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.