The MJDR and the Myth of Persephone

Claudette Van Zyl - Editor in Chief - MJDR
Hades and Persephone Vase

The MJDR and the Myth of Persephone

 Claudette Van Zyl – MJDR Editor-in-Chief

As a journal whose focus lies in dispute resolution, in coming to a conclusion on what would be the feature of our logo we thought that it would be interesting to look back at the first examples of dispute resolution in recorded human history: after all, prior to looking to the future, a crucial yet often bypassed step lies in looking to the past. Among the earliest societies that recorded their ideas on, and portrayals of, conflict were the ancient Greeks. We therefore took to studying their earliest works – namely, their mythology.

The ancient Greeks lived in a culture characterized by violence and warfare. Cities were constantly at war, [1] and a man’s value was largely tied to his ability to fight. When a man’s honour was prejudiced, the appropriate response was vengeance and not reasoned compromise. In fact, compromise was even discouraged by such influential figures as Aristotle, who posited that “to take vengeance on one’s enemies is nobler than to come to terms with them; for to retaliate is just and that which is just is noble; and further, a courageous man ought not to allow himself to be beaten. Both victory and honour are noble. For they are desirable even when fruitless and reveal superior excellence”. [2]

This type of societal mindset largely affected the way in which myths were conceived of and adapted. Disputes in Greek myth are frequently violent, and entail binary outcomes. Either Apollo or Marsyas could win the contest of music; either Theseus or the Minotaur could come out of the labyrinth alive; Agamemnon could either sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia or lose the opportunity to avenge his brother, Menelaus, in the Trojan War. Most conflicts end either with bloodshed, or through the imposition of an institution or judgement with few choices by the parties as to procedure, judge, or terms of the agreement.

There are no examples in Greek mythology of dispute resolution through arbitration or mediation, as we understand those terms today. When Hephaestus caught his wife Aphrodite in bed with Ares, Zeus’ proposed “compromise”, that Hephaestus let Ares go in return for being paid a sum of money for his bruised honour, fails to take into consideration the true interests of both parties to the dispute; it is less an example of mediation than of a quasi-judicial decision preoccupied with the outward appearance of fairness. The judgement of Paris, an example of a binding decision being made by a third party outside the institution of a courtroom, is essentially a failed arbitration – the three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite had asked Zeus to choose who should be awarded the golden apple; yet Zeus imposes different terms on their chosen means of dispute resolution by substituting in Paris as the judge.

In this context, the myth of Persephone captured the attention of the MJDR. While the intervention by Rhea in the conflict between Demeter and Hades as to with whom Persephone should stay does not entirely conform to our modern conception of mediation, what is striking is the extent to which efforts are made to not merely address or decide the outcome of the dispute, but to truly resolve it. In what may be the first Western representation of family mediation, Rhea discerns the motivations of both parties and identifies a shared interest between the two: Demeter longs out of love to have her daughter back; Hades is also motivated by an intense love for Persephone – after being hit by Cupid’s arrow he instantly “saw her, loved her, and carried her away”.[3] The shared interest of the parties is the wellbeing of Persephone, who needs to spend time with both her mother and her husband to live happily. Conscientious of the dynamics at play, Rhea is able to propose a compromise that both gods accept. An agreement is reached whereby Persephone is to spend half of the year in the underworld ruling as queen with her husband, Hades, and the other half serving as the goddess of growth on Mount Olympus with her mother, Demeter.

The myths of ancient Greece may be thousands of years old, however this does not preclude them from having an immense value for us today. Considering the myth of Persephone in contrast with that of other mythic characters reminds us that there has always been a perceived need for methods of dispute resolution more customizable to the needs of parties. For her role in mediating between two parties and allowing them to reach what was likely the optimal solution within the circumstances, Rhea is emblematic of the central importance of dispute resolution to this Journal. Using her iconography as the centerpiece for the Journal’s logo was thus a natural choice. Although not precisely conforming to what we would consider a form of alternative dispute resolution today, she facilitates the agreeable outcome of a dispute whereby the interested parties have had more involvement in deciding how the dispute should be settled.


[1] For example, in the classical period Athens was at war on average of more than two years out of three, without ever enjoying peace for more than ten years in a row. Yvon Garlan “War and Peace” in Jean-Peirre Vernant (ed) The Greeks, translated by Charles Lambert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) at 53.

[2] Aristotle, Rhetoric, translated by W. Rhys, Bywater, Ingram Roberts & Friedrich Solmsen (New York: Modern Library, 1954) at 1367a.

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 462 ff.