Household Gods

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from book II of Virgil’s Aeneid:

[506] “Perhaps, too, you may inquire what was Priam’s fate. When he saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”

The second reading was from the Hebrew scriptures, the Prophets, Zechariah 10-12:

Ask rain from the Lord
  in the season of the spring rain,
from the Lord who makes the storm clouds,
  and he will give them showers of rain,
  to everyone the vegetation in the field.
For the household gods utter nonsense,
  and the diviners see lies;
they tell false dreams
  and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
  they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.

Sermon — “Household Gods”

Some years ago, I got in trouble in a class I was taking. This class was a creative writing workshop, and it was taught by a fellow who had published quite a few short stories in prestigious magazines. I no longer remember his name, and if you heard his name you probably wouldn’t recognize it — nevertheless, he was an experienced and accomplished writer.

Each week, we all had to submit short stories to be read over and critiqued by the class. Each week we would have to read a short story by a published writer, and all the stories written by our classmates, and comment intelligently on each of these stories. Now I have never been able to write a short story that was any good; non-fiction I can do, but fiction is beyond me; but there I was taking that class because I needed the credits and it was the only class that would fit into my schedule. Since I like to read and I’m never shy about expressing my opinions, I was always happy to read all of the week’s stories and then talk about them in class; but I wasn’t very good at writing stories.

One week I submitted yet another boring story, the inconsequential plot of which hinged on one of the characters talking about her household gods. And to make a long story short (as it were), our teacher ridiculed my story because he had never heard of household gods and wanted to know why they were in the story. What, he asked me, his voice dripping with sarcasm, did I mean by household gods, anyway? Well, I knew my mother had talked about household gods, and I more or less knew that household gods were a sort of cultural metaphor for that which is important to one’s household. This did not satisfy him, and we moved on to the next story, and eventually I passed that class.

In spite of the fact that neither that teacher nor I knew what they were, household gods do indeed exist. The ancient Roman gods and goddesses included not just the major public deities like Juno and Jupiter and Diana; there were also minor deities that lived in each Roman household, and these were the household gods. Sixty years ago, when my mother was in high school, high school kids learned a certain amount of ancient Latin, and a certain amount of ancient Roman culture; and so my mother’s generation has been exposed to Latin writers such as Livy and Virgil.

These days there aren’t many people who have studied Latin, who would know what a household god might be. My writing teacher had never heard of them at all, and although I had heard my mother mention them I knew nothing more than that. Yet if you look hard enough, you can still find household gods in the nooks and crannies of our culture:– there is a science fiction novel in which Roman household gods sends a modern woman back in time to live in ancient Rome; they do crop up in literature now and then; come to find out, there’s even a folk music group called The Household Gods. I suspect that evenn those of us who never studied Latin continue to have a vague notion that there might be guardian deities within our households.

And I suspect that many of us, though we may hotly deny it, are still under the influence of some household gods. We may not admit it, but we have let unacknowledged household gods into our homes. And this prompts me to ask: what are household gods, and what function might they still carry out in our homes?

Let me begin by describing ancient Roman household gods. Not that this is going to be a historically accurate description — ancient Roman history covers hundreds of years, and the form and worship of household gods evolved continually over that time span. But a general description will suit our purposes.

The first thing to know is the ancient Roman term for household gods: they were called “lares.” An 1894 book called “The Mythology of Greece and Rome” says this about the Lares:

“The Lares… were the tutelary deities of the house and family…. They were commonly supposed to be the glorified spirits of ancestors, who, as guardian deities, strove to promote the welfare of the family. The seat of their worship was also the family hearth in the atrium, where their images of wood or wax were generally preserved in a separate shrine of their own (Lararium). The Lares received an especial degree of veneration on the first day of every month; but… they took part in all the domestic occurrences, whether of joy or sorrow. …They also received their share at every meal of particular dishes, and were crowned with garlands on the occasion of every family rejoicing. When a son assumed the toga virilis (that is, when he came of age), he dedicated his bulla (a gold or silver ornament, like a medal, which was worn round the neck during childhood) to the Lares, amidst prayers and libations and burning of incense. When the father of the house started on a journey or returned in safety, the Lares were again addressed, and their statues crowned with wreaths, flowers and garlands being their favorite offerings.”

This makes the household gods seem rather charming, doesn’t it? You have these little household gods made out of wood or wax or terracotta, which represented your ancestors or your guardians; and they lived in their own little niche next to the fireplace, and they promised to look out for you and your family. If anything happened to your family, whether good or bad, you’d go spend some time with your household gods. When you had a nice meal, you’d give them a little bit of it; if something good happened in your family, you’d put flowers on them. You’d pay attention to them before someone in your family went traveling, and you’d pay attention to them again when that person returned safely home. I particularly like the fact that the household gods liked flowers and garlands best — I’m not so happy with gods and goddesses that demand blood sacrifices (which can be disgusting and messy) or burnt offerings (which is a waste of good food), but it’s always nice to have an excuse to put flowers in your house.

Those who could afford to do so built a special wall niche into their home, a house altar or lararium, in which the household gods were placed; and some of these house altars are decorated with paintings that might show one of more of the household gods. In one of the houses in Pompei, that ancient Roman city that got buried by a volcano, archaeologists uncovered a house altar on which was painted a representation of a snake with a beard and a crest on top of its head; this was the “lars familiaris,” a sort of protective power associated with the household. So it was that these household gods had their own place within a Roman house.

And if you were a Roman, you hoped that your household gods offered you some kind of protection. Of course, it didn’t necessarily work out that way. After all, that house altar in Pompei didn’t protect its household from being buried by that volcanic eruption. And when the ancient Greeks conquered Troy and went through the city killing and looting, the household gods of Priam, the king of Troy, could not save him; as the Roman poet Virgil tells us in the Aeneid, his poetic story of the Trojan war:
“When [Priam] saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched [his wife] Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the [household] gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”
But of course the altar of the household gods did not protect Priam in the least, for the next part of the Aeneid tells how he was slaughtered by the Greeks.

Even though I don’t believe that Roman household gods offer some sort of magical protection, I like this idea of having household gods. I’m not looking for household gods which can provide a comprehensive insurance policy for my house and family, but I do like the way the ancient Romans used the household gods to create a religious and spiritual center in their households. I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not want to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house, but it’s not enough for me to do religion an hour a week.

Our direct spiritual forebears, New England Protestant Christians, did not have household gods; but they did have manage to integrate religion and spirituality into their daily lives. Their religion was not limited to an hour on Sunday mornings.

These days, we Unitarian Universalists think of ourselves as “post-Christian” — some of us still consider ourselves Christian individuals, and some of us want nothing to do with Christianity. Yet although we are post-Christian, that does not mean that we have to throw out every part of the Christian tradition. We’ve taken the cross out of our church, but we still call it a church; we may not read the Christian scriptures much, but we still follow the Christian rule of meeting once a week on Sundays. So I think it is worth taking a look at the old Christian home religious practices that used to be a part of our New England religious tradition.

One of those Christian practices, once so common in New England households, was the practice of daily prayers. In our own tradition — we come from the Radical Reformation and the Free Churches — the governing principle for daily prayer is quite simple: each individual is guided by the Spirit, and so we did not require a complicated scheme of specific prayers to memorize and certain words to say. We still value extemporaneous prayer, and we sometimes still teach our children how to pray in this fashion. My favorite example of this is a bedtime prayer that the Rev. Christopher Raible wrote about. He suggested that parents sit with their children each night and use this format for bedtime prayers:

  Tonight I am thankful for… (then you say some of the good things that happened to you today)
  And tonight I am sorry for… (then you talk about the things you feel sorry for doing or saying)
  Tomorrow I hope for… (and you talk about things you hope for and how you think you can make them happen).

In the old days in New England, prayers were something everyone said on a daily basis. There were many other daily prayers that people used, the most common one being the practice of saying grace before meals.

The other common household practice from the Free Church tradition is the practice of keeping the Sabbath day. I don’t know anyone who keeps the Sabbath day any more, although a Hundred years ago, Unitarian and Universalist families did keep the Sabbath. Ellen Tucker Emerson, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughters, wrote a description of how the Emerson family kept the Sabbath day together as a family:

“Sunday was then kept rigidly the children of these days would say, but Father and Mother considered it kept easily, while Grandma thought it not strictly enough observed…. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six….”

Ellen Emerson goes in some detail, so I will skip ahead:

“I am trying to show what was Mother’s method in the religious education of her children, to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories. To accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and religious study at home. When Eddy got to be perhaps three or even earlier she began to read aloud to us when we were all in bed Mrs Barbauld’s Prose Hymns and often a story-book of a religious character…. This was not always done, for I remember as if it continued a long time the practice of singing before we went upstairs… we used to sit on our three stools round Mother and sing it with her…. She had a little blue book of morning and evening prayers, and I think she read aloud one of those prayers.”

This all sounds rather charming — if we lived a hundred and fifty years ago. But which of us today would like to devote all day Sunday to memorizing hymns, and listening to serious writing read aloud, and hearing Bible stories, and reading prayers aloud, and singing a few hymns before bedtime? Which of us would like to tear children and grand children away from video games and MySpace to participate in such things? And how many of our children or grandchildren would easily consent to such things all day every Sunday? The children I know would sooner have a wall-niche constructed next to the fireplace, and pour out libations to little statues of household gods — and they would only do that, I suspect, until they got bored with it.

Most of the households I know no longer include much religious practice at home. Some households are quite good at saying bedtime prayers with young children; I know a few households that actually eat dinner together every night and even say grace before they eat; I know a few households where families sing hymns or hymn-like songs together. But I don’t know of any households where someone regularly reads aloud from “serious writing.”

If anything, I think the pagans among us do the best job of including religion in daily life within the household. I know quite a few pagan households that regularly say grace or in some way bless food before eating it. I know quite a few pagan households that incorporate regular religious rituals in their home life; and in the best Free Church tradition, they often make up these rituals themselves, as the Spirit moves them. I know of pagan households that have some kind of house altar, not unlike the house altars of the ancient Romans. And I even know some pagan households where children are taught religious songs and chants, and where people actually read aloud to each other from religious writings.

What about my own household? Traditionally — back in the days when Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children were young — clergy were supposed to be exemplars for living a good religious life. My friend Rabbi Michael is still such an exemplar — he keeps the Sabbath, and his three children keep the Sabbath. But I am not such a good role model: my life partner is pretty much unchurched, and I’m not going to impose my religious practices on her, so we don’t do any of the things I’ve talked about. Yes, I do keep a Sabbath day each week — my Sabbath day is Friday, because that’s what fits into my busy schedule, and every Friday I don’t do any unnecessary work, and I make an effort to read serious writing, and good Transcendentalist that I am I try to engage in my spiritual practices of writing and reading. But these are things I do on my own, not things I do with the rest of my household.

Many of us are no longer able to fit the old Free Church religious rituals into our home lives; and perhaps we no longer want to do so. But wouldn’t it be nice to do something at meal times besides turning on the television set? Wouldn’t it be nice to devote some time each week to a consideration of the most important things in life, rather than spending all our leisure time playing video games and sending inconsequential email messages? And if we can’t observe the old Free Church religious rituals, still less will we return to the ancient Roman rituals surrounding the household gods. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason to bring fresh flowers into your house? Wouldn’t it be nice to have little rituals to observe when someone in your household was goind away on a trip, or returning home? or rituals to observe when your children or grandchildren came of age?

Of course these days most of use lead lives that no longer give us any time to observe such rituals outside of an hour-long worship service on Sunday mornings. And I want to emphasize that many of us are not going to be able to impose our religion on our households. Those are the facts of life for many of us.

But pay attention to those facts of life. A little while ago, I said that I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. I will go further than that — like it or not, we are religious beings; doing religion is one of the ways we make sense out of the world. You can choose to get rid of conscious religion in your life — you don’t have to say grace before meals or force your children to say bedtime prayers nor do you have to go to church on Sunday mornings. You can choose that you’re not going to do those things. But you will have to find some way to make sense out of the world, and if you don’t do that consciously, you will do it unconsciously.

Our culture is constantly telling us to make sense out of the world by having more stuff — we get that new video game, or that new iPhone, or that new Toyota Prius, or that new house, and suddenly our world makes sense — for a time, it makes sense. But all religious rituals have to be repeated over and over again, and so we go out and buy more stuff; and we work longer hours so we can buy more stuff; and we make our children study hard and send them to lots of afterschool activities so that they can succeed and get the best jobs with a high salary — and buy more stuff.

Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not wish to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house; I do not wish to reinstate the home religious practices of Ellen Emerson’s family. But I need something more than an hour a week to feed my soul. I know that household gods still exist, and even if we don’t acknowledge them or know what they are they are still a powerful force, and they are living in our households right now. In our Free Church tradition, we don’t have to follow certain procedures and formulas; but we do have to give ourselves space to be moved by the spirit. We should pay attention to the household gods we are willing to admit into our households.

What will our household gods be? Will we worship consumer goods? Or can we find a way to update some of the old religious practices? Can we devote some time each day to meditation and prayer? Can we set aside time each day to reflect on what we have done, and what we hope to do? Even if we do nothing more than bring fresh flowers into our households, if we do it with the intention of focusing ourselves on the highest things, if we do it as an expression of our wonder and joy and awe before the mysteries of life,– I think that will be enough.

Mother of Us All

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is by James Lovelock, the person who developed the “Gaia hypothesis” that the Earth taken as a whole acts as if it is a living being:

“…Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth’s skin — its forest and ocean ecosystems — as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

“So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent….

“Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.

“We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

“Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

“We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.”

[This opinion piece by Dr. Lovelock is from The Independent (London), 16 January 2006.]

The second reading is from Homeric Hymn no. 30 to Gaia. Please excuse the gender-specific language of this old translation from ancient Greek:

To Gaia, the Mother of All.

I will sing of well-founded Gaia (Earth), mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all the creatures that are in the worlds, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away. Happy is the man whom you delight to honour! He has all things abundantly: his fruitful land is laden with corn, his pastures are covered with cattle, and his house is filled with good things. Such men rule orderly in their cities of fair women: great riches and wealth follow them: their sons exult with everfresh delight, and their daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field. Thus is it with those whom you honour O holy goddess, bountiful, wife of starry Heaven; freely bestow upon me for this my song substance that cheers the heart!

[Homeric Hymns, ed. & trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classics (Cambridge, Mass.: Havard Press, 1914.)


This is the fourth and final sermon in series of sermons on Greek goddesses. You may recall that when I began this series, I said that the ancient Greek goddesses are examples of female god images from our own Western culture — these are goddesses who are an integral part of our Western cultural inheritance. For this final sermon on Greek goddesses, I would like to speak with you about Gaia, or Mother Earth. And while the previous goddesses I spoke about — Artemis, Athena, Demeter, and Persephone — are no longer all that familiar to us, we all know and are familiar with Mother Earth, Mother Nature, the goddess who comprises all living beings on the broad earth.

Furthermore, the ancient Greek goddess Gaia is of interest today because today we face vast ecological problems. These ecological problems require a religious response from us. A few of our Christian brothers and sisters do a better job — they’re the ones who talk about “creation care,” meaning that God created the earth so we better not mess it up, because if we do we’re going against God’s will. I don’t happen to feel comfortable with that theology, but I respect the fact that this a genuinely religious response to the ecological crisis.

So what might be a genuine Unitarian Universalist religious response to the ecological crisis? Of course we already promote religious respect for the Earth; people in this congregation do this in a variety of ways. Some among us are neo-pagans, and may in fact understand the Earth as worthy of religious veneration. Some among us are humanists, with a religious appreciation of the importance of scientific insights, including the insights of ecology and climate science. Some among us — and this is our oldest religious tradition — are Transcendentalists, and like Emerson and Thoreau we feel that there is some transcendent reality in Nature.

These are three of our religious approaches, and we could probably come up with several more. It would be easy to emphasize the differences among us. Instead, let’s meditate for a while on the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, a Mother goddess who is part of our Western cultural inheritance, and see where such meditation leads us.

1. To begin with, I’d like to tell you a little about that ancient Greek goddess, Gaia. In the second reading this morning, we heard an ancient Greek hymn to Gaia, extolling her many virtues. She is the “eldest of all beings,” the first to emerge from the chaos that existed at the beginning of everything. Gaia “feeds all the creatures that are in the worlds, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly.” It is she upon whom we human being depend for our very lives, and she can either bless human beings with a good harvest, or remove from them the means of life. If the ancient Greek goddess Gaia smiles upon humanity, then our farms produce good food for us, our houses are “filled with good things,” our cities are orderly, our sons “exult with everfresh delight,” and our “daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field.”

All of which makes old Mother Earth sound like a delightful goddess indeed. But the ancient Greeks knew a Gaia who had her dark side, too; a goddess who was quite different from the sanitized versions of Mother Earth that seem to float around popular culture today. Let me tell you one of the gorier stories about Gaia:

In the beginning was Chaos, which was unformed stuff, or some say a bounded gap. Out of Chaos emerged Gaia, Mother Earth. Now after some indeterminate time, Gaia bore a son, who was named Ouranos, or the Heavens. Ouranos and Gaia had various children together, among whom was born Cronos.

Ouranos did not like some of his children, and he took his children Cottus and Briareos and Gyes and hid them away beneath the Earth. Gaia was angry at Ouranos for doing this, and she asked her other children to wreak revenge on their father. But only Cronos would follow Gaia’s plan — he took the sickle she gave him, ambushed his father, and castrated him. That was the end of Ouranos’s rule.

And there are many more rather grim stories involving Gaia: stories of monsters, stories where Gaia gets involved in a war with some other gods, more stories of revenge and hatred. There is a dark side to the ancient Greek goddess named Gaia. She was not all flowers and greenery; she was capable of wrath and destruction as well.

Our ancient Greek cultural inheritance portrays Mother Earth as a primal religious power. Gaia is not a greeting-card version of Mother Earth:– she is a powerful Mother Earth, who nurtures but who also participates fully in the total life cycle of birth and death. She is a goddess who is in some sense beyond real human comprehension. So the first part of our meditation on Mother Earth recognizes her great power.

2. From ancient Greek myths we jump forward a few thousand years to modern science, and we find that the name “Gaia” appears in the scientific world. Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia hypothesis. First proposed by James Lovelock in the 1960s, this scientific hypothesis proposed that the earth is a self-regulating system. as I understand it, the proponents of Gaia theory state that it is possible to understand the Earth as a living being, in the very specific sense that the Earth can be understood as the complex interaction of various systems. These interactions can best be modeled using non-linear mathematics, and a serious study of these interactions require scientists to look beyond the confines of their specific disciplines, so that biologists have to consider the effects of geology, and atmospheric and hydrospheric science on life forms, and vice versa.

Lovelock is a serious scientist who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and doctorates in medicine and biophysics. In spite of his academic credentials, his use of the name “Gaia” turned out to be quite controversial. Some scientists seemed to think that using the name of an ancient Greek goddess made it seem as if Lovelock was proposing that the self-regulating system of the earth is somehow conscious and capable of willful action. Lovelock has explicitly denied that he intended this, and he has said that he does not believe that we should consider the Earth as a thinking, feeling being. And in the ensuing years, others have begun talking about earth systems science, or geophysiology — terms which are perhaps less inflammatory.

While the term “Gaia theory” may sound imprecise to some scientists, from a metaphorical standpoint I think that name can be useful to us. We all know that widespread worship of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses has long since died out. But using the name for an ancient goddess might help us keep in mind the complexity embodied by Gaia theory — just as those ancient goddesses were complex and in some sense impossible for us humans to understand, the complexity of the relationships between the various systems of the planet Earth is beyond our current comprehension, and impossible to model with any degree of accuracy. This in turn might help us to be aware that our actions may have consequences that we cannot foresee and that we do not intend. And that should prompt us to be wary of anyone who proposes a simplistic solution to the ecological problems facing us.

We know that we should be wary of simplistic answers to complex questions; we know that human beings often do things that turn out to be pretty stupid in retrospect; and we know that the solutions to life’s problems are rarely simple. We don’t have to know anything about the non-linear mathematics behind Gaia theory to understand this. So the second part of our meditation on the goddess Gaia reminds us that while we know a lot more about how the universe works than did the ancient Greeks, there’s an awful lot that we still don’t understand.

3. And now I’d like to turn to consider our own religious tradition. For me, one of the central points of our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that we are ultimately hopeful. In spite of everything that is wrong with the world, we continue to believe that the arc of the universe tends towards justice; we continue to believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Even in the face of evidence that things are not going particularly well, we continue to believe that we can make a positive difference in the world.

Right now, there is a fair amount of evidence that things are not going particularly well. I mentioned the scientist James Lovelock earlier; in the first reading this morning, from a recent article by Lovelock, he calmly states his belief that we are already past the tipping point of global climate change. Many of us would disagree with Lovelock on this point, but even so there’s plenty of other evidence that things are not going well in the world. If you pay attention to the news you can find plenty of evidence that implies that the world is currently in a handbasket, and it is not heaven to which we are headed to in that handbasket.

It is in times like these that we need hope. I would suggest that the image of Mother Earth can serve as a powerful symbol of hopefulness. Mother Earth is a mother. By definition, mothers are mothers because they have children: whether they have biological children or other kinds of children, by definition mothers care for children, nurture them, believe in them. Referring to this image as Gaia might help remind us that this remains an image, a symbol, not reality; that we are constantly striving to turn that image into reality. But it is an image that can lead us forward in hopefulness.

Raising children is an act of hope. Whenever we see a child, whenever we see new life starting out, we have the hope that this child will be one of the ones who helps make the world a better place. In the first reading this morning, James Lovelock says that human civilization should be the heart and mind of this planet. Whenever we see a child, we have the hope that this child will participate in the great work of maintaining civilization as the heart and mind of our planet. Yes, we adults do our part, to the best of our ability: but we always hope that the children in our lives will soar beyond our own efforts.

I would say that children are central to my religious outlook, even though I have no children of my own. Caring for children is central to my religious outlook, because in caring for children lies my hope for the future. For me, a central purpose of any religious community must be to raise children to help them become good adults; to instill in them the idea that there is more to life than being a good consumer; that we human beings must always strive to reach the highest moral and ethical ideals. In this sense, religious communities act like the best of mothers: nurturing, caring for, and believing in the children in our midst. As Unitarian Universalists, we can believe whatever we wish about God; but we are religiously called to create a religious community that nurtures the rising generations. This is how we live out the essential hopefulness of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

So in closing, let me say: happy Mother’s Day. Care for the children. Care for the earth. The two are synonymous. And mothers are central to it all.

Demeter and Persephone

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an excerpt from an Orphic Hymn to Persephone:

“…Persephone divine,
come, blessed queen, and to these rites incline:
only-begotten, Hades’s honoured wife,
O venerable Goddess, source of life:….
O vernal queen, whom grassy plains delight,
sweet to the smell, and pleasing to the sight:
whose holy form in budding fruits we view,
earth’s vigorous offspring of a various hue:
espoused in autumn, life and death alone
to wretched mortals from thy power is known:
for thine the task, according to thy will,
life to produce, and all that lives to kill.
Hear, blessed Goddess, send a rich increase
of various fruits from earth, with lovely peace:
send health with gentle hand, and crown my life
with blest abundance, free from noisy strife;
last in extreme old age the prey of death,
dismiss me willing to the realms beneath,
to thy fair palace and the blissful plains
where happy spirits dwell, and Hades reigns.”

[#29, The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Thomas Taylor (1792). Modern edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.]

The second reading is from the mythographer Apollodorus, and it tells the best-known version of the story of Persephone’s abduction:

[1.5.1] Plouton [or Hades] fell in love with Persephone, and with Zeus’s help secretly kidnapped her. Demeter [her mother] roamed the earth over in search of her, by day and by night with torches. When she learned from the Hermionians that Plouton had kidnapped her, enraged at the gods she left the sky, and in the likeness of a woman made her way to Eleusis….
[1.5.3] When Zeus commanded Plouton to send Kore [or Persephone] back up, Plouton gave her a pomegranate seed to eat, as assurance that she would not remain long with her mother. With no foreknowledge of the outcome of her act, she consumed it. Askalaphos, the son of Akheron and Gorgyra, bore witness against her; in punishment for which Demeter pinned him down with a heavy rock in Hades’s realm. But Persephone was obliged to spend a third of each year with Plouton, and the remainder of the year among the gods.

[Pseudo-Appollodorus, Bibliotheca. Trans. Keith Aldrich as The Library of Greek Mythology by Apollodorus. Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1975).]


This is the third in a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. This morning I would like to speak about Demeter and Persephone: Demeter was the goddess of the seasons, of farming and husbandry, of marriage, and of the cycle of life and death; while Persephone, her daughter, was the goddess of the underworld, goddess of the dead, and also the goddess of springtime.

But before I begin talking about the myths relating to Demeter and Persephone, I’d like to remind you — as if you need reminding — that myths are slippery things. The ancient mythographers, who collected and wrote down the ancient Greek myths (and who, by the way, were all men), offer many different versions of any given myth; and because myths come from oral tradition we might suspect that there were as many different versions of a myth as there were persons who retold that myth.

After centuries of Christian dominance in Western culture, we are accustomed to think of religion as being based on written texts;– we are accustomed to think that religion is the same no matter where you are on the world;– and we are still influenced by the Christian idea of orthodoxy: that there is one and only one true interpretation of religion, an interpretation which is overseen by a central religious authority. But Greek myths were not based on written texts, they were based on oral poetry and more importantly on rituals that were acted out in various sacred places. Greek myths varied from place to place, so that the story of Demeter and Persephone varied from Athens to Sicily. And there was no central authority to interpret the myths or Greek religion; the myths were interpreted variously by the priests and priestesses in the various sacred places, and interpreted variously by each mythographer, each poet, each philosopher.

As a result, the ancient Greeks could not pretend that there was any one true and final interpretation of their religion; nor did they think there was any one true and final answer to their religious questions. Different points of view led to different understandings of the gods and goddesses, their children, and their liaisons.

In this sense, Greek myths are much like family stories. The stories we tell about our families are notoriously slippery. One child in a family has a wonderful childhood, filled with love and magic and wonder; another child in the same family has a miserable childhood; and when these siblings grow up, and tell their stories to one another, they are astonished at how different their stories are; it can seem as if they grew up in two different families. Similarly, a child may have a lovely childhood, completely unaware that one parent lives a gloomy, depressed life; or vice versa.

Myths are slippery things, and families are slippery things. And this morning I’m going to talk about the mythical family of Demeter and Persephone.

1. In the second reading this morning, we heard one of the more familiar mythical stories about how Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, and that familiar story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, Hades, the god of the underworld, was looking for a queen to rule along with him. Somehow, he happened to see Persephone, who was also known as Kore. Something about her captivated him. He went to Zeus, the ruler of all the Olympian gods, and he asked Zeus’s permission to marry Persephone. Now probably Hades asked Zeus’s permission simply because Zeus was the ruler of the other Olympian gods. But others say that Zeus lay with Persephone first, and they had a child together. And still others say Zeus was Persephone’s father. Well, whatever the family relationships might have been, Hades asked to marry Persephone and have her become the queen of the underworld. Zeus would neither grant his permission nor deny his permission. Hades took this as tacit consent from the ruler of the gods.

One spring day, Persephone was out wandering in a field, far from her mother Demeter. She was not alone, however; some say that she was with friends of hers who were nymphs, the daughters of Oceanus; but others say she was with the great goddesses Artemis and Athena. Whomever she was with on that spring day, the fields were filled with flowers: crocuses, irises, hyacinths, roses. One flower in particular captivated Persephone, and that was the narcissus. She wandered away from her friends to seek out this particularly beautiful flower.

Persephone reached down to pluck one particularly fine blossom, when suddenly the ground opened up. Hades came up out of the ground, riding in a gold chariot drawn by magnificent immortal horses. He caught her up, and took her in the chariot, wheeled the horses around, and sped back into the ground.

Oddly enough, almost no one seems to have heard Persephone cry out. Her friends did not hear her; Zeus, up on Mount Olympus, didn’t hear her (although perhaps he didn’t want to); none of the other Olympian gods or goddesses heard her, though they are all usually so good at hearing things like that. Later, when Demeter began her search for her daughter, the goddess Hecate, who had been sitting inside her cave, said she had heard Persephone’s cries; and Helios, the Sun, way up in the sky, far above Mount Olympos, said he heard her cries. But that was later.

When Demeter missed Persephone, she became absolutely frantic. Where had her daughter gone? She went all over the land and all over the sea looking for Persephone. No one, neither god nor mortal, would tell her the truth of where Persephone had gone. At last, after ten days, Hecate came forward and told this story: she said she did not know who had stolen Persephone away, but that she had heard Persephone’s voice. Then Demeter stormed up to see Helios, the Sun. Helios said he thought Zeus had given Persephone to Hades, for he had seen Hades had come up out of the earth and steal her away. But Zeus denied any role in this, and said Persephone should stay with Hades.

I said Demeter was frantic, and soon she was prostrated with grief, and would no longer allow food to grow on the wide earth; nor would she let the seasons progress in their usual way. Famine spread across the earth, and human beingss began to die. At last, in order to prevent all life on earth from being destroyed, Zeus told Demeter that she could have Persephone back — that is, as long as Persephone had not eaten anything at all during her time with Hades in the underworld.

When Persephone came back to the upper world, her mother greeted her joyously, and springtime came again on the earth. But when Demeter asked her if she had eaten anything in the underworld, Persephone said she had eaten several pomegranate seeds. Some say she ate four seeds, others say she ate six, or seven; some say that Persephone was tricked into eating the seeds, others say she ate them unknowingly, and still others say she ate them by choice.

For whatever reason Persephone ate the seeds, the end result was the same: she had to spend part of every year in the underworld. Each year, Persephone descends to the underworld to spend so many months there; and while she is away, her mother Demeter grieves, it is wintertime, and nothing can grow upon the earth. When Persephone returns to the upper world, Demeter becomes glad again, and springtime returns.

That’s the story. But I want to know why Persephone ate those seeds. Was it because Hades tricked her into it? Did she eat the seeds without thinking? (such a scenario seems unlikely). Did she choose to eat them? We don’t get a definite answer; yet such an answer would tell us whether Persephone decided on her own to stay in the underworld, or whether she was forced into staying.

Now there’s another story that says when Persephone had grown up, all the Olympian gods fell in love with her. Now Persephone could have followed the example of Artemis and Athena, and demanded that she never have to marry; but she did not. Well, all these gods were pursuing her, and her mother got worried:– what if old lame Hephaistos became her husband? So Demeter took Persephone away, and hid her in a deep dark cave behind stalactites and stalagmites that should have kept all the gods away from her. But Zeus found a way to sneak in, and he and Persephone had a child together, much to Demeter’s dismay. This story raises an interesting question:– Did Persephone want to get married to someone, but Demeter kept interfering?

What is missing in all these myths is Persephone’s point of view. We hear an awful lot about what Demeter went through. But what was Persephone thinking and feeling?

2. I said that both myths and family histories are slippery things. It is nearly impossible to catch hold of either one; they slip away from any final understanding. Yet if we try to adopt Persephone’s point of view, perhaps we could find new perspectives on this old story. The problem is that we don’t quite know what Persephone’s point of view might have been. So we have to speculate instead. For example:

   a) What if Persephone felt that Demeter was an over-protective, controlling mother? Persephone could have seen that other goddesses were able to get away from their parent’s protection. Athena, for example, was born to her mother inside Zeus’s head. When she came of age, Athena started forging armor for herself, and the pounding of her hammer on the anvil gave Zeus such headaches that the other gods had to cut open Zeus’s head. Out sprang Athena, fully grown, fully armored, and not to be messed with. There was no question about Athena’s father or mother controlling her life. As for Artemis, who was also a daughter of Zeus:– while she was still a child, she asked for, and got, privileges from Zeus including weaponry, attendants, and the right to never marry. Once again, there was no question about Artemis’s father or mother controlling her life.

Persephone could have seen all this, and yet there she was, another daughter of Zeus, and Demeter her mother rarely let her out of sight. Perhaps she saw Athena and Artemis as powerful, actualized women, and she might have asked herself: Why not me?

   b) So what if we retold the story of Persephone like this: Persephone goes out into that field alone, and up out of the ground comes Hades. Hades grabs her, which surprises the heck out of her, and so she screams. But then she thinks: Hades is a very powerful god, and maybe this is a way to get away from her mother — not only that, but she will get to be a queen of the underworld. The gold chariot confirms what she had heard, that Hades is fantastically rich — after all, he has access to all the riches that lie underground, which includes gold, silver, gems, and the like. And if you can get past the idea that he is the god of the dead, maybe he’s an OK guy after all.

She grabs at her chance, stops screaming, and goes off with Hades into the underworld. It’s not the best marriage in the world. And the underworld can get a little grim, filled as it is with dead people. She’s not sure she wants to stay in Hades. But when she hears that her mother is crying and threatening that there won’t be any springtime until she gets her Persephone back — how familiar that all sounds — well, when Persephone hears that her mother has gotten permission to come down to the underworld and fetch her back, Persephone quickly eats some pomegranate seeds, knowing this will mean she won’t be able to stay with Demeter.

That’s one way we could retell the story of Persephone. In this version of the story, Persephone goes from one bad family situation into another bad family situation. And then in the end, she has to split her time between these two unhappy families.

   c. So here’s another way to retell this story. Let’s assume that Persephone is a much more powerful goddess than we have thus far given her credit for being. Remember, all these myths were written down by men who had a vested interest in maintaining that male gods were more powerful than female goddesses). In fact, there is an ancient myth that it was Persephone who first created human beings:– one day, she was crossing a river, saw some clay, and fashioned the clay into a human shape; she got Zeus to breathe life into the figure; and thus Zeus had power over human beings while they were alive, but Persephone had power over them after they died. And in another story, it is said that Persephone was not the daughter of Zeus at all, nor of Demeter. So Persephone seems to be very powerful, and in control of her life. What if we retold her story like this:

Persephone is happy to be the goddess of springtime, and to work with Demeter. But Persephone feels that Demeter is trying to take too much power from her; trying to control her, the goddess who created humankind, who takes charge of human beings once they die! So Persephone arranges to meet up with Hades, while Athena and Artemis, two other powerful goddesses, provide cover for her. Zip! — she and Hades disappear below the ground. It’s a great strategic alliance: Persephone is the goddess who rules over dead human beings, while Hades is the god of the underworld where the dead go.

At the same time, Persephone knows that she will have to return to the upper world once a year, to fulfill her other role as the goddess of the springtime. Demeter messes up the plan a little bit by freaking out and running all over the place. To calm her down, Persephone gets Hecate and Helios to say that Persephone is safe in the underworld; but Demeter isn’t satisfied, so Persephone carefully eats half a dozen pomegranate seeds, and goes to the upper world to calm Demeter down.

Let’s remember that Demeter may or may not be Persephone’s mother. When Demeter sees Persephone, she is ecstatic — she once more has the goddess of springtime working with her. “Not so fast,” says Persephone; “I may be the goddess of springtime, but I’m also goddess of the dead — and by the way, the two are closely related, in case you hadn’t noticed, Demeter. And I’ve eaten half a dozen pomegranate seeds to symbolize my commitment to the entire cycle of life, from birth through death.”

And that’s yet another retelling of the story of Persephone, one which may hang together better than the old story told by the ancient mythographers.

3. I began by saying that mythical stories are slippery things; just as the stories we tell about our families are slippery things. We have seen this in the mythical family story of Demeter and Persephone. A great deal depends on who tells the story. This story was told from Demeter’s point of view, but if we try to imagine how Persephone would tell it, we might come up with a very different way of understanding the story.

And as we grow older, we retell our own stories over and over — to our selves, and to the people we love. Sometimes, someone else tells our own story for us, and we accept their telling of the story — as when sometimes our parents tell us what kind of person they expect us to be, and we blindly accept what they say, and live out their expectations. Persephone could just accept the stories that others tell about her: Hades abducted her, someone made her eat pomegranate seeds, Demeter came and returned her to the upper world, then Zeus ruled she had to split her time between the two worlds. Or Persephone could retell her story so that she claims her own power as both the goddess of springtime, and the goddess of the dead.

There’s another religious way of summing all this up: We are alive, and so we fear death, and try to avoid it. But Persephone knows that death and life are intertwined; she knows both the giving of life in springtime, and she knows the ultimate ending of death. Persephone recognizes the power life in Demeter, and the power of death in Hades, and she manages to give them both their due. We ask ourselves: Can we reach that true integration of valuing life while honoring death? And we ask ourselves another question that Persephone raises: Can we claim our individual power in the face of death, which renders us ultimately powerless?

One last very short myth about Persephone before I end: It is said that when Persephone goes into the ground accompanying Hades, that is really an even older myth about planting seeds in the cold ground in springtime; we plant seeds is what appears to be dead earth, only to have it grow, and thrive, and come to harvest, and so feed us and make us grow.