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?