On Persephone As “Iron Queen”

I’ve been meaning to post this for some time – because it’s an interesting perspective which I think is a useful part of countering the Victorian-era ‘re-characterization’ of Persephone. But, as is my proclivity, I felt I had to check out some of the claims made herein … to make sure that things hadn’t gone in the direction of being merely another kind of ‘creative’ re-interpretation of the character of the Goddess.

Now, here’s the interesting thing – one of the main elements to this, “The Iron Queen”, is … not directly accurate, but is indirectly. And perhaps usefully – the inaccuracy hasn’t crept in because somebody on Tumblr (yes, I know…) decided they needed to spice up or ‘re-tell’ a mythic element in-line with 21st century feminist sensibilities. Rather, it all appears to arcen back to an element from a pretty well-respected translation of the Odyssey published more than half a century ago. And which has since crept in quite pervasively in a fair amount of encyclopedic and other ‘secondary’ source material.

Confused? See that bit wherein Persephone is said to be the “Iron Queen” in this post – as far as I can tell (and it is possible that I have missed something in my admittedly brief scouring of the source-material), the major occurrence for this which everybody cites is in Odyssey XI 214. 

For context – what’s just happened there is Odysseus is speaking with His Mother, who is now a shade ; and Odysseus is understandably quite grief-stricken to experience this, as it means that she has thusly become deceased while He has been away from home. Odysseus therefore asks an obvious question – whether this Shade is, in fact, really real .. really her, or whether this is instead, as the Murray translation puts it – “Is this but a phantom that august Persephone has sent me, that I may lament and groan the more?” 

In the original Homeric Greek, the words we are interested in in that sentence are rendered ” ἀγαυὴ Περσεφόνεια ” … and the more recent Fitzgerald translation renders this as: “Or is this all hallucination, sent against me by the iron queen, Perséphonê to make me groan again?” In both cases, “grieve and lament” would probably be a better rendering than “groan”, and indeed the Cook translation which is near-contemporaneous with the immediately aforementioned Fitzgerald does exactly this. Yet that is not what interests us here. 

Rather, it is the fact that this phrase, which clearly means “Noble/August Persephone”, has instead been quite poetically rendered “Iron Queen”. Lest there be any doubt upon the matter, ἀγαυός (‘Agauos’, seen here in feminine form – ἀγαυὴ (‘Agaue’)), effectively means ‘Illustrious’, ‘Great’, ‘Noble’, or perhaps ‘Attention-Commanding’ (compare ‘ ἐπαινὴν Περσεφόνειαν ‘ (‘Epaine’) for “Dread Persephone” in IX 569 of the Iliad). There is no “Iron Queen” to be found there … if we take the verse literally. But that has not been Fitzgerald’s intent – instead, it has been to endeavour to give us a sense of how the Greeks actually beheld the figures in question, rather than merely what was literally and directly communicated in the actual words themselves. A translation, as we have long observed, is a unique kind of infidelity – and a translator’s superior task is to render not merely the words themselves but the meanings, the entire world-view if he should possibly be able to manage it, behind them. Truly an enormous undertaking ! 

So, Persephone as the Iron Queen – what is connoted via this figuratively? Inflexibility, Law, a certain ‘Adamantine’ ethos and rulership – I would also suggest ‘Death’, via the coldness and darkness and lethality of Iron, and we shall be encountering that particular interpretation again later. 

Certainly, the comments made in the cap concerning a taboo upon speaking the ‘proper name’ or direct theonym of the Goddess known as Despoina is accurate. Although it should additionally be noted that there was some .. blurryness as to which more familiar Goddess-form was intended to be referred to by Despoina (‘Mistress/Lady’, female counterpart to ‘Despot’) – with Artemis and Hekate also referred to in such terms. This is unsurprising, as we have the Diva Triformis conceptry from Rome which directly links Diana, Luna, and Persephone or Hekate as the same (Triple) Goddess – and also due to some other comparative Indo-European theology which I have written about more extensively elsewhere (and shall be doing again in the near future as pertains to Artemis directly). For our purposes, it is enough to note that Odysseus earlier in Scroll XI of the Odyssey asks His Mother whether the death suffered by her had come via the arrows of Artemis. People perhaps do not think of Artemis as a death-dealing Goddess in general terms, and yet there it is. Apt, perhaps, given Persephone’s own prominently recalled theonym was popularly understood to be derived from ‘Pherein Phonon’ – that is to say “Death-Bringer”.

A perhaps rather more unexpected (although similarly resonant) interpretation would render Persephone as ‘Destroyer/Killer of Death’ – mirroring the role of Lord Shiva as Kaalantaka, Yamantaka, etc. … which mean much the same thing, and are uttered in the context of asking for deliverance from Death, for instance in the same manner as the Maha Mrityunjaya [‘Great Death-Conquering’ – Mrit, here, like Mort; ‘Jaya’ as ‘Victorious[-over-]’] Mantra, and of obvious saliency for Her ‘Mystery’ religion role (c.f also Her epithet of Σωτειρα – Soteira – ‘Savior’). 

A third proposition – and one I am fond of an alteration to – would instead posit ‘Persephone’ as deriving from PIE ‘Pers’ + ‘Gwhen’; understood by modern academics to suggest ‘Thresher of Grain’. Except while I can see how they have sought to connect these PIE terms to the relevancy for Persephone’s portfolio connexion to the growing of vegetation (as somebody once observed, with Death carrying a Scythe, and the Devil wielding a pitchfork .. even afore we consider the labouring in the Fields, agriculture must be a growth industry in the Underworld), taking PIE ‘Gwhen’ and rendering it as a mere ‘thresher’ … rather than a “Slayer”, a “Striker”, a “Killer” (or, perhaps, a “Pursuer”/”Prosecutor” .. “Hunter”), seems a bit peculiar, to say the least. See my recent “The Way Of The Gun” looking at this particular PIE particle for more details as to why (and note that ‘Phone’, akin to ‘Phonos’, in particular – “Killer” – is thusly derived). As applies the former particle to Her name – PIE ‘Pers’ actually refers to an act of ‘Sprinkling’. While one can see how this has been interpreted as ‘seeds’ which are sown in a sprinkling manner (i.e. grains), I would suggest that Sanskrit ‘Parsati’ ( पर्षति ) is probably closer to the mark – it means both ‘to sprinkle’, but also ‘to bestow/give’, and to ‘harm/hurt’. An associate therefore suggested the rather nicely poetic (he evidently aptly termed it ‘metal’) translation of ‘Raining Death’. ‘Reigning Death’, eh? 

Now as applies why I find this compelling, especially in terms of the text presented in the image accompanying this piece – the additional theonyms and epithets of Persephone make for relevant reading. Αζησια (Azesia), for instance, which either means ‘to dry out’, or “Huntress” (more literally, ‘Seeker’). Βριμώ (‘Brimo’), “Terrifying”, “Enraged” – a term also encountered not only for Demeter, but for Hekate (as we should of course expect) and Cybele, and for the Furies (Erinyes), with a potential etymology connecting it either to βρῑ́μη (‘Brime’ – ‘Power / Strength / Might’, or, interestingly, ‘Roaring’) or Βρόμιος (‘Bromios’ – ‘Roaring / Thundering’; encountered as a theonym of Dionysus) or βρέμω (‘Bremo’ – a term for clamorous noise, such as the roaring of waves, clashing of men in combat, or other enraged conduct; interestingly, with a PIE root – bhrem – which produces Sanskrit terms for both ‘wandering’ (भ्रमति – Bhramati) and a buzzing bee (भृङ्ग – ‘bhrnga’; perhaps interesting given the Honey related epithet for Persephone – ‘Melitodes’ – and some broader conceptry we shall not examine here), as well as Germanic terms for ‘famed’ and ‘stormy’). Θεσμοφορος and Θεσμιη (Thesmophora and Thesmia, respectively – ‘Law-Bringer’, ‘Of Law’), and of course Πραξιδικη (Praxidike, the latter being our familiar PIE ‘Deyk’ particle, and the theonym all-up meaning “Executor of Justice”). 

These link rather well with both Persephone as the mother and effective commandant / sender of the Furies (Erinyes) [c.f Statius’ Silvae, wherein ‘Ennean Juno’ is prayed to to dismiss the Eumenides attentions from the supplicant’s father’s shade; along with the situation of Phoenix and Amyntor in book IX the Iliad, where ‘Dread Persephone’ along with Hades ‘drives home’ the Curse via the Erinyes; and Nonnus’ Dionysiaca which, as with Statius, depicts Persephone arming-up the Erinyes afore sending Them at / as the tangible expressive-executors to Her Will], as well as the Black Avenging Form of the (Earth) Mother Goddess understanding that we have previously articulated. To phrase the latter in brief – we find the Goddess directly commensurate with Cosmic Law and Its (Hers, more properly) immanency here in this universe (‘Cosmos’ – a term itself cognate with Law in terms of meaning), and capable of manifesting (as) a dread black avenger/destroyer form as a sort of ultimate ‘enforcement clause’ for same. It is in this latter sphere where we find a pattern of ‘Iron’ associations for the Erinyes – Statius’ Thiebald describing the figure of Tisiphone thus:  “sedet intus abactis ferrea lux oculis, qualis per nubila Phoebes Atracia rubet arte labor”, or in translation – “deep within her sunken eyes there glows a light of iron hue, as when Atracian [Thessalian witches’] spells make travailing Phoebe [the Moon] redden through the clouds” / ” a steely light lurked in her sunken eyes, as when Thessalian witchcraft makes the eclipsed moon blush through cloud.”

The relevant Latin word there is, of course, “ferrea” – an adjectival form for “Iron” in that language, which carries quite the similar connotations to our modern English understanding for the term. That is to say, “harsh, cruel”, “unyielding, firm, implacable /immoveable/ undeterrable”. It might, of course, be interesting to speculate that the ‘Red Moon’ which Statius invokes via way of simile could suggest that the ‘Iron’ in question is also that of ‘Blood’, but that is another matter for another time. 

Given the associations of Persephone both in terms of Her Absence from the sunlit realm and the nature of the Grave, “Cold” might be quite a viable adjective, also. 

There is much more which could – and almost certainly should – be said upon each and every of these points aforementioned; but I have already strayed (or, if one prefers, wandered) well into the streets of Trivia (perhaps in multiple senses of that theonymically resonant term). To bring matters back to the comparative Indo-European theology – it is necessary to but briefly situate some of the above within its relevant IE context.

We know that the notion of the Afterlife/Underworld ruled over, at least in part, by a Goddess is of archaic Proto-Indo-European origins. We have the direct Vedic attestation for Aditi (the ‘Queen of Law’, the Law-Giver and Bearer – recall the Law relevant theonymics for Persephone earlier) reigning over such a Realm, and likewise the Germanics preserved this understanding in the form of Freyja’s dominion over Folkvangr (a counterpart realm to the more-well-known-today Valhalla, indeed drawing from the very same sort of intake ‘populace’); the Classical mythoi having not only Persephone (and, in Latin terms, the aforementioned “Juno of the Underworld”), but also Hekate in a sepulchral association – and further evidence that the Anatolian Greek perception of Hekate owes something to the Hittites with their own Indo-European Solar Goddess conceptry (they also knew of the Underworld Sun; a ‘Solar Afterlife’ being, likewise, an archaic (P)IE conceptive understanding). Unsurprisingly, “Queen” tends to come up rather frequently as the apt entitlement of these Goddess expressions – although to my mind, “Empress” is the better, especially as applies Aditi. Deyk-tator may have some semi-apt conceptual saliency as well, given that this is the Goddess of Speech, and Supreme Law(‘s Expressor) – ‘She Who Points Out’, and Commands. 

It is again utterly uncoincidental that each of these Goddess understandings also tend to have a very lethal and obliquely terrifying potency. Including that aforementioned Black Avenging/Destroyer Form – known in the Nordic sphere as Skaði / Skadi (the ‘Shadow’ Huntress Wife of Odin, responsible for the underground serpent-venom sanction meted out upon Loki, inter alia … and likewise to Persephone, domiciled alternatingly between two Realms due to a matrimonial arrangement : either Three and Nine, or Nine and Nine (i.e. half-and-half) between Her preferred domain (the Mountains – consider the similar, dare I say ‘riphaean’ associations and environs of Parvati, Cybele, Artemis, etc.) and that of the Husband) – and, most famous of all, Kali ( कलि ). 

Now I say that Kali is most famous for a number of reasons – certainly, if you asked many non-Hindus to name one of our deifics, this would be the major one they could conjure to mind … even if this is the regrettable result of a certain film featuring an errant archaeologist. But here, Kali is also perhaps the most resonant. Not only because there we have this Black Avenging/Destroyer Form – the tangible expression of the unquenchable Rage (Βριμώ / Brimo) of Devi (‘the Goddess’) Who is married to Lord Shiva (the Sky Father, and Himself with a demesne of Death and After-realm; Married, in fact, in a scenario some would consider to be akin to the ‘Raptus’ of the Persephone myth – insofar as the Bride was not engaged with Her Father’s (initial) approval; and with both Persephone and Ambika cited in direct connexion with Autumn), but because the theonym contains within itself much which is relevant for our understanding of this sphere and its most famous commanders. 

Kaal ( काल – also anglicized as “Kala” or “Kaala”) in Sanskrit refers to Darkness and Death, as well as to “Time”. I have often observed that Oppenheimer’s “And now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” remark is, itself, a particularly resonant semi-mis-translation, as in the original text he’s quoting from, it is ‘Time’ and ‘Inevitability’ [perhaps we might suggest, with deference to the Ancient Greek – ‘Adrasteia’, ‘The Inescapable’, a theonymic of some prominency for Nemesis and the Mountain Mother Goddess(es) therein] which does the slaying; although that would be perhaps less apt for a nuclear weapon. The reasoning for this curious meaning-field is obvious – ‘Time’ is most certainly what kills everything, even the universe, in the end. And it also, per my interpretation of the relevant linguistics, suggests the carrying-forward of a particular PIE particle – ‘Kel’ – which refers to a ‘covering’, and which interestingly enough is also the root for terms like “Hell” in modern English. The Night covers the Day (and the visual expanse of the Land), providing the most foundational demarcation of Time known to our ancestors, or to us even today. The ‘Veil’ between the Worlds of the Living and the Dead is likewise a ‘Covering’ – and quite a dark one at that. It is not hard to see how ‘Death’, as the transmissive migration beyond that Veil from whence few return, would be an eminently logical understanding. Where one is subsumed via the onrushing shades of Night, even as one’s physical form is placed into the Earth and ‘covered’ with same in a Barrow-Mound. 

Kaal as (Blue-)Black is reasonably well attested, and we likewise find the Death God(s) and Goddess(es) of other Indo-European pantheonic expressions oft-similarly complexioned. Odin’s Mantle/Hood/Mask, for instance, is that particular Germanic shade occasionally (semi-mis-)translated as ‘Blue’, yet in fact meaning something more akin to ‘Corpse-Black’, ‘Bruise-Black’ – and a hood or a mask is, itself, a ‘covering’ as well, after all. Hades, meanwhile, is literally ‘The Unseen’ – another saliency for the ‘Veiled’, the ‘Darkened’ or what lies therein thereby there-beyond. Demeter, too, we find as Κυανοπεπλος (Kyanopeplos – Blue-Black Cloaked / Veiled) in circumstances pertaining to both the Underworld, and Her Furious (indeed, rather directly (I hesitate to declare it “literally”) Fury-ous) ‘Demeter Erinyes’ phasic form. The associations of ‘Night’ (another meaning for Kaal and Kali) are likewise plentiful for the Underworld in general – and it is not for nothing that in addition to Persephone, we also find Nyx hailed as the Mother of the Erinyes (along with the Earth Mother, although I do suspect that I repeat myself; intriguingly there is also some suggestion for Athena as Commandant to the Erinyes – but more upon this, perhaps, on some other occasion … as with the Horae, female divine figures of Order of another guise). 

However, my major reason for invoking Kali here is also quite a simple one. Kali can also mean “Iron”. Kali, the eminently regal Goddess of Death and Destruction … yet also so much more and else besides (including, most particularly, that aforementioned Cosmic Law – Rta, Dharma, Orlog, Dikaiosune, and Cosmos, etc. – particularly via its defence and (violently lethal) upholding), is therefore also an Iron Queen. 

Or, phrased much more succinctly than all of the above – I do not think that Fitzgerald was necessarily inaccurate in his presentation of Persephone as the “Iron Queen”. I merely think that it is not literally what the words themselves meant upon the page in the original Homeric Greek he was purporting to render in translation therethroughwith them. 

It is quite an apt, and even in a sense, accurate characterization for the Goddess – which not only helps to convey to the modern reader the appropriate sense, especially in the context in which She occurs in the original Odyssey verse (where ‘coldness’ and ‘cruelty’ – the latter being from PIE ‘Krewh’ (which interestingly provides an array of terms for ‘Coldness’ such as Ancient Greek ‘Cryo-‘, and terms for Death … ‘Krewh’ actually means ‘Cold Blood’, as in ‘blood on the outside of the body, ‘freezing’ as it dries) – are quite understandable in terms of Odysseus’ sentiments) – but also is ‘adjacently’ correct insofar as it directly resonates most strongly with another Indo-European mythoreligion’s perspective upon the similar/same Goddess. 

Indeed, we might go so far as to suggest that this “Iron Queen” epithet, even if it lacks direct attestation in primary source from the Ancient Greeks – is only ‘improper’ to cite in this regard in relation to that fact. It is not, to be sure, either Ancient or in Greek – and I am not up to providing an adequate corrective for the latter. Yet as we can quite clearly see from an array of actual archaic theonymics and cultic epithets, ways of referring to deifics did indeed grow and graft in antiquity where they were resonant or necessary for loka-lized development. 

I am occasionally criticized for taking the view that the living Indo-European religion is just that – living. Elements which have stood the test of time and trials of eroica are, of course, to be generally preferred and especially for specific sacral, ritualine utilization (nobody should be seeking to displace (the) proper liturgical language, for example). Yet if one is not content to merely pursue the part-petrified, part-preserved fragments of the past, then there is quite pointedly scope for certain spheres where ‘developments’ in our understanding and our ability to communicate these elements to be engaged with. Provided that the essential underlying ‘essence’ remains true. After all, the fact that we are having this conversation in English rather than Ancient Greek (or, for that matter, Sanskrit, Old Norse, or any of the other liturgical languages I regularly draw from), anchored around essential elements and archaic terms from the height of the respective religious cultures’ ages, shows that such ‘development’ has, at least somewhat, already transpired. 

Now to be clear about this – it is NOT because a term like “Iron Queen” has appeared on Wikipedia and various other latter-day compendia of the popularly available perceptions of such things that it becomes appropriate. We are quite specifically NOT suggesting anything so worrisomely inchoate as ‘mass perception maketh reality’, still much less ‘theology’. Just because many thousands of people may say a thing, does not make it so. Rather, it is the other way around here in this occurrence – Persephone as “Iron Queen” attains its excellency precisely because it enables many thousands of people to perceive something which is already, in somewhat more disparate spheres, there to be beheld by us. And which forms a viable, even perhaps ‘vibrant’ connective element for the less intensively immersed in Her, in our sphere. 

It does not “make up” anything – it simply expresses what is already there; and does so in a way which is not merely theologically resonant, but has that crucial ablative characteristic – the ‘Rule of Cool’ – with which the Truth can, must, and should most frequently be up-armoured. 

So, with all of that in mind – “Iron Queen”, it is. And so much more / else besides. 
Jai Mata Di ! [‘Hail Mother Goddess’ ! ]

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