To hear a sample, go to A Pomegranate and the Maiden
Based on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, A Pomegranate and the Maiden retells the story of Kore/Persephone’s abduction and its aftermath. The many characters speak directly to the listener, presenting multiple perspectives of the same event while sprinkling their narratives with stories from Greek mythology. Each perspective is deeply rooted in the character's psychology and gender—a mother grieving for her lost child; a young girl struggling for independence; a patriarchal father trampling on a mother’s rights; a lover resorting to desperate measures to win his beloved.
The end of the year is a good time to reflect on the events and activities of the year. Since my retirement from academia, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing. Fortunately, Goodreads keeps track of books I’ve read for the year and issues an annual report.
According to Goodreads, I read nearly 20,000 pages in 2017, almost doubling the number of pages I read last year. I had set a personal goal for myself of reading 50 books with 30 of them by women authors. I completed that goal in mid-September. In all, I read a total of 63 books, 41 of them by women authors. And I haven’t stopped.
I began writing book reviews after joining Goodreads in 2016 to help me remember what I’ve read. My reviews are posted on Goodreads and on my website. I have now posted over 100 book reviews on my website.
I am pleased with the eclectic nature of books I’ve read over the last two years: books on feminism, literary criticism, and social commentary; books about mythology and fairy tales; books about ancient cities, figures from ancient history, and translations of ancient texts; and books about the monotheistic traditions.
Primarily, however, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. My taste in fiction ranges from classics to historical fiction, to mythic retellings, to contemporary fiction. The authors I’ve read are a diverse group from all over the world: Sudan, Egypt, Turkey, the U.S., Australia, India, Indonesia, Britain, Ghana, Sweden, Lebanon, Mexico, Alaska, Palestine, Ireland, Pakistan, Russia, Canada, Argentina, Albania, Kenya, American Indian, and Iceland.
I am looking forward to 2018. I plan to set a new reading challenge for myself, exceeding the number of books and pages I read in 2017.
Unsung Odysseys is a work of mythic fiction based on Homer’s Odyssey as told by the women caught up in Odysseus’ escapades during his ten-year journey home after leaving Troy. Each female speaks directly to the reader in her own voice, describing her encounter with and feelings toward Odysseus.
The novel will be released in January 2017 on Amazon Kindle.
Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
I didn’t like his choice. Not one bit. Why would he choose a name like that? Why the son of pain? Does that mean my son will bring me pain? I grimaced. I looked at Laertes, my eyes pleading with him to object, to say something to my father for choosing such a name. But Laertes didn’t seem at all concerned. His grin went from ear to ear. Manly pride at fathering a son. I bit my tongue. I lowered my eyes. I couldn’t question my own father for choosing such a name. It wouldn’t be right. Wives and daughters had been tossed aside for a lot less.
My father, Autolycus, had come to see his new grandson. It was our custom to ask the grandfather of a child to name him. So Eurycleia, the baby’s nurse, set the infant on father’s knees and asked him to find a suitable name for the child.
“Let him be called Odysseus, the son of pain. And when he’s old enough, let him visit me in my estate of Parnassus where I will shower him with enough treasure to make his heart fill with joy.”
Odysseus, the son of pain. My son who brought me so much joy, so much pain. A beautiful baby—big and healthy with puffy red cheeks and the brightest eyes you ever saw. I could tell right away he was going to be strong and quick-witted. I wasn’t disappointed. He was never like other boys, always wanting to out-do them, out-run them, out-wit them. He grew up to be a healthy, rambunctious boy, outspoken and a leader even as a child. He just seemed to have a natural talent to lead. Even children who were older than him would dote on him and follow him around, hanging on his every word.
Laertes beamed with pride. “My son, the leader,” he chuckled. And as for me, well, I couldn’t have been happier. Odysseus was my pride. Odysseus was my joy. Odysseus was my son. Odysseus, the son of pain.
His spirit was restless. Constantly testing us and testing himself, he was never satisfied with himself and kept pushing and pushing the limits of his abilities. Always in such a hurry to grow up. I tried to slow him down, but it never worked. I remember oh so many times when I said to him, “You’re still a child, Odysseus. There’s plenty of time for you to grow up. Slow down, son. Why are you in such a hurry?”
“Mother, I’m ready. I can do it. I’m not a child anymore.” And then he’d scuttle off to his father and beg and plead for his blessing to do whatever it was he had set his mind to do. And Laertes would invariably agree.
“You baby him too much,” Laertes cautioned me throughout the boy’s childhood. “Odysseus should be tough and strong, not soft and weak. How can he grow up to be a strong warrior if you keep holding him back?”
I bit my tongue. It was no use arguing with them. It was no use telling them I didn’t want my Odysseus to lie broken on some battlefield with severed limbs just so he could be remembered as a heroic warrior. I wanted something different for my son. I wanted a long and happy life with a beautiful wife by his side and lots and lots of children. Isn’t that what any mother would want for her son? But I was alone in my wishes and so kept them to myself.
And then came the time when Odysseus thought he was old enough to set off to Parnassus visit his grandfather. Of course, I was opposed to the very thought of it. He wasn’t ready. Far, far too young. But he insisted on going to collect the gifts promised to him by my father. I tried to delay his departure. I tried to reason with him. He ignored me. I pleaded with Laertes to deny his permission for the journey until the boy was a little older. Even Eurycleia begged me not to let him go.
“Can’t you do something? He’s still too young. Can’t you stop this?”
“I’ve tried. But they won’t listen to me. He wants to go to prove himself a man. And Laertes is encouraging it.”
“But they’ll take him on a hunt!” Her eyes pooled with tears. “It’s dangerous. He’ll get hurt. He’s just a boy. Can’t this wait until he gets a little older?”
“I don’t know how to stop them.” I shook my head. I buried my face in my hands.
So against my wishes, Odysseus set off. Eurycleia and I waited at home, hoping for the best, fearing the worst.
He was greeted warmly in my father’s house with my relatives fussing over him as I knew they would. Father hosted a feast in his honor. Odysseus was as thrilled as any young boy would be.
I knew much would be expected of him. I knew he would insist on participating in the hunt to prove himself a man. It was traditional in my father’s house for the men to set off for a hunt early every morning. Odysseus was only too eager to join them. And that was when my worst fear materialized. My boy was in a terrible accident. He might have died. Odysseus explained to me how it had happened when he came home after recovering from his injury.
“Mother, it was magnificent! I set off for the hunt with grandfather and my uncles. I was so excited to be a part of it. I raced on ahead of them.” He grinned from ear to ear.
I smiled. My boy. Eager to prove to himself and to the men in my family he was strong and brave and up to the undertaking.
“It was such a thrill! Soon the hounds picked up the scent of an animal and started the chase. I ran as fast as I could behind them.” His breath was heavy with excitement. “I could see the boar running ahead in the distance. We got closer and closer to it. But the boar somehow managed to dodge us. It hid in a dense thicket. I rushed toward it. I reached it before any of the others. I raised my spear like this, ready to thrust it into him.” And Odysseus stood up and raised his arm to show me his movement.
“Before I knew what was happening, the boar came charging out and headed straight for me.” He grinned. I could feel my heart pounding. “I aimed my spear at him. I was about to let it fly. But the boar was too quick for me. It thrust its tusk into my flesh just above my knee. It gouged out my sinews and muscles. You should have seen it, mother.” He chuckled. His eyes danced. “There was blood and gore and mushy stuff everywhere. It was a big mess.” He laughed.
I bit my tongue. I swallowed hard. I smiled. I nodded my head encouragingly.
“The pain was fierce, mother. But I could handle it. I plunged my spear into the boar’s shoulders. I killed it. It dropped dead on the ground just like that. Poof!”
He laughed, rolling over on the ground to show me how it happened.
“My leg was gushing blood. But can you believe it, mother? I didn’t feel any pain. I was just so excited at having killed my first boar. I did it, mother. I did it all by myself. Grandfather and uncles tied up my wound and took me back to the palace. They cleaned up the wound and bound it until it was finally healed. And then they sent me home laden with all these treasures. Grandfather was so proud of me, mother. He kept repeating he had never seen a young boy show such strength and courage. I wasn’t afraid. Not one bit, mother. I didn’t flinch, not even once, not even when they tended my wound. It was all so exciting. I can’t wait to do it again,” he said, face flushed, eyes bright with pleasure.
The wound healed, but the scar never did. It etched itself deeply into his skin. I shuddered every time I saw it. It was a constant reminder my boy had been inches away from losing his life. He might have been crippled forever had the boar’s tusk hit the bone. Or, worse still, he might have died had my family been unable to stop the bleeding.
But Odysseus didn’t see it that way. Oh no, not him. To him, the scar was a badge of honor. Something to brag about in front of his friends. He never tired of telling the story whenever he was asked about it, flaunting it as if it were a testament to his manhood. Naturally, after that incident, there was no stopping him. I lost control of him entirely. He ceased to pay attention to me, waving off my worries for his safety. He was now a man and had the scar to prove it. He didn’t need—or want—his mother fussing and fretting over him.
That was my boy. That was the son of pain….
© 2016 Tamara Agha-Jaffar. All rights reserved.
*Unsung Odysseys will be released on Amazon Kindle in January 2017.
CHAPTER 1: THE BANQUET HALL ON MT. OLYMPUS (excerpt)
She had disappeared again. “Kore!” I called out to her. “Kore, where are you?” No sign of her. “Kore!” I shouted as I headed toward the banquet hall. Most of the immortals were already there. I hoped she might be there with Hekate.
“Have you seen the Kore anywhere?” I asked one of the mortals, cowering in a corner of the hallway. He stared at me, open-mouthed. “I asked you a question,” I said, raising my voice. “Have you seen the Kore?” He shook his head and lowered his eyes. “Fool,” I said, walking away.
I entered the hall to find the banquet already underway. The usual sights and sounds and smells accosted me. Father Zeus sat at the center of the head table, guzzling down meat and the fruits gathered from the harvest. Hera was on one side of him, Athena on the other. I scoured the table in search of the Kore. Hekate was there, but there was no sign of the Kore. Hermes and Iris were engrossed in conversation. And Aphrodite was whispering something in Hephaestus’ ear. I was surprised to see Hades at the banquet because he so seldom came to the upper world.
I watched as mortals approached the head table with faltering steps. They bowed to offer their gifts of roasted pork and the fruits of the first harvest. Their hands trembled as they lay the food on the table in front of the gods. They scurried to the back of the hall while dodging the gnawed up bones and fruit remains thrown at them. The gods enjoyed a bit of sport while devouring their feast.
I scanned the room but still could find no sign of the Kore. Hekate must have seen my distress. She left the table and came toward me.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“She’s gone again. I can’t find her,” I said.
”Don’t get upset,” Hekate said. “I’m sure she’s here somewhere. I’ll help you look for her.”
“Where can she be?” I asked. “She’s always running around. I never know where she is or what she’s up to,” I said, gesturing in frustration. “She doesn’t listen to me, Hekate. She does exactly as she pleases. I should lock her up in her room and never let her out.”
“Come now, Demeter. It can’t be as bad as all that,” she said. “I’m sure she’s fine. The Kore is still a child. She’s probably playing outside with her friends. You know how much she likes being out in the fields, surrounded by flowers.” Hekate put her arm on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Between the two of us, I’m sure we’ll find her.”
Just then, surrounded by a bevy of young girls, the Kore appeared at the far end of the hall, barefoot and scantily clad. Her flesh-colored tunic hung loosely on her delicate frame. It was so flimsy and transparent that it revealed the contours of her slim, tender body. Her face was flush from the outdoors. Her neck, wrist, and long, dark flowing hair were adorned with garlands of colorful hyacinths and pink peonies.
I gasped. She was growing up, and I hadn’t noticed. She was quite lovely. She was so young and so beautiful and so stupidly innocent as she giggled and whispered to her friends, all of whom were similarly adorned with flowers. I scoured the room. I wasn’t the only one captivated by the Kore’s appearance. I sensed lecherous eyes devouring my child. She seemed completely oblivious to their stares, flouncing and giggling as if she had no care in the world.
I turned to Hekate, my face taut with anxiety. She smiled and patted me on the back. “See, she’s fine,” she said. “I’ll leave you to it.” She walked back to take her seat at the table.
“Kore! Come here at once!” I shouted across the hall. Just then a mortal, a sheepish expression on his face, approached me offering a bowl of grapes. I shoved him aside. “Out of my way, you fool,” I said.
I watched the Kore as she zigzagged her way through the crowded banquet hall. “What is it, mother?” she said when she reached my side. She paused to catch her breath. “What’s wrong?”
“How many times have I told you not to go running off on your own like that? How many times must I explain this to you?” I shook her body to rattle some sense into her. She must be made to understand. “You have to stay near me, Kore. You must not wander off on your own like that.”
“But I wasn’t alone, mother,” she protested. “I was playing by the side of my friends. I was with Leukippe, Phaino, Electra, Ianthe, Melite . . .”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I interrupted her. “I’m in no mood to hear about your friends, Kore. Your friends are nothing. Your friends will not be able to protect you. Only I can protect you. Do you understand?”
“We were picking flowers and playing,” she said. “You told me I shouldn’t be alone, and I wasn’t alone. I don’t know why you’re always so angry with me.” She looked bewildered. She took a lock of her long hair and tugged and twirled it around her finger, a nervous habit of hers. I slapped her wrist to make her stop.
“Listen to me,” I said. “I’m tired of saying the same thing over and over again. Your friends won’t be able to protect you from the gods if one of them comes after you to satisfy his ravenous appetite for females. Only I can protect you. Only your mother who loves you more than anything in the world can protect you. Are you listening to me, Kore?” I said. I lifted her chin to force her to look me in the eye.
“Yes, mother, I’m sorry,” she said. She bowed her head and spoke barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry I worried you. I was having so much fun making flower garlands with my friends that I forgot to check back with you. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“I’ve heard your promises before, Kore,” I said.
Just then we heard a loud crash from the other end of the banquet table. One of the gods had thrown something, shattering it into little pieces. This was followed by loud, raucous laughter.
“Come with me, Kore,” I said. “We can’t talk here.”
I took her by the hand as we zigzagged our way toward the door of the banquet hall, avoiding the throngs of servants carrying food and gifts. Another mortal scurried toward me, offering a plate of roasted pork. I scowled at him and he scuttled a retreat.
Finding a quiet corner in the hall, I pinned the Kore against the wall and lifted her chin to make her look at me. “Listen to me, my child,” I said. “You are too young to know them well. But your father, your uncles, all the gods—-they’re capable of doing terrible things, especially to women. I’m trying to protect you for your own good. I’m your mother. I don’t want any harm to come to you.” Her eyes glazed over. I had lost her.
“You’re no longer a child,” I said. “You’ve blossomed into a beautiful, young maiden. And they see it. They look at you harboring lust in their hearts. They covet you. Do you understand?” I said, shaking her shoulders. “Don’t be fooled by their niceness toward you, Kore. They’re lecherous. They can hurt you.” She fidgeted with her tunic and avoided my eyes. “I’m only trying to protect you,” I said. “I just don’t want any harm to come to you.” She had stopped listening.
I had to make her understand in spite of herself. “I have told you the stories of how your father disguised himself as a swan and ravaged Leda,” I said, my voice rising in desperation. “I have told you of the god Apollo and how he chased after Daphne until she could run no further. She begged her father to save her from Apollo’s clutches, so he transformed her into a laurel tree to avoid Apollo’s frenzied sexual desire.”
I lifted the Kore’s chin. “Look at me. Is that what you want for yourself?” I asked. “To be transformed into an object for your own protection?” She tugged at her hair, her face sullen.
“I’ve even warned you about Hades, God of the Underworld, and cautioned you against eating any food he may offer you from the Land of the Dead since that condemns you to return to his dark realm. Kore, I have told you so many stories so many times to caution you. And, yet, you persist in running around with your friends, away from my protection, as if you didn’t have a care in the world. Kore, are you listening to me?”
“Yes, mother,” she said, her eyes lowered.
“What more can I do? What more can I say to make you understand?” I asked.
“What am I supposed to do, mother?” she said, looking up at me. She choked back tears. “Tell me what you want of me. Am I to stay by your side forever? Am I not to play and run and gather flowers with my friends? Am I not to have any fun? I don’t understand what you expect of me.” Water pooled in her eyes. “I don’t understand why I should be treated any differently from my friends. They’re free. They can come and go as they please. Why can’t I?”
The despair in her voice surprised me. I stepped back. Despite her naiveté, she was partially right. What did I expect of her? I couldn’t keep her tied to me like an animal on a leash. She was not a prisoner, after all. She should be allowed to laugh and play with other children her age. But she was unlike other children. She was my child. I didn’t care what happened to other people’s children. I cared only for my child.
“You’re right,” I reassured her, smiling. “I’m sorry. I’ll try not to worry so much. I’ll try to give you a little more space to play. Just don’t stray too far from me. That’s all.” I stroked her hair. “You know I love you, don’t you?” She didn’t reply. “Kore,” I said, “you know I love you, don’t you?” She nodded her head. “And you know I’m doing this for your own good, don’t you?” She nodded her head. “Come,” I said, smiling. “Let’s join the others.” I took her by the hand and led her back to the banquet hall.
I'm taking a break from mining myths for nuggets of wisdom so I can focus on releasing my second novel, Unsung Odysseys.
Unsung Odysseys tells the story of Odysseus’ journey home through the voices of the females who interact with him. I thought it was about time we heard the voices of women. The novel will be released soon on Amazon Kindle soon. I’ll be posting Chapter 1 on my website to give you a taste of what’s coming. So stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I have posted an excerpt from Chapter I of my novel, A Pomegranate and the Maiden, a retelling of the Demeter/Persephone myth through the voices of the characters involved. The excerpt is posted on my blog. The novel is available in paperback and on Amazon Kindle.
About the book:
A Pomegranate and the Maiden is a multi-faceted re-telling of the story of Demeter and Persephone as told in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. The many characters speak directly to the reader, presenting multiple perspectives of the same event. Among the voices we hear is that of the mother grieving for her lost child, the daughter struggling for independence, the father who tramples on a mother’s rights, and the lover who resorts to nefarious means to win his beloved. Each perspective is deeply rooted in the character’s psychology and gender. Woven within their narratives are stories familiar to readers of Greek mythology.
Against the backdrop of our own culture, which still diminishes the value of motherhood and marginalizes women of all ages, these voices speak to us through the centuries and offer new ways of seeing the world we inhabit.
Orpheus’ singing and music transform the world around him and continue to exert their influence even after his death. The combined themes of art’s ability to transform its surroundings and to survive the death of the artist are so ubiquitous in literature that the challenge lies in deciding which few to select as examples.
John Keats, an English poet of the Romantic period, illustrates these themes in two of the most beautiful poems in the English language. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats is temporarily transported from a world plagued with illness and death to an enchanting world in the long ago past, a world populated with faeries and magical beings, a world plush and green and sweet-smelling, a world in which his senses burst into life. The poet’s imaginative journey is triggered by his engagement with the nightingale’s joyous and exuberant song. He is transported to the magical world echoed in the song through the vehicle of poetry, (“the viewless wings of poesy”). It is through art that Keats experiences his vision; and it is through the art of his poem that he takes the reader along with him.
In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats explores the images carved on an urn and meditates on its ability to freeze the images in time. As a static work of art, the urn transcends the vicissitudes of time. It exists in this world but is not of this world. It can guide us by being “a friend to man,” and allows us to project our ideas, thoughts, and emotions on to its images. In that sense, we “connect” with the urn just as we connect with any work of art and can potentially be transformed in the process. But the connection is not reciprocal. Although we respond to the urn, the urn does not respond to us. It lives in its own self-contained world outside the realm of human experience and is oblivious to our presence.
Although William Shakespeare is known for his plays, he also wrote some beautiful sonnets. For example, in Sonnet XVIII, he explores the idea of art’s ability to freeze time and transcend death. Sonnet XVIII echoes the story of Orpheus in its desire to sustain the life to a loved one. But unlike Orpheus who journeys to the Underworld to revive Eurydice, Shakespeare uses the vehicle of the sonnet to continually keep his beloved alive.
The sonnet begins with a series of comparisons between the beloved and a summer day. The beloved fares better since the summer day is found to have flaws. Shakespeare then declares his verse to be the vehicle by which his beloved retains beauty, youth, and immortality since each reading of his poem brings his beloved back to life. The sonnet becomes a testament to his beloved’s ability to transcend old age and death and to achieve immortality.
As we saw in our discussion, Orpheus loses Eurydice because he violates the conditions given to him by the gods. He looks back when he has been told not to do so. The theme of the disastrous consequences that can ensue if we look back has a parallel in the Biblical story of Lot and his wife in Genesis 19.
In this story, God announces his intention to Lot of destroying the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He orders Lot to take his wife and family and leave the area to escape the destruction. But they are forbidden from looking back at the city while it is being destroyed. Lot’s wife cannot resist the temptation. She looks back and is promptly transformed into a pillar of salt.
Feminists have taken up the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and explored it in new ways. In her poem, “Eurydice,” Carol Ann Duffy provides an interesting twist on the story. She gives voice to Eurydice, allowing her to tell the story of Orpheus from her point of view. Orpheus is portrayed as an arrogant male, obsessed with himself and his needs. Eurydice has no intention of leaving with him and tries to get rid of him. She finally succeeds in getting him to turn around by flattering his ego. She is relieved to be waving goodbye as she recedes into the darkness. The poem is laced with sarcasm and humor.
H.D.’s “Eurydice” similarly accuses Orpheus of arrogance but adds ruthlessness to the bargain. The speaker is bitter and angry at Orpheus for dangling in front of her the possibility of returning to life but then snatching it away from her at the last minute.
Finally, Orpheus’ assumption that he is above the limitations of mortality is reminiscent of Icarus. As we saw in one of my previous blogs, Icarus thought he could fly closer and closer to the sun with no apparent consequence. Just as Icarus is warned, Orpheus is warned, but neither heeds the warning.
Orpheus’ story is also reminiscent of Gilgamesh. The death of a loved one is the catalyst that sets them both off on a quest to cheat death. Gilgamesh wants to obtain immortality for himself after witnessing the horrors of Enkidu's death. Orpheus wants to snatch his beloved Eurydice from the jaws of death and bring her back to life. Both attempts fail.
Coping with Loss
Orpheus mourns when he loses Eurydice to death. He mourns again when he does not heed the warnings of the Underworld and looks back too soon only to see her recede into the darkness. Mourning the loss of a loved one makes us human and is perfectly understandable. But Orpheus goes beyond that. He takes his loss to extremes.
Just as we saw in one of my previous posts concerning Gilgamesh's inability to accept the death of his beloved Enkidu, Orpheus is unable to cope with the loss of Eurydice. He refuses to accept he is subject to the same trials and tribulations of life as the rest of humanity. He does not acknowledge that although death is a part of life, it is also irreversible. Like Gilgamesh, he thinks the rules do not apply to him, that he should be able to influence who lives and who dies.
At one time or another in our lives, we are subject to accidents, the deaths of loved ones, catastrophes, disappointments, loss, and trauma. These events are woven into the fabric of life. How we cope with these realities determines whether or not we are able to transcend them and move forward. We can either accept what we are powerless to change or we can do as Orpheus does and refuse to accept it, spending the rest of our lives in mourning. The choice is ours to make.
In a previous post, we saw how Persephone swallows the pomegranate seeds to guarantee her return to the Underword. This symbolizes her acceptance, assimilation, and ownership of the trauma she experienced. She uses her experience to propel herself into becoming a stronger, wiser, empowered, and articulate being.
Persephone demonstrates that the way to transcend a traumatic or catastrophic event is to understand there is nothing we can do to reverse it, that we must accept it, re-frame it, use it to strengthen ourselves, and move forward.
Orpheus rejects the whole concept of moving forward. Instead, he looks back, violating the condition for the release of Eurydice. And even after he has lost her for a second time, he does not move forward but spends the rest of his days in mourning. He rejects future relationships, symbolizing his rejection of community, an essential ingredient for leading a healthy life. In effect, his life comes to a screeching halt. He alienates those around him and suffers a violent death as a consequence.
The act of looking back does not necessarily condemn us to unhappy lives. Looking back at our past experiences can be a beneficial process of if we use the occasion to gain insight about our behavior and ourselves. But we cannot spend the rest of our lives looking back, mired in the past, mourning our loss, or regretting what might have been unless we want to spend the rest of our days feeling miserable and wallowing in self-pity. Persephone shows us how to move forward; Orpheus shows us what happens if we don't. Which of these two paths we choose to take is up to us.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice provides us with rich thematic mateial. Some of these themes surface in a variety of literary works, as we shall see in my next post.
Dreams and Memory
Orpheus journeys to the Underworld to retrieve his beloved wife, Eurydice. But as is the case with myths in general, the events and characters in this myth can be interpreted symbolically. If we interpret Eurydice not just as a person but as a symbol, we open up the possibility for a whole new interpretation of the myth in which Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld can be explained psychologically—as a foray into the dark recesses of our mind, the world of dreams and memory.
In this interpretation, Eurydice represents all our positive and possibly idealized memories of the past, memories we desperately want to re-live but which are lost to us forever. We can look back at them with longing, but any attempt to resurrect those moments and experience them again is as doomed as Orpheus’ attempt to resurrect his Eurydice. Our past is lost to us forever except in memories or through dreams. We cannot go back and re-live it, change it, or undo what has been done.
But perhaps more significant than our conscious attempt to re-live the past through the recollection of memories is the surfacing of the past through our dreams. Dreams consist of images, emotions, thoughts, ideas, and bits and pieces of memories buried in our psyche that speak to us during certain stages of sleep. They emerge from our underworld, the deep recesses of our subconscious mind. The nature of dreams varies. They can be frightening, soothing, bizarre, bewildering, sad, comforting, or inspiring. What happens in a dream or where it takes us is beyond our conscious control.
Most dreams are forgotten as soon as we wake up. We see them recede into the darkness beyond our grasp. Like Orpheus reaching out to Eurydice, we reach out to hold on to our dream, to try to recall it. But the dream disappears before our eyes and we are left with nothing to hold on to except the knowledge that we experienced a vivid dream whose only contents we can remember are fragments of fleeting images.
The Transformational Power of the Arts
Orpheus is known above all for his singing. His voice is so exquisite, his songs so potent they enable him to transform nature and even allow him access to the Underworld. His singing stirs the animals into dance; inanimate nature in the form of rocks and stones come alive. Through his art, Orpheus transforms the world around him. As such, he embodies the role of the artist.
The arts, and by that I mean literature, music, songs, painting, sculpture, and theatre, do more than provide commentary on the world. They have the ability to transform it, making us see reality in a new way by changing our perceptions and interpretations. Like all artists, Orpheus is a magician. He can take the ordinary, the mundane, and transmute it through his art into something new and exquisite, making it dance, making it come alive, and making us perceive it in an out-of-the-ordinary way.
Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld also speaks to us in that it demonstrates the power of art to overcome death. His singing and musical skills enable him to pass through obstacles guarding access to the Underworld and persuade Hades and Persephone to agree to the release of Eurydice. We are told even in death, he continues to sing and play his music through his severed head as it floats down the river to Lesbos. His music lives on even though the artist has died.
During his life, Orpheus is able to manipulate the natural world through the magic of his songs. It is significant that after he dies, his body merges with nature. The scattered fragments of his body mingle with the earth before they are collected and given a proper burial. His voice continues to soar even after death. Orpheus as the artist is very much a part of this world both in life and in death. His presence and impact on the world, his ability to transform it, is felt during his life and long after his death.
The power of art to transform the world around us and to survive the death of the artist is a common theme in literature. We shall see examples of this in the “Only Connect” section in my discussion of this myth.
Having persuaded Hades and Persephone to release Eurydice, Orpheus leads the way as they both climb toward the opening to the land of the living. Orpheus emerges, and finding himself bathed in the sunlight of the upper world, his impatience gets the better of him and he turns around to make sure Eurydice is behind him. It’s too soon. Eurydice had not yet fully emerged. Orpheus watches her shade retreat to the Underworld, her arms outstretched, her voice crying out a plaintive “Farewell.” His attempt to grasp her fleeting image fails.
Grief-stricken once again, Orpheus tries to re-enter the Underworld but is barred entrance. He pleads with the gods and then rages against them when they refuse him. He wanders aimlessly day and night, heart-broken and in despair. He continues to play his mournful songs and shuns the company of women, perhaps out of loyalty to his marriage vow to Eurydice.
Versions of Orpheus’ death vary. In one version of the myth, he is killed by the women of Thrace, angry at his rejection of them. In another version, the god Dionysus instigates the maenads to kill him in a jealous frenzy since Orpheus prefers to worship the god Apollo. And in a third version, Zeus has him killed to prevent him from revealing the secrets of the Underworld.
In all versions Orpheus experiences a violent death. He is attacked, his body torn from limb to limb, and its pieces scattered. His head and lyre float down the river to Lesbos as he continues to sing and play his music. The Muses collect his dismembered pieces, bury them, and place his lyre in the heavens as a constellation. Upon his death, Orpheus enters the Underworld and reunites with his beloved Eurydice.
The myth of Orpheus has survived the centuries because it is a tale that resonates with the experience of being human. We shall see just how it does that in my subsequent posts.
Hailed as the supreme poet and musician in Greek mythology, Orpheus possessed a beautiful voice and excelled at playing the lyre. His music and singing was so enchanting that it was capable of making birds, fish, beasts, and even rocks and trees dance. His song charmed the Sirens when he voyaged with Jason to recover the Golden Fleece. And it was through his enchanting music and singing that he was able to enter and Underworld to seek the return of his beloved Eurydice.
Orpheus’ love for Eurydice is legendary. Their wedding day is marred by catastrophe when Eurydice is bitten on her heel by a serpent as she walks through tall grass. Her death is instantaneous. Her spirit plummets to the Underworld. Orpheus discovers her body and is overcome with grief. Unable to either eat or sleep, he mourns the loss of Eurydice by playing such mournful songs that even the gods weep to hear him. Finally, Orpheus decides to venture to the Underworld, a feat few living mortals ever accomplish, with the goal of retreiving Eurydice back to the land of the living.
With his music and singing, Orpheus convinces the ferryman Charon to take him across the River Styx to the opening of the Underworld. Once there, he charms Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding its entrance, to step aside and let him enter. He plays his music and sings his mournful songs, convincing Hades, the god of the Underworld, and his bride Persephone to agree to the release of Eurydice. But there is a condition. Both he and Eurydice are forbidden to look back at the Underworld until they have exited from it entirely and entered the upper world. If either looked back prematurely, Eurydice would have to return. Orpheus agrees to the terms. But for whatever reason, whether it is due to anxiety, excitement, or a lapse in judgment, Orpheus fails to abide by the terms. The consequences prove to be devestating.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter has captured the attention of scholars, artists, and authors. Its appeal lies in a richness of themes that continue to resonate with contemporary audiences: the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship; the progression from childhood to adulthood and what is lost and what is gained in the process; the nature of oppression; recovering from trauma; and the conditions for healing and reconciliation.
As a work of literature, the poem is beautiful and well worth reading in its entirety. Several translations are available but my favorite by far is the translation and commentary by Helene P. Foley.
Scholars have dedicated whole books to discussions of the poem. For example, Christine Downing’s The Long Journey Home is an anthology of essays, contemporary re-tellings, and poems, all of which deal exclusively with the Demeter/Persephone story. This anthology includes one of my favorite poems on the subject, "The Two Godesses" by River Malcolm, a poem in which Demeter and Persephone each speak in the first person of their experience and its impact on their lives and their relationship to each other.
A wonderful poem that suggests the Demeter/Persephone story is “Offspring” by Naomi Long Madgett. The poem addresses the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship and the gut-wrenching difficulty a mother feels at relinquishing her child to adulthood.
In Life’s Daughter/Death’s Bride, Kathie Carlson, a Jungian psychologist, explores the myth in terms of what it reveals to us about our inner lives and relationships.
Our discussion of the myth revealed Demeter reacting to the oppressive behaviors of Zeus and Hades by replicating the behavior of the oppressors against an individual too weak to defend herself. History is replete with examples of just this behavior manifesting itself in the political arena. Numerous books—political, historical, and literary—have been written on the subject. One such book that continues to resonate even 60 years after its publication is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a classic on the nature of oppression and how easily the oppressed can slide into the role of oppressors if and when they are placed in positions of power.
We witnessed Persephone exercising choice and agency by re-framing her trauma, claiming it through re-telling, and using the experience to catapult herself into becoming a strong, empowered, and articulate being. A plethora of books are available that address the subject of trauma, its aftermath, and the journey to recovery. One book I found most helpful when I worked with victims of sexual assault and/or battery is Judith Herman’s groundbreaking book, Trauma and Recovery. I highly recommend it.
Probably the most appealing aspect of the myth for me is its illustration of the idea that as we progress through our journey in life, we give birth to ourselves many times over. Just as Persephone swallows the seeds of death to give birth to herself anew in a perpetual dance of living and dying, when we transition to a new stage in our lives, some part of our old selves necessarily dies. We have to be prepared to shed our old skin if we ever hope to embrace our potential and live life to its fullest. And we have to be prepared to do so on an ongoing, continuous basis, rotating between living and dying just as Persephone has done.
An exquisite poem that expresses this very theme is “Curiosity” by Alistair Reed. If you click on the link, you can read the poem and hear it read by the poet, himself. It’s quite lovely.
Finally, at the risk of being accused of shameless self-promotion, I refer you to the two books I have written about the myth: Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth and my novel, A Pomegranate and the Maiden.
When Persephone emerges from the Underworld, she greets her mother and narrates the sequence of events that led to her abduction and release. Homer attributes 30 lines of direct speech to her. This is the first time we hear her speak. She utters a shrill cry as she is abducted; she makes no sounds that we know of while she is in the Underworld. It is only when she emerges that Persephone seems to find her voice.
In myths, fairy tales, and stories in general, voice frequently serves as a metaphor for agency and self-determination. An absence of voice indicates an absence of agency. Finding voice equates with exercising agency. Persephone emerges from the Underworld speaking clearly and with confidence. She has found her voice. She is no longer the inarticulate generic maiden who was deprived of both voice and agency.
Persephone’s recounting of events serves an important function. A traumatic experience that is buried and never articulated will not heal. By speaking of her trauma, Persephone exerts control over it, re-framing it in her own words, thereby facilitating its integration into her life in order to heal. Voice and agency are intertwined. What is true for Persephone is true for all victims of trauma.
The re-telling of a traumatic experience is an essential activity for healing to occur with victims of trauma, including victims of sexual assault and/or battery. It is a necessary part of the recovery process. It reduces the victim’s feelings of isolation by establishing a connection between the speaker and the listener and between the victim and others who have experienced trauma. This re-telling also serves to diminish any possible lingering feelings of guilt or self-blame.
Unfortunately, some of us have a tendency to show little sympathy for victims of trauma and frequently engage in victim blaming. We dismiss the trauma by finding ways to accuse the victim of bringing it on himself/herself. We assume that trauma cannot happen to us or to anyone who exercises vigilance. The truth of the matter is, however, no matter how careful we are, trauma can hit us at any time and at any place. Persephone was engaged in the innocent activity of picking flowers when she was abducted to the Underworld. Similarly, we can be engaged in an equally harmless activity only to find ourselves victims of a trauma we did not instigate. Blaming the victim for his/her victimization is not only cruel, it compounds the problem for the individual trying to heal. All victims of trauma, regardless of the nature of the trauma, deserve our sympathy and compassion, not our recriminations and censure.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter continues to sing to us across the centuries. Many of the themes it articulates resonate with us today. In my next post, I will identify some literary works that address similar themes.
The Psychic Descent
The Underworld in Greek mythology is a dark, mysterious realm inhabited by the shades of the dead. The Greeks believed it was an actual place located under the earth and/or across water. Hades emerges from under the earth to abduct the Kore; Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey has to cross water to get to it. But the Underworld is not just a quaint attempt on the part of the ancient Greeks to explain where we go when we die. It is so much more than that. The Underworld speaks to us as metaphor for the dark, hidden spaces in our psyche.
Sometimes trauma is thrust upon us through no fault of our own. Before we fully grasp what has happened, we find ourselves being sucked into a deep, dark chasm with no apparent way out. We are abducted into our own depths, a descent which can be terrifying. We feel utterly alone, desolate, isolated, and abandoned. This is our underworld.
This psychic space we inhabit feels like a death. And in many ways it is. A part of us is dying. But just like Persephone who is abducted into death and who transforms her experience into new life, we are presented with the same opportunity through our psychic descent. We have a choice. Do we opt to stay in this death-like psychic state and allow circumstances to overwhelm us? Or do we opt to actively re-frame our experience to emerge as stronger and wiser beings, as better versions of ourselves?
Persephone’s consumption of the seeds of death speaks to us as metaphor for assimilating or internalizing what is learned during tenure in the Underworld and its use as a catapult to higher knowledge. Similarly, while we are in this death-like, psychic space, we can use the time wisely by learning who we are and what we can become.
Time spent in the underworld can be transformative, a period of psychological and spiritual growth. It has the potential to be a fertile time in our lives, a time for introspection and gestation, a time for being instead of a time for doing. We can forge new meaning out of the trauma by creating a better self as a response to experiences that hurt. Although we don’t necessarily welcome our abduction into its depths and are overjoyed to emerge, once we begin to recognize the potential for growth the underworld presents, our fear of it can diminish.
Persephone’s visits to the underworld are regulated. Ours are not. We don’t know what circumstances or hurdles will send us plummeting into our own depths. But how we react when we are down there is up to us. If we understand the pain we are experiencing has purpose and potential, we can better tolerate it. Easier said than done, I know. But it may be some consolation to remember there is no growth without pain; there is no birth without death. The birth of the new emerges from the death of the old. By exercising agency and choosing to assimilate the knowledge garnered from our psychic excursion into the depths, we can emerge as wiser, stronger beings who are better equipped to handle life’s challenges.
In my next post, I will address the issue of Persephone's voice and the important role voice plays in healing from trauma.
The Seeds of Death
In order to understand why Persephone intentionally chooses to guarantee her return to the Underworld, we have to see what the Kore is like before entering the Underworld and what she is like when she emerges.
Before her abduction, the Kore is a young maiden with a generic name, denied a unique identity, and referred to as an extension of her mother. She never speaks. The only sound she makes is the shrill cry to her father as she is being abducted, but even that is reported in the indirect voice.
Persephone in the Underworld is a powerful queen whose authority extends over all that has died. But there’s a catch. If she leaves the Underworld, she’ll never be allowed to return. Her power becomes meaningless. If she stays, she’ll never be able to exit.
Homer tells us Persephone’s leap for joy occurs immediately after Hades explains the extent of her power. This suggests a causal relationship. Could it be possible that her joy is due to recognition that if she wishes to sustain her power, she must be able to rotate between upper and lower worlds? Such ability would make her virtually unique among the gods since only Hermes shares the same privilege. But she would have greater power than even Hermes. Unlike him, she can influence what transpires in her domain. The shades residing in the Underworld would appeal to her for help. Furthermore, her presence in the upper world would enable her to enjoy the benefit of sacrifices and honors from mortals eager to win her favor for when they die. Without the ability to navigate periodically between both worlds, her stature would greatly diminish.
Recognizing the truth in Hades’ words, Persephone assumes responsibility for her transformation and exercises choice. She opts to take on her role as a conduit. She guarantees her periodic return to the Underworld by intentionally consuming the seeds of death.
Persephone has been transfigured by her experience. She does not pine away or wallow in self-pity because of her victimization. She accepts what has happened to her and uses the experience to propel herself to a higher level of development and growth. No longer subject to the authority of either her mother or Hades, she creates a third space for herself that is independent of both and one that transcends the limitations of both worlds. Loss is thereby transformed into an opportunity for growth.
Persephone’s consumption of the seeds of death demonstrates her awareness that the seeds of death are her vehicle for a new life. In order to be re-born as a powerful, autonomous being, her old self must die.
How this awareness can benefit us will be the subject of my next post.
We know very little about Kore/Persephone before her abduction to the Underworld. She is not even assigned a proper name when the poem opens. Known as the Kore (a generic word for “maiden”) or as “the slim-ankled daughter” of Demeter, she is denied a unique identity and is perceived as an extension of her mother.
Once in the Underworld, the Kore loses her maiden status. She sheds her generic name and assumes a proper name—Persephone, which means spring. We hear no more about her until Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, arrives to announce her release. One would think she would be overjoyed to hear the news and show some excitement. Apparently not. Persephone does not react.
As he is about to release her, Hades reminds her she has gained new powers as his bride and as the Queen of the Underworld. Her status has increased among the gods, and her power extends to all that lives since mortals will try to win her favor with sacrifices and honors so she can ease their burden and the burden of their loved ones in the Underworld. It is then and only then that Persephone shows excitement. Homer tells us she eagerly “leapt for joy.” Hades then pops pomegranate seeds in her mouth, and Persephone swallows them. This is significant. Persephone has spent one year in the Underworld without consuming its food. Why would she choose to swallow food from the Underworld just as she is about to exit?
In order to understand the magnitude of Persephone’s choice, we need to know one of the rules of the Underworld is if you swallow food while you’re down there, you will have to return. So by swallowing the pomegranate seeds, Persephone is ensuring her return. The question is why? Why would she want to go back? Why would she intentionally swallow the seeds of death?
The answer to that will be in my next post.
As we saw in a previous post, Demeter reacts to the aggressive behavior of Zeus and Hades by initially running away from the problem. She searches for and finds a substitute in the infant prince Demophoon. She neither informs nor seeks permission from Demophoon’s mother for the transformation/abduction of Demophoon into an immortal. In effect, she replicates the aggressive behavior perpetrated on her by Zeus and Hades when they colluded to abduct her daughter to the Underworld without her knowledge or permission.
Demeter’s action illustrates a frequent reaction people have to oppression. All too often, when a group experiences oppression of any sort—be it discrimination based on race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or ability—the members of that group will adopt the role of the oppressor by oppressing those beneath them in the power structure.
Demeter’s initial reaction to oppression is to avoid confronting the oppressor. Instead, she channels her anger at someone who is weaker than her, the mortal mother of Demophoon. Similarly, some people react to oppression by taking out their frustration and anger on those below them in the hierarchy who are powerless or who feel too powerless to retaliate. A pecking order is established. An employee oppressed by a supervisor will turn around and oppress a subordinate. A person victimized by someone powerful may vent frustrations on family members who feel too powerless to retaliate.
This reaction stems from feelings of inadequacy. We feel too weak or too afraid or too powerless to confront the aggressor. So we relieve our pent up anger by behaving aggressively toward those weaker than us. But as the Hymn to Demeter illustrates, such behavior is cruel, unjust, and counterproductive. For is it only when Demeter turns to confront her aggressors with the full force of her fury that she is able to get justice and gain the release of her daughter. And just as Demeter wields her power as the Goddess of the Grain to her advantage, we need to wield our power by using whatever legitimate means we have at our disposal to fight oppression whenever and wherever it hits us.
Coping with Loss
Demeter learns of her daughter’s abduction to the Underworld through Helios, the Sun God. Homer tells us she is seized with “brutal grief” at the news. Her sorrow is compounded by the knowledge that she cannot access the Underworld to rescue her daughter. Persephone is trapped in the Underworld and cannot escape; Demeter, as the Goddess of the Grain, is restricted to the over world. So mother and daughter can never be reunited.
Demeter’s reaction to this devastating loss is understandable: she avoids dealing with the issue through withdrawal and denial. She disguises herself as an elderly mortal, leaving Olympus and the company of the gods. In other words, she does what many of us do when faced with gut-wrenching loss: she runs away from the problem and runs away from herself by denying her identity. Sometimes the pain of loss can be so overwhelming that we try to flee from it rather than face it.
Demeter manifests another very human trait in dealing with loss. Rather than coping with it, her desperation leads her to seek a substitute by appropriating another woman’s child for herself. Oftentimes when experiencing a loss or a break-up in a relationship, we scramble to find an alternative to ease our pain. We deny ourselves time to adjust to our loss. That Demeter takes a circuitous route before finally coming to terms with her loss suggests our own ability to heal from grief can be a matter of timing: we do so only when we are ready and we may not be ready until we have experienced some detours.
Loss must be acknowledged and accommodated. Each time Demeter joyfully embraces Persephone as she emerges from the Underworld, she is acknowledging there are some losses we can never reverse. She has learned to live with her loss by accepting Persephone for who she has become and not for what she once was. If we ever hope to move beyond our grief, we must do the same.
As the Hymn to Demeter shows us, dealing with grief can be avoided temporarily, but it cannot be avoided indefinitely. A hasty substitute is a short-term solution; denial delays the healing process. Sooner or later, we have to face reality, work through our loss, and embrace it. It is only by doing so will we be able to transcend it and move forward.
Demeter reacts to the injustice of her daughter’s abduction with understandable rage. However, she also manifests an all too frequent and not easily forgivable reaction some people exhibit when faced with oppression. This will be the subject of my next post.