My friend and fellow writer Amy Irvine [go here to discover and get her amazing books] and I have had an ongoing conversation about story for years. Story through dreams, story through story, story through memoir, story through poetry. Especially story through mythology and fairy tales.
We have great conversations about mythology and especially Dante, whose Commedia we both love. Talking about things like why Dante put specific women figures in Limbo and what does that mean.
One thing we love to talk about, which is almost always in mythology and is most certainly in Dante is “the underworld”.
Specifically, the underworld as presented in stories ancient and modern – and how our dreams work with us in our own personal underworld, and what that could mean.
One of our conversations this week was about the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
Demeter and Persephone. It has been one of my favorite stories, going back to when I was a kid. So much so that, in third grade, I remember doing an illustrated little book of the story, with Persephone at the center. Little pencil drawings – I especially remember the drawing I did of the moment Hades scoops her up into his chariot and carries her off.
It is a story that has been worked and explored and opened and “interpreted” in so many ways for centuries. Poets have played with the story, giving voice to different characters, especially Persephone, who does not have much voice in the original versions of the story.
[Fun Fact: Yes, I mean versions. There are so many versions of so many of the Greek myths because so many different parts of that world had different versions. This, of course, is true of all mythologies and stories, ancient and otherwise. We, as in people, adopt stories to our lives/beliefs/needs. We are still doing it.]
Here’s the basic story:
Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture (in some versions, also of the cycle of growth, flowering/fruiting, death, rebirth). In most stories, the father is Zeus. In some stories, Demeter keeps Persephone, who is a maiden, on an island with other nymphs to protect her. In most stories, however, they are simply dwelling together. Hades, the god of the underworld happens to see Persephone and immediately wants her for his own. He knows he cannot get her from Demeter, so he goes to Mt. Olympus and asks Zeus if he can take Persephone. [Fun Fact – Zeus and Hades are brothers, which makes Hades an uncle to Persephone]. Zeus, after some persuasion, agrees.
Hades has a particularly beautiful narcissus flower bloom on the island, in a place hidden. When Persephone, alone, is drawn to its scent and beauty, Hades emerges from the ground, takes her into his chariot and returns to the underworld, leaving not a trace.
Demeter, at the loss of her daughter, goes into deep grief and begins to search the world for her. Finally, the Sun, who witnessed the abduction, tells Demeter where Persephone has been taken. Demeter retreats from the other gods and goddesses and wanders the world disguised as an old woman.
Meanwhile, the earth falls into ruin, for nothing grows while Demeter grieves. A great famine befalls the people. After a year, Zeus, worried that all the people will die [leaving noone to worship him], sends all the gods and goddesses to Demeter to beg her to allow things to grow again. She refuses. Not without her daughter.
Zeus finally sends Hermes to the underworld to fetch Persephone. Hermes finds Persephone and Hades enthroned in the underworld and brings his message that Persephone must be released to her mother.
Hades assents [he must] and begs Persephone to think kindly of him, bading her to eat a few seeds of a pomegranate. He knows, she does not, that this would ensure her return. When she returned to her mother, she told her tale and Demeter knew she would have to return. Zeus, again, intervened saying that Persephone, because of eating the seeds, must spend four months every year in the underworld with Hades and the rest in the upperworld. Demeter, saddened but also sad for how she had brought suffering to humans, brought all the harvest back to the world with great abundance.
Forever after, both Demeter and Persephone bore both beauty/abundance with grief and sorrow. Demeter, at the yearly loss of her daughter. Persephone at all that she saw in the underworld.
The exploration of this story for centuries has been the focus on the mother/daughter, the moment of abduction [often called the Rape of Persephone] and the power of grief.
Some explorations of the story have been on Demeter – on how she kept her daughter from her life [almost like a prisoner on the island], how her grief was almost monstrous in that it created such a terrible famine, how she could not let her daughter leave her. Leave her to become a queen in her own right.
Exploring story, especially ancient ancestral stories, through different lenses is how we change story, how we examine culture and the self. How we understand ourselves.
But, for me, it has always been important to have every story that is told [ancient or personal] be told in the context of where it came from.
A question that my friend Amy asked me about Demeter was this – is Demeter an example of “The Dark Mother” – the mother that does not want her children to leave her, that wants always to be in control of her children. The mother who is more important than her children or anyone.
It is a great question – and some would/could say that yes, the story of Demeter is a great example of a Dark Mother story. That Persephone entering into the underworld is like the journey of the soul going into the deep unconscious underworld realms to become a queen herself.
In a book on dreaming that I helped write many years ago, we did, in fact, work the story to portray Demeter as the Dark Mother, as the suffocating, terrible, monstrous mother who would keep her daughter small – smaller than her.
But what is the context of the story?
The story is a story of ancient Greece, a society where women had no power. A fact that is mirrored in the stories of the pantheon of gods and goddesses they created. Women are not powerful, even when they have power.
Even in this story, it is Persephone’s father and uncle who conspire to have her abducted without her consent. Even in this story, the women’s fates are decided with the women being left out of the conversation altogether.
Which mirrored how this was often true for most Greek women. Married to men without their consent. Used for power. A culture where the rape of a woman was often either the fault of the woman – or considered a conquest for the rapist. Think of all the stories of Zeus “seducing” human women in different disguises without consent – the story of Zeus raping Leda in the form of a swan, for example. I think of Apollo chasing the nymph Daphne who, after crying out to her father [a river god] for help, is turned into a laurel tree. Not just imprisoned in the tree forever, but Apollo takes the leaves of the laurel tree as his symbol, thereby “winning” anyway.
It is a contextualization that still rings true today – of course and unfortunately. How many stories, how many of us women carry our own experiences of being sexually harassed or assaulted, who have had consent taken away. Who are also are often blamed or punished, not believed.
The story of Demeter and Persephone, for me carries the heavy truth of this. The sorrow and loss and horror, often, of what it means to be a woman in such a world. How a woman’s body is not entirely her own, but something to be bartered for amongst the men of the family and culture.
Sorrow and loss. The loss of innocence, the loss of freedom.
As I say, in one version of this story, we can make Demeter a Dark Mother – and we can even make it fit quite well.
But we often do this with women/mother figures in old [and new] stories. Make them the dark ones, make them the ones who are at fault. Make them monstrous.
It is what we do to ourselves, too, I think. Take stories from our lives and turn them in ways that turn them away from contextualization, away from what is true. We take stories where we may have failed or made a mistake or behaved out of old survival techniques and use them to make ourselves monstrous.
Even when we have made mistakes [even big ones], we are still human underneath. I think of Demeter in her grief, laying the land to ruin. How many of us have laid our worlds to ruin in our grief, in our reaction to trauma, in our woundedness. Or in our anger from trauma. Or in our woundedness.
We are still human underneath our suffering, our loss, our grief.
In the story, Demeter realizes the suffering she has inflicted on humans and, after, turns to the humans she hurt. The end of the story is that Demeter chooses to teach humans how to sow, grow and harvest wheat and corn and barley. She brings her wisdom of growing food and offers this.
This is another element of the story, which was true often in Greek thought of the time, that the story was one of the few mythologies that dealt with sorrow, loss, grief in this particular way. That the two goddesses carried their grief, the knowing of rape and loss, the knowing of the underworld as experienced by Greek culture. That they carried the grief of all women.
What is also interesting to me is that because the story is so focused on the mother/daughter, many do not focus on the father/daughter :: uncle/neice aspect of the story. How do we view a father who allows his brother to abduct his daughter? How do we view an uncle who would abduct his neice? How do we view a man who would kidnap a woman in order to make her his own, by tricks? Who rapes her and tricks her into staying?
Why is not the question – Is Zeus the Dark Father? Is Hades the Dark Man?
A layered story, rather than a simple one with one answer. Like I did, when I first wrote about Demeter many years ago, it is easy to go to an easy answer. Is Demeter the dark mother? Is Persephone set free by Hades? Is it a rape or a young goddess being taken to her destiny?
Layers – just like the stories we live with about ourselves, just like the stories/experiences we live in dreams.
I think our dreams work to smash the quick answer we always want to arrive at – the one that ties things up in a bow, that is just true enough to feel satisfying. Taking things out of context makes it easy to give a single layer way of being with a story.
Demeter is both terrible and kind, devastating and tender, dark and generous. Many of us who identify as women have been all of these things. Zeus is terrible and compassionate[ish], dark and worried, cold and moved by Demeter’s grief. Many who identify as men have been all of these things, too.
There is rarely one layer to any story.
Especially not our own. We are rarely just saint or monster, dark or generous, cold or deeply moved.
Next up – Let’s look at the underworld…