Published July 10, 2020 by Rebecca Goldfine

Brittney McKinley ’21: The Many Afterlives of Hades and Persephone

Since she was a child, Brittney McKinley has been fascinated by Greek and Roman mythology. This summer, she's channeling her love for myths into a research project about the enduring tale of Hades and Persephone.
Brittney McKinley with some of her summertime reading
Brittney McKinley with some of her summertime reading.

McKinley, an English and classics major, has a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program grant* from Bowdoin to spend the summer exploring how the tale of Hades and Persephone has been endlessly reinterpretedfrom antiquity to todayto reflect readers' changing sensibilities about relationships, romance, violence, and motherhood.

Her research will form the basis of a yearlong honors project in the classics department (which McKinley calls "a little known gem" at Bowdoin, with small classes and inspiring professors).

"I've always been super nerdy about Greek mythology!" she said in a recent Zoom call, ever since she encountered them in illustrated children's books. (She explains that one of the reasons for her lifelong interest is that myths, unlike a lot of stories for young people that suggest morals, are more open-ended and strange. "Sometimes it's just, 'And then Cronos swallowed all his kids.' And that's it!" she said.)

"Working on an honors project makes me realize how much I love the art of research and not forming an opinion beforehand, but finding something I'm really interested in and following it to see where it goes." — Brittney McKinley ’21

McKinley decided to focus her senior-year project specifically on Hades and Persephone after noticing the vast differences in the ways writers have treated their relationship over time. Especially intriguing to her is how many modern-day authors have sugarcoated what is at heart a brutal story.

In ancient tellings, Hades steals young Persephone away from her mother, Demeter. Ovid, writing in Latin, describe the kidnapping as a rapio, for ravished or carried away. And rapio, McKinley explained, is the origin of the word 'rape.'

"He steals her away, and she is unwilling. It is a sad rape story, and her mother is grieving," McKinley said. 

But contemporary storytellers have veered away from this dark cast. Nowadays, Hades and Persephone "are often displayed in this romanticized way," McKinley said. "They're an adorable couple, they love each other very much. Hades didn't steal her away, but rather took her from an overprotective mother."

For instance, Lore Olympus, a popular fan fiction comic strip that is posted weekly to the web, depicts Hades and Persephone as pining for one another in a "will-they-or-won't-they romance." 

Over the course of her research, McKinley will try to resolve whether these sentimental retellings represent "a problematic romanticization, or if they are an empowering way to give Persephone her own identity, which she didn't have before."

In the original myth, Persephone "doesn't have her own personality, autonomy, or thoughts," McKinley said. Instead, the narrative focuses on Demeter and her grief over losing her daughter, as well as on Hades's desire for the young maiden.

"And what is super interesting about this is that, in modern retellings, it's always from Persephone's point of view," McKinley said. "She's always the main character. And maybe that is a good thing: she's getting the happy ending she never had."

A few of Brittney McKinley's Favorite Classes

Transformations of Ovid, with Winkley Professor of Latin and Greek Barbara Boyd: "We read the entire Metamorphoses over the semester, a book a week. It made me want to be a classics major, and I met Barbara Boyd. She's so brilliant; she talks about whatever you want to talk about and comes forth with amazing thoughts about what you've read. Going to class is to constantly have your mind blown!"

Roman Archaeology, with Associate Professor of Classics Jim Higginbotham: "This class was incredible. At one point during that class I could name every emperor chronologically. Archaeology is fascinating, but I see myself in a cubicle, not the dirt." [She wants to work in publishing one day.]

Classical Mythology, with Senior Lecturer in Classics Michael Nerdahl: "It was such a treat taking the class with him because he cares so much. On the day we learned about Hercules's twelve labors, all the lights were off, and he walked onto the stage [the class was in Smith Auditorium], there was a spotlight on him, and he had a giant lion skin on his head. He told us about the labors from Hercules's point of view."

*This summer more than 160 students are pursuing academic research and community-based fellowships. They receive funding from a variety of sources. In many cases the Center for Cocurricular Opportunities awards fellowships for independent faculty-mentored research projects. Individual departments and programs can also draw from their own funds to give awards to students. In addition, faculty members may use outside grant-funding to hire students on their research projects. Inevitably, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, research methods have to be modified in some cases this year. Nevertheless, many of these projects are likely to serve as a springboard for senior-year independent study or honors projects.