Here we are, creeping up on the vernal equinox (March 21), which astronomers and weathermen on TV tell us is the start of spring. I see Imbolc (as described by Deanne Quarrie) as the true beginning of spring, however. It’s when we see the first little crocuses popping up through the snow…..oh, yeah…..well, maybe not this year, when more than half the U.S. is buried under mountains of snow. Let’s just agree that in ordinary years crocuses pop up and bloom and trees start showing us their tiny green leaves in February. The equinox is really the turning point of spring, the hinge of time when the rising energy tips over into falling energy that is flowing toward summertime, which will arrive at Beltane (May 1 or 2).
We’re probably all familiar with the story of Persephone, who under her childhood name, Kore, was out picking flowers in the meadow one day when her Uncle Hades roared up out of the earth in his mighty chariot and kidnapped her. This led her mother, Demeter, the grain goddess, to search for her and finally go on strike and let the world turn back into winter. This went on until Aunt Hecate told Demeter where her daughter was. When Persephone, now queen of the underworld, came back up with her mother—voilà! It was springtime. That’s how the vegetation myth goes.
But what if that isn’t the whole story? Or the real story? The first variant I ever read was in Lost Goddesses of Earth Greece by Charlene Spretnak (published in 1978). In this ovular book, Spretnak revisions the story by “approximat[ing] the original by employing the surviving clues and evidence” of the invasions of Greece by the patriarchal tribes from Asia Minor. “It is likely,” she writes, “that the story of the rape of the Goddess is a historical reference to the invasion of the northern Zeus-worshippers, just as is the story of the stormy marriage of Hera, the native queen who will not yield to the conqueror Zeus” (p. 107).
Let me tell you a real story of Persephone. (Note that while I am inspired by Spretnak’s retelling, I’m not copying it.) Once upon a time there lived a goddess of agriculture who inspired people all over the known world to plant seeds and grow gardens of fruits and vegetables and flowers and groves of trees. This goddess, whose name was Demeter, had a daughter named Persephone whom she loved more than anyone else in the whole world. They didn’t know who the girl’s father was, but because they lived in a matrilineal society where everyone had equal rights (and rites), it didn’t matter. There was no shame attached to being a single mother and the words “illegitimate child” were meaningless. Because the land had a mild climate, there was no winter, and so the natural cycles of planting and harvesting went on all year. For days at a time, Demeter would descend under the ground and walk arm in arm with her sister goddesses—Ceres (who oversaw the cereal crops), Flora (who colored the flowers), Venus (who cared for herbs and kitchen gardens) (this was long before the newer gods turned her into a sex pistol), and Ariadne (who loved every single plant, even the homely ones). The goddesses encouraged the seeds and rootlets to sprout and grow. Sometimes Persephone went with her mother and her aunts.
One day Persephone turned to her mother, “When we walk under the ground,” she said, “I hear the spirits of the dead moaning and crying. They tell me they’re sad and lonely. They need someone to care for them.”
“That’s not our task,” Demeter replied. “We’re in charge of plant life. Other goddesses and gods are in charge of animals, the weather, life and death among mortals, and nearly everything else. Our job is to encourage agriculture.”
But Persephone was a stubborn girl. “Mother,” she said, “I’ve promised the spirits of the dead that I will come back and comfort them. I’ll tell them that their families still remember them. I’ll tell them that they can be born again into new lives. I’ll tell them stories to cheer them up.”
It took a lengthy and somewhat heated conversation until Demeter was finally convinced that the girl had found her calling. “All right, Daughter,” she said with a huge sigh. “I cannot stop you from going. But I will miss you. I will be so sad that I may even forget to walk under the ground with your aunts and encourage the seeds and rootlets to sprout. Now go. And come back soon!” (Notice that it’s never too early for the classic maternal guilt trip.)
And so Persephone gathered up a bouquet of poppies and wheat to take with her, and then she opened another door to the underworld and walked down a flight of stairs that seemed to be endless. At every level, she stopped for a while and gave poppies and wheat to the spirits of the dead, who had heard she was coming. She hugged them and listened to their complaints and sat them in circles around her as she told stories, few of which were true (but that’s how mythology is born). There were so many spirits of the dead and so many levels in the underworld that she was there for a very long time.
And her mother? Although Demeter’s mind told her that our children are outward bound from the minute they emerge from our wombs, her heart told her that she might never see her daughter again. She moped and fell into mourning. She took to her bed and neglected the land. She refused to walk with her sister goddesses. The land grew cold and dark and barren. Winter came, but Demeter didn’t care. Nothing could persuade her to get up again.
Until one day. One day she saw crocuses popping out of the barren, snowy ground where gardens had once bloomed. One day she heard whispers coming through the windows of the underworld. “Queen Persephone is going home to her mother.” “Queen Persephone is going above to comfort her mother as she has comforted us.” “Queen Persephone will bring life back to the wintry land and her mother and aunts will be cheerful. The plants that people require to live will begin growing and blooming again.” “Queen Persephone will visit her mother and restart the natural cycles of planting and harvesting.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Persephone walked back up the endless stairs and found her mother and her aunts. She persuaded Demeter to get out of bed. By this time of course, the girl had grown up. She spoke with her mother and her aunts woman to woman and told them how the spirits of the dead had elected her their queen. She told them she now lived in the underworld, but she also promised to come up and visit them at least once every year. And that’s how it has been ever since.
Even though our world is enormously different from that of Persephone and her mother and her aunts, we can still partake of elements of it. Let’s imitate Persephone in four ways—and let’s not do this just in the springtime. We can do these things all year long:
- We can pay attention to sad people and comfort them.
- We can tell stories, not only to the sad people, but also to children and friends and whoever else might listen.
- We can gather flowers and give bouquets to people who need some beauty in their lives.
- We can be nice to our mothers. When’s the last time you called your mother? The last time you invoked our Mother?
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.
12 thoughts on “Persephone by Barbara Ardinger”
I like the personal touches in this story that mark it as a telling among others rather than the telling.
A telling itself so tenderly childlike and innocent. Thank you for sharing this Barbara. I love your stories and would like to see more of them at FAR. I remember that little girl self and she comes back and talks to me sometimes too — she is stronger than I am and has more wisdom.
But along with the peaceful retellings, we also need the Greek Demeter and her rage at the mistreatment of her daughter. The Demeter myth was first written more than four thousands years ago, and yet as women our right of way is still being abducted by patriarchy. But we can’t change things if we don’t look squarely at that simple fact. Starhawk wrote an important reflection on why we need the Hymn to Demeter, she says:
“We need the rage of Kore’s mother, the rage that will not submit, that rises out of despair, that brings results. Demeter, who called the first sitdown strike in history, who invented passive resistance, who said, ‘Nothing will grow until my daughter is returned’ — whose demands must be met. Demeter — who always refuses to ignore the horror of Her loss and continue with business as usual. Demeter — our own power to grieve and yet make that grief a force that compels change, that brings about renewal.”
from “Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics,” p.84, by Starhawk (1997)
I like that myths can be retold and reimagined as well as interpreted in so many different ways. One of the ways this myth comforted both my daughter and me was during her coming of age. It truly seemed that the little girl who had been by my side and saw her mother as being able to do no wrong had been abducted as seemingly overnight she began the painful separation into womanhood. Of course, we, as mothers want this for our daughters. They must differentiate and find out who they are separate from us, but on a personal level it is so painful and a grieving sets in. Once compliant and happy girls frolicking in the meadow become angry, rebellious, obstinate young women trying so hard to say “if I am not you, then who am I? How do I find this out?” It is painful for girls to go through this, too. She had to find her way in the darkness without her mother. My daughter and I talked about the myth at the time this was happening and it helped both of us see that we were part of a bigger dance, one that has been happening since time immemorial. And fortunately, it is a story of reconciliation and reconnection. Mother and daughter will be united again, just in a different way. Persephone is now queen in her own right and Demeter must live on as a vital force in her own right. And so it has been, and so it shall be.
lovely image – the foretelling of Persephone’s return by the crocus!
Thank you for the story, Barbara! I am missing the crocuses and my own rather Persephone-like daughter. Your telling of the ancient story reminds me that the wheel turns and life returns.
Lovely, Barbara. I have told a variant of Charlene Spretnak’s retelling of the Persephone myth many times. I like the idea that Demeter and Persephone walk underground, encouraging the seeds to sprout and the rootlets to grow, and that’s how she hears the cries of the dead. And I really like your interpolations of Persephone’s reasons for going to the underworld — not just that she heard the cries of the dead, but that she had help for them in the form of news of their families, who still loved them; that she would tell them stories to cheer them up (YAY!!); and of course, that they would be reborn (which I used in my story as well).
About seeds and the underground, harvested seeds have to be put in a cool dark place (such as a cave or a cellar) before being planted in order to encourage them to sprout.
What a beautiful retelling of this story, a powerful reclaiming of our beginnings. I also love their underground sojourn with the seeds and Persephone’s hearing of Her calling. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to more…
Beautiful retelling of this story. I always appreciate that you leave me with the start of new ways to practice in my life. Spring does make a turn.
Thank you for this. I will read it to my family on the vernal equinox. My daughter is named Persephone and I know she will appreciate it. As will her mother!