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The Myth and Making of Sarcophagus 847: The Abduction of Proserpina

Amber Leenders Student, Department of Classics, University of Manitoba

One of the most strikingly beautiful works in the Olympus collection is the marble sarcophagus fragment depicting the Abduction of Proserpina. However, it’s difficult to understand this piece without knowing its mythological and cultural context. Who are these characters? How can we understand the imagery in these scenes? Why was it used for burial? Studying funerary art such as this can give us insight into how the ancient Romans thought about life, death, loss, and the afterlife.

Proserpina is the Roman name for the Greek goddess Persephone. The story of her abduction by Hades, god of the underworld, is her most famous appearance in myth. Seeking a wife, Hades seized the young Persephone as she was out gathering flowers and dragged her down to his realm of the dead. In return, Persephone’s grieving mother, the agricultural goddess Demeter, refused to let anything grow upon the earth. But before she could wipe out the human race with famine, the gods came to a compromise. Persephone could return to the world of the living; but since she had eaten some pomegranate seeds during her stay with Hades, she must return there to her husband for a portion of each year. And so, Persephone became both an agricultural deity, symbolizing the cycle of the seasons, and the powerful queen of the underworld. She and Demeter were honoured for their many spheres of influence in festivals such as the Eleusinian Mysteries

Sarcophagus 847, created in the 3rd century AD, shows three snapshots of this story. The center scene shows Persephone kneeling to gather flowers, as Hades reaches for her. Behind them is Aphrodite, looking on as Hades chooses his bride. The right scene shows Persephone carried off in Hades’ chariot, led by the messenger god Hermes, and chased by the huntress Artemis. In the fragmented left scene, Demeter bursts onto a chariot drawn by winged serpents, attended by the helmeted Athena. The imagery is typical of Roman mythological sarcophagi, illustrating scenes of violence and grief. Mourners in ancient funeral processions carried torches, like the one in Demeter’s hand. Chariots were used as a metaphor for the journey of death. Even the overturned flower basket was often used to show death as a sudden interruption of youth. These images would all speak to the pain of the family left behind. The inclusion of scenes from myth functioned to connect the deceased with the most admirable qualities of the immortal characters. The Romans might even have used myths of Greek origin in order to make themselves seem more cultured; knowledge of Greek literature was a sign of a well-educated Roman.

Though the Abduction of Persephone seems like a suitable story to commemorate a young girl, it was just as popular on sarcophagi for adult men and women, and even couples. It’s impossible to know exactly who was buried in this one, and where it’s been in the nearly 2000 years since its creation. But the fragmentary nature of ancient art is part of its charm. The Olympus exhibit offers a chance to celebrate what we know, as well as to consider the mysteries of the Classical world.

Sarcophagus relief with the abduction of Proserpina, 3rd century AD. Marble. 95 x 125 x 20 cm. © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photographer Johannes Laurentius, Inv. no. SK 847a.