To some, myths are stories. To others they are facts as real as any figure or number in a text book. To others still they are allegories or intuitive attempts to make sense of humanity. I belong to the latter category and I’ve long had an obsessive interest in religion and mystery cults largely inspired by the nightly reading of Greek mythology was blessed indeed to receive as a young child. It filled my imagination and did provide a guide to making sense of the confusing and conflicting acts of those around me and the confusion of my own consciousness.
The story of Persephone has been running through my mind as of late. Most know of it as an agrarian allegory. To the uninitiated, I shall summarize though bear in mind that her tale varies from tradition to tradition, time to time, and place to place. Greek mythology holds a stronghold in the imagination but this tale predates their dominance in the historical record. Most commonly, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter and Zeus and she is often know simply as “The Maiden.”
Persephone was a gorgeous little hippie baby, totally raised on organic food with lots of time in the company of nymphs and her mother Demeter who was a great goddess of fertility. Things were working out for them as the fields were vast as the sky and the world was warm and fruitful. Persephone had been gathering flowers and singing songs when she came across one she’d never seen before: a narcissus. When she plucked it from the ground a cavernous hole emerged with the thunder of a great chariot pulled by four terrible and beautiful black stallions driven by Hades, the god of the underworld. He had struck a deal with Zeus pointing out that someone had to be the keeper of the place where souls go and this was a shitty job, so far as godly duties go.
Hades wasn’t evil, he just tended to the more unpleasant part of life. There were no blue skies, golden rays of sunlight, or pretty little singing maidens for him to be sure. Moreover, his social life sucked. Everyone was polite when he made an appearance but no one really wants the god of the dead to arrive at their parties. He asked for a wife and Zeus, the patriarch that he was, told him to plant the Narcissus and to snatch his daughter Persephone when her mother wasn’t looking.
So down, down, down Persephone fell as her screams were quickly swallowed by the earth and the world as she knew it was never the same. Once a maiden, she was now a married woman. “Take as a wife” is a euphemism; the more responsible form of rape where you don’t ask for consent but do make it a point to try for comfortable accommodations. At first Persephone cried and wailed but then she started to adapt. After adapting, she even began to thrive as her transformation from girl into woman occurred within his domain of the dead. From maiden to maid, she became to the queen of the underworld. She loved her mother and the world above but there she had little power or sway or knowledge. In the land of the dead she emerged as a goddess in her own right.
Demeter, however, was in mourning. She had not consented to the situation and never would have given her blessing to the arrangement. If anything, she wanted her daughter to be free of worries, strife, or decision-making responsibility as a gorgeous maiden tending to beautiful flowers and encouraging them to shoot up under her feet as she walked. She put up a proper search and grew weak with heartache. Growth came to a standstill and the world of the living began to resemble the world of the dead. She inquired constantly before finally finding a witness who could name the culprit: Hades. With great rage she approached Zeus, confront him for deciding to send her daughter to one of his other buddies to be a sexual companion. He ‘fessed up and listened to her lecture on ‘male privilege’ and agreed to send a messenger down to fetch her.
Now here is an interesting fork in the road: in many stories, Hades tricks Persephone into eating a pomegranate or it is depicted as an inevitable hunger craving of the Persephone in captivity. In some versions, Persephone has the perspective of her double bind, being either the property of her mother as a pure maiden in the world of the living or the queen of the underworld. In this telling she pleads with her husband, recognizing the love she has developed for him by virtue of coming of age in his domain along with the autonomy and power granted to her for staying, for a solution for her ambivalence. She loved her mother and she loved the freedom she found within her own captivity. In this tale, it is with love for his bride that Hades offers her the pomegranate knowing full well that once one has consumed the food of the dead they can never really return.
Persephone packed her bags and followed the messenger just as beautiful as she always was but her mother could see the rouge on her lips. She was no longer pure and she would no longer fit in her former station. Still, she was a source of creation. When she came to the land of the living, Demeter allowed things to grow and Persephone again made flowers come up for the earth in spring. Then the passage of time and contract that comes from the pleasures of the fruit she ate and she would return to the underworld and her throne to welcome the new arrivals and aid them in their quest for transformation. If anything, she is the great powerful goddess of the phase transition between life and death because she is forever stepping between the worlds and guiding others across that same threshold.
I think that this story has immense value to understanding the autonomy of young women. It’s clear to see how it is repeated across cultures. It captures ‘the little death’ of sex, it captures crossing the threshold from virgin to wife and the suffering that accompanies growth. As a sex worker, I resonate with this tale. Sex workers, it seems, represent both fertility and death depending upon who you might ask. They are ordered around by the patriarchy (Zeus) and often sent to provide comfort and pleasure to the isolated. The are also commanded by mainstream feminism (Demeter) who seem horrified by this role.
Perhaps it is also an intuitive understanding of Stockholm Syndrome. Was Persephone’s abduction, rape, and forcible marriage (underworld servitude) so traumatic that in order to emotionally survive she had to find some means of pleasure or empathy with her captor? They represent something strange in the topology of human psychology, a highly non-linear function with more variables than we know.
Hades may be the villain or he may be a savior. In the best case, he maintains the global vision to do what must be done to get someone out of their stasis because the process of growth involves pain and most people cannot hold it. It is painful to leave old habits and paradigms that no longer serve us and yet we will be stuck in a rut if we don’t. Ideally, he is able to create a space for these challenges for however long they might take. In the worst case of godly narcissism and selfishness, he is a mean trickster who understands how to keep to the literal words of a contract and leaving behind their purpose with a sadistic and sardonic smile saying, “I am only your servant carrying out exactly what you have asked for me.” Hades gets bored and lonely, he is trapped in his underworld, and he’s not a well understood guy. Sometimes he is sadist for his own entertainment and doesn’t give a hoot about those who don’t have to deal with the bullshit of the underworld and forgets the spoils of being a god instead of a mortal.
Persephone is not so different. She is indeed a goddess of transformation that involves pain but she’s more of a reactor than an actor. She is just as much as goddess of life as she is death and she is also a compassionate guide to all those who come to the underworld, especially those with more ephemeral tasks there. She is powerful because she is an alchemist of life and death, of pain and pleasure. In the midst of suffering she emerges as a competent goddess, in the midst of pleasure she can be a naive and lose perspective. Like Hades, she straddles that line of the spirit and the letter of the law depending on the relative selfishness or selflessness forged from her context and afforded autonomy. Hades knows how to make you suffer and will rub it in at every chance. Persephone knows how to suffer and can certainly wield her self-suffering as an emotional weapon to meet her ends. They would make one hell of a duo of leather pride grand marshalls, bar none.
Sometimes Persephone in her capacity as the queen of the underworld is depicted as being the ‘dread Persephone’ or ‘awful Persephone’ and even ‘grim Persephone.’ Depending on the author, she is a macabre companion to her strong and dark king and other times she is seen as being even more powerful than her husband. She is, after all, a paradox: a naive child under protection of her mother and yet also a sexually mature figure initiated into the great mysteries of life and death and the magic that binds the two. Perhaps these seeming contradictions are made possible from the conflicting stories of her origin: was she caught by a rape or a rapture of love when Hades came with his chariot offering a world utterly unlike the safety and the protection that encompassed the entirety of her world. Unsatisfied with a one-dimensional life, Persephone needed the complexity of paradox.
Another story of Persephone highlights her need for independence and separation from her mother Demeter. Without mention of Hades at all, a young Persephone is gifted or perhaps cursed with the ability to see lost souls wandering the earth after their death without the ability to move forward to their next phase. Demeter was a source of life and fertility who was frightened by her young daughter’s obsession with death but Persephone was endowed with wisdom beyond her years and successfully explained to her mother that these souls were pained and needed guidance. She volunteers to become the Goddess of the Dead. In a parting gift, her mother offers her a torch and some fruits and grains. Persephone stands at the threshold to welcome and guide these souls on to their next destination and matures into a capacity far different from her predicted line of work but far more suitable for her skills.
I cannot think of the love between Persephone and Hades as a very, very early depiction of what in the modern parlance is BDSM. This is largely informed by the fact that I crave SM the most at my own phases of transition. My greatest participation has come when I too was crossing the threshold from girlhood to womanhood. I turned 18 and looked to a trial or tribulation to mark my passage from home to the world as an adult. Then I largely became absent and focused instead on my work in HIV prevention and sex education rather than really engaging with kinky sex, choosing the a vanilla and monogamous relationship. When I graduated and my relationship dissolved, I got that underworld hankering again as if I couldn’t move past a collegiate paradigm into that of being a career woman. I sought incredible intense SM scenes, I took up live professional fetish performances and committed what I’ve called ‘social suicide.’ Despite the name, it was the only way could shed a skin and identify what I wanted from life. Then I found my Ned and it was spring again. Time went by and polyamory afforded me the opportunity to indulge in my taste for the underworld without wholly renouncing my love who isn’t kinky so much slutty in the very best of ways.
Now, pomegranates in mythology tend to mean sex. Usually. When I think of Persephone eating pomegranate seeds from Hades I imagine that it’s him making her come perhaps for the first real time in her life. Virginity is this weird prison in literature and mythology. Eating a snack because you’re hungry is one thing, being raped isn’t about choice, but consenting to sex and enjoying its sweetness changes the field considerably. There are disputes as to just how many pomegranate seeds she did eat but it was a sum greater than one. Seems like Hades was making her come all night long maybe 3 times (just winter) or perhaps 6 times (fall through winter). Either way, for all his dank and dark faults and moodiness and ridiculous goth aesthetic, Hades offered a compelling case in the bedroom and one that Demeter could never hope to match.
Demeter was not paired with a mate directly unless you shine a light on Hecate who seemed to be pretty intimate. It makes you wonder if that torch she carried could be used for pleasure in addition to illumination. Demeter wanted a sperm donor rather than a husband and something of a feminist separatist colony of some sorts to raise that child who, if she had her way, would never know the pain of patriarchy. Considering what I know of sperm banks and their detailed records of SAT scores, hobbies, and athleticism the idea of Zeus splooge and a neolithic turkey baster holds up pretty well. The mainstream feminist camp refuses to see the transformative power of the underworld and wants to paint it only as a place of pain and despair, something no woman would choose willingly.
And it’s true that darkness does rise up and claim victims who will take on a complex relationship to their captors and it is not a positive growth form no matter how they may identify with their assailant. That is a function of survival in traumatic situations. But that doesn’t mean it accounts for the whole story. That’s what makes mythology so rich and insightful. We are in possession of consciousness that is nowhere near being fully understood. Mythology is not the tale of how the earth came to be so much as it is an attempt to understand this bizarre function of our evolution. In combing through various traditions and practices we can learn the wheel has been invented and reinvented many times over and there are some fascinating consistent features across time and space that offer something more compelling to me than a manual of psychgological disorders.
I wonder if Hades and Persephone argued before her cyclical departure as they both tried to ease the pain of her dual roles and the neccessity of her return to the living or if he held her and kissed her and told her to ignite spring and be a dutiful daughter. Maybe he resented the fact that she had far more freedom than he and could eat both the food of the dead and the living. He was going to be dining with a bunch of dead folks who didn’t know left from right while she was off engaging in fertility rituals and he was just going to have to be patient while his wife was off doing her thing for at least half of the year if not a full three quarters of it. Was Hades comforted by the fact that underneath her crown of flowers she needed him and sometimes touched herself during nightmares and left unfinished pomegranates all around her mother’s house? Was he relieved by her absence and space from her constant whinging until he realized that despite being the lord of the underworld, he wasn’t a necrophilliac and needed her and all her high maintenance demands?
There is no question we can ask the gods that we should not ask ourselves first.