Sunday, October 18, 2009

Essay on Persephone

First published in He Epistole Newsletter, August 2007
Available at

Margaret Atwood referred to her as "Double Persephone".

"The dancing girl's a withered crone;
though her deceptive smile
Lures life from the earth, rain from the sky,
It hides a wicked sickle; while
Those watching sense the red blood curled
Waiting in the center of her eye;

But the stranger from the hill
Sees only the bright gleam
Of a slim woman gathering asphodel,
and lashes his black team."

I have spent half a lifetime in the presence of Persephone and all of her aspects. That is why a conversation about mythology rocked me to the core and sent me on a spiral inward. I wanted to know if what I had felt - what was part of me to the very depths of my soul - was just plain wrong.

And I learned a few things. I suppose that would be the point. However, what I learned is that the Goddess does not choose her devotees lightly and that what I have always known and always felt is in fact the hand of the Goddess.

The conversation pretty much revolved around when Persephone descended into the underworld with her husband and when she ascended back to Olympos with her mother. The conversation involved a lot of talk about the Greek planting and season cycles - clearly different than the ones I had experienced in Suburban Detroit growing up. Very different from the ones that I experience here in Atlanta Georgia now.

Personal experience has always been the very cornerstone of my spiritual practice. I do not believe that the gods exist in the scholarly works from centuries ago. If our tradition is a living and breathing tradition then the Gods exist in the here and now. The ancient Greek texts and modern studies of the Greek texts provide us a map or a guidebook but they do not provide us with spiritual experiences. At least that is what I have come to find over the years.

So when I turned to the bookshelf to teach myself more, I was surprised. And the true epiphany came while reading The Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays edited by Helene P. Foley. Frankly, when I started this book I expected it to be dry and boring. However, I found it to be quite the opposite - providing me with much insight.

I was reading Foley's commentary on her translation of the Hymn when I came across this bit regarding lines 401 through 403:

"In the Hymn, Persephone's return does not explicitly cause the spring but precedes it." So I read more. "In the Hymn Demeter specifies that Persephone will return each year with the spring flowers but the season when the abduction took place is uncertain." (Foley, p.58)

Interestingly enough - in the aforementioned conversation I had been informed under no uncertain terms that the Hymn does not give us any contextual clues regarding the abduction or return. Well, maybe not on the abduction - but it appears to be quite specific about the return.

So I flipped back to the translation (Foley provides the English on the left page with the Greek on the right, as well, for the ability to cross reference were someone to choose).

In the Hymn Demeter says to Persephone:

"When the earth blooms in spring with all kinds
of sweet flowers then from the misty dark you will
rise again, a great marvel to gods and mortal men."

So there, right in front of me, were lines I had read a dozen times but it seemed as if they had always escaped me.

I grabbed my other book of Homeric Hymns, a translation that I love by Diane Rayor. I flipped to the same lines in her book:

"When earth sprouts with every kind of fragrant
flowers in spring, out of the misty darkness
you will rise again, a great marvel for gods and mortal folk."

And the Loeb volume 57, translated by H.G. Evelyn-White, reads:

“But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in
every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom shalt come up
once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.”

Foley then continues to point out contextual clues from the mythologies. Ovid's Metamorphoses has Prosperina picking flowers in the spring. And the Orphic Hymn does specifically place the marriage of Persephone and Hades in the fall:

"In spring you rejoice in the meadow breezes
and you show your holy figure in shoots and green fruits.
You were made a kidnapper's bride in the fall,
and you alone are life and death to toiling mortals,
O Persephone, for you always nourish all and kill them, too."
(translation by A. Athanassakis)

The commentary continues to say:

"Later sources, sometime said to be Stoic-influenced, interpret earlier myth as indicating that Persephone is associated with the planted seed and thus absent while it is in the ground (contrary to later interpretation, but it is not clear that these sources use Persephone's appearance and disappearances explicitly to explain the seasons). In Greece the grain continues to grow after being sown in the fall, if slowly, throughout the winter season; growth then quickens in the spring. The winter is thus a time of less food but slow growth. Cornford and Nilsson associated the descent of Persephone with the storing of the seed in the underground pithoi (jars) after the harvest. Her absence then coincided with the dry months of summer (one-third of the year), and she returned in time for the fall plowing (and the fertile two-thirds of the year). Lack of growth coincides in this case with abundance, because the proceeds of the spring harvest are ready at hand. This version corresponds better with the actual growing season in Greece; yet the Hymn, by linking Persephone's return to the spring flowers, appears to deny it."

She goes on to footnote (regarding Cornford and Nilsson) that some scholars reject their view but others, including Burkert are still "sympathetic" to it.

Is Foley the only one who has a correct interpretation? Certainly not. Who can know - it is all conjecture. These are ancient texts and their Author's intentions died with the authors. The texts remain a map but not the bible - the Gods are the source.

Then Carl Kerenyi throws a new monkey wrench into the whole deal. In the book "Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter", he suggests that Persephone never really leaves the underworld at all.

"In the cult of the Queen of the Dead, to whom the dying repair at all seasons, the underworld can scarcely have remained without a queen for two thirds or - according to a later version - half the year. Could the travelers to the underworld - Orpheus, Herakles, Theseus, and Peirithoos - have found the queen's throne empty?" (Kerenyi, p. 148) "Thus her person seems always to have admitted of a duplication." (Kerenyi, p. 149)

And now we are back to Atwood's "Double Persephone". Perhaps the intuitive and poetic author Margaret Atwood understood Persephone in a way that Kerenyi, Foley and the author of the Hymn could not. The real Persephone is ALL of the Persephones. The real Persephone is the one who reveals herself to her devotees as she chooses and to each one differently. Does it really matter when she descends and returns? And maybe there is, as is suggested, a duality to Persephone that really splits the Queen of the Dead from the Kore eternally. But ultimately, if this is a living and breathing tradition the real Persephone is the one who has revealed herself to me and to others in whatever way she feels appropriate for the individual.

I have hesitated sharing all of this with the community. I don't believe that the modern Hellenic tradition should be about proving each other more right or more wrong. It really should be about the Gods and about our individual experiences with the gods than about what it is that Hesiod, Homer or anyone else said about the Gods. Once again, those are guideposts not gospels. There are so many contradictions even in the ancient world that the modern Hellene's mind would easily explode trying to reconcile it all to create one cohesive interpretation.

My relationship with Persephone has evolved quite a bit since the first time I learned of her existence. And I suspect that it will continue to evolve for the rest of my life. That is how it should be, I believe. I practice a Devotional tradition above all. May all the reading and research I do provide a deeper understanding of the Goddess and my relationship with her.

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