One of my favorite myths in the body of Greek mythology is the story of Demeter and Persephone as told in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. My love of the myth inspired me to write two books about it. Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth (McFarland 2002) is a feminist interpretation of the myth. A Pomegranate and the Maiden (Anaphora Literary Press 2015), my novel based on the myth, is an imaginative retelling of the story which gives voice to each of the main characters through multiple, first-person points of view. The characters describe and interpret the events through a gendered lens. The narrative progresses with each character picking up the thread where the previous character left off.
The myth is complex, rich with meaning, full of choice bits of wisdom. But before we can begin to tease out its nuggets of wisdom, it’s helpful to have a brief summary of the myth.
Demeter, Goddess of the Grain, is responsible for the growth and cultivation of food. Her daughter, the Kore (‘maiden’) is picking flowers one day when Hades, God of the Underworld (the Land of the Dead), emerges from a wide chasm in the earth, grabs the young girl, and abducts her to his deathly realm to make her his bride.
Demeter learns of her daughter’s abduction after nine days of frantic searching. However, she cannot rescue her daughter since she has no access to the underworld. So she withdraws from the assembly of the gods, disguises herself as a mortal, and becomes a nursemaid to the infant prince Demophoon in the city of Eleusis.
While at the palace in Eleusis, Demeter decides to claim the infant prince by turning him into a god. So each night she places him in the fire to purge him of his mortality. The infant’s mother witnesses the event and is horrified. Demeter then reveals her true identity and orders the people of Eleusis to build her a temple to mollify her anger.
Demeter takes her place inside the temple and uses her power as the Goddess of the Grain to force the release of her daughter from the underworld. She withholds her bounty from the earth, refusing to let anything grow. This leads to famine, starvation, and death. Eventually, the gods are forced to agree to her demands and Zeus orders the release of Kore/Persephone from the underworld.
As she is exiting the underworld, Persephone swallows the pomegranate seeds Hades slips into her mouth. Because she has eaten food of the underworld, she is required to return there for four months of every year. Her return to the underworld triggers Demeter’s mourning, corresponding to the months of winter. Her emergence from the underworld triggers Demeter’s joy, corresponding to the months of spring and summer.
On a superficial level, the myth represents our ancient ancestors’ attempt to explain why the earth dies in winter and is re-born in spring. But that is the least significant interpretation of the myth. If we deconstruct the myth and interpret it with a different set of lenses, we will discover it continues to speak to us with relevant and valuable lessons on dealing with the challenges in life.
What those lessons are will be the subject of my subsequent posts, beginning with Demeter and how she copes with loss.