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Persephone & Demeter: how men changed the tale

If someone is unfamiliar with a great deal of mythology and folklore, it's typically the Greek myths that they would be more knowledgeable about. We're usually taught about them in school, England or Creative Writing class, and there are even numerous films, television series', and book series' that deal with Greek Mythology. Disney's Hercules being a perfect example!

But, what many people might not know (and, admittedly, I didn't know), was that many of the Greek myths we have today were severely changed from their origin stories. Once many Greek societies (and the surrounding cultures and countries as well) moved away from matrilocal or egalitarian societies and fell under patriarchal rule, many of the existing Goddesses, deities, and stories associated with them were absorbed and changed in order to fit into the newer, patriarchal way of life.

TW: rape, death, assault

In Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, Charlene Spretnak contributes a chapter titled The Myth of Demeter and Persephone in which she provides us with more context and backstory around the changing of this myth. She says that the Grain-Mother's origins are, in fact, Cretan, and that she has connections with the Goddesses Gaia and Isis. Her daughter, also known as Kore, is the Grain-Daughter, and together they represent and embody the new crops of grain.

The ancient women of Greece would gather every Autumn for a three-day long festival known as the Thesmophoria. You can look at these three days like a cycle: planting, growing, harvesting. The days were known as Kathodos and Anodos, Nesteia, and Kalligeneia respectively. Kothodos and Anodos meaning Downgoing and Upgoing, Nesteia meaning Fasting, and Kalligeneia meaning Fair Birth. This festival, along with many other festivals of ancient origins, were performed solely by women and were eventually rebirthed into the Eleusinian Mysteries (which I talk about in my Fall Zine). It wasn't until the seventh century BCE that the tale was re-written by a man to include the rape of Persephone by Hades.

It's become a famous tale of rape and pillaging as it depicts Persephone being carried off into the Underworld where she is forced to marry Hades and spend six months with him.

But prior to this new Olympian tale re-told by Isocrates, there was absolutely no mention of rape. There's nothing in the earlier cult of Demeter or the stories thereafter that support the mention of rape. Instead, there might be archeological evidence that supports the addition of this horrible act into the tale.

There was a flow of both Egyptian culture intro Greece around this time as well as the influence of Gaia. Both Isis and Gaia could move freely between the Underworld and would receive the dead.

There's other evidence that supports Persephone being an ancient Underworld Goddess from Attica and that she was absorbed and transformed after a round of invaders from the North. This abduction myth then being a direct link to invasion.

Whatever the reasons for the transformation, it's clear that it didn't happen until society shifted from matrilineal to patriarchal. I think it's important to remember that wherever these Goddesses are from, and whoever they might have originally been... they were mother-Goddesses associated with power, fertility, death, and cycles of life and rebirth. They were strong women catering to female-driven or egalitarian societies. And, it wasn't until patriarchal religion and culture took over, that we see this sort of violence perpetrated against them. We also start to see war and conquest, but that's an article for another day.

In the story told by Spretnak, there once was no winter and Demeter looked upon the humans with kindness and affection. Seeing that their lives were difficult, she decided to provide them with grain in order to keep their bellies full. She would dance with her daughter Persephone and flowers and grain shoots would spring up wherever their feet touched the Earth. Life was good.

In the shade of trees, Persephone would coax up the smaller grain shoots that lacked sunlight. It was here that she also would see ghosts and spirits hanging about moaning, pleading, and being confused by their status. Many of them didn't even know they had died.

Persephone asked her mother about them and was told by Demeter that they were lost souls of the Underworld. Demeter also told her daughter that she was in charge of these souls and the Underworld, but her main focus was on the living as she thought it should be.

Persephone's heart was kind, and she decided that she would enter the Underworld to tend to these souls. This shocked Demeter and filled her with grief but her daughter's heart was set on it. So, Demeter opened a tunnel for Persephone to enter the land of the dead.

Persephone gathered three poppies and three sheaves of wheat. She was also given a torch. After descending into darkness for many hours, she finally reached the Underworld where she heard the moans of the dead. She conjured a bowl of pomegranate seeds, the food of the dead, and called out to them.

"I am Persephone and I have come to be your Queen. Each of you has left your Earth body and now resides in the realm of the Dead. If you come to me, I will initiate you into your new world." The spirits walked towards her glowing aura and, as each spirit passed her, she crushed a pomegranate seed and marked their foreheads with the juice proclaiming:

"You have waxed into the fullness of life

And waned into darkness;

May you be renewed with tranquility and wisdom."

Persephone did this for months while her mother walked the Earth, longing for her daughter to return to her. In her sadness, Demeter forbade any new growth upon the Earth. "One morning a ring of purple crocus quietly pushed it's way through the soil and surrounded Demeter. She looked with surprise at the new arrivals from below and thought what a shame it was that She was too weakened to feel rage at her injunction being broken. She then leaned forward and heard them whisper in the warm breeze: Persephone returns! Persephone returns!"

Demeter leapt to her feet and ran, rejoicing and calling out about Persephone's return. Grass began to grow, flowers burst forth, and animals shed their winter skin. Persephone ascended from a dark chasm and the two women embraced and rejoiced. Humans saw the miracle of Demeter's bliss and rejoiced every Spring at the new growth around them. Spretnak tells us that each Winter, the mortals join Demeter is lamenting the absence of he daughter, and wait along with her to see Persephone's return from the Underworld.

This is a story of cycles: death and rebirth, the changing of the seasons, sadness to joy. There is no mention of rape, marriage, or even of a king of the Underworld in this tale. Many people have tried to add a feminist twist on the marriage of Persephone to Hades and have even romanticized their union. But, in reality, there was no Hades beckoning Persephone to join him. There was only Persephone and her compassion for the lost souls of the dead, and Demeter and her love for her child. This woman-led cultic tale and female divine worship is something we should examine. The entrance of men into the tale is done so through force and deep violence. It is only then, that we get mention of a prominent male figure. I'll leave you with that thought.

Listen to this week's Persephone and Demeter podcast episode to get a glimpse into the zine and hear the monthly Tarot reading!

Sources: Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, edited by Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ.


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