Demeter, Kore/Persephone, and mental illness

June 16, 2017

Crystal and I facilitated a Circle on the Goddess and mental health at The Hive a month ago or so and I tackled some of the deep stuff with this investigation of one of the greatest myths of all humankind.

Note: The Greek pronunciation is as follows: “Deh-MEE-ter,” “KAW-ree,” “per-SEH-fo-nee,” and “HEK-uh-tee.” Contemporary Pagans often mispronounce these names. IMO, if you’re going to be working with these goddesses, the least you can do is learn how to pronounce their names correctly.

DEMETER AND KORE/PERSEPHONE STORY

This is one of the oldest Greek myths and one of the most continually told. My summary below is a way simplified version focusing only on the goddesses in the story for purposes of the Circle.

Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and spent her days teaching its arts and tending to the grain. Kore, her daughter, loved to play with the nymphs nearby and collect flowers. One day while playing she saw a narcissus and was captivated — she had to have it! She plucked the flower — and suddenly a great rent opened in the earth and everything shook. In a flash a golden chariot led by four black horses came bounding up from out of the earth. There was a man in the chariot and he seized Kore and took her back underground with him. The earth healed; there was no trace of her passing. All that remained was the echo of her screams as she was taken.

Demeter was working in the fields when she heard Kore scream. She ran, calling out Kore’s name, asking everyone she met if they’d seen her daughter, but to no avail. With mounting terror she began to try to find Kore, despair eating away at her heart. At night she burned torches and kept searching. For nine days and nights she searched for Kore, dressed in black, torches burning, but to no avail. She sat on a stone in silence.

On the tenth day Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and witchcraft, came to her and told her that Kore had been seized by Hades and taken to his kingdom in the Underworld and was now prisoner. Demeter knew then that all was lost. She fell into even deeper despair and began to wander aimlessly.

One hot day she rested on the side of a well, where she was approached by a young woman who got her a position taking care of queen Metaneira’s son in the palace at Eleusis. Demeter shook off her despair and took the boy to her heart. She decided to give him immortality and fed him ambrosia and nectar. At night, she placed him in the fire to burn his mortality away. But one night the queen came in while Demeter watched over the baby in the fire and began shrieking that Demeter was trying to murder her child.

Demeter was PISSED. She threw off her rags and revealed herself in all her splendor, and was recognized as a goddess. She demanded that the people of Eleusis build her a temple, which they did in short order. She took up a seat in the temple and then went into a deep catatonic state. As she did this, all the food on the earth began to die. The grain dried up in the fields, the fruit would not ripen, gardens went dead.

As this went on, the Olympian gods grew anxious and tried to get Demeter to snap out of it. When they realized nothing was working, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to get Kore. Mother and daughter were united and the earth flowered again. All was well.

That’s Demeter’s part. Let’s look back at what happened to Kore.

When Hades seized her and took her to the Underworld, Kore lost it. In most of the written accounts, Hades raped Kore. This is really endemic to the Greek patriarchy and it’s up to you whether you want to go with that account or with the older one where Kore was simply abducted. There are things to learn from both accounts.

Kore had never known a hard day in her life. Every day had been filled with her mother’s love and guidance, with sunshine, with flowers, with laughter, with play. Now she was ripped from everything she knew and held captive in a room in the dark and creepy Underworld. She screamed and thrashed for a long, long time. And after that came a time of stillness, similar to catatonia. She was just—gone.

Time passed. Hades brought her food and drink every day but she did not respond. Then he left her door unlocked. Then he left it open. No change.

This went on for some time. Then one day, she moved. Just a little. She blinked. She moved her toes. She stretched her fingers. She began to come back to herself. But she felt numb inside.

After a few days she got up and started looking around, taking in the different sacred sites of the Underworld and seeing how it operated. After some time Hades came to her and told her he loved her and wanted her to be queen at his side. She turned away and walked off silently.

More time passed. Kore grew more restless in her wanderings. Against her will traitorous thoughts of what she could do as queen entered her mind. And could she love Hades, both the god and the realm? She knew she wanted nothing more than to see her mother again, but what if she were trapped here forever?

As the days passed her mind grew more active and she thought more and more. And then she planted a garden of hellabore and other plants of the Underworld. She used shining gems to line the edges of her plots. As she buried her hands in the earth, she felt life coming back to her. And with life, came clarity. She would choose.

At the appropriate time Hades brought her food and drink as he always did. “Wait,” she said, and he stood silently. Very deliberately she cut a pomegranate in half and ate six seeds. “You may call me Persephone now,” she told Hades. “I will marry you, and I will be queen of this realm.” As she tasted the pomegranate seeds and claimed her new name, she felt a sureness come over her. And with that sureness, life. She had made it through. She claimed her life.

Some time later a messenger from Zeus arrived and told her she was free to come back to her mother. Persephone leapt into the chariot, called Hades to her side, and rode up to the surface. Mother and daughter fled to each other and held each other tight, sobbing. It felt so good to see the sun again. And how she had missed her mother! But strangely, she felt different now. Her mother kept repeating her old name until Persephone said “You must call me Persephone now.” Demeter drew back and for the first time saw her child, no more a child but now a woman.

Persephone told her she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. While Demeter was horrified, since she knew what this meant, Persephone was calm as she said, “I ate six seeds of the Underworld, which means I will spend six months of each year in the Underworld with my husband as queen. And the other six months I will spend here with you.”

At first Demeter was aghast but after the other gods and goddesses chimed in and she grew more used to the idea, she accepted it. She gave the people of Eleusis the Eleusinian Mysteries, a set of religious rites that promised joy in life and no fear of death. These rites were the primary religious ritual in Greece for two thousand years.

DEMETER AND PERSEPHONE, DECONSTRUCTED

The story of Demeter and Persephone is very famous, has been re-imagined countless times, and can be used as a metaphor for just about anything. For me, I have used it as a way to understand my mental illnesses. You may also feel so called. So let’s deconstruct the story and figure what’s going on.

The story starts with Demeter and Kore. Demeter is a mother goddess and Kore is practically a nymph, filled with the joy of living moment to moment. She doesn’t have a job or work the way Demeter does. When she sees the narcissus flower, she is entranced by narcissism, which is a condition whereby you are extremely self-involved. You are fascinated by yourself and don’t really care about anyone else. She plucks the narcissus, choosing narcissism, and all hell breaks loose — literally. She is ripped from her known way of being. Being simply abducted is a gross violation, but if you tell the story that she was raped, it’s even more horrific when you consider the carefree girl she was.

So let’s leave her there are go back to Demeter. Demeter first acts like any parent — she searches for her daughter. This is the search we as adults all go on for our innocence. We yearn for simpler times when we had fewer cares and responsibilities. In the waking world, this may mean that we take a day off work which then becomes several days and then becomes weeks until we’re fired. We just drop everything and go searching for something else.

At the end of the ninth night, Demeter has given up hope. She thinks she’s hit rock-bottom. But no, here’s Hecate with the awful truth — her daughter will never be returned to her again. This is where we realize that we can’t get in touch with that inner innocence. We fall into the pit of depression and begin, like Demeter did, to wander the earth so to speak. This can be a mild depressive episode where all color leaches out of the world. We can’t seem to hold onto anything. We stop sleeping, we either stop eating or start bingeing, we lose our sex drive.

But then Demeter gets a job. And it’s taking care of a baby to whom she decides to give immortality. What is she doing? She’s trying to make another immortal Kore. She is going to force the issue and make reality conform to her demands. She is refusing to accept her life and believes that through sheer force of will she will feel better again. In my own life, some of my most damaging behavior comes about when I am whipping myself to get better, get better, get better. This is what Demeter’s doing — she’s trying to force things into place.

But then she’s discovered and she gets PISSED. For me, this is that moment where I say, “GodDAMmit!” We’re just so frustrated that we can’t make anything happen. We’ve tried as hard as we can but we can’t get anywhere. We may not demand a temple be built for us, but we find a place of stone and we go in it for good. We become catatonic. We are in a severe depression, bordering on a psychotic state. It may be a complete dissociative state. What we know is that everything is bleak, there is no purpose in life, and everything we encounter is dust in our mouths. Or maybe it’s bad enough that we are no longer there at all — we have entered what in the vernacular is called madness. In the waking world, we may be hospitalized and given medication.

After she’s reunited with Persephone, Demeter bestows the Mysteries on Eleusis, “that which gives joy to life and takes away the fear of death.” She has gone through the depths and come out with wisdom to share. She has become the “wounded healer.”

So let’s leave that there and go back to Kore. She is locked in a dark room in the creepy Underworld and as far as she knows she’s there forever. Whether she’s been abducted or both abducted and raped, her life will never be the same. Many of us are survivors of some form of sexual or physical assault and we all have our own ways of coming through that. But regardless of the trigger for Kore’s experience, she is now thrashing and screaming, completely out of her old way of being. She protests and rages against everything that has so suddenly and cruelly been taken away from her. But it’s more than just a rage — it’s savagery. It’s animalistic. It goes beyond just being pissed off. It’s chthonic. Primal.

But at the end of it she’s spent. And she, like Demeter, falls into an extreme depressive and even mad state. I have always felt that Kore had it tougher than Demeter. Perhaps that’s because I identify with her so closely. Your experience may differ. But both these goddesses experience being outside consensual reality.

It takes a long time for Kore to come out of it. In the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent, when Inanna comes back to life in the Underworld, it’s because water and food are brought to her by demigods. But the Greek myths are pretty silent on Kore’s processes, so I have imagined what they are based on my own experience.

As anyone coming out of a severe depression knows, it’s often a slow process of awakening. Yes, there are times when one day we can’t get out of bed and the next we are up in the morning and going about our business, but in Kore’s case she’s been severely traumatized so her healing is a process.

She wanders, as we so often wander in our healing process. Unlike Kore, we often work with therapists, medications, and Goddess, Goddess, Goddess to find our way. But for Kore, it’s when she puts her hands into the earth that her soul is really touched. She wakes up to the possibilities around her. For Kore, it’s time to move into the next phase of her being. In the strictest terms, she’s changing from a child into a woman, but for us it’s more likely to be our next stage of development.

So. The pomegranate. The Greeks are very vague on this. And conflicting — I’ve read she eats three, four, or six seeds. You know now that she spends a month in the Underworld for every seed, so on the surface this is a story of how long winter lasts, when Persephone is withdrawn from the earth. I chose six not for historical accuracy but to reflect my own spiritual path. Anyway. The big question, the question that none of the Greeks answer, is: why did Persephone eat those seeds? She’s a goddess — she eats ambrosia and drinks nectar. She doesn’t eat human food. So why does she eat them? Does she do it unconsciously or consciously?

I choose consciously. I like to see her as an agent of change in her own life. She chooses to eat the seeds because she knows what the consequences are. And she wants those consequences. She doesn’t just want to frolic and play anymore. She wants a vocation, she wants a path of her own, and she wants to seek the ways of justice and mercy as a queen. Oh, and she wants a groovy husband. You can skip that bit if that’s too Hearst syndrome for you.

So she eats the seeds and she takes on a new name. “Kore” means “the maiden” but “Persephone” means “to destroy” and “wise.” Quite a combination. For me, choosing a new name and a whole new life means Persephone is stepping into her power. I call on this myth when I’m going through a life change and I need the courage and the clarity of mind to release my overwhelming anxiety and depression and step into my power. It is only then that we see Persephone moving into adult life. For me, I want that agency. And the thing that touches me the most about this story is that Kore is violated in the most fundamental ways we can imagine, and yet from that place of violation she CREATES. That, to me, is women’s power. We can dig down within us, deeper than any pain, and find that deep core of inner knowing and create.

There are a few stories of Persephone in her role as queen but for me, the takeaway of Persephone’s life is that she now moves between the upper world and the Underworld effortlessly. She takes the newly dead by the hand and shows them to their place. She provides justice and mercy. And she knows days of sunshine and flowers, too. She moves through all the aspects of life smoothly, gently. She may have deeply disturbing days but she moves through them. She isn’t untouched by them, it’s not like she’ll never be depressed again, but she is now part of a cycle. For those of us who live with chronic mental illness, Persephone is a model of how to balance our moods and minds-bodies-spirits. She is a walker between the worlds, able to deal with all states of being. Persephone’s transformation in the underworld prepares her for ecstatic spirituality and shifting states of consciousness, as well as development of psychic abilities. Persephone becomes the wounded healer.

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