He seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot,
And drove away as she wept.
By Angela Sells
(Author’s Note: While the figure of Thanatos in Greek mythology more closely represents an actual “Lord of Death,” Hades has passed into modern parlance and become synonymous with both the realm of the dead and King of the Underworld, which I maintain below.)
I’d like to discuss HBO’s fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, specifically Season 8, Episode 3, which aired on April 28, 2019, and its relationship to the Greek Goddess Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. It doesn’t matter whether or not one is a fan of the show; what matters is understanding that for millions of people around the world—in 170 countries—something happened. Arya Stark, the “little sister” of our assumed male savior, saved the world.
Described as “Dread Queen Persephone” in Hesiod’s Theogony (8th c. BC) and “holy Persephone” in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (7th c. BC), Persephone’s origins date back to pre-Greek goddesses of Crete (like Kore) and further, to Egyptian and Mesopotamian goddesses (like Inanna). However, she appears in Mycenaean tablets around 1200 BC and is identifiably represented and artistically rendered as early as the 6th century BC. She is a resurrecting goddess who descends to the underworld after being abducted in the bloom of her youth by Hades. In her absence, harvest-goddess and mother Demeter curses the land with perpetual barrenness (winter); the myth is often interpreted as a metaphor for vegetation in the tradition of life/death/life gods, since Persephone’s ascent signals the return of spring. “Winter is coming” and “Winter is here” have both served as taglines for Game of Thrones for the past eight years, before Arya survives the Night King, a white-walker who causes interminable winter and living death.
In Season 1, Arya is a precocious eleven-year-old girl soon left entirely alone. She flees from the political and physical abuses inflicted upon her family amidst a war for control of the Iron Throne, which rules over all seven kingdoms. Torn from her mother, father, and siblings, Arya must learn how to live independently in a kingdom darkened by violence, especially against young girls and women. Without her family, she becomes an initiate of the Lord of Death, the God of Many Faces. She meets a mentor who welcomes her into the House of Black and White—a house of moral ambiguity that confronts life and death in its cyclical karma; when a life is taken, a life is given and vice versa. Upon entering this House, Arya must remove her clothing and shed her identity until her transformation is complete, like Inanna in the Sumerian precursor to Persephone’s descent. Arya becomes “no one” until she can reclaim her own name in all of its new autonomy. In the interim, she trains for her true purpose: as the only person alive able to face the Night King.
The juxtaposition of the above images between Bernini’s 1621 Rape of Proserpina and a scene from Game of Thrones highlights the necessity of Arya “appearing from nowhere,” as if the King rose up from the underworld in order to capture her. It defies logical sense that she would approach him from above, but the shot is intended to spark our mythic imagination rather than our rationale. Yet distinct from Persephone and distinctly important to our current sociopolitical and cultural moment in 2019, Arya is given a choice in this moment whether or not to be abducted. In fact, she is asked quite specifically just prior to this scene: “What do you say to the Lord of Death?” Arya’s answer? “Not today.”
The setting for the confrontation also is significant: near a reflecting pool, in front of an ancient Weirwood tree, a species of tree wiped out during a previous invasion to suppress the Old Gods in favor of the Andals’ new religion. The trees are white, with faces carved into the bark and five-pointed red leaves that drip dark red sap, the color of pomegranate seeds, or the food of the Underworld that ties Persephone to its depths. After Arya is caught, her dagger drops from one hand to the other, and she shatters the Night King along with our preconceived notions about the hero of the show. Arya’s dance with Death is the point of change that brings with it a return of hope and an assumed end to winter. Incidentally, George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones books on which the TV show is based, titled his much-anticipated last installment of the series A Dream of Spring.
In a following episode, Arya is left alive and alone again after King’s Landing burns to the ground; she is given a scene mirrored in the Book of Revelation: “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him” (6:8 New Standard). To her side, one white horse remains amid the ash and carnage, awaiting its rider. Symbolically, as Arya becomes the driver of this chariot, she transforms into a union of both Persephone and Hades, multiple aspects of a divine whole. Like in the House of Black and White, Arya is a mediation between dark and light, masculine and feminine. She is neither virgin nor whore, sinner nor saint. Our Persephone has embraced her fear of Death/Hades and integrated her Shadow, a Jungian term for the aspect of the Self that often lies repressed and unexpressed (Downing, 23). When Arya brings her depth to consciousness, we find her un-seized, consenting to descent.
Aside from being the most-watched show in HBO history, there were also 17 million tweets about the show during its airing: a new record. In the phenomenon of fan reaction videos for this episode, we see grown men slap themselves in order not to cry on camera when Arya appears. We see adults break down in sobs. We hear girls with their mothers exclaim, “It’s his sister!” We hear grandmothers apologizing for involuntary cursing while shouting “Girl Power.” We see a young boy hold his hands up to his cheeks in amazement and declare, “Arya… I love you.” We see crowds in a bar not drinking a sip, with their eyes glued to a television screen. We hear, “Oh my God, it’s Arya” in Farsi, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. Regardless of ethnic background, we see nearly identical expressions of shock, awe, fear, and joy during the beautiful, sonically haunting, slow motion scene referred to as “The Drop.” In short, we are made to feel something, even if inexplicable. Episode 3 of Season 8 of Game of Thrones demonstrates both the enduring power of myth and the ability to reimagine and repackage an archetypal image for today’s audience by disrupting the familiar climax of an old story with the inclusion of female agency.
Daniels, Jessica. “A Girl Has Sex,” Bitch Magazine. 24 April, 2019.
Downing, Christine. The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Authors Choice Press, 2007.
Jung, C.G. (1938). "Psychology and Religion." In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. p. 131
Hesiod, Theogony. Trans. Norman O. Brown. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.
“Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” Homeric Hymns. Trans. Apostolos N. Athanassakis. John Hopkins University Press, 1976. Lines 19-20; 337.
Angela Sells, Ph.D., is a women’s studies professor at Sierra College and Meridian University. She is the co-founder of the Open Book Press, Chair of Goddess Studies for the American Academy of Religion’s Western Region, and a book reviewer for the Journal of Popular Culture. Her book Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth was published by SUNY Press in 2017.