Persephone's Voice

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.

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     Head of Proserpina  By Gianlorenzo Bernini (Italy, 1598-1690) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Head of Proserpina By Gianlorenzo Bernini (Italy, 1598-1690) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.