Skellig | Study Guide

David Almond

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Skellig | Motifs


The Myth of Persephone

Persephone is an ancient Greek myth that explains the changing of the seasons. One day Hades, the god of the underworld, sees the lovely goddess Persephone laughing joyfully as she picks flowers with her mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Moved by her joy and exceptional beauty, Hades kidnaps Persephone and drags her down to the underworld to be his queen. Demeter is beside herself with grief, and all the greenery and beauty in the world withers, reflecting her sadness. Zeus, the god of Greek gods, takes pity on Demeter and arranges for Persephone's release from the underground. However, there is one condition for which Zeus will be unable to rescue Persephone: if Persephone has eaten anything while underground, she must stay with Hades. Unfortunately, Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds. Married against her will, she is doomed to an eternity with Hades underground.

Persephone and Demeter's sadness moves Hades to allow Persephone to visit her mother above ground for six months of the year, but she must always return to Hades for one month for every pomegranate seed she ate. Persephone's time above ground coincides with the coming of spring and the harvest. Her time in the underworld is a time of sadness, darkness, and cold winter.

The myth of Persephone is an important motif in Skellig. The novel begins at the cusp between winter and spring. Mina's mom refers to the story while she is cutting open a pomegranate for the children to eat in Chapter 38. Michael quickly relates the story to his baby sister who is undergoing heart surgery as a kind of struggling through an underworld darkness to reach the light. Persephone's struggle is described in graphic terms: "She was torn and bleeding but she kept telling herself to move onward and upward." Mina, Michael's friend, even suggests that the baby be named Persephone because of her struggles and her final emergence into health and light. The novel ends when spring is finally in full bloom.


Owls appear in various sections of the book. Skellig produces owl pellets (remains of the food he eats). Tawny owls are a dangerous but exciting secret Mina shares with Michael. Owls bring food to Skellig as a gift, reflecting how the children are nurturing Skellig. Mina dissects owl pellets as part of her homeschooling experience. Michael teaches Mina to hoot like an owl using his hands. In all of these instances owls represent a mysterious and nurturing but "savage" aspect of the natural world. At the end of the novel, the owls bring Michael and Mina a dead mouse and a dead baby bird—as gifts—suggesting that even though life contains the cruel reality of death, life is still a gift.

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