Updated: Jun 12, 2019
When most of us were introduced to Greek Mythology in elementary school, we were far too young to understand the subtle, yet significant, messages cloaked in the fantastical tales. Even as adults, most of us miss the deeper meaning hidden in metaphor. To understand metaphor takes a different kind of thinking. Metaphors are circular. They meander, this way and that. They circumnavigate around an unidentified center. They climb slowly to an unclear destination. They weave in and out of states of entropy. Metaphors require patience and time to understand, something that we have very little of in this fast paced technological driven world we live in today. Metaphors begin to come alive and stories that we once thought were just entertainment for children become great teachers for the inquisitive mind. So is the case for Greek mythology. What I once thought were just fun anecdotes, I now see as meaningful messages about human nature. One of those messages that I find to be most significant is the depiction of changing power dynamics, the origins of patriarchy and the loss of the Goddess in the story of Demeter and Persephone, the Goddess of Harvest and her daughter the bride of Hades, Lord of the Underworld.
THE HYMN OF DEMETER
The story goes that Persephone is abducted to the underworld by Hades. She is taken from her mother and her idyllic life on the surface of the earth, forced to marry Hades, and become the queen of the underworld. When it is discovered that her daughter is missing and that Zeus (Persephone’s father) and Gaia (the earth) collaborated in the abduction of Persephone, her angry and grief stricken mother (Demeter) places a curse on the land. The land dries up, crops die, and the world experiences a period of famine and drought. Eventually Zeus comes around, and allows for the return of Persephone. However, before her return, Persephone is tricked by Hades to eat the seeds of a pomegranate, thus forever binding her to the underworld, but for a portion of the year when she is allowed to return home to her mother.
GENDER, POWER & THE FRAGMENTED GODDESS
Meaning in myth and metaphor is always in the eye of the beholder, and this story has many interesting messages about human development, death, gender, power, and ecology. I find the messages of gender and shifting power dynamics to be the most interesting. These interpretations have been given less attention from scholars who have been benefactors of a certain power dynamic that this interpretation would reveal. So let’s take a moment to explore these themes of gender and power dynamics, and see how the stories can provide incredibly important clues about human history and the loss of the Goddess.
There is mounting evidence that Paleolithic societies were organized in a different way than what is known today, as a male dominated, patriarchal system. In her book, Rebirth of the Goddess, Carol P. Christ talks about the archeological discoveries of nomadic hunter and gatherer tribes, that were peaceful, communal, deeply connected with the rhythms of nature, and afforded men and women an equal share in power. When agriculture was discovered, and the Neolithic, or New Stone age period began around 9000 BCE, a new social order slowly began to take shape. Expanding agriculture, animal herding, and the development of farm tools started to shift the way tribes co-habitated and tended the land. Farm tools, led to advanced weaponry, and farming/herding practices, led to eventual land disputes. Thus larger areas of land were needed and soon issues of ownership, seizure, conquest, and eventual warfare arose. The men who had primarily been the hunters in Paleolithic times, were now in control of the weaponry. The peaceful and egalitarian societies of the past, would soon be replaced by aggressive and warring armies (Christ, 1997, pp. 55-61).
“Warfare brings with it major changes in society, including kingship, large-scale land ownership and resultant class division, slavery, concubinage, and the subordination of women. The first kings were military leaders who when they were not conducting wars of aggression or defense, used their armies to control the people who had become their subjects on the land they conquered. The first slaves were prisoners of war, brought back to serve their conquerors. The first concubines were captured women. When warfare becomes part of life, boys and men are trained to become aggressive, violent, and dominate. The “spoils” of war, offered to men as a reward for killing, are wealth of other cultures and the right to rape and capture “enemy” women” (Christ, 1997, p. 62).
The Greek mythologies arose during this time of transition to new structures of power. Thus, the poets of these mythologies were the propagandists for the emerging system of patriarchy. Their stories helped to normalize and justify the changing power dynamics. In the Hymn to Demeter, Persephone is abducted against her will by Hades, a clear image of patriarchal domination over women. Hades and Zeus are the archetypes of the patriarch. Demeter and Persephone are the archetypes of the subordinate women, and the Goddess of the old religion, who was usurped by the Gods. Thus, it follows that Persephone is abducted and raped. She is not honored as an autonomous individual who can willfully choose her own destiny. She is an object of desire, to be conquered and possessed by Hades. The fact that her father Zeus permits the abduction, and Gaia colludes with the men, is further evidence that the Greek poets were weaving tales to justify the patriarchal takeover.
“In the old religion, the Goddess was husbandless, took as her lover whomever she wanted but was not bound to any male and reigned supreme. As the New Religion of patriarchy ascended, the goddesses increasing became ‘wives of-’, or ‘consorts of-’ or ‘daughters of-’ Gods
(Homer 7th century BC)
The Goddess in Paleolithic times was revered as the “Giver, Taker, and Renewer of Life” (Christ, 1997, p. 55). From her womb, the world was birthed into existence. The Goddess was symbolically and literally described as the earth. Caves of the earth most likely represented her womb and were sacred places for people during this time. Women, who had wombs and gave birth to children, were thus revered for their life bringing magic and honored for their gifts. However, when patriarchy began to take hold, the women no longer held a place of respect for their contributions and were relegated to subordinate positions. In another Greek myth, Athena is birthed from the forehead of Zeus, and in another, Aphrodite is born from the severed genitals of Ouraneous. No longer are women the givers of life, the male gods now possessed the power of creation.
The omnipotent and powerful Goddess of the old world religion, was fragmented into many different Goddesses in the Greek mythologies. Once the Goddess of All Life and Death, the Goddess was now divided into many faces, such as, Demeter, who oversaw the harvest, and Persephone, who oversaw the realm of the dead. By fragmenting the Goddess into many disparate aspects, she is less powerful and easier to control. This power play happens among women under patriarchy, as well. Fragmentation and an internalization of the patriarch, leads to competition among women and the women themselves assist in the further division and subjugation of their gender. This kind of self sabotage is made possible when women view themselves as separate from one another and feel the need to compete for the love of the men in their life. Demeter’s connection to her daughter reveals the power of female unity. She finds strength in this bond as she desperately searches for her other half and when dishonored she asserts her power as Goddess and tender of the grain.
She was wasting away with yearning for her daughter with the low-slung girdle
She made that year the most terrible one for mortals, all over the Earth, the nurturer of many
It was so terrible, it makes you think of the Hound of Hadês.
The Earth did not send up any seed. Demeter, she with the beautiful garlands in her hair, kept
them [the seeds] covered underground.
Many a curved plough was dragged along the fields by many an ox—all in vain.
Many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth—all for naught.
At this moment, she [Demeter] could have destroyed the entire race of meropes humans
with harsh hunger, thus depriving of their tîmê
the dwellers of the Olympian abodes—[the tîmê of] sacrificial portions of meat for eating
or for burning,
if Zeus had not noticed with his noos, taking note in his thûmos.
(Homer 7th century BC)
What’s interesting in this translation of Homer myth is how the women are described. The low slung girdle of Persephone, makes me think of a prostitute wearing seductive and provocative clothing, thus serving to justify her objectification. Or Demeter, with the beautiful garland hair, suggests the sweet, soft, and innocent qualities a woman should embody, which is antithetical to her angry and unwomanly emotional reaction to her daughter’s disappearance. Zeus appears to be given heroic status for saving the planet from the destructive actions of Demeter. Had he not realized as soon as he did, then this horribly vengeful Goddess would have destroyed the world. The Greek words noos and thumos are interesting to note. Noos and thumos, are closely related and mean many things, but in this case could be read as a “(strong) feeling and thought”, “seat of anger”, or “passion” (Lynch & Miles, 1980, p. 1).
In translating Greek language, the words need to be considered in context. Bloggers Bret and Kate McKay have an interesting take on thumos as “a special kind of anger – activated when a man’s honor is violated, when his reputation is on the line, when his family and property are threatened” (2013). Thus taken in context of the myth, Zeus is clearly enraged at Demeter violations and intends to handle the situation in the way any God in his position would do, with his masculine strength, power, and omnipotence.
Under patriarchy, females are disparaged and discredited for their raw emotions. They are expected to act the part of the docile, submissive, and gentle women-- a thing to be admired for their beauty, but not honored for their intellect. Once a female is vilified, it is much easier to convince others that she needs to be subdued and even destroyed. This tactic of oppression can be seen when Demeter encounters Helios, son of Heperion, who knows the fate of Persephone.
But I urge you, goddess: stop your loud cry of lamentation: you should not
have an anger without bounds, all in vain. It is not unseemly
to have, of all the immortals, such a son-in-law as Hadês, the one who makes many
He is the brother [of Zeus], whose seed is from the same place. And as for tîmê
he has his share, going back to the very beginning, when the three-way division of
inheritance was made.
(Homer 7th century BC)
Demeter’s daughter was taken against her will, yet Helios expects Demeter to be thankful that Persephone was raped by such a powerful and influential man. Demeter’s grief and rage are discredited as an emotional overreaction to something for which she is told to be grateful. The individuals who violated Demeter and her daughter are being excused for their violence because of their social status, gender, power, and wealth. This is still evident in the modern world today, where men hold the positions of power and power is seen to pardon offense.
Even though Demeter’s efforts to find her daughter are undermined by the gods, she persists in her grief and relentless pursuit. Demeter represents the resistance to patriarchy and her actions symbolize the “need to refuse the whole system, refuse to support it until its values and methods are reintegrated with the service of life and an older and more organic life cycle” (Carlson, 1997, p. 32). In response to her daughter's disappearance and the collusion of the gods against her, she denies her gift of grain to the humans, which means no offerings to the gods and refuses to return to Olympus. She even refuses to partake in the wine offered to her by the women where she finds refuge.
Then Metaneira offered her [Demeter] a cup, having filled it with honey-sweet wine.
But she refused, saying that it was divinely ordained that she not
drink red wine. Then she [Demeter] ordered her [Metaneira] to mix some barley and water
with delicate pennyroyal, and to give her [Demeter] that potion to drink.
(Homer 7th century BC)
Here Demeter is standing in her power and resisting the patriarchy. It is said that Hades and Dionysus are in fact the same god (Paris, 2003, p. 116). The god who brings wine and joy, also brings excess and death. Therefore, it is appropriate that she refuses anything associated with her oppressor. Persephone refuses to eat and drink, while she is in the underworld, until just before she is released and Hades slips her a pomegranate seed. Thinking about a pomegranate with its deep red color, abundance of seeds, and sweet flavor, might lend towards interpretations of fertility, menstruation, sexuality, or sensuality. It could also symbolize the semen that Hades so graciously gifted Persephone while she was held captive, thus leading to a new life (a son) and her own yearly cycle of death/rebirth to which she is now fated.
When Demeter is offered the wine of Dionysus/Hades, she refuses. Instead she asks for a drink of grain and herbs, plants from the earth with which she is deeply connected. I find this part especially symbolic given the tendency for women to give their power away to men and their desires for sex after a night of drinking alcohol. It is not uncommon to hear men discussing their tactics for getting women into bed, which not only includes plenty of attention and compliments, but also plenty of wine. When women refuse to partake in this seduction technique they are more likely to stand in their power, create clear boundaries, and make wise decisions about whom they let into their sacred wombs.
The myth of Demeter and Persephone has clear messages about the effects of patriarchy on women's autonomy, sexuality, and status in the world of ancient Greece, as well as, the world today. Persephone was young and naive, and without her mother’s protection was abducted, raped, and forced to marry against her will by the prevailing power structure of the Olympian gods. Demeter was clearly the resistance against the patriarchy. She stood her ground and eventually had to come to terms with her daughters new role as wife of Hades, Goddess of the underworld, yet it wasn’t without a good fight. Persephone wasn’t lost to her forever, a compromise had to be made. Perhaps symbolic of a similar compromise needed between patriarchy and the Goddess today.
The love between mother and daughter, between two women, could not erase the past, but could pave the way for a better future. The message is clear. In order to face patriarchy today, women need to come together in unwavering support, deep commitment, and unconditional love for one another. The transgressions of the past need to be acknowledged, forgiven, and renegotiated in order to come to a resolution with the men who have historically played the role of transgressor. Women need to continue to stand in their power, resisting the seductions and offerings from powerful physical, psychological, and spiritual forces that wish to subdue, confuse, and control them. Women can take a lesson from Demeter and consciously choose to refuse the poisons that lead to oppression. Instead they can find strength in their own healing wisdom. Knowledge handed down through the ages from the feminine, the earth, or the Great Mother, rather than from the hands and the minds of men.
Article by Amaya James
Carlson, K. (1997) Life’s Daughter/Death’s Bride. Boston & London: Shambala.
Christ, C. (1997) The Rebirth of the Goddess. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing
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