[Note that spoilers abound, so don't read any further if you haven't completed BioShock 2.]
“Empty house. Only an echo to my name. Eleanor, baby… where are you? I turned my back, and someone took you – it happened so quick.” – Grace Holloway
In Greek mythology, Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, was kidnapped by Hades and taken down into the underworld. There, Persephone resided as the Iron Queen until Demeter’s grief and anger forced Zeus to intercede and command Hades to release Persephone. But before Persephone was returned to the surface, Hades tricked her into eating the seeds of a pomegranate, binding her to the underworld, where she must return for one season every year.
The story of BioShock 2 is a retelling of the Rape of Persephone. The story unfolds as two parallel narratives, of events past and present. The parallel presentation of the stories reinforces present themes with echoes of the past. Unweaving the two timelines, both stories can be seen as complete retellings of Persephone’s tale, with the past version serving to emphasize the present by both its similarities and juxtapositions. The extended allusion is enhanced by related references found in the environments, themes, and the characters themselves.
Adonis Luxury Resort
The most obvious allusions to Greek mythology in BioShock 2 are the names of several districts in the underwater city of Rapture visited by the player. These references establish a mythological context, pointing to the lexicon by which other story elements can be translated and understood. The player, as Delta, the first successful prototype of the Protector program, begins the game in the Adonis Luxury Resort. Unlike the remaining environments in the game, this setting contributes little towards developing the character of Rapture and its inhabitants other than to express their vanity, and the plasmid fed hunger it created. The name of the resort, however, evokes the myth of Adonis, a foreign child, born with such beauty as to captivate the goddess Aphrodite, who hid the baby in a chest and delivered him to Persephone in the underworld for safe-keeping. The evocation of Adonis informs the player of the true nature of a principle character, which will be discussed more below.
Siren’s Alley marks the midpoint of the game in terms of stages. Once called by “a more respectable” name, Siren’s Alley was the mason’s quarter, a proper place, and the residence of Rapture’s chief architects. The player discovers, however, that Siren’s Alley has degenerated into a red light district. In the myth of Persephone, when Hades appeared to steal her away, Persephone was picking flowers in a field in the company of nymphs. Angered that they did not aid her daughter, Demeter transformed the nymphs into sirens as a punishment. While the inhabitants of Siren’s Alley have traded prestige and culture for passion and vice, this change was brought about by their own desire. They still fall victim to punishment, however, when Dr. Sofia Lamb, who portrays Demeter for most of the game, sacrifices them by flooding Siren’s Alley in an effort to punish Delta.
The next district is a property owned and developed by Dr. Lamb for the enjoyment of her followers, called Dionysus Park. In Greek mythology, Dionysus was the god of drink, and he inspired ritual madness. He was also known as the liberator, describing the freedom one could attain through madness or wine. Dionysus Park also marks the first appearance of the Houdini splicers. In the original BioShock, the Houdinis were introduced as members of their own cult, the Saturnine, described as “an aging bunch of frat boys, tilting back goblets of plasmids and calling it ambrosia.” Naming themselves after Saturn was perhaps a mark of hubris, for their behavior, as well as that of the Houdinis of BioShock 2, was more indicative of followers of Dionysus.
The most obvious reference to the myth comes in the last level of the game, the prison structure, Persephone. The Persephone Detention Facility sits astride a chasm in the floor of the ocean, an abyss relative to the rest of Rapture. It also serves as the secret testing facility of Augustus Sinclair’s commercial enterprise, and is where the original Little Sister and Protector experiments took place. As a last act of desperation to thwart Delta’s persistent advance, and to maintain control of her daughter, Eleanor, whom she has quarantined therein, Dr. Lamb drops Persephone into the chasm. To complete the story, the player must help Eleanor escape from the watery underworld before Persephone is jettisoned.
Theme of Rebirth
The principle theme of both BioShock 2 and the myth of Persephone is rebirth. Symbolizing rebirth, the blue morpho butterfly is the icon of Dr. Lamb’s religiously zealous ‘family,’ first introduced to the player in the slums of Pauper’s Drop, the level preceding Siren’s Alley. At several vent locations, the player will find a small gathering of splicers, chanting around a corpse laid out as if a sacrifice. The reverence of the splicers comes from their belief in resurrection through the Little Sisters and Eleanor. The consciousnesses of those who have spliced themselves imprint on the Adam in their bodies. When they die, the psychic residue can then be salvaged by the Little Sisters and amalgamated in Eleanor, who effectively receives the ghosts of Rapture. This theme is reinforced throughout the game by the various mythological allusions.
Demeter / Persephone
Demeter, the goddess of the seasons, was considered to preside over the cycle of life and death. Persephone, bound to the underworld, descending and ascending cyclically throughout the year, was viewed as a goddess of resurrection. Persephone’s nature as a resurrection goddess is reinforced by the cycle of Demeter’s anguish over her daughter’s absence every year, manifesting as a barren season when the earth remains dry and unproductive. Spring marks the return of Persephone to Demeter, and life to the land.
The theme of rebirth is further emphasized with the reference to Dionysus. In some tellings of the myth, Zeus sired Dionysus with the mortal woman Semele. A jealous Hera tricked Semele into doubting Zeus’ identity and demanding that he prove his godhood. Revealing his nature to her, Semele was consumed in flame. Zeus removed the fetal Dionysus from his dead mother’s womb and sewed the baby into his thigh, where Dionysus remained until he was fully-grown. Other versions of the myth suggest Dionysus was born of Demeter or Persephone by Zeus. Hera sent titans to destroy Dionysus, whom they mocked and ate. When Zeus drove them away, only the heart of Dionysus remained, which Zeus used to impregnate Semele. Because of his ‘two births’ Dionysus was also considered a god of resurrection.
Delta, while misconstrued throughout the back-story as well as the main narrative as portraying the role of Hades, is more accurately a representation of Adonis. While he was under her care in the underworld, Persephone was seduced by the beauty of Adonis, and refused to release him to Aphrodite. The resulting dispute between the goddesses was settled by Zeus, who commanded that Adonis spend a portion of the year with Aphrodite, and an equal portion in the underworld with Persephone. Imprisoned as a Little Sister and a Big Daddy, respectively, and chained to one another through the bonding process, Eleanor came to love Delta as the father she never had. That love did not die when Delta was forced by Dr. Lamb to kill himself. Instead, Eleanor spent the next ten years working to resurrect Delta by hacking a Vita Chamber to recognize Delta’s genetic signature gathered by the Little Sisters from his corpse. Eventually, the triangle with Aphrodite and Persephone was broken when Adonis was gored to death by a boar, and Adonis’ spirit returned completely to Persephone in the underworld. At the completion of the game, having arrived on the surface, freed from Rapture, Delta dies again. But this time he is absorbed into Eleanor, where his consciousness can exist within her.
Retelling the Myth
In BioShock 2, Dr. Sofia Lamb assumes the role of Demeter. As Demeter kept Persephone secluded from the other gods, sheltering her from their influence and advances, so Dr. Lamb raised her own daughter, Eleanor, in isolation, training and educating her away from the influence of the “dog-eater” citizens of Rapture. When Eleanor was captured, Dr. Lamb, like Demeter, searched for her lost daughter. Demeter’s anguish over the loss of her daughter starved the people as the land grew barren, compelling the intercession of Zeus. After Delta and Eleanor rejoin in Persephone, Dr. Lamb consciously attempts to leverage Delta by dropping the Persephone facility into the trench below.
Eleanor Lamb, portraying Persephone, is forced into the underworld via the Little Sister program. Twisted into an unkillable ghoul, she is reconditioned to harvest Adam from Rapture’s dead and paired with Delta, a Big Daddy from the Protector program. Dr. Lamb rescues Eleanor from the underworld, and has Dr. Gilbert Alexander work to revert Eleanor’s conditioning. Though she regains her humanity, Eleanor cannot be fully restored. Like Persephone and the pomegranate seeds, Eleanor remains tied to the underworld by the sea slug implanted in her belly.
Hades – kidnapper
The role of Hades as kidnapper is shared by several characters throughout the game. The back-story narrative shows Stanley Poole, an informant sent to infiltrate Dr. Lamb’s commune, is the first to assume the mantle of Hades. With Dr. Lamb imprisoned due to his testimony, Stanley kidnapped the child, Eleanor, and contributed her to the Little Sister Orphanage. Fearing that Dr. Lamb, having escaped prison, would learn of his role in her daughter’s disappearance, Stanley floods Dionysus Park, drowning its inhabitants. However, it is Delta, as Eleanor’s escort, who is perceived by the other characters to embody Hades. Grace Holloway voices this sentiment, accusing Delta of kidnapping Eleanor, when she is encountered in Pauper’s Drop. Grace, who was entrusted with Eleanor’s care while Dr. Lamb was in prison, describes the perception of Delta’s role as Hades both in the past and present narratives. When Dr. Lamb returns from prison, she rescues Eleanor from her plight as a Little Sister, but confines her once more, this time sheltering her in the depths of Rapture, in the detention facility, Persephone. This confinement exceeds the protective sheltering of Demeter, and is more akin to Hades’ selfish possession. It is from this captivity that the player, as Delta, seeks to rescue Eleanor, ultimately freeing her from the underworld and the machinations of her mother.
When Delta frees Eleanor from her confines, he provides her with the equipment necessary for her to take on the mantle of a Big Sister. By this transformation, Eleanor effectively becomes the Iron Queen of the underworld, unmatched in ability. She stands by Delta’s side now as an equal, a consort. Where once she was being manipulated into becoming the collective consciousness of all of Rapture, she now exerts her freedom to choose and is herself reborn. Together with her Adonis, Eleanor seeks escape from the depths of Rapture.
Hades – deceiver
Despite being unfairly branded as Hades throughout the game, Delta does assume the role towards the climax of the game, complete with the Iron Queen by his side. But Delta’s role as Hades is that of the deceiver. The player interacts with three main characters and a dozen Little Sisters throughout the game, and is given the choice with each to either let them live, or to kill them. These lives are the pomegranate seeds. Eleanor learns how to behave towards others from Delta’s actions. If Delta takes life, so too will Eleanor, eating the food of Rapture, cursed to be bound to its depravity. But if Delta is noble, protecting life, Eleanor can rise above the drowning grasp of the underworld.
Reinforced by the related allusions crafted into Rapture’s environment, the story of BioShock 2 retells the Greek myth of Persephone’s descent into the underworld through the life of Eleanor Lamb. Though imprisoned in the bowels of Rapture, Eleanor finds love and power, as did Persephone when she assumed the throne of the Iron Queen. And though the player’s character, Delta, strives to grant Eleanor her freedom, the player may inadvertently feed Eleanor the pomegranate seeds that bind her humanity to the fallen Rapture. Informed by this insight, the player can gain a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations, enriching the play experience.