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Persephone Reclaimed? Assessing Romantic Retellings of the Rape of Persephone

Sierra Schiano

University of Colorado, Boulder

In academic contexts, the ‘Rape of Persephone’ myth is a source of insight into the subjugation of women in patriarchal Greco-Roman society. In popular culture, however, the myth has found a surprising second life in media aimed at young audiences as the story of two unlikely, star-crossed lovers. Many modern authors and artists have altered the myth’s plot and reimagined the characterizations of Hades, Persephone, and other important deities in order to transform this rape myth into a love story. In this talk, I explore the ways in which three different adaptations of this myth – Rick Riordan’s short story, “Persephone Marries Her Stalker (Or, Demeter, the Sequel),” the cartoon series Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend, and Rachel Smythe’s webcomic Lore Olympus – deviate from their source material and reveal contemporary views of gender politics. In Riordan’s short story, the narrative structure is altered just enough to be deemed appropriate for children by avoiding potentially upsetting topics such as sexual violence. However, despite being presented as a modern love story, Riordan’s adaptation retains elements such as kidnapping, coercion, and gendered power imbalances. Mythic Warriors, on the other hand, makes more extreme changes to the myth, such as portraying Persephone as actively choosing to join Hades in the Underworld. Intriguingly, these changes do not simply censor the story by avoiding the topic of rape – rather, they subvert the sexism inherent in the myth itself by asserting Persephone’s agency. Lastly, Smythe’s webcomic also drastically alters the myth’s narrative structure, but it does not shy away from depicting sexual violence and it actively grapples with aspects of Hades and Persephone’s relationship that would be considered questionable to a modern audience, such as their age gap and power imbalance. Taking into account the differences in genre, medium, and intended audience among these works, I argue that each adaptation reflects an attempt at feminist resistance against centuries of reception which perpetuate the sexist gender constructs of ancient society. However, because feminism is not a monolith, this talk also wrestles with the question of what constitutes a truly feminist reclamation of Persephone and whether her rape should be erased or retained in adaptations intended for young audiences. Ultimately, I suggest that by seriously engaging with these adaptations, and others like them, we will not only draw in young audiences to the study of the ancient Mediterranean but also open up new avenues for the discussion of Classical myths and modern reception.

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Think of the Children!

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