A look at the meaning of the myth of Persephone: Initiation

Persephone (SoulCollage card) You may know the myth of the maiden Persephone: While innocently picking flowers in a field the earth suddenly opens before her and Hades, god of the underworld, rides forth on his horse-drawn chariot, abducts and rapes her. The story of Persephone is also the story of her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest. When she learns of Persephone’s disappearance, she does what any mother would do: search high and low for her, and when she cannot find any trace of her, is wracked with grief. She takes out her anger and resentment on the mortal world over which she presides and causes a severe drought and famine over the land. Eventually she learns that Persephone was the victim of a plot by Zeus, uber-Olympian, and his brother, Hades, who wanted to make her his wife. Persephone is eventually allowed to return to her mother but not before Hades tricks her by giving her a juicy pomegranate before she leaves. Upon taking a bite, she unknowingly binds herself to his realm, but is allowed to live half of the year on earth with her mother.

I recently read a feminist revision of the myth, which left out the rape and changed the story so that Persephone and Hades were equal partners and she made a choice to live part of the time with him and part of the time with her mother. While I can appreciate the desire to turn this into a fable of equality, in which Persephone is less of a victim, it misses the point of the myth. And as someone who loves understanding archetypes, fairy tales, and myths, with all their shadowy elements from a Jungian perspective, I see the story of Persephone differently.  At least one way of looking at it is as a tale of initiation: a young woman's coming of age and need to separate from her mother so that she can become her own person.

While the imagery of Persephone being kidnapped and raped by Hades is not one that on the surface any woman (let alone mother) would ever subscribe to or condone on any level, if we look at it metaphorically, its meaning becomes apparent. (We mortals shouldn’t mess with the gods and their myths. Their lessons are often severe and have teeth -- the better to eat you with, my dear.)

Perhaps because my own 12-year-old daughter is going through puberty and I have watched her in a sense be "snatched away" from me, it hits close to home. I am reminded that there is no easy way to go from girlhood to womanhood. It is in some ways a violent shift, involving the shedding of blood, the raging of hormones, and leaving the comfort of "home," or what is known and safe up till now – and venturing out into the world at large. I know how Demeter felt as she searched for the long, lost little girl she had known only a short time ago.

Hades represents on a masculine level what Persephone, the naïve, feminine, is required to face at some point in coming of age: the loss of innocence and the gaining of experience. This involves risk-taking and venturing out into the scary world without mommy to hold her hand as she has become used to. (And who amongst us has not been seduced or tempted by the bad boy, the dark haired charmer who drives up in his snazzy car to whisk us away on a daring first date?) Every one of us as Persephone must venture into the darkness, the unknown, and find ourselves as well as our inner masculine so that we can use our personal power in the world. While the consecration seems harsh and brutal, Persephone survives it and goes on to marry Hades and preside as Queen of the Underworld. She did what we must all do: consecrate the marriage between our inner masculine and inner feminine to achieve balance and wholeness – the ability to call upon the yin and yang of these energies when we need them.

From Demeter's point of view, which I can now thoroughly embrace as a mother of a daughter who is starting the leave-taking, it all seems harsh and scary out there for my tender young daughter, but I must let go.  I can relate to Demeter's grieving. Many times as my daughter has raged and pushed me away in the throes of her coming of age, I have had to remind myself that this is normal; this is what she needs to do; she needs to claim her own identity, separate from mine, and the ties that have bound us until now. We have had talks about these "battles," and she is always so relieved when I let her know I don't take them personally, that I see that she is going through the painful process of expressing and finding her authentic self. She must push away; and I must allow it. (And I remember my own struggles as a maiden in her position. How I longed for a mother who understood and could contain my feelings.)

And at various times, my daughter, Chloe, like Persephone, has come back to me (from her time in the shadowy underworld of negative feelings) and let me know she appreciates my tolerance and understanding; and at times she comes to me as the little girl again who needs to feel close to her mommy. I see the relief on her face. And she, too, tolerates my anger and perhaps a little bit of my pain in letting go. It is not of her choosing, as it is for any of us. At some point we are called to the journey, to become the heroine in our own lives. We will either answer that call with courage and meet our fate or we will stay undifferentiated from our family and afraid to take a bite of what life has to offer. It is a difficult but necessary reordering of the mother/daughter relationship and a drive towards wholeness that should not be thwarted.