The great beauty of myths & fairy-stories is that they show us ways out of darkness. They elucidate the processes of recovery, of healing. They give us hope.
She raged, she wept, she screamed, she searched every land formation underneath, inside and atop, begged mercy, begged death; but no matter what, she could not find her heart child.
Everywhere she went gods & mortals alike ignored her, all clinging to the belief that eventually she would come to terms with her loss. But the more she was refused, the more her rage was inflamed until eventually, in one terrible & final act of defiance, she brought the cycle of the seasons to an end and refused to allow time to turn until her beautiful daughter was returned to her side - and from that moment on the earth was gripped in a state of perpetual winter. No one could live as before; but neither could they die nor yet be born, for the goddess withheld even the seeds of creation, so sharp & bitter was her pain.
And she went down into the mortal realm, disguising her form for a long time...until at last, utterly exhausted & saddened to her core, she collapsed on the steps of the Maiden Well, where the citizens came each day to draw water.
And no one who saw her knew her....for she was like an old, old woman, full of her years...
The ancients called it ' the land of no return' for it is experienced as a complete cessation of the life process. At such times we have only our faith to sustain us. Yet we are promised that the darkness is itself transformative, for it is within this hidden realm, this dark time of the year - this deep underworld that is both tomb & womb, that the process of regeneration mysteriously takes place; and through it the shape of the future is established & given new form.
The myth of Demeter & Persephone elucidates this universal theme and its mysteries were re- enacted for centuries in the ancient temples of Greece. Veiled in alternating black & white robes, the priestesses of old retold the endless story of the loss of the beloved, of the long search for recovery & of the new life that issued forth as a result of their quest.
So what is it that makes the shift here– what finally causes Demeter to stir from her sadness, to relent & to allow time to turn once more?
It is no coincidence, explains Jungian analyst Nor Hall that she comes to rest beside the Maiden Well - for Demeter’s transition, she says, her progression through the story, is punctuated by three significant stopping places.
All three are portals into internal realms. The first is where her beautiful daughter disappears. It is a point where two worlds meet & where one can be cut off – literally, the cord has been cut & the daughter is gone.
It can seem that Demeter is defeated at this point, that she is broken in spirit, that she has at last become resigned to her loss. The latter is true but not the former. What has actually been constellated here is a shift in perception, a withdrawing of fixation upon the external world and a more conscious entry into communion with the inner realms of meaning & experience.
Rites of Passage stories must first set a scene, a tone. Readers must be introduced to the predicament that initially stimulates the story into motion. But all such stories, if they are to dignify their intent, must move through & beyond this initial predicament. We cannot stay forever bemoaning our expulsion from paradise. We must attempt to resolve it in some way, so that we might arrive, as T.S. Elliot suggests, at a new beginning. Only then will we be set free.
So, as Demeter waits, she turns back the pages so to speak and reviews the story from the beginning; she sorts through the fragments, binds them together, however disjointed, into a reality she can work with, that she can endure. This capacity to reflect that Demeter embodies as she waits, denotes an important advance. It is a stopping place along the road, from which things can be viewed in different ways & different sorts of questions can be asked, perhaps for the first time.
What does the beautiful daughter represent? What part of the self can no longer be found?
Nor Hall goes on to explain,
When the mother is separated unwillingly from her child or when the fruit is taken rather than given, a certain understanding is lost, an organic bond that severs the mother from her own life’s meaning.
Demeter, in her agony has caused a bleak & barren winter to come upon the land. She has withdrawn her gifts from the world, even from the gods themselves. In the end her defiance will fulfill an essential role in securing her daughter’s release from the underworld but, as a reflection, we can see also that it is her own self that has become barren. Cut off from her child bearing years, her role, her identity as a mother has collapsed. And if not mother – what?
Look at the symbolism & this is clear. In a certain light we can see that Demeter personifies the state of the world when the soul is lost. She becomes for a time the embodiment of winter - and Persephone becomes a symbol of the lost soul. It stands to reason then, that if the story is to proceed, Demeter must eventually cease withholding in herself. She must find the courage, even in her exile, to allow time to turn once more; she must accept change, no matter how painful. When she does, when she dares to bring forth another spring, to bless rather than blight her world, things will move toward resolution at a rapid pace.
The twist in the tale, you see, is that Demeter must re-discover the maiden in herself. She must somehow find a way to return to the experience of joy in the midst of loss, however impossibly difficult this may seem, just as Persephone, through her own initiation, must experience the darkness of the underworld before she fully becomes a woman, before she returns to the world above.
There is a unity in their story, as one might expect from such an ancient mythological outpouring. Everything does connect, like the opposing phases of the lunar cycle. Mother & daughter are engaged in an eternal mystery of transition in which both experience total discontinuity with what was known & trusted. The promise of the story is that, by & by, mother & daughter will be reunited. A new cycle will eventually commence and it is this sure knowledge that sustains Demeter through the final stages of her journey.
Yet first she must dare to let her feelings go!
The third & final place of transition for Demeter, we are told, was called The Laughless Rock. It is a place of deepening orientation - where something quite unexpected occurs.
Now, it is often extremely difficult to around people who are in distress. But sometimes, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes prescribes, a little bit of humour can be just the right medicine to tip the scales into a more favourable position. So it is in the myth.
‘Well neither deathless god nor mortal man could raise Demeter from her sorrow, until finally a little dancing girl came before her as she rested at the Laughless Rock. No one dared come near – but this little dancing girl – approached quite playfully & made her laugh.
Humour breaks the mood, loosens the grip of our sadness, cracks a hole in the darkness & allows the light to come streaming through, if only for a second. But sometimes a second is all we require, to step back in the sudden realisation that enough is enough. It can’t just be anybody who cracks a joke, it’s got to be done with immense precision & timing – yet this little dancing girl knows just when to make her move & how to make the goddess smile - & assists Demeter to transform the Laughless Rock into the Rock of Laughter’s Return & in so doing create a psychic bridge, giving access to the holy ground of renewal ahead. The laughter lights her up and, when she is lit from within, winter at last begins its transition into spring.
The little dancing girl has moved the story on.
And deep within the underworld – it is as if Persephone is waiting for all this to occur; as if she cannot possibly return above until her mother recovers her ability to laugh.
And at that same time the god’s relent – (funny how these things connect!) - and compromise is reached.
Demeter’s trust is renewed, she ceases to withhold. Spring returns & with it her beautiful daughter. Finally the two are re-united. But only for two thirds of the year. Things cannot be returned to exactly where they were, otherwise there would have been no point, no rhyme or reason to their story. Persephone is now grown into a young woman. The separation, which is the true goal of adolescence has been achieved and the young girl is now a fully–fledged goddess in her own right & not primarily in relation to her mother. In psychological terms she has achieved a new maturity. Her name will be forever associated with the re-birth of spring. The long winter of transition has been painful but Demeter must accept this basic fact, this ever-changing, never-ending cycle of life.
As we have seen, there is a sense in which, when Demeter searches for her lost child, she is also searching for a lost part of herself, that which her daughter represents. Maybe part of her needs to get lost; maybe she too has to experience a new initiatory wound, a new shattering of innocence that causes her to become yet more aligned with her soul.
And what of Persephone? What more can we say of her? That she has suffered greatly is without doubt. That she bears the scars of all who have experienced the terrors of the underworld? Certainly! What happens to us as mortals (if it does not kill us) creates a kind of consciousness of the sort that brings membership of a particular clan: the scar clan, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it. You don’t have to be any particular age to join, you just have to have lived through something very, very big, and survived.
Queen of the Night.
Into your embrace shall we commend our souls at death,
For truly you shall bring us home.
It is an undeniable fact that our souls evolve from innocence to experience through some of the most harrowing realms of human life; and all rights of passage, ancient & modern involve a similar sequence. The child is abruptly separated from her parents & initiated into a deep & terrifying truth from which she will emerge changed....this is the terrible tomb in which innocence is irretrievably lost. What happens here is sometimes called the ‘initiatory’ wound from which recovery is long and far from certain.
Yet the mystery hinted is that the ‘tomb’ can also be a ‘womb’ from which the self may be reborn. For, in dying to her past, Persephone attains a new maturity; and in eating the pomegranate seeds and integrating their hidden & secret knowledge into herself, she eventually becomes Queen of the Underworld.
Hail, we say once more, hail, hail & thrice hail Persephone,
Queen of the night.
Into your embrace shall we commend our souls at death.
For truly you will bring us home.
It is not for no reason that she is hailed in this way.
It is not for no reason, in her new role below the earth, that thereafter she embraces the souls of the dead at the moment of death.
It is not for no reason that it is she, now knowing the perilous terrain by heart, who leads those souls through the dark underworld toward their own rebirth. For she has seen beyond the veil & incorporated the seed at the core of the mystery.
It is precisely through ingesting the famous pomegranite seeds cunningly offered to her at the start by Hades her captor - through taking them into herself instead of rejecting them, of transforming them into sustenance rather than damage to her soul, that this wisdom, this precious fruit has come about. Persephone becomes what is known as the wounded healer. It is through her wound ...that she has attained the progressed state of being through which she is enabled to serve all who come after her.
More than anything else, the myth of Demeter & Persephone speaks to us of an ever-renewing and unbroken circle. It’s contemplation offers profound insight into the cycle of loss, search & recovery. The lunar myths tell that the goddess gave birth to the universe out of herself, that she was the source of life....the crops flourished & withered in their season, as did mortals, born out of her body, rising like the corn & being cut down at death. This is the face of Demeter, as mother of the world, of life.
Yet at the moment of death she was there too, waiting to embrace her children, as she was there to embrace the sun at the end of each day, scooping it up into her deepest depths, into her womb. And from what she collected at deaths dark door – the seed, as it were – she created new life each morning, each season, giving birth anew. This role of guardian of the soul through death is the face of the goddess as Persephone, Queen of the underworld – for you see - in the end Demeter & Persephone are one, each giving form & poetic expression to two complimentary aspects of the goddess of the moon.
As we have seen, in ancient Greece Demeter & Persephone were the subject of a mystic drama as Eleusis celebrated with torches the abduction of the daughter & the sorrowful wanderings of the mother.
And of those who witnessed its annual re-enactment it is said,
Blessed is she who has seen this & thus goes beneath the earth; she knows the end of life, she knows the beginning, for enacting Demeter’s search & identifying with Persephone is precisely to wander in the underworld of death, just as the finding of Persephone is a return from death to life.
It’s tea time now & the light is fading over the frozen trees outside my window – and I find I have arrived at the end of my tale.
Yet if for any reason you have only just begun – if your life has been rocked to its core – then here are some closing words of comfort - that many years ago helped me to find my way back home.
The most important thing to do when your life is shattered & you have lost your way, is to hold on, hold out for your very life: –– for the promise from the wild nature is this: – after winter, spring always comes.
Anne Maria Clarke
x x x
The Dark Moon
available at www.archivepublishing.co.uk
C.P.Estes -Women who run with the Wolves p.338 p.338 p.58
Anne Baring & Jules Cashford –Myth of the Goddess p.370 p. 381
Nor Hall –The Moon & the Virgin p.78 p.88.
Persephone : A Journey from Winter to Spring
by Sally Pomme with illustrations by Virginia Lee 2009