Radiant Darkness by Emily Whitman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you are as obsessed with Greek mythology as I am, you must know that love is one of hot topics among the Greeks. There are countless love stories in Greek mythology: romantic, tragic, ironic, epic, just name it. However, among them, only one story I love the most: the story of Hades and Persephone. Seriously? Yeah. I know. Unless ‘death’ and ‘kidnapping’ suddenly become romantic, unless the idea to be married to someone you don’t love is lovable, it is very difficult to relate those words to a love story. No worries, I have my reasons to be enchanted with their story (I will give my reasons after the summary) and I’m not the only one thinking like that.
In Greek mythology, the story of Hades and Persephone is often called “The Rape of Persephone”. It says that Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest, was picking flowers in the Vale of Enna when a fragrant narcissus tempted her close. The moment she snapped the flower’s stem, the earth split open. Hades, the lord of the underworld, appeared and carried her off screaming and struggling. When Demeter learned her daughter was trapped in the Underworld after searching for her daughter with no result on the earth, she withdrew from gods and mankind, vowing that no crops would grow until she saw Persephone again. Famine devastated the earth. Finally, Zeus commanded Hermes to bring Persephone home. But Hades had already fed her pomegranate seeds binding her to his side forever. Each winter, when Persephone lives underground, the earth shivers and nothing grows. Each spring, Persephone returns to her mother, and the earth bursts into bloom.
Emily Whitman and I do wonder the same thing: what would it be if Persephone wasn’t carried back and forth against her will? What would it be if she made her own choice? Thus, Radiant Darkness is born. I should say, this is the best retelling about Hades and Persephone I’ve ever read. Though it gives an impression of simplicity in narration and characterization, this book does not fail to mesmerize me. The way the story is written so superb; each description of the places and the moments is genuine and alive that I can imagine every detail easily.
The story is told from the first-person point of view, namely our heroine, Persephone. She begins the story by conveying her regret about the myth saying that she was kidnapped and forced by Hades and she’d like to set the record straight after thousands of years of untruth. She first explains how she hates her immortality, trapping in the closed vale made by her mother like a little child needing her protection from the outside world. Though she always says that she is ready to go to the mortal world with her mother, her mother never gives her permission to leave the vale. So there she is, sleeping in the same bed every day, doing the same things every day, weaving on her loom, walking in the meadow, playing with her nymph friends, enjoying the trees, the flowers and the greenery every day. For eternity. Even an immortal will get bored by that.
One day, an unknown sweet smell somewhere in the vale calls her. She follows the smell and finds a clearing in the meadow she never sets her foot on. She finds the source of the heady smell, an unfamiliar white flower blooming in the meadow. And she finds something else along with the meadow and the flower. A strange man is there with a black chariot pulled by black horses, with a gold three-headed dog decorating the chariot. Having never seen a man in the vale before, Persephone runs away before the man speaks to her. Yet, she doesn’t tell Demeter a thing at all from fear that Demeter will trap her inside the house if she knows about the man.
The next day, Persephone goes to the same meadow to see whether the man comes again and decides to let the man speak to her. The man greets her, and that is the beginning of their relationship on that secret place only they know. They meet and talk and get closer each day. He knows her name, admits that she intrigues him, yet Persephone never asks his name, until she accidentally weaves the three-headed dog on her cloth. She learns about Hades from Demeter feeling disgusted by the idea that Cerberus roams in the vale, though Persephone says that she sees the dog in her dream instead.
Thus, Persephone confronts Hades in their next meeting telling him that she knows who he is, thinking that Hades only plays around with her, that a god of his caliber won’t have anything to do with her. Hades uses the opportunity to reveal his true intention, that he wants her as his queen to rule beside him forever in the Underworld. He notices her power and decides she is the perfect match for him. He asks her, truly asks her, to go with him and stay in the Underworld forever with him. He even warns her that once she comes, she cannot go back.
Hating her routine in her heavenly prison of the vale, Persephone thinks it will be a great change in her immortal life. For her, there is no better way than spending her rest of eternity with the man she loves. So, she decides to come to the Underworld without telling Demeter and her friends. There she goes in a black chariot of him, plunging into the depth of the earth. From that day, Underworld has got its queen, a willing one, too. She cherishes her new life, creates her own garden in the Underworld, and befriends new immortal friends (Thanatos and Hermes) and a dead mortal friend.
For a moment, she is a happy goddess, queen, friend, and wife. She is blind to the consequences of her decision to the earth above. Until her curiosity get the best of her and she demands to know what happened on earth above since there are more and more dead souls coming to the Underworld. The dead tells her that the earth is on the verge of its downfall. Severe drought hits the world, nothing can grow on earth anymore, and terrible famine kills most humans. She realizes that her mother is the one behind the catastrophe and the most possible reason why the goddess will do something like that is her decision to leave, that her mother thinks she is taken against her will.
Hermes comes under Zeus’ order to bring Persephone back to the earth because of Demeter’s threat that she will let water showering the earth and drowning everything on the earth unless Zeus gives her daughter back. Persephone uses the opportunity to end the sufferings her mother unleashes to the world and ask Zeus’ blessing for her marriage to Hades. Before leaving the Underworld, she promises to Hades that she will come back to his side. They share pomegranate seeds without her knowing that any food she eats in the Underworld will bind her forever to the realm.
In front of her mother and father (though the story does not reveal Zeus’ identity as Persephone’s father), Persephone explains that she comes to the Underworld by her own will. She admits her love to Hades and her intention to return to his side. Demeter realizes the irony that she actually destroys the world under the false assumption that she is saving her daughter from the lord of the dead. Torn between the truth that her mother actually loves her and her love to Hades as well as the fact that she has been bound forever to the Underworld and her belief that her mother will not stop grieving if she leaves her behind, Persephone asks Zeus to give her the ability to go back and forth between the earth and Underworld. Thus, Persephone the Goddess of Spring is born. Her staying and leaving the earth explains the rotation of spring and winter in a year.
The story about her being kidnapped by Hades against her will has been spread around the world. Though she wants to explain the truth, Persephone decides to let the mortals believe in that story. Those people has been through drought and famine and flood for almost a year. They need the story to believe that they has suffered for a reason. Thus, the story remains as it is today.
I am truly in love with this book from the moment I read the first page until, unfortunately, I flip the last page. I love everything in this book. What I don’t love about this book is the fact that, like other books, this book should end as well. The story is ended with Persephone throws herself into the loving embrace of Hades after she spends her time with her mother on earth. Such a perfect ending, and yet my mind weeps, asking for more. This book is, definitely, will be included on my list of the books I will never get bored to reread.
Now, I want to tell you my reasons for loving the story of Hades and Persephone. I do condemn Hades’ way to marry Persephone by taking her against her will. However, there are so many other things that make me thing that Hades is not the villain in this case.
• It is told that Hades falls in love with Persephone and after watching her for many times from his realm, he decides to go to Olympus and ask Zeus’ blessing to take Persephone as his bride. Zeus decides that it is a good idea, yet he doesn’t bother to tell Persephone or Demeter about this. So, I decide to put the blame on Zeus instead. Though there is a possibility that Zeus thinks that Demeter or Persephone may not agree with the arrangement, but his decision not to let them know cannot be justified.
• The myth says that Hades decides to kidnap Persephone because he is sure that Demeter will never allow their union since she wants to keep her daughter naive and virgin forever by her side. It is a case of a very over-protective mother. I wonder whether Persephone truly wants such life set by her mother for her. By deciding such life for Persephone, Demeter has forced Persephone to lead the predetermined life and who knows, it can be against Persephone’s will.
• Helios, the only god witnessing the kidnapping of Persephone cheers the grieving Demeter that Hades is a good husband for her daughter.
• In some versions of the myth, it is told that Hades is so kind and patient, showering Persephone with many gifts, giving her the opportunity to rule along side with him, even letting her make some changes in the Underworld. He even builds her throne next to his throne. It shows how Hades truly loves her. He is the only God who lets his consort has an equal position with his.
• Hades agrees to let Hermes brings Persephone back to the earth but he secretly slips some pomegranate seeds into her mouth before she leaves. It shows two contradictory perspective. Some might condemn it as an evil trickery of Hades to ensure that Persephone will be returned to him. Some might think that it shows how Hades doesn’t want Persephone to be taken from him. And since it is told that Hades is in love with her, I will vote for the last.
• It is said that eventually, Persephone begins to love Hades back. So, even though Hades uses a violent way by kidnapping her, in the end, they love each other. And it is said that Hades is very faithful husband (except some accidents with some nymphs). Compared to Zeus, Hades is more husband material. So, just accept it as the story of a goddess of life falls in love with the lord of the dead.
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