the Latin word proserpere (“to emerge”) to mean the growth of grain. She was originally an agrarian goddess. She is also identified with the goddess Libera. Proserpine was the daughter of Ceres. She was abducted by Pluto while picking flowers on the shores of Lake Pergusa in Enna and dragged on his chariot; there she became Pluto’s bride and queen of the Underworld. Her cult in Rome was introduced alongside that of Dis Pater (likened to Hades), in 249 BC. The Tarentine Games, so named after a location in the field of Mars, the Tarentum, were then celebrated in their honor.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

The Rape of Proserpine, by Luca Giordano
The Rape of Proserpine, by Luca Giordano

Towards the close of the Second Punic War, when rivalry between Rome’s lower and upper social groups, crop failures, and periodic hunger were believed to be evidence of divine anger brought on by Roman impiety, Proserpina was introduced from southern Italy as part of an official religious policy. The Aventine temple of Ceres housed the new cult circa 205 BC. Greek priestesses of a particular ethnicity were chosen to serve Proserpina and Ceres as their “Mother and Maiden.”

Proserpina was referred to as the queen of the underworld, the spouse of Rome’s ruler of the underworld, Dis pater, and Ceres’ daughter in the Roman cult of Mother and Maiden. The agricultural cycle, seasonal death and rebirth, devout daughterhood, and maternal care were all central to the cult’s activities, mythological structure, and duties. They included covert initiations, torchlit processions at night, and cult items that were hidden from non-initiates.

The Rape of Proserpina by Hans von Aachen (1587)
The Rape of Proserpina by Hans von Aachen (1587)

Roman and subsequent art and literature have written about Proserpina’s violent kidnapping by the god of the underworld, her mother’s hunt for her, and her ultimate but temporary return to the world above. For Renaissance and subsequent sculptors and painters, her capture by the god of the Underworld—often referred to as the Rape of Proserpina or of Persephone—provided a dramatic subject matter.

Featured image: Rape of Proserpina – Gian Lorenzo Bernini

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