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Modern Persephones: An Excerpt on Lost Maidenhood

The elements of the Demeter and Persephone story are well known and have been a topic of scholarly discourse in mythology and depth psychology. The story has also been honored at rituals, whether in sacred groves or urban backyards, in ancient times or modern days. The richness of this archetypal tale has themes of mother/daughter and symbolism that can be seen as representative of the seasons changing. The gist of the story is: Demeter, goddess of heaven and earth, and her daughter, Persephone are in a meadow together. Demeter is called away and instructs Persephone to wait for her there in the meadow. Persephone obliges, and then picks a flower in the meadow. When she does, the earth opens and swallows her up and she is taken to the underworld where Hades informs her that she will be his wife. Persephone wishes to return to the earth and refuses. She is offered food and drink but refuses until she is so hungry, she eats a small number of pomegranate seeds, the juice of which stain her white dress. Because she ingested food from the underworld, she must stay. Demeter’s grief is so great that she begins destroying the earth, causing famines and floods and fires. Zeus is dismayed at the destruction being caused, and seeks to make a deal to ease the trouble. It is decided that Persephone will be required to stay in the underworld as Hades’ wife for six months out of every year, and for the other six months, Persephone and Demeter are reunited. This is the time of year between the spring and autumn equinox.

An aspect not often the focus of deeper inspection is that Zeus and Hades planned for Persephone to be pulled into the underworld. How does the meaning of the story shift mythically when we consider that the maiden Persephone was tricked by Zeus and Hades – who beckoned her mother away while it was known Persephone would be alone in the meadow joyfully picking flowers in her mother’s realm? What does it mean that as she picked a flower, the earth opened and she found herself in Hades’ underworld? In this archetypal story that transcends time, holding focus on this aspect provides a poignant mythologizing of life lived by women in the time of patriarchal domination.

Zeus and Hades knew they were separating a mother and daughter who were dear to each other. So dear were they to each other that Demeter, the mother, brought widespread famine and chaos to the worlds she governed as goddess of heaven and earth when her daughter was lost to her. Zeus and Hades saw Demeter’s anticipated grief and suffering as an acceptable cost of their game. Persephone’s shocking separation from the only world she had ever known is judged by the male gods as unimportant compared to their plan and desires regarding her. Prior to their meddling, Persephone’s world which was safe, playful, open, wild, and nurturing. Both Persephone’s and Demeter’s lives were completely altered forever by Zeus’ and Hades’ plan. From the point of their interference, Demeter and Persephone can only spend half of each year together – a concession granted to end the destructive wrath of Demeter (again, for the benefit of Zeus for whom the wrath was quite inconvenient).

Myths are archetypal tales that give us the psychological opportunity to face the elements of existence that feel too big for the personality, but that we can feel in our deepest experience of life as humans. Mythic stories speak to the big picture that is the everlasting connection between our personal psyches and the collective unconscious. There is a usurping of the feminine principle in the story of Demeter and Persephone that is tragically patriarchal, as it should be in its reflection of modern culture in the United States (and perhaps globally, but I will write about the place in which I live).

Patriarchy is the unconscious, short-sighted abuse of power for domination of others for the purpose of short-term gain and selfish profit. Patriarchy seeks to make people survivors. It seeks to dehumanize people, and make domination and possession more important than a love for others that allows for freedom of expression, choice, and authentic engagement in living. Every woman in this country lives in an oppressed status compared to men. That is a fact of the structure of our society and the interlocking systems of oppression, aptly named by bell hooks, imperialist capitalist white supremacy patriarchy, in her book Writing Beyond Race. We can know this cognitively as women. And that is good to do. Understanding things and knowing things is excellent. It helps us formulate safety plans and interventions, self-defense and best practices, education programs and a cause to fight for politically and socially. When one cognitively understands and can see the data and hear narratives that express the reality in which women live, one can’t deny that it exists. There is much important scholarship about the several waves of white feminism, black feminism, and womanism. We know what is happening. When women get together, there is an understanding that we are all dealing with and fighting against oppression every day in our own unique ways through our unique bodies, situations, histories, and identities.

There is another aspect of living under patriarchy that is more difficult to name. It is in the realm of shadow. Where there is oppression, there is internalization. When oppression is woven into the foundation of a society, that internalization occurs automatically in the form of a psychological download. That download is reinforced by both subtle and overt factors of daily life, and is rooted in the unconscious. The internalization of patriarchal oppression absolutely affects men as well as women. Masculinity is not in its essence patriarchy. Patriarchy robs men of their masculinity – quietly and swiftly replacing masculine principles of honor, integrity, humility, value-based action, and teamwork with patriarchal mandates of competition, greed, performance, domination, and conquest. For women, this internalization shows itself in those unexpected moments when we don’t say what we mean, don’t protect ourselves, and most of all – when we go against what we know.

The purely brilliant album, Are You Happy Now by Jensen McRae serves as a helpful illustration of the paradox of being an empowered woman living in the patriarchy and of the internalization that occurs automatically. McRae’s experience as a woman intersects with the realities of living within white supremacy as a black woman – something I will never experience and would never pretend to have the right to comment upon. Her experience as a woman is expressed in her music, and reiterates the effects of the patriarchal download. In her command of artistic expression, McRae shines as an empowered, self-aware, socially conscious, loved young woman, and as a truth speaker. She knows about the world and her identities. She knows she is valuable and worthy. This knowledge did not protect her from suffering through the experience of living in the systems of oppression. It also didn’t protect her from the internalization phenomenon.

I was 19, still fun at parties He supplied me with shot after shot He assured me he was harmless Why did I ever trust a fox? I ignored all of my teachings How I survived, I can't believe

I almost let him get his claws in Still knocks the wind right out of me Though I got away I never walked the same, mhm Now I bury my smile and show no interest Now I carry myself a little different Now I avoid the woods Now I know the wolves ~Excerpt from the song, Wolves, by Jensen McRae

McRae sings about ignoring all her teachings in the lyrics above. This reminds me of the fact that internalization implants things in the unconscious. So, we can know things and know them well, and knowing will not protect us from an activated internalized mandate. For example, fawning when a man is giving a woman attention. This unconsciously driven “aim to please” that is included in the download for women in the patriarchy guides women toward a conditioned response that can choke the truth we know into silence before we take a breath. Internalization makes consent trickier than an asked and answered question. Internalization means the societal shadow is always at play somewhere.

Patriarchy takes women into the underworld, like Persephone. Patriarchy seeks to separate us from that which nurtures and sustains us (our “mothers” – our bodies, our earth connection, our intuition) – and we have to work in the shadows at times. Persephone is known in the underworld as compassionate, lessening the punishments handed out by Hades to those who offend him. She softens Hades. She would rather still be in the meadow, picking flowers and enjoying the sunshine in the trust and protection of her mother. Instead, she is trapped by her need for nourishment – the red seeds she ate in the underworld. She settled for what was there and offered, even though she was minimal and withholding toward herself…it was her act of eating the seeds that sealed her entrapment in marriage for half of every year. Symbolically, the seeds could be seen as the menstrual blood – but less literally, it can be interpreted as the life phase of maidenhood. This life phase is removed by patriarchal culture. Consider the Christian marriage ceremony that so often still and historically includes the ritual of a woman’s father walking her down the aisle and transferring ownership to the woman’s husband by “giving her away.” [As though she was ever his to give.]

Maidenhood is a vital life phase. In the goddess tradition, the well-known triple goddess includes the maiden, mother and crone. Modern goddess scholars have sometimes added queen as a phase between mother and crone. Girl is also a phase younger than maiden. I have wondered if this omission of girl from most workings with the triple goddess triunity is suggestive that maidenhood marks the beginning of an individuated journey into feminine being where one begins to have one’s own existence signified by independent connections to friends, jobs, and outings that don’t include the parents.

Maidenhood is an archetypally rich time during which a young woman ideally discovers and explores herself and her body, falls in love with herself, learns to care for and enjoy her health and body, and comes to deeply know herself. In a sense, it is when she marries herself. She joins with herself with purpose and care. Then, if she does choose to join with a partner in life, she is first grounded in her commitment to herself, along with her health, well-being, lifepath, joy, meaning, and fulfillment. This commitment to self is what gives her the ability to be authentic in her life and relationships rather than a regurgitation of conditioned responses to what others expect of her. It is no wonder patriarchy mandates that women skip this life phase that ushers young women into embodiment and self-trust.

Maidenhood is embodied power through self-knowledge, grounding through authenticity. It is deeper than a conditioned smile and holds greater mass than expected agreement and pleasantness.

Wouldn’t it be different if our myth shifted? What if Zeus could have valued his daughter’s maidenhood, knowing it would lead her to embodiment, self-trust, and fulfillment in life. What if he supported this time of her development, and trusted the guidance of Demeter and other close women in Persephone’s life? What if Hades’ longing for a maiden bride was seen as his responsibility, urging him to prepare and pursue honorably instead of it being an expectation or birthright reserved for him to the extent that he could possess another being for half of every year? What if he had to work to gain Persephone’s interest and favor? What if it was an acceptable option for her to refuse him? What if Zeus had protected his daughter’s process of development and becoming? What if Zeus refused to help Hades and instead warned his daughter about that flower, and strengthened his bond with her?

Much like the material of dreams, archetypal stories like Persephone and Demeter can be related with deeply. Through that relationship, we can enter into the story at important points and see ourselves reflected back. To take it a step further, though, we can enter it and see the parts of the story we would like to alter. The questions in the above paragraph are this type of interrogation. Archetypes are primordial, but I would argue that their relationships to each other are not fixed nor limited to the stories we know about them. Archetypes show up in story and myth so that we have a way to connect with them. They could just as well show up in our dream lives or through the themes of the narratives we live. Myths are alive in eternity, and therefore not limited by linear time. We can enter the story from any point to touch the living presence of primordial maidenhood through Persephone. Who Persephone becomes in each of us is unique, and with the help of consciousness and a commitment to dismantle patriarchy, Persephone may come to experience the life of a maiden without being tricked into the underworld in some of us, and then, in time, in many of us.

The macrocosm of our microcosm human experience with the Demeter and Persephone myth is the earth herself and her experience with the forces of the patriarchy. The patriarchal desire to rule over rather than commune with the earth is full of the Hades/Zeus energy from the Demeter and Persephone tale. The earth exists, providing all for any inhabitants. Living in balance and wisdom would call for humans to caretake in return, understanding the symbiotic nature of our relationship with the planet on which we depend for our existence and sustained life. Rather than learning about the wonders of our earth, though, patriarchal power has turned on her and possessed her, determined to use up all of her resources far faster than she could ever produce more. Patriarchy sees a chance for profit rather than relationship when it looks at the earth. Dollar signs pop up in the minds of patriarchally controlled folks instead of appreciation and awe. The download of the patriarchy connected to capitalism, white supremacy, and imperialism imposes a value system of short-term gain and distracts minds that could be awake and constructive with the tantalizing allure of more. The earth’s body, similar to the bodies of women who, more and more, are living with diagnoses of lupus, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. Our feminine bodies are grieving along with the earth. Also grieving are the feminine energies in men and the truly masculine energies in men.

While patriarchy can turn both women and men into Hades puppets with promises of power, possessions and conquest, our very bodies are crying out, telling us there is something very wrong. Our nervous systems are speaking long before the language centers in our brains. There is a longing for something different. There is a questioning of this collective walk off the cliff. There is an awareness of threat here, in our bodies. And it is wise. It is not something wrong. Our symptoms are very correct. Yes, we want to soothe and treat the symptoms to reach toward balance and ease. And, we want to respect the symptoms as messengers that it is time to redefine wellness. It is time for a new story in which Persephone and Demeter can stay safe in the field and be loved and appreciated for their unique way of tending the earth and the heavens. Hades can become a helper, facilitating the digestion of grief, ushering death energy into our lives intentionally so that we no longer kill our potential, but surrender and release our illness as a society. Modern Persephones, like Jensen McRae, may be a new potential built of transformed trauma and creative resilience.

*This blog post is an excerpt from a book in the works that combines depth psychology,

trauma theory and anti-oppression frameworks! Stay tuned for more...

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Beautifully written, as always. Gives a lot to think about.

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Thank you!

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