Hell hath no fury like a goddess whose daughter was stolen from her. And boy is this beautifully displayed by writer Ioanna Papadopoulou in their latest novel, WINTER HARVEST.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Demeter and Persephone. From Greek mythology, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is distraught when her beloved daughter, the vegetation goddess Kore, is abducted by her uncle, the god Hades—an action sanctioned by Kore’s father (and uncle) Zeus. Hades takes Kore down to his kingdom of the Underworld and marries her. Kore then takes on a new name and persona: Persephone.
Meanwhile, unaware of Zeus and Hades’ shadowy dealings, Demeter frantically and desperately searches for her daughter. In her grief and anger, she halts the creation and growth of all crops, causing a famine for the mortals who worship her and her fellow gods. In the end, after years of Demeter rebelling against Zeus and demanding her daughter’s return, Persephone is permitted to return to her mother for six months out of every year and must spend the other six with her husband, ruling by his side as Queen of the Underworld. The story serves as an explanation for Earth’s four seasons: When Persephone and Demeter are together, we have spring and summer; their time of separation is known as autumn and winter.
As with every other myth, the tale of Persephone’s abduction has gone through countless evolutions and has been thoroughly analyzed by scholars of literature and ancient history. WINTER HARVEST, written by Ioanna Papadopoulou, is the latest (and possibly the best) iteration of the classic.
Demeter narrates WINTER HARVEST, beginning with her own origins as the daughter of Titans Rhea and Kronos. Shortly after birth, Demeter is swallowed by Kronos, joining her older sister Hestia, whom their father also swallowed. Three more siblings join them in Kronos’ stomach: Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. When their youngest brother Zeus is born, Rhea chooses to protect him instead of allowing her husband/brother to imprison him with his siblings, tricking Kronos into swallowing a rock swaddled in a blanket instead. When the stone eventually causes Kronos to vomit out Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon, Zeus enlists them to help him overthrow their father and claim power for themselves, ending the era of Titan rule. They are victorious—Kronos is unseated and is imprisoned with his allies.
We eventually come to the aforementioned abduction. But that’s not really our primary focus. WINTER HARVEST isn’t just a retelling of the story of Demeter and her daughter. Rather, it’s a holistic exploration of Demeter. She’s a mother, but she’s also a sister, a daughter, and, most importantly, her own person. We follow her through her journey of self-actualization: creating her role and claiming her dominion as the goddess of agriculture, choosing how and when to wield her divine power, accepting the dark and monstrous side of herself, and then finally embracing it. As a divine being, she is benevolent when she chooses to be; when she is wronged or insulted, the consequences are devastating.
Through Papadopoulou’s beautiful narrative style, we watch in horror as Demeter inflicts her wrath upon mortals and gods alike. We feel her despair, her rage, and her moments of fear and self-doubt. Papadopoulou gives the reader an intimate and unflinching view of her protagonist’s relationship with her siblings, daughter, and followers, as well as her continuous and growing empowerment. The author also explores the goddess’ self-absorption, pettiness, and possessiveness over Kore/Persephone. Like all of us, Demeter is capable of both kindness and cruelty, creation and destruction.
WINTER HARVEST is a macabre and exquisitely written novel that centers on one of the most, if not the most, powerful entities in the Greek pantheon, and highlights themes of sisterhood, self-determination, and allyship among women. If you’re a fan of mythology and complex female characters who don’t care about being “likable”, this one’s for you. You may also lose yourself in Papadopoulou’s story if you loved Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which explores the story of the Torah figure Dinah, as well as her mother Leah and aunts Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah.
Content note: Winter Harvest discusses and contains scenes of rape and incest.
You can purchase WINTER HARVEST directly through Ghost Orchid Press here.