Persephone was the famous daughter of Zeus and Demeter who was carried off by Hades (alias Pluto) to live with him in the Underworld for a third of the year every year, returning to earth for the remaining eight months. She was the symbol of the rebirth of the crops in spring after their 'death' in the winter, and as such she featured centrally in many sacred rituals.

During these she was not referred to by her name but was spoken of simply as Core ('maiden'). If we translate her name in Greek terms we get 'bringer of death', from phero, 'to bring' (see Perse) and phone, 'murder', 'slaughter', this referring to her attributes as queen of the dead in the Underworld.

She is a contradictory character, however, bringing death in the winter and life in the spring, and for this reason her name has also been interpreted as deriving from phero, 'to bear' (i.e. bear fruit) and phao or phaino, 'to shine', 'show', so that she is a 'fruit-shower'.

There have also been attempts to link the first part of her name with pyr, 'fire', as well as phao, 'to shine', as already mentioned. In this case, retaining the sense of phone, 'murder', she would be a 'light-destroyer', admittedly an apt name for the queen of the dark, dead Underworld, but a highly unlikely one in origin.

Her name also existed in the forms Persephassa and Persephatta, the latter variant being derived by some from pertho, 'to destroy' and ephapto, 'to fix', so that she is a 'destruction-fixer'. Other spellings of her name included Pherephassa, Pherephatta and Phersephonia, for all of which similar etymologies have been proposed.

The Romans knew her as Proserpine, which was probably simply a distorted pronunciation of one of the Greek forms of her name. Inevitably, they tried to read some meaning into the name, and popularly derived it from Latin proserpo, 'to creep forth' (with the latter part of this word related to 'serpents' which creep).

This, they said, referred to a goddess who made the plants 'creep forth' in spring! The many forms of her name, together with the pre-Greek -ss- in some of them, suggest that she is a very old goddess and that she could even be a blend of more than one goddess. This would explain her ambivalent nature. Somewhat similar problems of interpretation arise over the name of Perseus.