The names Persephone and Proserpina tend to be used interchangeably. Do they refer to the same goddess? It’s not clear. The clue that Proserpina and Persephone may once have had distinct identities lies in their mothers. The Greek goddess Persephone is the star of an epic mythic cycle in which her mother Demeter plays a prominent role. Mother and daughter are traditionally venerated together on home altars and in shrines. Persephone and Demeter presided over the Eleusinian Mysteries together.
Proserpina’s mother is Ceres. Although the names Demeter and Ceres are also used interchangeably, historic evidence Demonstrates that they are two different goddesses. Ceres is an ancient Italian grain goddess who became intensely identified with Demeter.
Until this identification, Ceres and Proserpina were not venerated together. Instead Ceres’ original altar mates were primordial Italian deities Liber and Libera. Demeter and Persephone are constant companions but in her original Italian myth, Ceres’ constant companion is Tellus Mater, not Proserpina.. However, as part of the identification process, Ceres inherited Demeter’s myths and so she needed a daughter. Proserpina is that daughter.
All known myths of Proserpina are identical to those of Persephone. Proserpina may be an Italian path of Persephone or she may be a distinct goddess whose original identity is now completely subsumed by Persephone. Although the names Persephone and Proserpina sound alike, they do not mean the same thing, nor do they derive from the same etymological roots:
• Persephone means “destroying face” or “light-bearing face.”
• Proserpina derives from the Latin serpere: “to creep” or “to crawl,” and is related to serpent. Thus the goddess Angitia’s snake priests are the serpari. Proserpere means “to crawl forward.” Proserpina’s name may mean “first serpent.”
If Proserpina was an independent spirit prior to identification with Persephone, she may have been a snake goddess. Although both rule as Queens of Death, Persephone and Proserpina manifest somewhat differently. They also possess different specialties and have traditionally appealed to different devotees:
• Persephone is intensely associated with Mystery traditions, especially those involving death and resurrection.
• Proserpina is closely identified with witchcraft, especially Stregheria.
Proserpina goes to Hades and back annually, traveling back and forth like a shaman. She is the matron of necromancers, the queen of the dead who is herself not dead. Unlike Persephone who is always envisioned as a tragic heroine, Proserpina evolved into a somewhat disreputable goddess, petitioned by independent magical practitioners who honored her as their queen.
Proserpina is a goddess of the masses while Persephone has traditionally been a goddess associated with initiated spiritual adepts. Proserpina is more closely associated with the moon and lunar magic than Persephone. In addition to her associations with death, Proserpina is a goddess of magic and spellcasting who is invoked for fertility and protection.
“Entering Proserpina’s gates” is an old Italian euphemism for death.
ALSO KNOWN AS:
Witches, necromancers, diviners, fortune-tellers, shamans
Proserpina is traditionally depicted holding a fish and a key. Even after veneration of Proserpina was suppressed by the Church, she continued to be worshipped in secret. Italian devotees used the image of a fish containing a key as a secret reference to the forbidden goddess. Old French April Fool’s postcards often depict a beautiful woman holding a big, floppy fish. These may be interpreted as a tribute to Proserpina, or they may be used to represent her.
Keys, torch (attributes shared with Hekate) and a fish, emblematic of fertility
Proserpina is traditionally venerated alongside Diana and Nyx as well as Ceres and Hades (operating under the name Pluto).
Cimaruta: this Italian amulet is a stylized sprig of rue (Cima di Ruta) traditionally crafted in silver, the moon’s metal, with added small images hanging from the rue. Symbols vary but usually include a key, fish, moon, snake, owl, or crow. The Cimaruta draws fertility and banishes the Evil Eye. Although also associated with Diana, for centuries it was a secret symbol for Proserpina and for suppressed, persecuted Italian witchcraft traditions.
Rue, parsley, Mother of Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Snakes, fish, bats
Proserpina may be the secret deity at the heart of April Fool’s Day. All Fools Day emerged in medieval Europe but is traced back to Roman rituals involving Proserpina and Ceres: Ceres’ fruitless search for Proserpina, commemorated during the Roman festival of Cerealia, is believed to be the mythic origin of fools’ errands popular on 1 April. In France and Italy, old Proserpina territory, April Fool’s Day is called April Fish Day. An old traditional trick involves pinning paper fish to others’ backs.
• One site is the now famous witches’ walnut tree in Benevento, Italy, alongside Diana and Nyx.
• She shared a temple in what is now Orcival, France, with Pluto—the votive statues sat on ebony thrones in a subterranean crypt.
Strega Italian liquore and cookies shaped like fish, keys, and moons as well as tools of divination and spellcraft.
- Tellus Mater
- Roman Mythology
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.