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.


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 Orphic Hymn to the ancient Greek goddess Athena:

“Only-begotten, noble race of Zeus, blessed and fierce, who joyest in caves to rove: O warlike Pallas, whose illustrious kind, ineffable, and effable we find: magnanimous and famed, the rocky height, and groves, and shady mountains thee delight: in arms rejoicing, who with furies dire and wild the souls of mortals dost inspire. Gymnastic virgin of terrific mind, dire Gorgon’s bane, unmarried, blessed, kind: mother of arts, impetuous; understood as fury by the bad, but wisdom by the good. Female and male, the arts of war are thine, O much-formed, Drakaina, inspired divine: over the Phlegraion Gigantes, roused to ire, thy coursers driving with destructive dire. Tritogeneia, of splendid mien, purger of evils, all-victorious queen. Hear me, O Goddess, when to thee I pray, with supplicating voice both night and day, and in my latest hour give peace and health, propitious times, and necessary wealth, and ever present be thy votaries aid, O much implored, art’s parent, [bright]-eyed maid.”

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

The second reading is from Pseudo-Apollodorus, a Greek mythographer of the second century of the common era. It tells the story of how the ancient Greek city of Attika came to choose Athena as their special goddess:

“Kekrops, a son of the soil, with a body compounded of man and serpent, was the first king of Attika… In his time, they say, the gods resolved to take possession of cities in which each of them should receive his own peculiar worship. So Poseidon was the first that came to Attika, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea which they now call Erekhtheis. After him came Athena, and, having called on Kekrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosion. But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Kekrops and Kranaus, nor yet Erysikhthon, but the twelve gods [and goddesses]. And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Kekrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea.”

[Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.1, trans. Frazer.]


This is the second of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. This morning I would like to speak about Athena, goddess of wisdom and of war; but before I do so, let me remind you why I think it is a good idea to preach about Greek goddesses in a Unitarian Universalist church.

Beginning in the 1970’s, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, when it comes to religion, women were often “overlooked and undervalued.” We actively worked to root out sexism from our shared faith. In the 1980’s, we rewrote our principles and purposes using gender-neutral language, and in the 1990’s, under the influence of ecofeminism, we added a principle about our commitment to respect the interdependent web of all life. In 1993, we published a new hymnal that included feminist hymns and songs. And many of our congregations were very active in addressing sexism at the local level. Over the past thirty or forty years, we have changed our selves and our attitudes, and have done away with a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

But of course the surrounding culture is still dominated by the idea of a male father god, and it is very hard for any of us to escape this idea. It is easiest to see the effects of the surrounding culture on our children: like it or not, they do learn the idea that God is a white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky, and it can b e hard to talk t hem out of that idea. Thus we find ourselves devoting a significant amount of time in our Sunday school presenting the children with alternative ideas about God;– last year in the Sunday school, we spent much of the year with the children’s book “Hide and Seek with God,” a book which presents alternative God-images from the Christian tradition and from other world religions. This is the kind of thing we do so that our children can get past the idea that God is an old white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.

Of course, as much as we don’t want to admit it, we adults are also influenced by the surrounding culture. Sometimes we catch ourselves making the assumption that the dominant male images of God are in fact the only images of God. For example, I have noticed that when people talk about the pro-atheism books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the discussions of these books tend to assume that God is singular, all-powerful, all-knowing; in other words, assume that God is the typical patriarchal male God of traditional Christianity. Both the atheists and the supporters of God weaken their arguments when they ignore the fact that there is more than one god-image out there.

In spite of recent scholarship which has uncovered female god-images in the Bible, and in other world religions, too many of us adults cleave to the old god-image of a white man with a beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky. Yes, even we Unitarian Universalists fall into this trap. We forget that Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was addressing his liberal Christian prayers to father God and mother God back in the 1850’s; and we Unitarian Universalists often forget that god-images can be either male or female, or gender-neutral, or differently gendered, or that gender does not even apply to the divine.

To keep myself from falling into the trap of thinking that the divine must be male, I like to spend some time thinking about the goddesses, like the Greek goddesses, who are a part of our Western culture. It’s not that I’m going to worship or believe in these goddesses; but remembering that our Western culture has lots of female god-images helps keep me from falling into the cultural trap of assuming that all god-images must be male. It’s a way of examining and challenging my unconscious assumptions.

Now you know why I’m preaching a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. Now let me turn our attention to Athena, a goddess who challenges many of our assumptions.

And to begin to tell you how Athena can challenge our assumptions, I should begin by telling you the story of Black Athena. Back in 1987, a scholar named Martin Bernal published a book titled Black Athena. In this book, Bernal stated his belief that the roots of Greek culture — and therefore the roots of all the Western European culture that sprang from it — the roots of ancient Greek culture lay in Africa. On the face of it, this is not a particularly remarkable thing to say. All the cultures of the ancient Near East, all the gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world, seem to have been interrelated. Certainly the African culture of Egypt is an older culture than ancient Greek culture. So to say that the Egyptians had tremendous influence on the later cultures of ancient Greece should not be very controversial.

And the ancient Greeks knew that Athena herself had a connection to Africa. Plato, in his dialogue the Timaeus, tells us that in Egypt, there is a city called Saïs, and the citizens of that city have a guardian goddess: “The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athena…” [Timaeus 21e, trans. Jowett]. Thus Plato said that the Greek goddess Athena was somehow related to the Egyptian goddess Neith. It was an obvious connection to make: both Athena and Neith were goddesses of war and goddesses of weaving, and they shared other characteristics as well.

But when Martin Bernal wrote his book Black Athena he created a storm of controversy. One of the things that made his book controversial was Bernal’s image of a dark-skinned Athena. In our world, which is so conscious of skin color and race, it was shocked some white people, and some people of color, to think that the goddess Athena might have been black,– when for all these years most of us in the Western world have thought of Athena as being white.

We sometimes try to erect hard-and-fast boundaries in realms where there are no hard-and-fast boundaries. Racial and cultural boundaries appear to have been more permeable in the ancient Near East than we may want to believe. Ancient Near East gods and goddesses moved from one culture to another, and from one religion to another. Indeed, when I hear Wisdom revered in the Bible as a female figure of goddess-like importance, as in the responsive reading this morning, I wonder what other goddesses she was related to, and even if she was perhaps related to Athena, who was also a goddess of wisdom.

I imagine there was a web of cultural connections throughout the ancient Near East: connections between various goddesses and gods; connections between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa; connections between peoples of all different skin colors from black to white to various shades of brown. In our minds, we have divided the world into distinct continents, and people into distinct races, but some of the divisions that we make are too arbitrary.

I started out saying that Athena might help us to be aware that the divine might just as well be female as male, or have no gender at all. The image of an African Athena can help us be aware that the divine might have black, brown, or white skin color, or be utterly beyond human racial categories. So this is another way in which thinking about Athena helps us to challenge our assumptions about our god-images.

One of the things that has bothered me about Athena is that she is both the goddess of wisdom, and the goddess of war. Since I think of war as a kind of madness, it seemed to me that Athena was combining two contradictory elements within her. How could she embody both war and wisdom?

The poet Robert Graves gives us a clue as to how this might be so. Graves says that although she is indeed the goddess of war, Athena “gets no pleasure from battle, as [the god] Ares and [the goddess] Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means.” [The Greek Myths]

What particularly interests me is that Athena does not reject violence altogether. But when she does go to war it is for good reason; and should she decide to go to war, she uses her wisdom to develop adequate strategy and tactics, so that she never loses a battle. Ares, the male god of war, likes violence for the sake of violence, and he is often defeated because of his inability to plan out his strategy and tactics. [Graves, Greek Myths, 25.a] By contrast, Athena does not like to go to war, but she will do so if justice requires her to do so. Athena’s attitude towards war has helped to challenge my assumptions about peacemaking.

Last June, Rev. William Schulz gave a talk on his Unitarian Universalist theology of peacemaking. Schulz, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was president of Amnesty International from 1993 to 2006. Schulz said that in his years at Amnesty International, he “was exposed on a daily basis to the most sordid and gratuitous violence.” He saw, over and over again, and sometimes first-hand, the results of torture and government-sanctioned violence. In the face of such acts of violence, he felt that he could not uphold the ideal of complete and utter pacifism. He said he could not believe in what he called the impossible ideal of complete pacifism; instead, he believed that sometimes true justice requires military intervention.

As an example, Schulz said that if the United States military had enforced a no-fly zone over Darfur over the past three or four years — and such enforcement would include the possibility of shooting down aircraft which violated the no-fly zone — then much of the genocide now going on in Darfur could have been avoided. For that reason, Schulz does not support the way the war in Iraq has been handled because he believes that the Iraq war has so over-extended the United States military that we have been unable to respond to other, more urgent, humanitarian situations such as the genocide in Darfur.

William Schulz might get along quite well with Athena. Like Athena, he believes that any use of violence has to be guided by justice. Like Athena, he also believes that any use of violence has to be guided by long-range strategy and tactics, so that one’s military forces don’t become overextended. When I say that Schulz would get along well with Athena, I don’t mean that literally of course; to the best of my knowledge, Schulz is a humanist, and I don’t believe he is a goddess-worshipper. But like Athena, Schulz challenges us to move beyond the traditional Western Christian notions of religious pacifism, to go beyond the old Christian teachings on “just war theory.” Both Athena and William Schulz value practical wisdom over abstract adherence to principles, and they challenge us to consider the possibility of a theology of peacemaking that allows for limited use of violence in order to prevent more violence.

Athena has led us quite far afield, hasn’t she? First she challenged us to rethink our religious images of race and gender. Then she challenged us to rethink our religious notions of pacifism and peacemaking. Where will she lead us next?

In the second reading this morning, we heard how both Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena tried to take possession of the city of Athens. Poseidon laid claim to Athens by striking his trident on the ground, which opened up a well filled with sea-water; but this salty water was not of much use to the Athenian citizens. Then Athena came along and planted an olive tree; this tree produced food, cooking oil, and wood for the Athenians. Presumably, no one living in Athens had ever seen an olive tree before, because cultivated olives are not native to Greece. Not surprisingly, the Athenian citizens said that Athena had made the best claim to their city, and she became their ruling goddess. This is why we call the city Athens even today; it is the city named after Athena.

In the past few months, I have found reason to think about this story of how Athena gave the olive tree to Athens. On January 19, the New York Times ran a story titled “A New Global Oil Quandary,” the opening paragraph of which read: “Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop [of cooking oil]. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material. This is the other oil shock.”

You see, for much of the world, particularly the developing world, cooking oil represents an important source of calories. Even if you grow your own food you almost have to go out and buy cooking oil because it is hard to make it on your own. Right now, the price of cooking oil is rising very rapidly around the world. All food prices are rising rapidly; in the past year, the worldwide price of food has risen more than fifty percent. In some places, people are spending more than eighty percent of their income on food. Food riots have been taking place from Mexico City to Haiti to Indonesia. Military analysts tell us that the rising price of food is contributing to global insecurity.

When we first hear the story of how Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens, it sounds — quaint. How nice! the people get a tree from Athena, and they make her the goddess of the city. But in a world with shortages of cooking oil, suddenly the story doesn’t sound so quaint. The gift of a tree that provides both food and cooking oil is a gift of survival, a gift that prevents starvation. In the modern world, such a gift could prevent wars and violence. We are already seeing violence and instability resulting from rising food prices; whereas access to reasonably-priced food and cooking oil would tend to lead to a peaceful world.

The story of Athena and the olive tree challenges us to think about the relationship between food and war and peace. No wonder those ancient Athenians prayed to the goddess Athena: they were praying for food security, which meant that they were also praying for peace. Athena challenges us to understand the relationship between food and security; she challenges us to consider food supply in any theology of peacemaking.

These old stories about the goddess Athena challenge our religious ideas of race, gender, war and peace, and food security. And these various issues seem to me to be interconnected, that they are woven together in the larger religious issue of peacemaking. True peacemaking requires us to have the wisdom to understand the underlying causes of violence; as much as I might prefer the complete pacifism of Jesus of Nazareth, true peacemaking in today’s world may well require us to have enough wisdom to know when it is appropriate to use limited military force in order to prevent further violence.


April 6, 2008 — “Artemis” — FUNB


The first reading is Callimachus’s first hymn to the Goddess Artemis, verses 1-46:

“Artemis we hymn — no light thing is it for singers to forget her — whose study is the bow and the shooting of hares and the spacious dance and sport upon the mountains; beginning with the time when sitting on her father’s knees — still a little maid — she spake these words to her sire:

”  ‘Give me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever: and give me to be of many names, that Phoebus may not vie with me. And give me arrows and a bow — stay, Father, I ask thee not for quiver or for mighty bow: for me the Cyclopes will straightway fashion arrows and fashion for me a well-bent bow. But give me to be Bringer of Light and give me to gird me in a tunic with embroidered border reaching to the knee, that I may slay wild beasts. And give me sixty daughters of Oceanus for my choir — all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled; and give me for handmaidens twenty nymphs of Amnisus who shall tend well my buskins, and, when I shoot no more at lynx or stag, shall tend my swift hounds.

”  ‘And give to me all mountains; and for city, assign me any, even whatsoever thou wilt: for seldom is it that Artemis goes down to the town. On the mountains will I dwell and the cities of men I will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid even in the hour when I was born the Fates ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body.’ …

“And her father smiled and bowed assent. And as he caressed her, he said: ‘…Take, child, all that thou askest, heartily. Yea, and other things therewith yet greater will thy father give thee. Three times ten cities and towers more than one will I vouchsafe thee — three times ten cities that shall not know to glorify any other god but to glorify the only and be called of Artemis. And thou shalt be Watcher over Streets and harbours.’ So he spake and bent his head to confirm his words.

“And the maiden faired unto the white mountain of Crete leafy with woods; thence unto Oceanus; and she chose many nymphs all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled. And the river Caraetus was glad exceedingly, and glad was Tethys that they were sending their daughters to be handmaidens to the daughter of Leto.”

[Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Hymn III, vv. 1-46. Trans. A.W. and G.R. Mair. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921.]

The second reading are two brief myths or fables attributed to Galius Julius Hyginus, a Roman writer who lived in the first century of the common era in Spain. Since he was Roman, he calls Artemis by her Roman name, which is Diana.

Myth 180. “ACTAEON

“Actaeon, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, a shepherd, saw Diana bathing and desired to ravish her. Angry at this, Diana made horns grow on his head, and he was devoured by his own dogs.”

Myth 181. “DIANA

“When Diana, wearied from constant hunting in the thickly shadowed valley of Gargaphia, in the summertime was bathing in the stream called Parthenius,– Actaeon, grandson of Cadmus, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, sought the same place for cooling himself and the dogs which he had exercised in chasing wild beasts. He caught sight of the goddess, and to keep him from telling of it, she changed him into a stag. As a stag, then, he was mangled by his own hounds.”

(Galius Julius Hyginus then proceeds to list the names of the more than eighty dogs, separated as to males and females, who devoured Actaeon.)

[The Myths of Hyginus, trans. and ed. Mary Grant. University of Kansas Publications in Humanistic Studies, no. 34. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1960.]


This is the first of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. You may well wonder why I would preach a sermon on a Greek goddess;– let alone why I would preach a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. And I thought I had better tell you why before I actually tell you about the Greek goddess Artemis, who is the subject of this morning’s sermon. Here is why:

When I was a teenager in the 1970’s growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, even in our denomination, women and girls were often overlooked and undervalued. We Unitarian Universalists finally figured out that sexism pervaded our shared liberal faith; and we set about changing that. We rewrote our principles and purposes. We put together a new hymnal. Many local churches went through honest self-appraisal about their attitudes towards women and girls. And to a large extent, we managed to change our selves and our attitudes, and we did eradicate a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

We were able to change our selves, but we could not change several thousand years of religious history. We could not change the culture which surrounds us, a culture which assumes that God is male. We could not change the sacred texts of the Western religious tradition we claim as our own, sacred texts which mention men far more than they mention women. Because of this, we Unitarian Universalists try to keep up with Biblical scholarship which points out where women appear in the Bible, and which tells us that women may have written parts of the Bible. But we can’t change the fact that Western religious tradition depicts God as male.

Why is this such a problem? Well, as an adult I find I can distance myself from the surrounding culture, and hold on to my own opinion that the divine does not have a specific gender. But what about our children? God is like sex and Santa Claus –they’re going to hear about it on the playground — we can say that we won’t tell the children that God is male, but they’re going to hear about it anyway.

I think about the girls that troop out of here to go to Sunday school each week — Sophia and Amanda and Jessica and Asia and Stephanie and Tahlia. I want them to know that God can be pictured as male or female. Not that I want them to believe in any particular goddess or god — as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to believe in any god at all — but I do want them to know that the divine can be female just as well as it can be male.

As it happens, many children go through a stage where they are fascinated by stories of strong, powerful beings. Early on, they love dinosaurs, especially Tyrannosaurus Rex and other huge saurian carnivores. A fascination with strong powerful dinosaurs is often followed by a fascination with gods and goddesses:– I remember when I was nine or ten, my favorite book was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. At this age, many children are fascinated by tales of gods and goddesses.

And many of us who were fascinated by Greek goddesses and gods when we were children find that those old stories have sunk deep into our religious consciousness. To this day, when I hear people talking about the feminine aspects of the divine, I immediately think of powerful Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. The Greek goddesses and gods are just as much a part of our Western cultural tradition as are the figures in the Bible; alhough we are unlikely to worship the Greek gods and goddesses, as Christians still worship the God of the Bible, still those Greek goddesses and Gods live deep in our cultural consciousness.

Thus I believe in teaching children about the Greek goddesses and gods — especially teaching children about Greek goddesses. Our girls, and our boys, deserve to have some knowledge of these strong, powerful religious figures; not least so that our children can begin to understand that women can be fully valued in religion, despite the fact that the dominant Western religious traditions tend to devalue and overlook women.

Now that you know why I want to preach about Greek goddesses, let me tell you about Artemis, my personal favorite Greek goddess; and tell you why I think our children, girls in particular, might want to know about Artemis.

At the most literal level, we might wish to tell our children about Artemis because Artemis choose as her followers nine year old girls. Admittedly, these nine-year-olds were not ordinary human children; these were sixty daughters of the old ocean god Oceanus, and thus had the blood of an immortal god running in their veins. (I suspect that there are some ordinary human girls who may well be disappointed to find out that they are not themselves eligible to join Artemis’s band.)

But I do think it’s worth telling children, especially girl-children, that there is at least one goddess who so values girls that she deliberately chooses girls to be her followers. I am glad that the Christian scriptures specifically mention that Jesus wanted the little children to be able to come to him. However, much of the Western religious tradition basically ignores children. That being the case, I think it’s worth telling girls that Artemis did value their contributions.

And Artemis really is a good alternative religious role model for girls. Artemis in no way represents the standard stereotyped roles that are pushed onto girls by the surrounding culture. In a culture like ours that promotes sexualized clothing for pre-pubescent girls; in a culture where you can buy Lego kits for girls which are packaged in pink and advertised as less difficult to assemble; in a culture where it has been documented that girls’ self-esteem plummets as they approach puberty — it’s not a bad thing for girls to know about a powerful goddess who is strong, self-assured, and competent.

Artemis is in no way a stereotypical girl. She wears sturdy outdoor clothing appropriate for the slaying of wild beasts; and I really doubt that she wears anything that is pink. She is adept with her bow, and she is the best of hunters. She lives on her own in the mountains, and while she has female attendants she is not dependent on any man. Indeed, Artemis is not impressed with the males who do fall in love with her, feeling no need to soothe wounded male egos:– when the river-god Alpheius fell in love with her and pursued her, she easily eluded him and sent him on his way, pursued by the mocking laughter of her attendants. Artemis is quite capable of taking care of herself.

We don’t have to encourage girls to grow up to be exactly like Artemis, of course. Not every girl is going to want to live in the mountains and hunt wild game. But we do need to offer girls a wider range of religious figures whom they can have as possible role models. The Christian tradition offers girls precious few good role models: Miriam, Esther, Ruth, and a few other strong capable women. And look how many more role models the Christian tradition offers to boys! So while we’re not going to encourage girls to be just like Artemis, nevertheless she is a goddess in the Western tradition who can be an alternative role model for our girls.

I have said that Artemis breaks down the gender-role stereotypes that so pervade the surrounding culture. One of these stereotypes is of enough importance that it deserves special mention.

In the first reading this morning, we heard how Artemis got Zeus, her father and the leader of all the other gods and goddesses, to promise that Artemis would never have to marry. Generally speaking, Western culture tells girls and women that, no matter what else they might do with their lives, marriage should be one of their ultimate goals. Even today, when so many more jobs and professions are open to women, the old feeling still persists that women should think of marriage before a career.

That’s why Artemis is such a good alternative role model for girls. Marriage simply doesn’t interest Artemis; she has other things to do with her life. Mind you, I think it’s a fine thing for people who want to get married to go out and get married;– but there are those girls and boys who would rather not get married. There is nothing in our religious views that demands we get married; marriage is a choice for us, it is a covenant into which we may enter voluntarily. Therefore, it behooves us to offer role models for those among us who choose not to get married. In the Christian tradition, Jesus never gets married, so boys have at least one powerful role model of an unmarried male religious figure. Perhaps we could offer Artemis to girls as a possible unmarried role model. True, she is not as central to our religious tradition as is Artemis; but then, Artemis is a goddess while Jesus in our view is simply human.

There’s another reason why Artemis can be a good role model for those among us who may not choose to marry. Although Artemis does not marry herself, she values children. She is the goddess of childbirth; and she likes children enough to want to have sixty nine-year-old girls for her attendants. It’s not that she hates children or marriage, it’s just that she has made a conscious choice not to have children of her own, nor to be married. In a culture that can push girls to want to be married and mothers first, and everything else second,– it’s good for girls to know that they can be feminine and be a woman without having to get married or have children.

I have one last thing to say about why Artemis deserves our attention. In the second reading this morning, we heard two different versions of the story of Artemis and Actaeon. In essence, the story goes like this: Actaeon, who is a man, is out hunting when he happens upon Artemis and her attendants skinny-dipping in a river. Actaeon is pretty creepy. When he sees Artemis and her nine-year-old nymphs attendants bathing, the obvious and polite thing would be for Actaeon to leave as quickly as possible. Depending on which version of the story you choose, Actaeon either stands there are stares at Artemis, or he tries to rape Artemis.

Women in our culture obviously have to put up with this kind of male behavior on a regular basis. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report which said that 17.6 percent of American women said they “had been the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life.” Worse yet, all too often the woman is made to feel that somehow she is to blame for being attacked.

But Artemis doesn’t feel that she is to blame. Whether Actaeon was trying to rape her, or was invading her privacy by staring at her, Artemis assumes that he is to blame. She takes immediate action against him: she turns Actaeon into a deer; and then she gets his dogs to bring him down and devour him. We may not like the violence that ends this story. But nevertheless it is a powerful story because it helps to counteract the message that a woman who is sexually assaulted or even just stared at is somehow to blame. The story makes it clear that Actaeon should have know better; and he has to pay the price for his inability to control his momentary impulse. Personally, I would not try to explain this story in this way to children. But I do believe it is worth telling children this and other stories about this powerful and self-reliant goddess.

I believe in telling children stories about the goddess Artemis, just as I’m telling you stories about Artemis, so that we can have a religious role model of a strong, powerful, independent woman. As with any religious story, we need not take it as literal truth; we understand that it is poetic truth. As with any religious story, we know it is not the only religious story out there; it is one among many stories that we value for their poetic truths. But it’s good for us to know that our Western religious tradition, our own cultural inheritance, has strong female role models.

One of the nice things about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we can open ourselves up to religious influences like these. I told you that when I was nine or ten, I loved the Greek myths, and I read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths over and over again. I told you that because I was fascinated by Greek goddesses and gods when I was a child, now that I’m an adult I find that those old stories have sunk deep into my religious consciousness. So it is today that I have firm and very distinct images of the feminine aspects of the divine. Nor am I unique in this:– whether we come across the Greek goddesses in childhood, or when we are adults, we religious liberals know that we can accept the wisdom and the insights in these old stories;– we do not have to take theses stories literally, but still they can be a part of our religious lives.

I’m glad that Artemis is a part of my religious consciousness, so that I have an example of a strong, self-reliant woman who stands up to sexual harrassment, who doesn’t worry about gender stereotypes, and who loves living in the mountains. As we continue to work together to reshape our understandings of gender, as we work together to build a land where women and men can truly be equals, Artemis is a good goddess to have on our side.