While researching Minoan Crete I learned that each autumn young girls once gathered blue violet saffron crocus to leave as an offering for the Wild Crocus Goddess as they prepared for adolescent female initiation rites. I was intrigued by the reference to autumn because I associate flowers more with spring than any other season. From other sources I discovered that in Minoan Crete young girls also gathered bright yellow crocus to celebrate the Great Goddess and the return of the growing season and that yellow was the color associated with the Great Goddess because of the golden color of the dye made from the precious saffron crocus. Later in Greece during the Lesser Mysteries, flowers, especially yellow crocus were also picked to celebrate Persephone’s return from the Underworld. I was particularly delighted by the reference to Persephone picking bright yellow crocus because my relationship with this goddess has been a somber one; I have always associated her with death. And yellow is a joyous color that I associate with early spring.
I felt a wild sense of hope as a volcanic fire erupted inside me when I first imagined Persephone picking spring flowers because of my uncomfortable relationship with this mythical figure and also because I love flowers.
Suddenly, riveted by childhood visions I was swept up and momentarily tumbled out of time… Crocus and snowdrops appeared out of the snow at my grandmother’s feet like magic, lilacs and violets embraced me through scent, the intoxicating aroma of lily’s of the valley opened the door to mysteriously shaded desert canyons and to rushing rivers rippling over stone, lupine sliced their way through mountain gorges. Giant sunflowers pulsed wildly against a deep blue sky…
Flowers have been a guiding force in my life since I was a baby. My grandfather named me Buttercup because my first word was “cups” for flowers, not mama or papa; my second word was “Baba” for grandmother. As a child I was enchanted by the story of my first two names, too young to consider the implications behind choosing a flower as my first word, and my grandmother as the second. My grandmother also told me that I loved the delicate yellow wildflowers that grew in the grass that lay around me when she placed me on the ground that first summer of my life. I was crawling on the sweetly scented earth surrounded on four sides by roses, lobelia, and the deep purple violets that my grandmother grew in her English garden. I held buttery yellow flower petals in my curled fists while my grandmother took moving pictures… it’s almost as if I can remember the joy I felt bubbling inside me, the impish and irrepressible grin of my innocent self, the feeling of being loved by the world – my two grandparents, the grass, the sky and perhaps most of all by the flowers. Almost…
I was a volatile and overly sensitive child with an unruly temper who loved Nature passionately. In retrospect, I see that my mother’s emotional neglect/rejection of me and the fear of my father’s explosive temper probably helped me develop a more intimate relationship with Nature that was based on a fierce love that had no other safe place to go. Flowers came to symbolize my joyful feelings and flowers also seemed to be a most natural way to express my yearning to be loved… I remember showering flowers on my mother and grandmother on Mother’s Day and throughout the summer, and when my little brother was old enough he joined me in this practice. At mid –life with my children grown I was free to grow as many flowers as I could care for and wild unkempt gardens appeared everywhere on my property. Now at 70 I am still a “plant woman” although I no longer want to make a career out of outdoor gardening!
When researching Persephone’s spring ascent I learned that she was perceived as the power of vegetation to burst forth in the spring and to die back in the fall. Persephone follows other more ancient chthonic agricultural deities who received the souls of the dead into the earth, and acquired power over the fertility of the soil over which she reigned. Some say that yellow crocuses sprung out of the earth at Persephone’s feet when she returned in the spring. Persephone was also described as the Great Goddess of all Nature and associated with water and springs. Others portrayed her as the seed of the fruits of trees and the grain of the fields and the former reminded me of the fruit that Persephone was depicted as carrying during the Mysteries – the pomegranate.
The earliest depiction of a goddess who may be identified with Persephone growing out of the ground is on a plate from the Old Palace period (actually these were court buildings) in Phaistos, Crete. Two girls dance between blossoming flowers on each side of a similar but armless and legless figure. Persephone is bordered by snake lines that give her a vegetable like appearance but are also similar to the snake tubes found in Minoan sanctuaries. She has a large stylized flower turned over on her head! That Persephone/Demeter/Eleusinian Mysteries continued a religious practice that began in Minoan Crete in 3500BCE with the worship of the Minoan Great Goddess seems quite probable because the two cultures overlapped. The Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated in Greece for almost 2000 years, not dying out until around 400BCE crushed by the advent of patriarchy.
I would also argue that Persephone was a snake goddess like her predecessor the Minoan Snake Goddess. Snakes are believed to embody the life force, rebirth, transformation, and the wisdom of Nature so it makes perfect sense that Persephone would have a serpent aspect to her. Anyone that has ever witnessed the spring phenomenon of hundreds of snakes slithering out of their underground home on a warm spring day might make the connection between snakes rising from the underworld and Persephone’s return just as I have. Persephone was abducted as a young girl but returned to the upper world as a Queen in her own right transformed into a Life-Death-Life goddess because she inhabited both realms – that of the living and the dead.
During the Lesser Mysteries the participants were taught about Persephone. These were also purification rites. Some Greek artwork shows initiates choosing to handle a serpent while Demeter looks back at Persephone which suggests to me that initiates had to choose Persephone in her serpent form before they could participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries in the autumn when they would experience her. At the culmination of these Greater Mysteries Persephone freed the participants from a fear of death though no one knows how because all participants had to take a vow of silence.
I don’t know if the snow around the house will melt enough this March so that the first spring blooms will appear during the “Month of the Mothers” but I will surely be on the look out. In pre-patriarchal goddess mythology the first mother’s day was March 25th; perhaps this year it will be the day I first peer down at the delicate cups of the spring crocus as they poke their heads and spiked green leaves out of the ground. When that day comes I plan to sing a little song of praise to Persephone welcoming her back…
For those folks in the southern hemisphere who are entering fall as we the northern climates enter spring I offer this next personal narrative.
Every Autumn I buy a smooth skinned crimson pomegranate to celebrate the Fall Equinox. But until this fall I have never intentionally bought a pomegranate to acknowledge the Persephone in me although her cyclic journeys to the underworld have also been my own. I have resisted my alignment with Persephone because I have come to fear my own descents. In the last few years these periods of depression have become more severe.
This September I turned 70 on the last day of the ancient celebration of Persephone’s Eleusinian Mysteries. Quietly I spoke out loud as I set my birthday intention. I am aligning myself with Persephone. I held a pomegranate in the open palm of my hand, thinking of the fruit as a symbol of my willingness to take this step. I also saw the beautiful round fruit as the Earth, imagining the ruby –like seeds imbedded in the soft white flesh as Earth’s possibilities. As I surrendered and finally accepted my mythic identity/alignment with Persephone, I experienced a subtle energy shift. I thought about the maiden goddess who becomes Queen of the Dead, and the one who makes predictable cyclic descents into the Underworld. As I breathed through my body I experienced a palpable sense of relief… I recalled the recent dream that informed me that the “Way of the Goddess” was my way, and that I had to choose her again. Not surprisingly within a few days I once again entered a state of profound depression during which time I suddenly remembered my first encounter with a pomegranate…
I must have been about five or six the night my father brought home the lush red fruit with its silky skin. He sliced the pomegranate in half.
I was transfixed by the sight of this fruit that was also full of seeds and entered some kind of non – ordinary state as I took half the pomegranate from my father’s hand and ate the first bitter-sweet ruby seed.
This memory of the two of us is so sharp and clear and ends so abruptly that I realize now that it was a mythic story that the child tapped into. I entered Persephone’s “field” for the first time as a young girl… This fall when I accepted my mythical alignment with Persephone I crossed her threshold as an adult, and with a lightening flash of insight understood the meaning behind my compelling childhood memory. When I took the pomegranate out of my father’s hand I accepted the fate that was mine to own albeit unconsciously. On an archetypal level the young child entered into a mythical contract with her father, a Hades figure. She took the fruit and ate the seeds insuring that she too would become an underworld figure. My identity as a Persephone was sealed by that encounter though it would take a life – time to live it and to unravel the threads.
To perceive Persephone as an archetype is to understand that a pattern of energy/information is attached to the figure. Archetypes work as attractor sites pulling a person into a particular alignment with an archetypal pattern or field. The nature of these fields is unknown but they work on the same principle as other known fields like the field of gravity. Archetypes are impersonal, they are patterns of energy that carry specific information and each one has a specific region of influence. Archetypal patterns often live through us without our knowledge but if we are sensitive to their energy charge we may have the feeling that we are living a more authentic life once we are pulled into a particular field because like attracts like. In this way of thinking as a child I already had personality traits and had been born into a specific field of influence that left me vulnerable to being drawn into a death field as a Persephone. I remember vividly how I reacted when I first read the myth; I was enthralled by all the characters and inexorably drawn into the story almost against my will. The character I was most reluctant to align myself with was Persephone. And that was more than twenty years ago. Last fall when I accepted Persephone in me it opened a mythic door to my most authentic self. What I didn’t realize then was that by accepting Persephone in me as the woman who made cyclic descents, I also gained access to the story of her joyous ascent in the spring.
A Brief Overview of the Myth of Demeter and Persephone:
The story begins with Persephone gathering flowers (saffron crocus or poppies) in a field one autumn with Demeter watching over her beloved daughter. Suddenly the earth splits in two and out of the chasm comes Hades who scoops up Persephone and in a flash descends back into the Underworld. Demeter searches frantically for her daughter and eventually meets Hecate, goddess of the crossroads who takes her to Helios. Helios the sun explains that Persephone has been chosen as the bride of Hades, who is King of the Underworld. Demeter is in such a fury that she causes the Earth to become barren. Eventually Persephone is released from the Underworld to appease Demeter’s wrath. In some early versions Hecate rescues Persephone. Demeter is overjoyed to be re-united with her daughter and the Earth once again becomes fertile. When Demeter learns that Persephone has eaten the seeds of the pomegranate she realizes that Persephone will have to return to the Underworld for a few months of every year because she accepted the seeds from Hades, who tricked her. During the months of the year when Persephone is once again Queen of the Underworld, the land becomes barren. Both Demeter and her daughter accept Persephone’s fate and in the fall of the year every five years the Eleusinian Mysteries are celebrated with Persephone leading the procession. The mysteries are secret so nothing is known of what transpired at Eleusis for almost 2000 years except that those that participated were freed from the fear of death.