“…Demeter did not know where to find her daughter Persephone, so she wandered the world looking for her. Eventually, she came to a farmer’s home, and while there, learned the fate that had befallen Persephone. She was devastated; angry at Hades for stealing her daughter, and at Zeus for lying about it. The Goddess of Agriculture withdrew into herself, and the earth froze. The harvests stopped, the people could no longer grow their food. For the first time, the people had winter. They sent out pleas to Zeus to return summer to the starving people, and Zeus heard their pleas. He sent messengers to Demeter, but she would not hear them. Eventually, Zeus realized he would need to make it right. He visited Hades and told him of what had befallen mankind. When Persephone realized what had happened, she told Hades that she needed to return to her mother, and immediately returned to the earth. Persephone had eaten of a pomegranate, however, the fruit of the underworld. Thus, she was destined to return there. When Demeter learned this, she again was heartbroken, but eventually, a compromise was reached. Persephone would remain half the year on Earth with her mother, but would spend the remaining half of the year in the underworld with her husband Hades. So, when Persephone returns to the underworld, the earth again freezes, however when Persephone’s footsteps ascend to the Earthly realm, Demeter again feels joy, and spring returns to the earth.”
One of my favorite Greek myths, the story of Persephone and Demeter is quickly also becoming a favorite of my son’s. The story is fascinating and fanciful, yet somehow it is also a valid explanation for the changing of the seasons. While we are both fully aware of the scientific nature of the phenomenon of the season’s change, the story touches both our hearts. The reason, I am sure, behind his nightly inquiry to see if the story is true. And, while I give him a stogily scientific response, every night his question consoles me because I know that, somewhere deep inside, my son understands the story is not merely a made-up fantasy.
Of course, there are obvious lessons in the story – certainly a type of truth. Don’t kidnap. Don’t collude with a kidnapper. Don’t lie to a mom because she will find out about it and will be pissed. If you end up in the underworld, don’t eat anything if you hope to return. (Ok, now I am just being silly). A lesson that resounds with me is that, no matter how powerful a person is, when you really screw up like Zeus did, a quick apology or attempt to placate will not suffice. In these situations, it takes action to right the wrongs done to another. And just as in the story, some things – most things – can never be truly returned exactly as they were to begin with.
The layer of truth that resounds most for me…the layer which is most thrilling – is the metaphor and symbolism within the story. The Gods of the Greeks were at once human, and forces of nature. I recognize, in Persephone’s kidnapping by the God of the underworld, the fact that the death of our old lives can come at any moment in time. And while many people think of death as that thing which ends our lives and must therefore be feared, death can also come in the sudden events which change the trajectory of our lives, leaving us to look back on the people we used to be, never to walk those paths again. Sometimes, those events are “negative” – cancer, paralysis, mental illness, the ending of a job, the passing of a loved one, fire. Yet, these moments can stem from “joyous” occasions as well – pregnancy, a wedding, obtaining a job, winning the lottery, moving homes.
Regardless of its cause, when we change, we cannot go back to become purely who we were before, though we may try. Persephone had eaten of the fruit of the underworld; in some stories, the pomegranate juice stained her lips, a mark quickly recognized by Demeter. Persephone had grown up and become wiser while she had been away, and thus could no longer be a carefree maiden. One could say that she had identified her career, her purpose…her calling. She could not return fully to the life she lived before because that was not her; it would have been against the laws of nature.
Yet, she came back. She left the realm of the dead for half a year to stand by her mother’s side. With her, the seasons began anew. The world was reborn, and was beautiful. Death gave way to new life, new seasons, new experiences.
I am writing this blog during Easter season, the season that celebrates Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we prepare for the weather to warm up and excitedly wait for the time where we can plant our gardens, we are moving out of a time of barren-ness and perhaps, change. The need to leave the old behind and prepare for a new life. This is a time to reflect on our journey, past, present, and future. To consider our own inner drama which is as real as any other story. As humans, we have periods in our lives where we withdraw, look inward. We question who we are. There are also times where we have grow, and flourish. On. A physical level, we see these changes in our seasons, however nature’s laws always repeat themselves. What is true for Nature’s bounty is also true for us, on a psychological level and a spiritual level.
We need Hades to take us away. We need Demeter to bring us home. We need Jesus to show us the way.
We need stories to understand our world as badly as we need science to illuminate it.
And so, every time I see my children’s eyes alight from a story, I smile.