Persephone returns

I became a feminist when I was 24 years old.

I had graduated from college, been promoted to a new position, lived in a swank apartment and flashed a fresh-from-the-velvet engagement ring. In the window of time between waiting and settled, I decided to take a class at the local State University. After looking over my options, I signed up for a mythology course. I had been interested in Greek mythology for obvious reasons since childhood and had taken a traditional primary text class as an undergraduate. I thought that “Mythology and Women’s Studies” sounded like a provocative continuation. I assumed that the “women’s studies” part meant that we would spend more time on Hera than Zeus.

I was right and wrong. The class was not at all what I expected. I sat beside diversity I had never been exposed to, even in books and movies. This classroom was the threshold of an education that would begin in Salt Lake City, Utah, move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and burrow deep, changing me. In that classroom something shifted, and I am certain that I know the exact moment. The exact story. I thought that I had read the following story a million times before. It is a common myth. But I learned there was another version, an original, a pre-Hellenic scrap from the perspective of an agricultural, matriarchal-based society. The story I thought I knew may have been written much later.

Here is the older story I remember from that classroom over 20 years ago. I apologize that I am not able to attribute the source, but part of me doesn’t want to do the research. It has taken on a truth, a mythic significance, that may or may not be accurate. This is the story that now lives in my head:   

Once upon a time when Gaia the Mother was young and humans had only just been created, the Gods walked between Heaven and Earth and cared nothing for the mortals beneath their feet.

Demeter was the Goddess of green plants, wild and tame, and her daughter Persephone was as beautiful and powerful as her mother. Together they tended the living things and taught weak humans to cultivate through work what the immortals could bloom with a kiss. Persephone glided between furrows of corn and combed the cherry branches with her fingers and the humans loved her quiet strength and kindness. She alone would speak to them and they replied with eyes cast down for she was as bright as the sun. One day she approached a group of humans crying and clutching each other as they knelt beside a fallen comrade. Persephone asked why they were so sad and they replied, “Our brother has gone to Underworld where it is dark and cold and we will never see him again. We are sad to lose him, and also sad for him, because he will be alone.”

Persephone felt compassion for these humans. Their lives were so difficult and fragile and they had nothing but darkness and cold to look forward to when their short lives ended. Persephone decided that she would go, and search for the Underworld, and she would take her light and warmth to the dead who lived there. So she left the green fields of her mother’s land and walked to the edge of the world. There she found a cave and a tunnel and she descended deep into the earth. The light that surrounded her emanated into the dark before her. Persephone’s light expanded and filled the caverns where the dead huddled. As her light touched their dead eyes, they saw Persephone and they saw each other, shadows of people they had once loved. They were not alone anymore. The dead drew near to Persephone’s light and she comforted them.

Above, Demeter searched for her beloved daughter, calling her name across a silent and empty sky. As her panic grew, the grass withered, the trees dropped their leaves and all the living and green plants cowered brown in fear. The air froze as grey smothered blue and the world was barren. Demeter’s heart was broken, her grief overwhelmed her. For months she searched and found no sign of Persephone. The humans began to starve, but she did not listen to their cries. The other Gods begged her to stop searching, to use her power to cover Mother Earth once more in beauty and life, but Demeter refused and dared anything to grow in her presence.

Seven months passed and Demeter sat on a stone in a field of dirt and ice, her head down, her long hair covering her face. Then she heard something far away. A murmur. A whisper. But she could not understand the words. At her feet a tiny green shoot curled around her ankle. She stomped on it. Who would disrespect her pain! She raised her arm to destroy but there was another green tendril and another and the whisper came closer and finally the wind rushed to ears and said, “Persephone returns, Persephone returns.” There in the distance came the glow, the dawn, the bright beautiful daughter running to meet her.

Demeter ran to Persephone and they embraced and danced a dance of reunion. Everywhere their feet touched the ground, crocuses bloomed and the world sprang to life. Demeter and Persephone danced round and round and the world sang joyfully “Persephone returns, Persephone returns.”

Persephone told her mother where she had been and why she had left without an explanation. She knew Demeter would never have let her go. Persephone told her mother that she would return to the world of the dead for seven months out of every year to comfort them and tend to their needs. The other months she would help her mother care for the living. In this way, they could together bring hope to all human kind.

Demeter could not stop her daughter from returning to the Underworld. She could not tell Persephone where or how to use her power. But she could not deny her own grief. To this day, when her beloved daughter is not beside her, Demeter mourns. And the world mourns with her. Then on the first day of spring, when the crocuses bloom and the wind sings, ‘Persephone returns, Persephone returns,” Demeter is happy again, and the world is reborn.        

I had only known Persephone as a victim, kidnapped by Hades, tricked into servitude, trapped by seven pomegranate seeds of desire. Here she is a Messiah. She chooses to go below. She rules the Underworld because she alone is compassionate enough to brave the dark. Her relationship with her mother is deep, equal and raw. We champion Persephone’s empathy and activism and we identify with Demeter’s loss and sorrow. These are women with ancient power in their voices, and when they called to me, I listened.

Who was I? A sheltered young woman suddenly in an open space, teetering in front of a door that opened toward a more complicated life. There were other doors. There were other lives. But I heard the whisper in the spring wind and stepped through to another story. I walked as Persephone would walk, carrying my own light.

15 responses to “Persephone returns”

  1. Demosthenes says:

    I feel the parochial lifestyle and views of the my Mormon community constantly. It is difficult for me to navigate what I want to do with my own life and what I am “supposed” to do. This was a great article; It was really interesting hearing what changed your perspectives.

  2. E. says:

    i’m sitting here in my school library struggling to write a paper on gendered space and architecture. heavy topics that i’m sure i would have never been able to confront if i didn’t have the courage to step through a different door. complicated indeed, which sometimes leaves me second guessing my choices — but in the end i’m so so so glad to be where i am now.

    this gave me a much needed push for my paper… thanks pandora!

  3. bw says:

    I read this earlier this morning (perhaps before I was adequately caffeinated) and didn’t realize at that point that this was your own retelling of the alternate version of the myth. Reading again with that in mind makes this all the better. I want to hear your retellings of all the old stories! Book! Book!

  4. Jenomnibus says:

    Pandora, I really love this story, and especially hearing your voice in the telling. Ditto what BW says!!

  5. ssw says:

    Your posts are consistently such a treat to read. For the record I’m wildly jealous of your expertise about Greek Myths–I’ve always felt flabbergasted and overwhelmed at the thought of trying to remember all those character’s names and sorting out which stories are which. I’m inspired by you though and think I’ll take a class someday that specifically addresses a feminist class and Mythology. I remember in college, or around that time, hearing about “the aggressive egg” (the woman’s egg sorting through all the sperm and choosing who she wanted) and Eve being more progressive (having enough courage to eat the fruit rather than just being the evil woman). These stories and interpretations are really very critical because when you fit a certain category (a woman in this case) you need positive role models for your self-esteem and how COOL when there are people around you to offer alternate stories that better fit your perception. A final example is when a woman tells her daughter, now you’ll suffer like the rest of us because you got your period, (or whatever other negative types of stories get passed down) versus a congratulations to a new step of your humanity, and an opportunity for further experience (or whatever positive messages are conveyed). Your specific interpretation of this story says a lot about mother daughter relationships, about growing up, about self-discovery and making sense of/peace with your journey. To both Demosthenes and E.: I can really relate to the idea of stepping through different doors into new and more comfortable interpretations of life’s possibilities by gaining experience and trying out life. Even though initially, trying new things has been anxiety provoking for me, and there have been fears of failure and real failure, life has opened up so much to believe in and invest in, it is a pretty fabulous set of experiences. As of late, I’ve been making sense of trauma in my own life, and I think that since we all experience trauma, it’s what we do with it that counts, how we talk about it, make sense of it, explain it, interpret it, etc. that informs getting out of it.
    OKAY, a bit heavy for Friday, but Pandora, your post is an excellent example of taking a traumatic situation and creating a third story that creates room for mother and daughter. I guess my only other great hope is that there are also a lot of OTHER stories that stem from Demeter. Do you know any? xoxo

  6. Kirsten says:

    I’m going to forward your post to Kate and Sam (Holbrook-Brown). They named their youngest Persephone and I know this retelling of the story is one they’d love. I’m in the process of working on a pomegranate quilt for her and will choose to focus on my design using this telling. I must add that on the feminist front… you were instrumental in my process of self-discovery. Long talks and interesting films (“Songcatcher” in Lexington…) with you back in Cambridge helped me to discover a strength in the feminine I had not realized before.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I like this alternate version of the myth, with its uncharacteristically sunny, positive (for Greek mythology, anyhow) outcome. If you were going to be influenced by any such myth, you probably picked a good one…

    Usually, I am struck by how absurdly, almost comically dark (and really, really insane) some of these myths are. My favorite is the story of Tereus and Philomela (referenced in Eliot’s The Waste Land). Tereus was a king traveling to Athens with his wife’s sister, Philomela; along the way, he decided to rape her and then cut her tongue out so she couldn’t rat him out. Philomela wove a tapestry to tell her story, sending it to her sister (the king’s wife), Procne. To enact revenge on her husband, Procne then killed his/her own son, cooked him up in a stew, and fed him to her husband. As a result, the gods, in their infinitely flawed wisdom, decided to turn all three of them into birds… huh? (Exactly.)

    PB: a lovely post, by the way…

    and sorry to get all, uhh, lurid here.

  8. Marleyfan says:

    Wish I had more time to respond, but I’m leaving town…
    I really loved this, especially the last line.

  9. PB says:

    I have loved reading the comments –

    Jeremy – what about Tithonus – Eternal life but not youth? ouch. And of course poor Daphne and the chick who just wanted to see her lover Eros and gets burned to a crisp. And then my best ‘o best – Medea. Man, she NEVER gets tired. We have this conversation with fairy tales as well – many of the older versions in this case are practically unreadable. In the “Goose Girl” the evil stepmom gets put in a barrel lined on the inside with nails and dragged through the streets.
    Point is, when a nice one comes along – it sticks with you (“point” and “stick” after the nail business – talk about lurid)

  10. bw says:

    7 — jeremy … you mean jeremy z? is that you? jeremy still reads TGW?

  11. Jeremy Z. says:

    Oh, geez. I’ve been busy, OK, bw? You try grading this many papers!

  12. Eleanor's Papa says:

    thanks pandora for your marvelously retold myth, and for your post-mormon feminist epiphany.

    despite decades of progressive credentials, I think my corresponding epiphany came last year when I read a sentence from Molly Bennion’s Dialogue essay about why she stays among the mormons, where she mentions a mormon friend who finally left the church on the grounds that she has daughters — and couldn’t bear to see them raised under such hopelessly secondclass circumstances.

    After growing up with three brothers and then smoothly moving from the LDS patriarchy to the gay ghetto, feminism like girls had always been rather theoretical for me. Only now as one of the fathers of a 3 year old girl — who already says pink is her favorite color — for the first time in my life i’m really a militant, personalized feminist.

  13. cynthia says:

    Pandora, great post. really made me think A job wrll done.
    . Jeremy welcome back. u have been missed, hurry up with those papers. lol . i liked your version as well.

  14. Caleb says:

    Not at home so I can’t check, but I’m pretty sure that the first course that Margaret Fuller, America’s ur-feminist, taught was essentially a seminar on mythology and women’s studies. In any case, without checking, I can say with certainty that this is the sort of education she would very much have approved of.

  15. Dody says:

    After growing up with three brothers and then smoothly moving from the LDS patriarchy to the gay ghetto, feminism like girls had always been rather theoretical for me. Only now as one of the fathers of a 3 year old girl — who already says pink is her favorite color — for the first time in my life i’m really a militant, personalized feminist.