The myth of Demeter and Persephone, as it is generally retold, goes something like this:
Persephone, the maiden daughter of the Earth Goddess Demeter, was joyfully picking flowers with her friends when Hades kidnapped her and took her to his Underworld realm. Demeter wandered the earth in despair seeking her daughter, rendering the land barren so that the people starved and the gods and goddesses of Olympus had to do without their sacrifices. Finally, the gods and goddesses decreed that Persephone would return to her mother, but only if she had not eaten of the food of the underworld. But, alas, Hades had tempted her and she had eaten pomegranate seeds. Thus, she was forced to remain the Underworld, Hades’ captive wife, for four months of the year – winter – when the land would be bare and desolate, but come back to earth the other eight when Demeter would again make the land fruitful.
I have always loved and hated this story. It is full of violence against women and the Earth is the unwilling object to be abundant or not at the gods and goddesses’ whim. Yet it also has a beauty and meaning that always eluded, yet attracted me. Because it was written down millennia ago, this is the story that we hear. Of course, it is not the only version. In other renditions of it, Persephone journeys to the Underworld of her own accord and, with her mother, is a powerful goddess of life and death and rebirth. How different the story and its meaning for women becomes when we change just a few things here and there.
Let us begin to think differently about our stories. Instead of myths, folktales and other stories that have grown up by the retelling over time being frozen at the moment they were written down, maybe we can think of stories differently. Maybe these stories belong to each of us, ordinary women and men, and it is our right and our gift from our ancestors, to reinterpret them to meet our own needs from generation to generation. Many times I feel as if there are no myths or folktales that speak to me – they relate to lives long ago and few have come along that truly enlighten and inspire my own life. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here is another version of the Persephone and Demeter tale.
Persephone was the maiden daughter of the powerful Earth Goddess Demeter. She and her mother loved one another dearly, and her mother knew that the time had come for her daughter to become the woman she was meant to be, in all her strength and wisdom and bright joy. Demeter also knew that it was time for humans and the Earth they lived on to evolve, too. Humans lived in eternal summer, with abundant food and shelter, but no time to think, to contemplate and create, to honor that within themselves that was deep and rich. Demeter was deeply bereft to give up her daughter to her daughter’s destiny, but she knew that she had no choice.
So, Demeter called Persephone to her and told her it was time for her to go on an important journey. She was to sojourn to the Underworld and become a part of it. She was to be the link between the upper world of light, activity, and outward growth and the underworld of darkness, thought and inner enrichment. Through Persephone, humans would learn to become not just the willing servants of the gods and goddesses, but creative and immortal in their ability to think beyond their daily lives and become like the gods and goddesses.
Persephone willingly ventured down to the Underworld, though her heart was filled with sadness at leaving her mother and the beauty of the Upperworld and fear at what she would find in the Underworld. When she arrived, however, she met and fell in love with Hades, whose realm she had entered. In time, he brought her the gifts of the pomegranate, that fruit of fertility and holiness, and She brought him the joy and pleasure of the Upperworld. Yet, Persephone knew that her destiny was not to live in the Underworld all the time either. So, again with grief at leaving her new-found partner, she returned to the Upperworld and come to a decision with her mother about what to do. Together with Demeter and a willing earth, Persephone and Hades helped bring the world into balance, with Persephone spending a third of her time in the Underworld and two-thirds in the Upperworld, in correct proportion for the Earth to allow humans to both be nourished through the fruits of the land and to dive deep into the restful contemplative cave of their own souls. And so it is even to our own time.
I like that version much better and what does it teach us? That women are powerful, that mothers and daughters and women and men together can remake the world, that love creates balance, that we must face our fears and put aside our own sadness at times to fulfill our destiny, that we must both celebrate the abundance of our time in the light and honor the nurturance of our time in the dark, and that we are like the goddesses of old if we will just recognize and use our talents and strengths.
This is my story of Persephone and Demeter and it belongs to me, an ordinary woman of the 21st century, just as much as to any ancient author or contemporary scholar. What is your favorite myth or folktale and how do you tell it?
I’m sighing in agreement, Carolyn. Yes. The myths of yore are now our stories to own, imbue with our vision, and reinterpret.
I feel the same way about biblical lore. How can I take those stories, preclusively written and interpreted by an ancient male patriarchy, as historical, factual, or mine to internalize? In this time, in this place, with my wisdom, with my knowledge, they are mine to see from the vantage point of my perspective. They are mine to reinterpret and retranslate.
I cherish your story of Persephone and Demeter, written by an *extraordinary* woman of the 21st century. I would like to share in the ownership of it. I would like to join you in it, and dance with you in celebration of it.
“What is your favorite myth or folktale and how do you tell it?” What a great question! I will work on my reply.
I do believe that we all jointly own stories that speak to us, for that which makes them meaningful to us all are those things we share in common. I would love to read your answer to the question! Thank you for this wonderful comment!
It also teaches that not all men are rapists. That some are helpful partners. Very nice. Thank you.
You are so right! I hadn’t even thought of how the original story would be for a man to read. It certainly would be distressing to be portrayed that way. Thank you for mentioning this!
A very beautiful retelling, and perhaps more true to the original tale before history got hold of it. Quite inspiring and a healthy reminder that there is great wisdom and inspiration to be found within myth and legend for anyone who cares to look with a bright eye. A lovely post.
Thank you so much, Livia! It would be interesting to know what the very first version was, wouldn’t it? What a treat it would be to sit down with those early myth-makers, most likely women for this story, I would think, and really understand what they were trying to say.
Nice retelling, Carolyn 🙂
For those who are interested: 2 other retellings of this myth are by Charlene Spretnak in the anthology _Weaving the Visions_ (ed. Plaskow & Christ) and Rachel Pollack in _The Body of the Goddess_.
Thank you, Judith! I will look forward to reading those retellings. This myth is so full of potential meaning and layers of complexity that I think it could be retold over and over and each new storyteller would find something new.
Carolyn, what a beautiful version of a myth I too abhor..up til now! Of course the christian part of me (that won’t go quietly) is denying it with yells of “blasphemy”! LOL!
You know, one of the reasons I enjoy reading Women Who Run With The Wolves is because Clarissa does just as you’ve suggested…taken the folklore value of the story, and transferred it into ideals that we as modern and free-er women can relate to and inhale more easily.
Instantly, I want to rewrite Lilith’s story…the ancient Hebrew version has never sat well with me…so off I go to re-tell it, to keep me committed to my own fierceness. I’ll keep you post it about when it goes up on my site!
Peace and shakin’ the tree,
I would LOVE to read your version of the Lilith story. I know it will be wonderful. You know, stories have so many levels and express truth on so many levels, that each one has its own universe, in a way and I don’t worry too much about stories from one tradition being blasphemous to another. But, I hope this retelling wasn’t offensive to Christians or anyone else from other traditions.
🙂 Hello there!
This particular myth has great significance for me, personally…which is why I named my blog “The Wild Pomegrante”. Interestingly enough, the Pomegranate chose me…not the other way around…and compelled me to read the Proserpina story (Latin version). There are so many versions…Frankly, I didn’t focus on the rape and all that, but maybe that’s because my focus is different? I instinctively grabbed those pieces that spoke of “Emergence” and “Rebirth” and “Renewal”. And I know that many aspects of my life have gone through this ‘cycling’ through Hades, only to be reborn again…some, more than once! 🙂
Your version is absolutely wonderful.
Thank you so much for this comment, Grace! I love pomegranates, too! I wonder if maybe one comes to focus on the emergence, rebirth, and renewal as a result of going into the Underworld in our lives, that that more positive focus is a sign of the resulting wisdom?
Oh, in my case this is absolutely true. This past Summer, I went to Hell and back in my soul. Drug there by the Devil himself . It was a Tower moment for me…and as I emerged, it was this particular story that found it’s way into my life for the first time 🙂
I’m sure many (MANY) women learn easily and effortlessly.
I’ve been to hell a few times…into the Underworld and Darkness…only to come out again a changed person 🙂
I’m so glad that you did come out of that time so that I could get to know you! The gifts you brought back with you are so evident in your wonderful writings.
Beautiful story! You are poetic and creative! Thank you for all your beautiful writings.
Thank you so much!
Good morning 🙂 You’ve got mail!
Thank you! And thank you for the wonderful reading!
Wonderful revision. As I read your retelling, I realized that my attraction to this myth has been in its treatment of the mother/daughter connection. So much of the literary canon is comprised of stories that have undergone many changes but they are presented as static rather than dynamic entities.
I just started constructing a site called Stone Circle to collect my retellings of traditional tales from around the world and to collect links to resources. I am glad I found your site. It reminds me of the importance of pushing the interpretive boundaries, not simply retelling but re/vision. Thank you.
Thank you for your thoughts. I will definitely check out your site!