Persephone Calls

An ancient goddess calls to me.  Persephone, whose story echoes from prehistoric Greece. Persephone, whose name means something more ancient than scholars can say.  She haunts me, I can’t stop thinking of her: why?

Who is Persephone?

A happy girl-goddess, playing with her maids in a meadow, wanders away from them, lured by a flower.  Suddenly Hades, King of the Dead, bursts out from under the earth, grabs her up, and carries her away to become his Queen.Persephone’s mother Demeter — goddess of grain and growing things, sustainer of human life — searches frantically for her daughter.  Finally learning what happened, she blasts the Earth with her anger and grief:  nothing grows.Concerned for human life, king of the gods Zeus tells Hades to give Persephone back.  Hades agrees, as long as Persephone has not eaten anything in the underworld.

But of course, he had tricked her into eating three pomegranate seeds.  As a result, she may not return to the surface permanently, but must spend part of every year among the dead. Demeter makes the earth fruitful when Persephone is by her side, but when her daughter returns below, the earth lies barren.  And so begin the seasons.

That’s currently the common story.  But there are many versions — even in ancient lore. Told in different places, at different times, with variations in the cast of characters, details of the action, even different names for the girl-goddess, they reflect the unique cultures that created them, and then how those cultures met and merged.  The rape itself, a central theme in the canonical Hymn to Demeter, apparently reflects the invasion and domination of earlier matrifocal cultures by patriarchal ones.

Charlene Spretnak cites sources in which pre-Hellenic versions lack the male element altogether: the focus of the myth was Demeter and Persephone as aspects of the life force.  In Spretnak’s retelling, Persephone feels drawn to serve the needs of the dead.

Ann Suter disagrees, seeing the main ancient theme as an hieros gamos — a mystical marriage that consecrated the relationship between man and woman, between human and environment.  A magical rite that ensured the fertility of the earth.  Her extensive analysis considers evidence from archeology, religion and linguistics.

Perhaps they’re both right.

Victoria Weinstein suggests that myth is a living language for expressing spiritual experience, and we need to create our own versions, to serve women’s needs today.

How might we revision the Underworld journey as a valuable experience for women? I am not condoning the idea that women must endure actual physical suffering of any kind in order to achieve maturity. Rather, I am attempting to expunge the traditional view of Persephone as symbol of female victimization and propose we reconsider her as an avatar of women’s powers of resurrection.

When we choose to experience the Underworld as Persephone’s dominion, it presents us an opportunity to safely confront the realities of sexism, domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse and the rampant objectification of women’s bodies. Using [this story’s] spiritual resources, we are encouraged to express our own primordial rage and to feel the appropriate revulsion toward cultures that trivialize women’s innate power and deny her freedom and authority while belittling female solidarity. 1

Reworking myth is claiming the privilege of the storyteller, the bard, the priestess, the artist.  As Dawn Work-MaKinne observes, the concept of archetype is not useful here.  Giving authority to one version over another fails to serve our need for story, for improvising our lives with artistry and resonance.

And so I found myself writing this version….

I got away from Mother!  She’s so overprotective, always making sure I have the right people around me, I go only safe places.  She even keeps torches in my room at night, so I’m never in the dark.Now I sit in a dell, where the bright, blooming meadow dips down between sheltering hills.  The flowers’ fragrance makes me dizzy, but I love it.  A few big rocks lie in grass — no: more than a few.  They’re rising out of the earth!  In one cluster a crevice widens, gapes; out plunge four black horses pulling a chariot with a dark man. He reins them in, for a moment they arch their necks and pull against him, stamping their hooves and snorting. His arms tense and bulge, he holds them and they settle.He wears a crown made of something so black it drinks light, it hungers for light, it annihilates light.  Looking at it hurts;  I look at his face.  At first I think his eyes are wise, old, sad … but his face is smooth, beautiful.  Then I see a gleam, something laughing, inviting.  Does a frown momentarily wrinkle his brows?  Then a smile of joy flicker, quickly hidden?  No, this is not a visage that changes: rather I keep seeing more in it.

He drops the reins on the ground; the horses relax and graze.  He jumps out of his chariot, pauses a moment, steps closer, and bends one knee to the ground.  He tells me who he is.  He hungers for light, he says.  His kingdom is important, he renders justice to the shades of the dead, he is an essential part in the natural order… but he is lonely, achingly lonely.  He has been watching me, he is enchanted by my blithe nature:  I am a light-bringer, he says.  I feel attracted to this strange, complex soul.  He is in many ways my opposite. His eyes make me feel charged with some energy. I want him to touch me.

What is it about his tale that moves me so?  I have never seen a place so dark as his realm must be.  Suddenly I am tired of light all the time.  I want dark too.  I want to know what the dark holds for me.  It pulls me as much as he does.  Danger?  I am no longer a child, there are other things to do with danger besides running from it.  I think I could learn from it, grow.

I tell him I would like to see his place.  He says, to appreciate it fully, to really be there, requires a drastic step.  I would never be the same.  I would never be simply the carefree bright soul….

Of course he doesn’t want me to lose that, either.  But…

“To fully enter the Underworld, you must eat of the pomegranate; you must enter sexual relationship.  Take up the burdens of sexuality in relationship.

“It is dangerous, many have lost their souls — or bound them — on that path… most, even.”

However he knows discipline for the path, practices to strengthen and guide the soul — and he has a teacher, the crone-goddess Hecate, guardian of change.  She has taken him far in this discipline, but now he can progress no further without a partner who is his equal.  He has come to ask me to eat the pomegranate, to become his Queen and Consort.

Mother will be furious.  But this is what I need to do, this is my destiny. Now I have met him, innocence feels incomplete.  I need the dark, too.  I need to descend into my own dark, to accomplish my work there, and bring back that wisdom.

A very nice beginning.  Ah, but she had no idea what she was in for….

The rest of the story, I’m still writing.  It’s my story.  It’s the story of my book, Persephone’s Choice. I suspect it’s the story of many people.

__________

1Persephone’s Underworld Journey: Reclaiming A Resurrection Narrative for Women. Presentation at the Conference on Female Spirituality, York University, Ontario, March, 1996. Usually available at miscellaneous sites on the Web which tend to be short-lived, for example as of this writing at http://www.tryskelion.com/gds_persephones_underworld_journey.html.

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