Death and Return in the Myth of Demeter and Persephone (Continued) 3

by Kathie Carlson

These meanings stand behind the more prosaic Homeric story; at this point in the poet’s version of the tale, Demeter responds to the pity of the young girls by telling them a most interesting cover story: "Doso is my name," the goddess contends. "My mistress mother gave it to me. Just now I came from Crete over the wide back of the sea, not willingly, for pirates brought me away unwillingly, by force, under compulsion." 18 She goes on to say that she fled those ‘arrogant masters’ rather than letting them hold her for ransom and wandered until she came to this town, a town that is foreign to her.

Although part of the disguise Demeter assumes to conceal her identity as the goddess, the story she tells about herself and her origins to the young women leads like an ever–descending spiral deeper into the meaning of the myth. The name ‘Doso’ means ‘giver’ and is another name for Earth.19 Thus Demeter connects herself with the oldest and most basic of the goddesses. Moreover, she identifies herself only through her connection to her mother, preserving and emphasizing again the integrity of the matriarchal unit.

Demeter’s tale at this point presents a remarkable parallel to what has just happened to her daughter. She too has been seized from her maternal origin against her will (note the repeated emphasis on her unwillingness) and by violence, but unlike Kore, she has escaped. And here too, variants of the Homeric version of the myth continue to establish parallels between the two goddesses’ experiences. Thus in one variant, Demeter too is raped. While searching for her daughter, she is accosted by the third of the patriarchal brothers, Poseidon, god of the sea.Fleeing him, she turns herself into a mare but he continues to pursue her, changing himself into a stallion. In that form, he ravishes her, begetting a mysterious daughter whom no one may name and a famous mythical horse.

Over and over the myth and its variants reveal: what happens to the Daughter happens also to the Mother. This pattern of parallels suggest a profound empathic bond between the two goddesses, moving toward a more ancient vision of them as separate–yet–one. Moreover, it makes visible the fact that Demeter’s journey is essentially an initiatory one. Step by step in the myth, she is being initiated into the meaning of her daughter’s abduction. Step by step (though in a nonlinear progression, as we will see, a progression marked by back–and–forth shifting between humanlike ignorance and goddesslike powers and understanding),the goddess begins to grasp the transformation taking place through her daughter and embodies and undergoes this transformation herself. Laying the ground for human beings who will follow her, Demeter is the first initiate into the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Mysteries of her daughter’s transfiguration.

Continuing the story: After telling her story, Demeter asked the young women to advise her as to where she might find employment, offering her services as a nurse and housekeeper. The daughters of Keleos replied that no one would turn her away, for she was obviously well–bred and looked like a goddess; in fact, their own mother might hire her, for there was a newborn son in their house, long awaited and much desired, who needed a nurse’s care. Having said this, they ran to their house to discuss this with Metanira, their mother. Metanira quickly approved and told them to bring Demeter to her. "Like deer or like heifers in the season of Spring,who leap about in the meadow when they’re glutted with food, so they, holding up the folds of their lovely garments, darted down the hollow path [to the well where Demeter sat waiting]. And their hair streamed out around their shoulders like crocus flowers."20

By offering herself as a baby nurse, Demeter appears to be re–establishing her mothering role, but what she will bring to this child goes far beyond ordinary mothering, as we will see. Demeter’s loss of her own child is made all the more poignant in this part of the myth by the poet’s description of the daughters of Keleos, evoking the image of Kore and the field of flowers from which she was kidnapped.

The goddess veiled her face and allowed herself to be led back to the house of Keleos. When she crossed the threshold to enter the house, her head grazed the ceiling and the doorway was filled with light. Metanira was overwhelmed with awe but didn’t recognize Demeter; she asked her to sit down. Demeter hesitated until the serving–maid Iambe provided a chair for her; then she sat and sank into depression, "wasting away with longing"21 for her lost daughter. But Iambe told jokes and clowned around, making the goddess laugh and her cheerful nature soon returned.

The Homeric hymn does not reveal the content of Iambe’s jests, but a variant of this part of the myth is more forthcoming. In the variant, (part of which was previously mentioned in the tale of Euboleus and his hapless pigs), Demeter has gone to the house of a peasant named Dysaules instead of the house of Keleos. The name of this peasant links him with Hades and the underworld, for its meaning is ‘he in whose house it is not good to live’. Dysaules has a wife named Baubo, whose name means ‘belly’. It is she who makes Demeter laugh; she does so by throwing herself on her back in what is described as an ‘obscene way’ and lifting her skirts to reveal her ‘uncomely womb’.There, dancing in her womb, is Demeter’s own son Iakchos (the offspring of a joyous coupling between the goddess and a Titan, Iasion).22

I believe this scene with Baubo to be one of several initiation points in this myth, moments when the curtain is drawn back on things as they appear on the surface and a deeper meaning is revealed; inevitably, this deeper meaning involves the transformation of what appears to be only violation and death. Baubo’s gesture of throwing herself onto her back in an obscene way suggests to me a parody of being raped. Coupled with the appearance of Demeter’s own child, alive and dancing in the womb, it seems to instruct Demeter: look deeper, there is more here than meets the eye. What appears to be rape and, by extension to Kore, a rape unto death, is instead the gestation of new life.Moreover, the new life is intimately connected to the goddess herself, belongs to her. This foreshadows a moment in the Eleusinian Mysteries in which the high priest announces "Brimo has brought forth Brimos!" As Brimo, an ancient name for the goddess of death, Persephone gives birth to a son, a child whose name is merely a variant of her own. (Author’s note: as I argue throughout the book, as Queen of the Dead, who comes back pregnant from the underworld, Persephone as Brimo ransoms Hades— a hated god isolated from all of life in his underworld realm— back into Life through his son aswell as reclaiming the patriarchal god back into an older son–of–the–Mother.)

*Footnotes: 18) Friedrich, p. 169. 19) Friedrich, p. 169. 20) Friedrich, p. 171. 21) Friedrich, p. 172. 22) Kerenyi, p. 40. C.f. Graves, p. 90d.