Persephone. When I first came across this tale, it felt both scarily foreign and familiar. I couldn’t tell where the dividing lines were, what about this story made me feel like I had heard it one hundred times and what about it revolted my mind as being strange and weird. The idea of Hell springing onto the world and snatching away beauty, promise, youth- that felt wrong. It was foreign to the younger part of myself, the one in denial over the presence of Death. Death should not play a part in this beautiful story.
The sad truth is, for all of us, Death is here and comes in one thousand ways. Your body need not die for the experience to happen, tragedies kick it off. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re naïve to it not, we must die a thousand little deaths in this lifetime. And sometimes…many times…it feels like during the pain and misery, that we will never live again, we’ll never walk in the sunshine, laugh and smile.
The story of Persephone begins with a happy girl, hanging out with friends, picking flowers, making garlands. The ground rumbles and shakes and out gallops Hades through a crack, god of the Underworld. He snatches the girl for his bride and hurls her down with him, down into the black descent of death. Her mother, Demeter, discovering her daughter kidnapped for a god’s bride, goes on a searching frenzy. The Earth falls barren in Demeter’s sorrow, everything withering and dying from her curse.
After a lot of adventures and lots of people dying through famine, Zeus finally grants Persephone’s return from the Dead. She will spend half the year to her mother. For the other part of the year, she must live in Elysium (the vaguely happier part of the Underworld) with her husband.
Long ago, before the Ancient Greeks told this story, older civilizations also told a Persephone style story. This different Persephone went willingly down to the dead, seeking for her King below. Babylonian stories of Ishtar and Inanna also have a Queen willingly make her descent to the below.
Whichever way it is told, the descent into the Underworld is no easy matter. It’s paved with tragedy and sorrow, a sundering of what once was. Persephone ends up in Elysium or “the apple land” as Robert Graves translates it, an orchard island where good people came after death. She spends half the year there, living among fruit and trees. When she arises from the ground, her mother springs to meet her and Spring bursts forth from the reunion.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writer of “Women Who Run with Wolves” and a fabulous Jungian analyst, walked me through a retelling of Persephone, fleshing out the inkling I had of Persephone’s desire and willingness to go to the Underworld. Desire and resistance are not incompatible emotions and the Greek Persephone’s resistance and her earlier predecessor’s willingness reflect how the two can twine together.
Persephone holds out the apple of promise- for our terrible times of pain and anguish. Death must come for rebirth. I still have no understanding of why this is but I hang onto the hope that it is true. The natural world cycles this story over and again. Life can be beautiful even in the Underworld and just as Persephone is united with her husband, so are we forcibly united with ourselves as we pass through dark times.
As we walk towards the darkest time of the year, Persephone descends with us. The light will come back, Spring will rupture forth but for now, the darkness and all that it carries comes near. It arrives whether we would have it or not and it’ll do its work whether we would have it or no. Necessary and potent, there is work going on at this grey time. A grasp of this season’s inevitably and a belief that all is not lost, that good work is being done, this is the legacy Persephone grants us.