Persephone and the myth of winter

Usually, the myth of Persephone spending one third of the year in the underworld is supposed to explain why we have winter. But the climate in Greece is very like the climate in parts of California — winter is the rainy season, when the earth is green, and plants are growing. Martin Nilsson makes this point in his book Greek Popular Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), p. 51:

“For people who live in a northerly country, where the soil is frozen and covered by snow and ice during the winter and where the season during which everything sprouts and is green comprises about two thirds of the year, it is only natural to think that the Corn Maiden [Persephone] is absent during the four winter months and dwells in the upper world during the eight months of vegetation. And, in fact, this is what most people do think. But it is an ill-considered opinion, for it does not take into account the climatic conditions of Greece. In that country the corn [i.e., grain: barley or wheat] is sown in October. The crops sprout immediately, and they grow and thrive during our winter except for the two or three coldest weeks in January, when they come to a standstill for a short time. Snow is extremely rare and soon melts away. The crops ripen and are reaped in May and threshed in June. This description refers to Attica. The climate is of course different in the mountains, but Eleusis is situated in Attica. The cornfields are green and the crops grow and thrive during our winter, and yet we are asked to believe that the Corn Maiden is absent during this period. There is a period of about four months from the threshing in June to the autumn sowing in October during which the fields are barren and desolate; they are burned by the sun, and not a green stalk is seen on them. Yet we are asked to believe that during these four months the Corn Maiden is present. Obviously she is absent….”

And as I look out at the summer California landscape, where the hillsides are brown and dead-looking (especially this year, after three years of drought), I have to say it would make more sense that Persephone would be in the underworld right now, not in winter. In any case, although Nilsson’s book is a bit dated now, he reminds us that when the ancient Greeks thought of winter, they were not thinking of the stereotypical North American idea of winter, a time of snow and ice and cold.

But if this is not a myth about why it snows in winter, then what is it about?

Dr. Mara Lynn Keller, currently professor of women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies, offers a feminist interpretation of the myth. Dr. Keller asserts that the myth of Demeter and Persephone focusses on “three interrelated dimensions of life: (1) fertility and birth; (2) sexuality and marriage; and (3) death and rebirth” (“The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality, and Rebirth,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, spring, 1988, vol. 4, no. 1, p. 31). Keller states that there is evidence to show this myth is an allegory of the role of women in developing agriculture:

“Some archaeologists and anthropologists conclude that plant domestication and thus the gift of agriculture came through women. This theory is corroborated by the mythic core of the Eleusinian Mysteries, where Demeter is said to give the gift of grain to the people and instruct them in the rites to be continued in her name.” (ibid., p. 31)

Further, Keller identifies Hecate as a grandmother figure, so the myth also is about cross-generational bonds: “The story of Persephone, Demeter and Hecate lets us see the loving bonds of daughter, mother, and grandmother. During the epoch of the Goddess religions, women were honored at all stages of life.” (ibid., p. 39) It is a story that started out as an allegory of the cycle of life. Later on, as patriarchal cultures moved in and conquered the older Goddess-worshiping matriarchal cultures, women were relegated to a secondary role. That would imply that this myth comes from that later patriarchal era, when a male god can force a female goddess into marriage — violating in the process those cross-generational bonds — without her consent or even prior knowledge.

This feminist interpretation of the myth has been hotly debated, and some scholars argue that the archaeological evidence does not fully support such an interpretation. Whether or not that is the case, this myth offers plenty of fodder for examining gender roles and the ways women may be dominated by men.

There are, of course, plenty of other interpretations. Dr. Eric Huntsman, professor of ancient scripture, classics and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University, summarizes some of the better-known interpretations of this myth in his lecture notes to Classical Civilization 241 (accessed 13 August 2014). Dr. Huntsman says this myth could be interpreted as:

— a myth related to the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries
— a nature myth about seed growth, and rebirth: Demeter allows no seeds to sprout on earth, when Persephone eats a seed she must return beneath the earth
— a myth about gender roles: females must struggle to define themselves in a world run by males
— a psychological myth about a young woman and her mother adjusting to the young woman’s marriage
— a psychological myth about a young woman growing up and figuring out her sexual identity

In short, this myth is not some pre-scientific attempt to explain why there are seasons!

I would like to suggest that there is at least some truth in several of these interpretations. Like a good poem, this myth contains multiple layers of truth and meaning, and these layers do not reveal themselves right away. Perhaps it is best that the layers of meaning reveal themselves slowly, over time. Emily Dickson could have been talking about the myth of Demeter and Persephone when she wrote:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

[poem #1263]

Epilogue: Demeter and Triptolemus

When Persephone returned to her mother from the underworld, and Demeter grew happy once more, she came back to Eleusis.

First Demeter showed Triptolemus and others how to conduct religious rites in her honor, and she taught them her mysteries. These mysteries filled mortal humans with awe when they were initiated into the cult of Demeter. And any one who was initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis ever told about them, for deep awe of Demeter and the other gods and goddesses stopped them from speaking. Happy is the mortal among all humans on earth who has seen these mysteries; and those who are initiated into the religion may hope for better things when they finally die and go the underworld with Hades. As for those who were never initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis — once they die, they could count on having nothing good down in the darkness and gloom of the underworld.2

Then Demeter had Triptolemus bring wheat to all humankind. She went to the stable where she kept her pair of dragons, also known as the Sacred Serpents. She harnessed them to her chariot, and drove from the stable back to Triptolemus. Demeter gave him seed to scatter all over the world, telling him to sow the seed partly in land that had never been farmed before, and partly in farm fields that had been lying fallow since the beginning of the famine.

Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone

Above: Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone (l-r) celebrating the Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter hands Triptolemus the sheaves of wheat, while Persephone blesses them. A 19th century drawing of a marble relief from 5th C. B.C.E. Continue reading “Epilogue: Demeter and Triptolemus”

Persephone and Demeter Meet Again

The fourth and final installment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.

Rich-haired Demeter still sat apart from all the blessed gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter Persephone. She caused a most dreadful and cruel year for humankind all over the earth.

The farmers and their oxen plowed the fields in vain. Farmers sowed seeds of the white barley, but the ground would not let the seed sprout. It seemed that Demeter would destroy the whole human race with cruel famine. And without humankind, the gods and goddesses who dwell on Mount Olympus would no longer receive the gifts and sacrifices that meant so much to them.

Zeus knew he must do something. First he called for golden-winged Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to bring Demeter to Mount Olympus. Iris sped with swift feet to Eleusis, and found dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple.

“Demeter,” said Iris, “father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods. Come and do not ignore the command of Zeus, who rules over all the gods and goddesses.”

But Demeter’s heart was not moved, and she refused to go with Iris.

Then Zeus sent forth each of the gods and goddesses. They went to Demeter one after the other, offering many beautiful gifts, and godly rights and privileges.

But Demeter was still full of anger, and none of them could persuade her to go to Mount Olympus. Demeter said she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus, nor would she let food grow from the ground, until she saw her daughter again.

When all-seeing Zeus heard this, he called for Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of trickery and travelers and thieves. Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, to convince Hades with soft words to allow Persephone come up from the misty gloom of the underworld, so that her mother Demeter might see her with her own eyes.

Hermes straightaway flew down to the underworld. He found Hades in his house, seated upon a couch, and his shy wife Persephone with him. Continue reading “Persephone and Demeter Meet Again”

What Doso Did with the Baby

Some years ago, I started working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone. For part one, click here. For part two, click here.

Doso immediately began her duties as a nurse, taking care of Demophoon, the infant son of Metaneira and Celeus. With Doso as his nurse, the child grew like some immortal being. This was because during the day, when no one was watching, Doso secretly anointed him with ambrosia, one of the foods of the gods. And as she held him at her breast, she breathed sweetly on him, and that too helped him to grow like an immortal.

At night, when Metaneria and Celeus were fast asleep, Doso did something that required even more secrecy. She went to the hearth, where the fire burned all night, and placed Demophoon in the fire. Because she was a goddess, the fire did not hurt the baby. Instead, the fire worked a great wonder in the child, and he grew beyond his age, and his face looked like the face of one of the gods.

Not only that, but if a goddess can hold a mortal child in the fire night after night, eventually that child can become immortal, too. Doso loved the little boy, and hoped to hide Demophoon in the fire night after night, until he became deathless and unaging, just like her.

Demeter and Demophoon, by Willy Pogany

Demeter holding Demophoon in the fire, as imagined by artist Willy Pogany (public domain) Continue reading “What Doso Did with the Baby”

How Doso came to live with Metaneira

Some years ago, I started working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone. I put part one of the story on this blog back in 2012; now, finally, here’s part two. No promises when part three will be done.

For part one of the story, click here.

Demeter’s heart was sad at the loss of her daughter, and she was angry at Zeus and Hades. In her sadness and anger, she wandered across the land, until at least she came to the house of wise King Celeus, ruler of the beautiful city of Eleusis.

Demeter sat down to rest on the wayside by the road, in a shady place beneath an olive tree, next to the Maiden Well, from which the women of Eleusis came to get water. She looked like a woman who was too old to bear children, the kind of respectable older woman who might care for the children of a king, or perhaps like one of the housekeepers who clean the echoing halls of a king’s palace.

The four daughters of King Celeus came to Maiden Well with their bronze pitchers, to draw water and carry it to their father’s house. Their names were Callidice, Cleisidice, Demo, and Callithoe who was the eldest of them all. They looked like goddesses in the flower of their girlhood. They saw Demeter sitting there in the shade of the olive tree, but they did not know that she was a goddess — when gods and goddesses roam the earth, it is never easy for mortals to recognize them — and so they spoke to her.

“Old mother,” they said to her, “where do you come from, and what people do you come from? Why have you gone away from the city, and why do you stay away from houses? In many of the shady halls of the houses of our city, there are women of just such age as you, and they would welcome you there.”

Demeter, seeing that the girls were polite, answered them politely. “Hail, dear children,” she said, “whosoever you are. I will tell you my story; for it is right that I should tell you truly what you ask. Here is my story:

“Doso is my name, the name my stately mother gave to me. I have come from the island of Crete, sailing over the wide back of the sea. But I did not come willingly.

“Pirates took me from Crete by force of strength. Continue reading “How Doso came to live with Metaneira”