Between 1929 and 1939, the Walt Disney Animation Studio rode high on the success of its animated short cartoons. While many animation studios suffered a downturn due to the Great Depression, Walt Disney enjoyed his very own Midas touch. Of particular significance during this period are the Silly Symphonies cartoons. These shorts, which include such classics as The Skeleton Dance (1929) and Flowers and Trees (1932), are visionary achievements specifically intended to give Walt’s animators the time and space necessary to push the industry forward. Over their ten-year run, the Silly Symphonies won seven Academy Awards for the studio and spawned several imitators, most notably Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies series. One might argue, however, that none of these imitators have the visionary quality and mythic grit that Disney’s Silly Symphonies possess.
By 1934, Walt Disney and his team were beginning to dream the possibility of a feature length animated film into being. Walt knew that he wanted his forthcoming feature film’s narrative to be drawn from the well of classical European myth and fairy tale—stories he expected to be largely in the public domain. These were the stories he was raised on and with which he knew his audience would be most familiar. Two of his favorite choices were the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades. For reasons unknown to those of us outside the archives, Walt chose to use the Persephone myth as the practice project for his animators. Disney’s version of the myth, titled The Goddess of Spring, was released on November 3, 1934.
The cartoon itself is charming. Like most cartoons of its time, it caricaturizes live action film, utilizing motifs that were common during the 1930s. Persephone, who is never called by name, resembles a young Mary Pickford—no surprise, since in the 1930s Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart. Pickford and Disney were friendly acquaintances, working together through the production company United Artists, of which Pickford was a partner and Walt Disney Productions a client.
Also in the Disney short, Hades is presented as the name of the underworld itself, rather than the name of Persephone’s paramour. Disney’s version of Hades borrows its imagery from medieval conceptions of Hell, and the god in charge, called by the Hellenized name Pluto, is presented as a cross between the Satan of medieval/renaissance European Christianity and Bella Lugosi’s Dracula. Like all the Silly Symphonies, it uses music as the narrative conduit for the story, is melodramatic and theatrical, and comes across very much as a piece created in the heritage of silent film.
For me, the two most notable details about this short are that Walt Disney intended it to be a forum through which his animators could work on the human form and that for this experimental work on the human form he chose this particular myth. This might suggest an understanding of the vitality of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but Walt Disney likely had no personal knowledge of them. What he did understand, however intuitively, is the mythic potency of Persephone’s journey.
Below is a link to the cartoon available on youtube.com.
Even at this early point in Disney history, the journey of the archetypal maiden was not new to the studio. Some of Walt’s earliest short cartoons, known as the Alice Comedies, feature a live action girl drawn into a cartoon world where she encounters all manner of cartoon craziness. Girlish inquisitive young women have been central characters in the Disney mythos since the beginning. The Goddess of Spring, however, paves the way for Disney’s version of one of humanity’s central archetypal experiences: the maiden coming into a mature knowledge of self through trials, trauma, tenacity, and resurrection.
I find it incredibly significant that as the Disney artists begin to explore a naturalistic style of the human figure, they choose to do so through a myth that speaks so profoundly to the natural cycles of death and resurrection, perhaps the most universal of all human experiences. One might even argue that this universality is what makes life cycles so difficult to access with vulnerability. We fear them, but we cannot escape them. And in choosing Persephone to be the first animated heroic humanoid maiden, Disney opens the audience’s imagination to what Jungians might call the anima complex, but what I would call a profound heart-based experience of the feminine divine.
Walt Disney often quipped that “It’s gotta have heart.” He always challenged the depth to which a cartoon could make his audience feel. And Disney’s genius is that in opening an avenue to emotion, he also offers safe passage for the trip—a sense that like Persephone the audience will always rise. Disney’s Princesses continue this lineage, living Persephone’s story as aspects of the ever-evolving face of the feminine divine.
Unfortunately, the Disney Princesses have been largely controversial in the last thirty years or so. They are often seen as anti-feminist, passive, weak, and over-interested in beauty and romance. I would submit that while some of these criticisms are valid and should be critiques of society at large, we often underappreciate that the strength of these characters comes from their kindness and goodness. They evolve into strong women through their unique stories of abduction into unexpected circumstances. And they rise, assisted by both their own strength of will and the transformative power of love. These mythic elements are fundamental to the Disney tradition.
So the next time you see a Disney Princess, perhaps you also will see an echo of Persephone’s story and remember that, in the animated world, at least, she is the first Disney Princess—the archetypal maiden, the lost daughter, the bringer of spring, the one who conquers mighty Hades, and its queen.
Thoughts? What about this surprises you? Do you have a particular reaction to any of Disney’s Maidens? Which of the Disney Princesses do you think have been the most popular with little girls? Why do you think they attract the audience they have? We’d love to hear about it. Comment below and Tweet to us @carolspearson/@mythscholar with #IAmPersephone.