As we approach the Spring Equinox, we feel the warming air and are inspired by the natural beauty of rebirth after winter. The story of Demeter and Persephone powerfully captures the unfolding of the seasons, welcoming in new light. This myth is a tale of the deep connection between mother and daughter and also the story of maidenhood and innocence and its passage into maturity and fullness. The cult of Demeter and this particular myth was so important that it formed the crux of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a famous and secret religious rite of initiation practiced in ancient Greece between 1600- 1100 BCE.
Although lost to history and forever shrouded in mystery, it is thought these sacred practices provided initiates a direct experience to help at the time of death and give entrance to a blessed afterlife. As we dive into the story of the great mother goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, we also connect to the profound mysteries of life. Using this story as a guide and inspiration, we find a way to access our own processes through the themes of mother-daughter relationship, familial love, loss, grief, death, fear, and rebirth. These personal inspirations work as collective dreams to heal not only ourselves, but also our loved ones, our community, and our world.
The Story of Demeter and Persephone
Demeter is the ancient Greek goddess of grain, agriculture, and harvest. In deeper antiquity she was known as Gaia, the life-giving earth mother who nourished and fed the people. Along with providing all the plants, foods, and vegetables, she also gifted mortals the ability to cultivate wheat. She taught humans how to plant the seed, grow the plants, care for and cultivate, harvest, and finally how to ground the wheat into flour to make bread.
Demeter has a beautiful loving daughter named Persephone, who was also known as Kore or maiden. They are incredibly close as mothers and daughters can be when girls are just beginning to mature into womanhood. Meanwhile, Hades, the Lord of the Dead and Underworld has been watching Persephone and developed an incredible love and passion for her.
One day Persephone wanders off picking flowers of roses, crocuses, and irises. Hades has left out a alluring narcissus flower growing out of a cleft in the earth. As Perspehone wanders further away from her mother, she is enchanted by this flower. At the moment she reaches for the beautiful flower, the crack in the earth widens and Hades appears on a chariot and snatches her. She screams, but the only ones who hear her are the sun and the moon.
Persephone is abducted and taken down to the Underworld to become Hades' wife and, eventually, the magnificent Queen of the Underworld. In one of the main versions of the myth, Persephone is not only abducted, but also raped by Hades.
Meanwhile, Demeter is left on earth, searching desperately for her daughter. She cannot find her anywhere and begins to wander the earth, until she reaches the town of Eleusis. Old and desperate, she is taken in by some parents. She helps to care for their son and to return their favor, she puts the child in the fire each night, to make him immortal. Horrified, the parents ask her to leave and she fiercely threatens them. To spare their life, they agree to Demeter to build her at temple.
From her newly built temple, Demeter hides and allows the beautiful plants and growing things to die. Everything withers in her sorrow and rage for the loss of her daughter. Winter, death, and famine descend upon the land. The humans are starving, until finally the gods intervene. Hermes is sent to the Underworld to bring Persephone home to her mother. However, upon his arrival to the land of the dead, he is amazed not to find a weepy sorrowful daughter, but instead a radiant and glowing Queen. She loves her new home and is helping the spirits of the dead cross over. Hermes requests her to return and Persephone is torn.
Finally, Hades gifts Persephone six pomegranate seeds, the food of the dead. She eats them and returns to her mother, Demeter. Demeter is so overwhelmed with joy and exuberant love that spring begins to blossom in Persephone's return. However, because her daughter has eaten the six seeds, she must return to Hades each fall. During this time of lament, Demeter again causes the earth to wither and die and be reborn in Persephone's arrival come spring bringing with her the renewal of hope, harmony, and beauty.
Persephone: Abduction or Willing?
When I first heard this story in sixth grade I was immediately intrigued. I loved the explanation of the seasons, and there was something alluring about Persephone's descent. Eating the seeds of the dead and having to return each year made sense to me, in a deep, archetypal way. Similarly, my own eleven-year-old daughter is fascinated with the story (I leave out the rape version) and also, with the eating of these seeds; this ingesting of something that connects you to a place this is mysterious, unseen, forbidden even.
The word "Hades" means "unseen," as well as "death" and "abode of the dead." Originally, Hades is just the locale of the Underworld, a place where the dead live. Only later in history does Hades become personified as a dark, alluring, handsome, and destructive man who seduces, abducts, or rapes Persephone, depending on the version. As myths communicate on several levels at once, Hades can also be seen as the dark times in our lives, initiations perhaps when we are dragged into the Underworld against our conscious will. In this way, innocence is lost and we enter the dark night of the soul. This may be in the form of any kind of loss, grief, or deep pain.
In the particularly sensitive passage from girlhood to womanhood, when girls enter puberty, this loss of innocence is so often connected to sexuality and exploring that, being subjected to it, or seeking out validation. In Thomas Moore's examination of the myth he suggests that Hades is the dark subterranean undercurrents that our children, our daughters, are drawn to or fascinated by. Whether we chose to participate or not, certainly we can all remember the strange allure of illegal activities, forbidden films, sexual encounters, drugs, and other mind altering experiences.
In more ancient versions of this myth, long before it became the Rape of Persephone, Persephone chooses from her own willingness to enter the Underworld. According to Charlene Spretnak's research, "...prior to the Olympian version of the myth at a rather later date, there was no mention of rape in the ancient cult of Demeter and her daughter," (Spretnak, pp. 105 - 106). In her reclaimed version of the Persephone and Demeter myth, Spretnak offers the new-old perspective in which Persephone willingly and determinedly descends to the Underworld in a yearning to help earth-bound spirits cross over to the light.
Persephone as Dark Mother
As we peer even further into the twilight of ancient history, we find the Persephone's role as the Queen of the Underworld is far less the story of a young maiden, and much more a powerful, fierce, fearsome even Goddess of death, dissolution, and rebirth. In this way, Persephone is akin to the dark mother archetype found in other cultures such as Ereshkigal, Inanna's dark sister of the underworld, or Kali, the fearsome yet benevolent goddess archetype of India who both devours flesh and yet also grants boons to her devotees. Kali spends her time in charnel grounds, intimately connected with the dead. Is it possible that a more ancient version of Persephone was the ruler of the Dead, in equal nature as Demeter?
In Homer's Iliad, Persephone is "grim," and in the Odyssey, she is "dread" or the "awesome one." It seems the associations of the dark mother goddess, that which is connected to death, blood, menstruation, also become forbidden as well as fearsome. Persephone is not necessarily such an innocent Maiden after all, but instead a complex feminine archetype. And her abduction by Hades may have a much deeper meaning, one that indicates a more shamanic story behind the myth. If we are to view Hades not as just a Greek lord, but instead as Death itself, loss of ego, dissolution—the shamanic perspective—we find new ways to relate to this myth and bring it into the contemporary connection in our own lives.
Myths are not only stories, but reflections of societal shifts and changes. As the ancient story of Persephone and Demeter passed down through the ages, Spretnak suggests that "evidence indicates that this twist to the story was added after the societal shift from matrifocal to patriarchal...the story of the rape of the Goddess is a historical reference to the invasion of the northern Zeus-worshippers." (Spretnak, p. 107) Along with other myths worldwide we see a distinct change over many hundreds of years from empowered, dark, fearsome, wild, raging, beautiful Goddesses transformed into diluted versions, weakened, subjugated, softened with the time and blunt force of the rising patriarch.
The Grieving of Demeter
After Persephone enters the Underworld, whether by force or by choice, the loss of her daughter evokes such profound grief within her mother Demeter's heart. This depth of experience was central to the Thesamorphia, an ancient woman's grieving ritual inspired by the story of Demeter and Persephone. Later, it is believed that in the memory of her sorrow Demeter herself established the Eleusinian mysteries to bring the central connection to death and life to the initiates. Sorrow is the winter of the heart; the death of something that we love dearly. True loss is both stark in its reality, knowing that a beloved person or time will never return and never happen again.
Professor of religious studies Christine Downing recounts, "All of us who are mothers know...how intimately the cutting fear of loss, the searing pain of loss, are interwoven with our mothering." (p. 39) In my own life, I have experienced the deep mourning that accompanies motherhood. After the profound loss of my first daughter, who stopped breathing a few days after birth, I felt completely numb for an entire year. I recall being in Kathamndu, Nepal, in a shell-shocked state, unable to sleep for weeks. I watched a woman next door dressed in complete black slowly chopping down the dead grass with a small scythe. This repetitive motion was like the song in my heart at that time, forlorn in the wake of death and loss. After a year, there was a natural turning, when the grieving, as if some mysterious time clock ticked over into a new phase and the sorrow made way for beauty and rebirth.
In the myth we also see that Demeter attempts to turn her mothering instinct toward the baby boy, tending to him and also putting him in the fire to make him immortal. Moore remarks that, "the myth shows us that there is a difference between human mothering and divine mothering. The latter has a broader perspective and is a deep form of the maternal impulse." (p. 45.) In Demeter's loss, she seeks to continue her role as mother. Similarly, women (and men too) often seek out a way to mother perhaps after a loss or in the sorrow of being unable to have children of one's own. The connection between human and divine is a constant reflection of our own mundane lives and the grace of divinity that sparks within. Children are the embodiment of this dance; on the one hand they are so naturally born to us and on the other our love for them is so strong it mirrors our own connection to the divine.
Spring and Rebirth
At long last, with humans starving, the earth dead and withered, the messenger Hermes is called to retrieve Persephone and bring her back to her sorrowful mother. The reunion is incredibly joyful between Demeter and Persephone, so much so that wondrous Spring is the result. The magical, wonderful experience of daffodils and crocuses poking up through dark soil enchants us. We watch the tiny green leaves unfurling on naked bare branches, the parade of flowers that follows, humming along the sound of hatchings and buzzing with great anticipation of the return of new life, Spring. This meeting is the symbolic unifying of deep knowledge and conscious creation.
However, with this incredible meeting comes the wisdom and knowledge gained from the time spent in the Underworld. As Hermes discovers, Persephone is not unhappy as Queen of the Dead, but instead radiant and glowing. Before Persephone leaves the Underworld, she eats pomegranate seeds. Eating the food of the dead binds her to this place and she must return every year, which creates the continual cycle of seasons. In ancient times, pomegranate seeds were a natural form of contraception known to women. The pomegranate thus symbolizes the sacred mysteries of women and the Divine Feminine that were accessed through the initiations of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Earth as Sacred Mother, Beloved Daughter
In much of the reclaiming goddess work, as well as many indigenous cultures, the earth is our Mother. Naturally our bodies are extensions of the earth and, like all creatures, we are born of a mother and belong to a physical woman as well as the earth. Yet, in today's world where we are often cut off from our bodies and from the earth, I can't help but wonder how our own view of our personal mother is connected to our view of the earth. Do we treat our mothers with disrespect and simultaneously expect her to care for us endlessly? How is the contemporary views of mother, in which we hold lofty expectations like no other role on earth affect our connection to Earth as Mother?
We can be inspired by the myth's unfolding between Demeter and Persephone, between mother and daughter. When we view our Earth in this sacred dance, we find a rich relationship between sorrow and joy; winter and spring; birth and death. Our culture has forgotten the power that lies in the fallow field, the quiet dark, the richness of grief. To reclaim our sorrow and weep for our earth, not only as mother, but also our daughter is to reclaim the power to nurture her and assist the necessary rebirth that must happen in the wake of too much development, too much fire, too much outward expression.
To welcome our descent into the Underworld, as sacred daughters is to meet the dark and transform that which is painful, the spirits that are lost and bring them to the light. That is Persephone's sacred work, which she embraces with no hesitation. In a world where rape is common, sex trafficking is the most under-reported crime on the planet, girl children are being murdered for their sex, child brides are married off to men who are decades older than them, we need this power and strength of Persephone. We need to descend the Underworld, willing or not, and bring our daughters to the light: to reclaim our rightful expressions, to nurture and love and celebrate our daughters.
Inspired by the myth, might we also view the earth as well as ourselves as Sacred Daughter? As I witness my own daughter, now eleven, growing into the early stages of that long-winding road traversing girlhood to womanhood, I am inspired by her girlhood determination, power and beauty that is about to blossom. I also know the statistics of girls losing that brilliant budding energy and lessening themselves academically and otherwise to fit in with the norms. I believe in the path to empower that budding strength of ourselves as Daughter as well as our daughters; to honor and celebrate the Spring vitality that rises up with so much potential and beauty.
The sacred work of reclaiming continues. We can reclaim our own first menarche or moontime through ceremony as found in my book, Fire of the Goddess. We can seek out organizations such as Girl Rising to support girls around the world. We can empower our daughters at their first period, or moon time to reconnect with the mystery and wonder of birth, death and rebirth. We can revisit the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone and discover our own connection to the earth as sacred mother, as beloved daughter; the time is ripe for a divine reunion and powerful unfolding with the breath of Spring to support our work.
Girl Rising: Educate Girls, Change the World. http://girlrising.com/
Downing, Christine. (1999) The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. NY, NY: Continuum.
Koda, Katalin. (2011). Fire of the Goddess: Nine Paths to Ignite the Sacred Feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Inc.
Moore, Thomas. (1992) Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. NY, NY: HarperCollins.
Spretnak, Charlene. (1992). Lost Goddesses of Early Greece. Boston: Beacon Press.
Strong, PhD, Laura. (2001). The Myth of Persephone: Greek Goddess of the Underworld. Retrieved from http://www.mythicarts.com/writing/Persephone.html