When I was seeding and juicing the pomegranates for our dinner party last weekend, I told Steve the story of Persephone and Demeter. There are many versions of this ancient myth, but here are the main elements . . . .
The earth mother, Demeter, had a beautiful daughter called Persephone who was playing out in the meadow one day. Persephone came upon one particularly lovely bloom, a narcissus, and reached out her fingers to cup its lovely face. Suddenly the ground began to shake and a giant zigzag ripped across the land. Up from deep within the earth charged Hades, the God of the Underworld. He stood tall and mighty in a black chariot driven by four horses the colour of ghosts.
Hades seized Persephone into his chariot, her veils and sandals flying. Down, down down into the earth he reined his horses. Persephone’s screams grew more and more faint as the rift in the earth healed over as though nothing had ever happened.
When Demeter discovered that her daughter was missing, she was distraught. She neglected her duties in her grief and all that grew began to die. She who had made everything grow in perpetuity, cursed all the fertile fields of the world, screaming in her grief, “Die! die! die!” Because of Demeter’s curse, no child could be born, no wheat could rise for bread, no flowers for feasts, no boughs for the dead. Everything lay withered and sucked at parched earth or dry breasts. She searched everywhere on earth for her daughter but when she could not find her she appealed to Helios, the God of the Sun, who could see everything. Helios told Demeter of Persephone’s abduction by Hades.
Demeter confronted her husband Zeus, the King of the Gods. Zeus saw the crops dying and knew that he needed to take action so that Demeter could return to her duties. He agreed to negotiate with Hades for the return of Persephone.
Meanwhile, in the underworld, with Persephone’s great capacity for love, she came to know Hades not just as her abductor and saw that the actions he had taken were motivated by love for her. She came to understand and love Hades and accepted from him a pomegranate, eating six of the seeds and thus binding her to Hades in marriage. Through this marriage she also took the title, and accepted the responsibilities, of Queen of the Underworld.
When Hades explained to Zeus that Persephone had become his wife, through the symbolic eating of the pomegranate seeds, Zeus ordered a compromise, declaring that Persephone should spend six months of each year in the Underworld with Hades and the remaining six months should be spent with her mother, Demeter, assisting each with their respective duties during the time she was with them. Her annual return to the earth in spring was marked by the flowering of the meadows and the sudden growth of the new grain. Her return to the underworld in winter, conversely, saw the dying down of plants and the halting of growth.
This is a multi-layered story.
It gives us an explanation for the seasons as Persephone’s return to her mother is reflected in the spring when Demeter tends to her responsibilities and things begin to grow again. The fertility of the land continues to grow into summer but when Persephone returns to Hades, Demeter again begins to mourn and neglects her duties so things begin to die in the autumn and winter months. In this way, Persephone is the goddess of life, death and rebirth.
The Greek goddess Persephone represents both the youthful, innocent, and joyous maiden aspect of a woman as well as the more womanly self who, innocence lost and family attachments loosened, can begin to consciously make decisions for herself. As Queen of the Underworld, Persephone assists those who are having difficulty transitioning from the land of the living to the land of the dead. She often gained their confidences and through their confessions and her powers of insight and empathy, she became the keeper of much secret knowledge.
The Eleusian Mysteries were an Athenian religious festival held in honor of Demeter. The mysteries existed from Mycenaean times (circa 1600-1200 BCE), thought to have been established in the 1500s BCE and held annually for two thousand years. The Roman emperor Theodosius closed the sanctuary in CE 392, and finally it was abandoned when Alaric, king of the Goths, invaded Greece in CE 396. This brought Christianity to the region, and all cult worship was forbidden. Our sources of information regarding the Eleusinian Mysteries include the ruins of the sanctuary there; numerous statues, bas reliefs, and pottery; and reports from ancient writers.
The true nature of the Mysteries remains shrouded in uncertainty because the participants did, with remarkable consistency, honour their pledge not to reveal what took place in the Telesterion, or inner sanctum of the Temple of Demeter. The successful candidate in the Eleusinian mysteries would have been purified, initiated, and ultimately had a change of consciousness in which a perception of the divine was achieved – the realisation that death is part of the cycle of life and is always followed by rebirth.
The Persephone myth can be helpful in explaining a modern woman’s psychological need to leave her mother and the topside world in order to deepen and mature as a human being, to get to know her hidden depths and the shadowy contents of her psyche. Several of the post Jungian authors I read in the early 1990’s when I was a graduate Counselling Psychology student – Maureen Murdock, Claudia Pinkola Estes, Linda Leonard Shierse, Kim Chernin offer women a road map to follow or at least an open door to walk through in order to discover a way into finding wholeness and meaning in a patriarchal society. At the time, I did what deep work and exploration I was capable of; but feel that I am now able to delve even deeper and feel ready to get back into the deep work of discovering who I am now, where I’ve come from and finding meaning in my life.
Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar how far away,
The nights that shall become the days that were.
Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
O, Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring) —
‘Woe me for thee, unhappy Proserpine’.
— D. G. Rossetti
The oil painting and chalk drawing of Proserpine, or Persephone, were made by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, using Jane Morris as his model. You can find further information on each work of art by clicking on each image. While writing this post, I came across a couple of very in depth resources for the original Persephone myths – Theoi Greek Mythology and The Endicott Studio and Journal of Mythic Arts for an essay by Kathie Carlson based on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
Seeds of knowledge