Poor Persephone--If there's one mythic figure whose archetypal resonance is easy to constrict into a shallow stereotype, it would be this Greek goddess. Whether we've been steeped in mythology, or have had only a brief introduction, the tale of Persephone's abduction into the underworld is a classic. Perhaps too much so, in that we feel like we "get" the story on the first pass: A young virgin goddess is abducted by the old king of the underworld, her enraged and grief-stricken mother causes trouble for humans on earth as she transforms the eternal abundance of spring into the eternal lack of winter. Mom finally makes a deal with the head god, Zeus, and gets her daughter back for part of each year, thus creating/explaining the changing seasons on earth.
While those are the broad outlines, the story is so much juicier, especially when envisioned through the eyes of Persephone herself--not that Persephone (the silly goddess-ette romping through fields of flowers with her virgin girl squad) but the dark, powerful and mature queen of the underworld that she becomes.
Like all great stories (and myths are the greatest of stories) there's often a plot twist that can't be easily explained away--a twist that allows for different, and deeper, understandings of the tale's protagonist. As the goddess Demeter (Persephone's mother) rages and sinks into depression after her daughter's abduction and presumed rape, Persephone trades innocence for maturity, maidenhood for womanhood. So the plot twist: As she is being granted her freedom, she eats a handful of pomegranate seeds (knowing, I believe) that eating any fruits of the underworld would ensure that she would have to return, that her "escape" to mother would be more like a yearly visit.
Her transformation in the underworld and her willing (or unwilling) partaking of the pomegranate seeds have been the subject of numerous works by psychologists, mythologists, religious studies scholars, and artists alike. A "re-visioning" of the figure of Persephone reveals her as a complex woman comprised of equal parts victim, survivor, strategist, lover, partner and queen. In The Moon and the Virgin, artist and therapist Nor Hall writes:
"Seduction is a kind of education. When you are educated, or educed, you are led out. When you are seduced, you are led aside. . . . . The event of first enrapturement seduces one out of childhood."
Like Hall, Chris Downing (religious & mythological studies scholar) has reflected deeply on the figure of Persephone. Her essay, "Persephone in Hades" is a powerful means of understanding how Persephone's story could have guided so many in the ancient world through the Eleusinian Mysteries, and perhaps more importantly, why myths still matter in the contemporary world.
"When [one begins to see] that the whole story is about a figure who is first and foremost goddess of the underworld, one understands very differently what it means to say that she is also goddess of spring and renewal. To start with death, with the underworld, as a given is to see life in an entirely different way. . . . We are always still virginal before the really transformative (killing) experiences."
Those of use who are drawn to myths (as a way of understanding and enriching our contemporary lives) see within the dynamics of the Demeter/Persephone/Hecate/Hades/Zeus/Dionysos relationship a treasure trove for perspectives on fate, suffering, grieving, redemption and renewal. While, like dreams, myths can be strange and fragmentary, they can also be revelatory. As Nor Hall observes:
"Myths . . . are not false stories but are complex and essential psychic facts. They arise out of the sleep cycle of a culture the way a dream comes up int he sleep cycle of an individual."
For a deeper dive into Persephone's underworld, start with Downing's The Long Journey Home: Re-visioning the Myth of Demeter and Persephone for Our Time, where twenty five different contributors offer penetrating takes on the tale. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, translated from the ancient Greek, is also essential. A very recent take on the archetypal underpinnings of the Persephone story can be found in Carol S. Pearson's Persephone Rising: Awakening the Heroine Within. Enjoy the journey--you may even want to taste a pomegranate seed or two on your way!
I'm Mary Antonia Wood, Ph,D. I share both contemporary & ancient insights on the origins & realities of artistic expression. Creators of all types will discover enriching & practical wisdom about their vocation as expressed through the lenses of philosophy, mythology, archetypal & depth psychologies, neuroscience and more. Take a look.