Demeter and Persephone: Throwing Out Your Playbook

Thinking about the underworld and who’s in charge down there took me back to the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the idea that this is a myth explaining the seasons, a form of early science. Maybe it is on the level of story, but how does it rise above the sum of its parts to say something about the mystery that informs--or should inform--our lives? Reading it right now, this myth speaks of eternity and how to live in it now. To find, as mythologist Joseph Campbell says, “an experience of being alive.”

So what happens in Hades?

The Greek underworld is Hades, and it is ruled by the Olympian of the same name, brother of Zeus. He’s not alone down there because he takes for his bride Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. The taking is literal; he kidnaps her on a rare walk above ground when he sees her picking flowers in Sicily. She’s pretty and he wants her and that’s it. Persephone has nothing to say about becoming the queen of that dark, unknowable place where disembodied souls roam and roam and roam. (Something about the law of conservation of energy at work here? An abiding respect for the mystery that animates us?) Zeus is complicit in the kidnapping because he knows Demeter, who is his wife, will never go for it. Zeus knows his women. When Demeter discovers her beloved daughter is missing, she searches the world for her in a storm of emotion and grief. So distraught is she that she threatens to rob the earth of its vitality, leaving a dry and barren landscape.

Zeus, the life force itself, sees that he has a little situation on his hands, so he has a quiet word with Hades and suggests that he give the girl back so long as she has not eaten any of the food of the underworld. Hades shakes on it, but he has his fingers crossed, and he gives Persephone pomegranate seeds--the food of the dead believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, the god of beauty and desire--before she leaves. Once this little detail gets out, Zeus has to turn on his bargaining powers and deal with his kid brother. In the end, Persephone spends six months of the year with her mother and six with Hades in his world. So there you have it: a time to reap and a time to sow; to raise up and cast down--the seasons. But you also have a recognition of the interrelationship of life and death; in the end, they are one and the same.

More important than how Zeus calms everyone down, I think, is the delicate balancing act that Zeus performs. It’s easy to lose sight of that when reading this myth through a feminist lens. After all, Zeus and Hades decide Persephone’s fate without any input from her or her mother. This is patriarchy running amok. This is oppression. Except that it isn’t. Just as life and death are interrelated, so are man and woman. They are different aspects of one mysterious whole. In the forms of these mythical figures, Zeus represents the energy of life, and Hades represents the mysterious and eternal nature of that life. The energy of this world is constant. Demeter represents inclusive, enveloping, and possibly all-consuming love for her child Persephone, who is a symbol of immortality.

The all-consuming potential of this love is the dangerous part. Demeter gets clingy as she refuses to accept the essential nature of change, and then she gets angry as she threatens a scorched-earth response to that change. Her impulses are destructive rather than affirming of life. And Persephone really stops mattering when we consider the potential of Demeter’s anger.

Zeus’s deal-making and renegotiating constitute an effort to establish balance and put Persephone back into the picture as the embodiment of the eternal--a beauty that can recognize beauty and embrace it like a bouquet. With Hades, Zeus brings discipline and social order to the powers of life so that heart and mind are in balance. Establishing this balance, we might realize that “the source of temporal life is eternity” when we stop struggling to hold on to what we love. The letting go is the holding close; it is the affirmation of life. Joseph Campbell put it this way in his interviews with Bill Moyers in the video series The Power of Myth: “You’ve got to say yes to this miracle of life as it is, not on the condition that it follow your rules. Otherwise, you’ll never get through to the metaphysical dimension.” We are one very beautiful, magical life. Cranky, shifty Zeus makes sure we know it.