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

by Kathie Carlson

The Mysteries began with a cry to Iakchos, and a child representing him was chosen to lead each Mystery procession. So Baubo’s display is a deepening point for Demeter, revealing the meaning of what has happened to her daughter (and is happening to her). And though Demeter appears to lose hold of this knowledge, to fail to understand throughout this myth, by the end she too has been initiated into the Mysteries that she herself inaugerates into being.

Metanira then offered Demeter the position of nursemaid for her newborn son and the goddess accepted, saying he would not suffer in her care; she would nurse him well, she claimed, and knew of a remedy for teething and a spell against witchcraft. So she reared Demophoon, the baby, and he grew strong as a god without any feeding at all. But at night Demeter held him in a fire, secretly, to burn off his mortal parts and make him immortal.

One night, however, Metanira happened to see the goddess holding her baby in the fire. Immediately she began to wail and mourn, beating her thighs in terror. "My child, Demophoon," she cried out, "the stranger woman is hiding you in all that fire and she makes grief and bitter sorrow for me."23

Again there is a deeper–than–surface level of meaning. In her care of Demophoon, Demeter begins to recall and remanifest her powers as a goddess. On the surface, she appears to be merely an old woman, competent in resuming a mothering role with a child. But as goddess, she is no ordinary mother. From the beginning, her nurturing transcends the human level, surpassing ordinary human limits. The child thrives from the presence of the Goddess alone, receives transcendent food, participates in a more–than–human realm. Where this is leading becomes even more clear in the secret, nightly ritual.Drawing up her full transformative powers, Demeter subjects the child to what, in a human realm, would be certain death; understandably his human mother perceives it exactly this way and responds accordingly. But here again is an initiation point, as the next part of the myth will clearly convey. For the goddess intends not a killing of the child but a transformation, precisely the drawing out of a new form of life from the death experience. Conveyed first by Baubo in her parody of the death–rape, this message is now embodied by Demeter herself.

Metanira, however, reacts as any mother of a much–loved child would— with grief and terror and protest. The stranger is killing her child, or so it certainly seems. What is extremely interesting is that Metanira becomes the grieving mother, like Demeter who has also thought that the fate of her child at the hands of a stranger in a secret, hidden place, will be certain death. And Demeter too has grieved and mourned and been terrified. But notice the goddess’s surprising response to the mother’s display of grief:

Demeter grew furious, lifted the child out of the fire and threw him on the ground, denouncing Metanira for her foolishness. "Stupid people," she raged, "brainless, you don’t even know when fate is bringing you something good or something bad."24 Revealing herself now as the goddess Demeter, she told the totally terror–stricken Metanira that she would have made her son immortal, saved him from death, but now this is impossible. Throwing away her disguise, she instructed the terrified Metanira and her husband the king of Eleusis to have the people build her a temple immediately;here she would inaugerate her mysteries.

Demeter’s fury and denouncement of Metanira’s reactions as stupid and ignorant are remarkable since she herself has been reacting in exactly the same way to Kore’s abduction by the death god. But here a different aspect of Demeter manifests, essentially conveying that the human perspective on death— human grief and terror— is ignorant. Human beings do not understand that what looks like certain death is, in the hands of the goddess, transformation and new life. Metanira represents the human perspective that cannot get beyond itself, can’t give credence to or recognize the Divine when the latter is disguised. Metanira sees Demeteras if she were another human being, a killer at that. But Demophoon is not being harmed! Demeter takes him beyond the human realm from the beginning; she feeds him nothing but herself, her care, and he thrives like a god. From a human perspective, Demeter is starving him, refusing the usual, imperative nourishment that human life needs— and on top of that, burning him to death. But he thrives, beyond human capacity, and he is not harmed by the fire. When Metanira interupts Demeter’s ritual, Demophoon has already been held in the fire many times and, rather than being hurt or killed, he thrives.

Keleous quickly set in motion an order to fulfill Demeter’s request and soon the townspeople had built her a temple to which she retired, only to again sink into grief over her own lost child. But now she devised a terrible punishment; she withdrew her gift of grain from the land. The seed would not germinate, and gods and mortals were threatened alike: humanity was in danger of starving and the gods received no offerings for there was no longer a harvest. Zeus took note of this and sent many other gods and goddesses, one after the other, to appease the wrath of Demeter. They offered her wonderful gifts, exhorted her to restore the grain,but she would have none of it; growing ever more angry, she vowed that she would never set foot on Olympus again until she saw her daughter’s beautiful face.

From a linear, rational perspective, this part of the myth makes no sense. Demeter has already manifested her power to transform the death experience, as well as having earlier received the revelation from Baubo that what appears to be death–rape is actually new life. That she now again falls into depression and grief— the perspective she has just denounced as ‘ignorant’ and a misunderstanding of fate— seems inexplicable. From a human perspective, we would say she seems split, split within herself, for it is as if she continually loses hold of what she knows and forgets her own deeper power to transfigure and transform. The myth proceeds in a nonlinear way, rhythmically, laying out an irrational path of development. The goddess keeps shifting, gaining knowledge and losing it, embodying power and not knowing what her power is, transforming the death experience and falling back into depression and grief around it. She shifts back and forth, embodies and suffers the pain of the ignorance she has denounced while moving deeper and deeper into the transformative power that that pain will draw forth.

I think this vacillation is profoundly meaningful and is itself a gift from the goddess for, clearly possessing the power to transform life out of death, the power she has always had as Death Goddess herself, she nevertheless bends low to us, takes on the human perspective on death— the grief and terror and rage and depression we humans feel when faced with what seems like the certain and final end of the life that we love. It is as if she goes before us, takes on our dumbness and our pain, becomes initiated herself, setting forth the model and the pattern that human beings would follow for the next 1500 years. She gives us the Mysteriesthat were believed to instill in every initiate hope in the face of Death. She herself goes first, shows us the way, takes us through the pain and grief and rage and human ignorance that can ultimately be transformative and lead toward participation in her power.

*Footnotes:23) Friedrich, p. 173. 24) Boer, p. 113.