Persephone in the Underworld: New Perspectives on Ancient Stories

In today’s lessons, we were very fortunate to be visited by three students from the University of Oxford’s Greek Drama team, Nina, Ollie and Charlotte, who delivered workshops introducing their forthcoming musical production at the Oxford Playhouse, Persephone. Persephone is a retelling of the myth of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld by the Greek god Hades. 

Image from Persephone Play Poster

The team started by asking you if you knew what classical reception was. You weren’t sure, so they explained that it was a retelling of an ancient Greek or Roman myth, often with a new angle and setting. They asked if you could think of any examples and a number of you pointed out things like the film Hercules and the Percy Jackson series. The students explained how they had used their play to approach the story of Persephone from a new perspective. They showed you their trailer for the production here

Ollie, Charlotte and Nina then asked you if you were familiar with the story of Persephone. Most of you knew the basic storyline: how Persephone, daughter of the goddess of harvest, Demeter, was picking flowers in a meadow when Hades abducted her to the Underworld. While there, she ate some pomegranate seeds, and as a result, when her mother finally found her, she was forced to spend several months each year in the Underworld (since the living are forbidden to eat the food of the dead). While she had been missing, her mother Demeter had grieved for her, and all the plants had died on earth. When she was returned, everything grew again, but because she was away for several months each year, this story explained the pattern of the seasons.

Persephone and Hades Kylix, ca. 430 BC, Attributed to the Codrus Painter, The British Museum, London

You were asked what you thought of Hades. In Artemis class, generally the view of Hades was that he was selfish and horrible for kidnapping Persephone. Interestingly, in Apollo class, the views focused more on the idea that Hades was needy and lonely. 

The team showed you an extract from their play where Hades and Persephone were talking about the Underworld. Some of you took the parts of these two characters, and read out the script. We then discussed whether this was how you expected the two characters to be. Some of you pointed out that Persephone seemed more bold and curious, whereas Hades seemed more anxious and uncertain. They explained how the play re-interprets the story to made Hades seem a victim of Zeus’s controlling plans and manipulation.

You then, in groups, chose a Greek myth to interpret in a new way, and you wrote a short script or some other response to update the story. One group updated the story of the minotaur from the perspective of the minotaur himself, casting him as a victim of a cruel father who did not tolerate disability. Another re-imagined the story of Daedalus and Icarus, as a story where Daedaelus purposely created wings for his son that would fail. They drew a manual for making the wings, with one set of wings having poor instructions! Another group chose the story of Circe and Odysseus, and had the idea of creating an audiobook of the story. One group used the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but re-imagined Hades as Boris Johnson, and included references to Brexit and mobile phone technology! One group used the story of Io and Zeus to cast Hera in a less judgemental light. Another group chose Chronos, and imagined him as tormented by the prophecy that made him eat his children. Finally, one group chose the labyrinth story and turned the labyrinth into a game. 
All your ideas were fascinating interpretations which show how adaptable Greek myths are for conveying new meanings and perspectives. 

We are very grateful to Ollie, Nina and Charlotte, and the whole wider Greek Play team, for such engaging workshops about their forthcoming play, and helping us to explore Greek myths from new angles.

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