Demeter & Persephone
A Myth for Mother's Day
Today is Mother's Day, a day we have been celebrating for at least as long as recorded history, and perhaps for as long as human beings have made myths and held celebrations. From our present vantage point we can reliably reach back only as far as the ancient myths of Greece, to the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, as told by Homer some 27 centuries ago.
This is the story of how the abduction of Persephone by Hades caused a world-wide famine, which ultimately led Zeus to ask Demeter to become Mother Earth, the Goddess of the Harvest. The story is more than just an allegory of how the barren lands of winter can bring forth the bountiful crops of a summer's growing season, it is also a dramatic tale of a mother's great loss, transformed through bitter pain into the eternal rhythm of life itself. It is a story of recovery from grief, and the renewal of life.
The reading today was taken from the end of the Hymn to Demeter, a poem often attributed to Homer. In the end the fertility of the world was restored, and a cycle of seasons established. But to get to this end, Demeter first had to lose her daughter, Persephone. Here is a short portion from the beginning of the hymn:
It goes on like this for quite a while I will spare you the details. The desperate Demeter searches everywhere, having many adventures along the way. When she finally learns that Persephone has been abducted into the underground domain of Hades, she curses the earth that swallowed her daughter. Forests, gardens, and cultivated lands fall barren and lifeless. Crops fail, trees turn brown, people begin to starve. The gods implore her to return the earth to fertility, to no avail. Finally Zeus sends Hermes to Hades, with a message. He says:
Hades relents, and releases Persephone to her mother, but not before giving her a single pomegranate seed to eat. The Fates have ruled that Persephone can be free if she has eaten nothing during her stay with Hades; this fatal seed is enough to invoke this ruling, which Zeus himself is powerless to change. Therefore Zeus commands that henceforth Persephone must spend one third of every year living in the underground domain of Hades, and two thirds above ground with her mother and the gods. In this way the cycle of the seasonal harvest is established: seeds lie hidden in the barren ground for months, and then suddenly burst forth in crops and fruits and the glories of life reborn.
Mother's Day marks and celebrates the joyous return of Persephone to our realm here above ground, to the realm of her mother Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest. It also marks the recovery of her mother from the grief and shock of terrible loss, by her ultimate acceptance of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
The Hymn of Demeter is old really old. In its present form it was composed as a song by a poet who might have been Homer, or one of his contemporaries. It dates back to the centuries before the modern Greek alphabet was invented, perhaps about 900 BCE. This was before the golden age of classical Greek civilization, during the so-called Dark Ages of Greece. People of that era looked back with nostalgia and longing to the glories of an even more ancient Greek epoch, the Mycenaean Civilization.
The many layers of Greek civilizations as they rose and fell are echoed in a layering of their gods and goddesses. Demeter was not the first Earth Goddess. In the Greek pantheon her mother, Rhea, was one of the Titans. Rhea was known as the Mother of the Gods, and probably filled a similar Earth Goddess role before Demeter, in the earlier Mycenaean religion. Rhea too had a mother, known as Gaea or Gaia (now pronounced variously as JEE-ah or GUY-ah, but in ancient times it was closer to "yeah"). Gaia, perhaps the earliest Earth Goddess of whom any memory is kept, was said by the Greeks to have wrested the earth right out of primal Chaos itself yeah! That story was about as close as the Greeks ever came to a Creation Myth.
Contrary to what many of us learned in school, myth-making is not an activity restricted to the ancients. I find it fascinating that Gaia herself has resurfaced in recent times, in a new and very modern myth of Mother Earth. The so-called "Gaia Hypothesis" was invented by a scientist, James Lovelock, to present Earth itself as a living being, a self-regulating life force that maintains the parameters of our biosphere in a range that continues to support all life. Here is how Lovelock explained Gaia:
Lovelock's writing is not as beautiful as Homeric poetry, and his myth lacks the emotional punch of the Hymn of Demeter, but it's at least a start. Perhaps some New Age Homer will weave a powerful poem around this myth, quietly dropping those dry references to oxidation and homeostasis in favor of metaphors that cry out with the pain of Demeter. Until that day arrives, I prefer the ancient red-blooded myths, myths that come from a pagan time when every rock, every stream, every tree glowed with spiritual power and presence. Yeah!
Copyright © 2003 by Loren Cobb, all rights reserved.