Does the story of Demeter and Persephone have anything to say to us today?

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Answered by: Mark, An Expert in the Figures in Mythology Category
Yes! The story of Demeter and Persephone is very old, going back at least to the Homeric hymns of ancient Greece. But it's alive for us today, because it pulls together some key issues in human life, and puts them into a dramatic form.

The heart of the story is a mother (Demeter) and her daughter (Persephone), and how each of them deals with the inevitable -- that the girl must become a woman and leave home. In our time, we set a high value on preparing for the transition to adulthood. We offer sex education and life planning classes for teenage girls, and books, talk shows, PTA workshops and support groups for their mothers. We assume the two will work together to plan the daughter's education, her marriage and her career ... with the daughter increasingly taking the lead.

But nothing important is simple. This is a major life change we're talking about. And what the old myth focuses on is the close tie between a mother and daughter. It's one of the deepest, most complex links that we humans ever form. And when it's time to break it, or at least greatly loosen it, both people are likely to feel reluctant, fearful, and maybe even angry.

Which is exactly what happens in the myth. In fact, both mother and daughter are so anxious about what's coming that although they're goddesses, they use human coping strategy Number 1 -- denial. And it doesn't work for them any better than it does for us.

It's spring, and the springtime of Persephone's life; but instead of preparing, Demeter busies herself with work: the duties of an Earth goddess, making sure plants are pollinated and crops grow. Persephone and her schoolmates, meanwhile, are not in sex ed class but out on a field trip, gathering flowers to press in books. Wandering off alone, she finds a particularly pretty one she wants to pluck. It's a narcissus, one of the glories of spring.

But this is a flower with a history. Another Greek myth tells of a self-centered teen, also reluctant to grow up, who became so enchanted with his reflection in a pond that he ignored the call of love -- and the angry gods turned him into the flower that bears his name. The echo of his tale warns us: Persephone is reaching backwards for perpetual youth, not forward to the next step in her life.

The payment for her error is swift and terrible. As Persephone pulls up the pretty flower, the earth splits open beneath her feet, and the huge hands of Hades, god of the Underworld, reach up and grab her, drawing her down into darkness.

It takes Demeter a while to hear the news (her self-distraction is working). But when she does, she goes into a rage of grief. Tearing her gown and her hair, she rushes about the world, demanding of everyone where her daughter is. Finally, she learns that Hades has abducted her, and she goes to Zeus, king of all the gods (and Hades' older brother), furiously demanding the girl's release. She vows to hold the earth hostage, not letting crops grow or herds increase, until he yields.

Zeus, however, is not convinced. He reminds Demeter that Persephone's becoming a woman was inevitable. And he tells her that what she sees as a kidnapping and rape is in fact a courtship, and that he has encouraged Hades. But he agrees his brother's pickup line was crude, and gives Demeter a passport and guide to visit her daughter.

She finds, to her surprise, that Persephone is not a captive -- she sits enthroned beside Hades as Queen. They all agree that Persephone can come back home, but only to visit; because, the new Queen admits, she has already tasted the food down here. And according to myth protocol going back past the Greeks to the Sumerians, eating the Underworld's food means you have to stay.

Interestingly, what Persephone has eaten is a pomegranate -- the "royal fruit" -- whose seeds, when crushed, yield their sweet red juice. The very color of blood. So, the myth delicately suggests, she has shed her virginity and is now a woman, no longer a girl.

After a visit earthside, both Demeter and Persephone are ready to accept the momentous -- and permanent -- change in the daughter's life. From then on, she spends most of the year ruling the Underworld (as a goddess equal in power to Demeter), and a few months visiting her childhood home and her beloved mother.

This ancient story is entertaining, dramatic and humorous. But it has been told and retold for three thousand years because it honors as divine the deep connection between a mother and daughter. And it reminds us to honor all the follies, furies and -- most important -- the deep feelings that must be part of each daughter's once-in-a-lifetime crossing over into womanhood.

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