JoMA Archives: Nonfiction : Death and Return in the Myth of Demeter and Persephone V by Kathi Carlson

“Demeter” by Jean–Francois Millet

At this point in the myth, Demeter takes action. Mildness and tenderness, the usual attributes of this basically benevolent goddess, give way to rage and grief written large in an act of protest. As one of my colleagues once put it succinctly, her position becomes: “Nobody eats!”(25) Nor do the gods receive their due, the first–fruits of the harvest, for there is no harvest and will not be until the abduction of Kore is undone.

Hearing this, Zeus relented, sending Hermes to retrieve the maiden from the underworld and to lead her into the light again. Hermes found her pining away with longing for her mother in the house of Hades. He explained the enormity of Demeter’s vengeance to Hades and relayed the command of Zeus that her daughter was to be returned. Hades did not disobey but spoke to his reluctant wife of what would be hers when she was with him. Echoing Helios, he asserted that he was not an unworthy spouse for her and that while she was with him, she would reign over his kingdom as Persephone, Queen of the Dead, and share in his honors. Then, when she leapt up with joy to begin the long trip back to her mother, he secretly slipped her a pomegranate seed. Unwittingly, she ate it, thus ensuring her return to the underworld.

In Robert Graves’ version of the myth, the messages from Zeus to both Hades and Demeter are particularly strong. To Hades, he conveys: “If you do not restore (K)ore, we are all undone!”— a powerful reflection of the impact of Demeter’s protest. To Demeter herself, Zeus adds, “You may have your daughter again, on the single condition that she has not yet tasted the food of the dead.” (26)

Anyone who ate the food of the dead was committed to stay in the underworld. The Greeks believed that eating ritual food was communion, a participation with the gods and their powers. In the usual renderings of the myth, Persephone starved herself throughout her stay with Hades27 and persistently cried for her mother; these were her only available means of protest and resistance. In some variants of the myth, however, she ate the seeds in secret out of Hades’ garden, driven by her hunger, and Hades’ gardener observed this and reported it to the god. (28)

The ‘seeds of death’ which consummate the marriage of Kore and Hades are part of a complex and powerful symbol. The pomegranate’s many seeds make it an obvious symbol of fertility and it was used both in marriage rites and at funerals in Greece, thus linking the two and underscoring again the motif of ‘fertile death’. It also reveals twin mythological themes of vital import to ancient Greeks and found still among some Greeks in rural areas today: marriage as death and death as a marriage.

The color of the pomegranate also links it with the poppy that some have suggested was the flower that Kore picked; red, the blood–color, was also sacred to the dead. Another link with the realm of the Dead was the belief among the ancients that souls nibbled at the pomegranate seeds laid on their graves, just as they felt themselves to be nearly human again when given offerings of blood. (29)

Although many scholars suggest that the pomegranate connects with the shedding of hymeneal blood, the symbolic death of the virgin, there are other darker links between this fruit and literal death. Thus in another Greek myth the virgin Side took her life on the grave of her mother because her father wished to seduce her; from her blood, the earth caused the pomegranate to grow. (30) Here the pomegranate springs forth as the poignant, mute testament of resistance to incest and a return to maternal origins. But other myths connect this fruit with pregnancy and new life; in another tale the goddess Nana (a name for the Great Mother of Asia Minor) was impregnated by the fruit of the pomegranate tree and bore a divine son— as does Persephone once she becomes the Mystery goddess.

It seems to be at this point in the myth that Kore becomes Persephone. Her name makes the nature of her transformation clear, for ‘Persephone’ means ‘she who brings destruction’, i.e. the Goddess of Death.

To return to the tale: Then Hades harnessed his horses to his chariot and returned Hermes and Persephone to the world above. Persephone, seeing her mother, leapt from the chariot and ran into her arms. Suddenly Demeter became frightened and asked anxiously if Persephone had eaten anything in the underworld. ” . . .if you have partaken (of any food in the underworld),” the goddess told her daughter, “you will go back again to the secret places of the earth and dwell there a third part of the seasons of the year and two parts among men and the other gods. When the earth blooms with sweet–smelling spring flowers of all kinds, then up from the misty darkness you will come again, a wonder to gods and to all mortal men.” (31 )Then Persephone told her mother the whole story of the unwilling abduction and her sojourn in the kingdom of death, concluding with an account of how Hades “by force, against my will” made her eat the pomegranate seed. But Zeus and Demeter agreed to the arrangements the goddess had foretold in her anxious inquiring: for two thirds of the year, Persephone would be with her mother in the upperworld. The remaining third, she would spend with Hades in his kingdom under the earth.

This is evident as well in the new willingness of both Zeus and Demeter to reach an agreement regarding the consequences of Persephone’s consumption of the pomegranate. Both god and goddess compromise: Zeus allows the commitment of Persephone to the underworld to be partial and cyclical instead of total and static, and Demeter acquiesces to a less–than–complete return of her daughter to her origins. Rape becomes ritual at this point; what began as an involuntary descent by seizure becomes now an annual, voluntary downgoing. Like Hermes, Persephone becomes a psychopomp– one who is capable of living in two worlds and becomes the bridge between them. All this takes place once the Mysteries have been inaugerated and Demeter’s insistence on her daughter’s return to the light has been met.

The seasonal aspects of Persephone’s subsequent descents and returns have often been commented on, but this connection of the myth with the cyclicity of nature is far more than an explanation of how the seasons came about. It expresses the fluidity of vision so beautiful and profound in pagan religion that could recognize in Nature and her vicissitudes the presence and drama of the Goddess and draw from it to assuage the human hunger for participation and meaning, inspiration and hope. To ‘feel into’ the season of winter: to take into one’s self the barrenness, the dormancy, the separation from and seeming cessation of life; to experience it all as if it were the loss of the Kore child, vibrant and cherished; to draw it even deeper into one’s own life, experience the bitterness, the grieving, the raging over all of the places where life spirals downward, appears to be lost: this is the start of initiation. But to follow Persephone on this path, to see her in Nature, is also to experience return. For at the darkest point of winter, the solstice point, the light returns, and life begins to stir again, breaking forth from its hiddenness under the earth, re–emerging in the miracle, the utterly dependable sequel to death: the season of spring. She returns and, with her, the dead are reborn, blossoming forth like flowers and grain: the initiation is complete, the vision fulfilled— only to begin and repeat the whole cycle again.