The Sweet Darkness of Autumn

mushroom in the shadows among the autumn leaves

The Origin of Autumn

From the ancient Greeks we get the myth of Demeter and Persephone. On a simplistic level, the tale explains why we have the seasons. In Homer’s version of the story, Zeus gives Persephone to Hades, who overpowers the maiden and drags her to his home in the underworld. Although the young goddess cries out, no one hears her except for two distant gods.

Only when the day is done and she expects her daughter home does Demeter realize the young woman is missing. The mother goddess looks all over for and asks everyone she sees about the young woman. No one knows where Persephone is. Demeter’s anguish overwhelms her. She can think only of finding her beloved child. In her anxiety and grief, she ignores her responsibilities as the goddess of wild plants, fruit, and grain, and crops die. As sadness turns to anger, she actively destroys anything the people might eat. This lasts a year, and the people are starving.

mushroom in the shadows among the autumn leaves

Finally, another goddess tells Demeter who took her daughter and why, and Demeter insists that Hades return her daughter to her. She tells Zeus that “she would never send up the harvest of the earth, until she saw with her own eyes her daughter, the one with the beautiful looks.” [1]

The Perseverance of Demeter

In the face of Demeter’s wrath, Zeus sends Hermes to Hades to have the young woman returned to her mother, but neither life nor myth are simple. When Hades learns that Zeus wants him to send Persephone back to Demeter, he obeys “the order of Zeus the King,” but at the same time, he smiles “with his brows,” which means he smiled craftily. [2] With his words, he said that Persephone might return to the upper world. His actions, however, were “stealthy.” He slipped Persephone “the honey-sweet berry of the pomegranate to eat,” and in this way entrapped her with him in the underworld. [3]

Was Persephone so innocent she didn’t know that anyone who eats while in Hades’ realm must stay there? Or did she feel coerced by him, which is what she later told her mother? Regardless of why, when Hades her Persephone the fruit, she chewed up and swallowed one, small pomegranate seed. But one was all it took. By rights, Hades could now keep the young woman with him in the underworld forever.

But he didn’t. We know that because fall and winter only last for part of the year, yielding their darkness to the spring and summer, so Persephone must have gone home sometime. Otherwise, we’d be living in a permanent ice age. What happened?

The gods forged a compromise. Because it was only one seed, or six seeds, depending on the version of the story you know, Persephone would be obligated to stay with Hades for four, or six, months of the year. The rest of the time, she spent with her mother.

An Alternate Version

According to Charlene Spretnak, in her article, “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone,” this was not the original version. In the days before violent invaders overwhelmed the female matriarchs, Persephone was an Earth goddess in her own right, who ruled the underworld herself. As a child, the goddess noticed the souls of the dead wandering around the countryside confused and depressed. Once she grew up, she decided she would help these souls transition to their new home under the ground, so she descended into the bowels of the Earth to start her life’s work.

Although she understood the need and honored Persephone’s calling, Demeter mourned whenever her daughter was away. In her grief, the trees withered and crops failed. Demeter isolated herself, the world grew cold, and the people went hungry. When Persephone returned to visit her mother, spring arrived and with it the bounty of summer. Thus the seasons turn.

While I appreciate this more gentle version of the myth, and while I have used it when I’m telling the story, it lacks the depth of darkness. The main darkness I see is Demeter’s depression. Shouldn’t a goddess be more responsible? Shouldn’t she care more about the people for whom she’s responsible? Yet this seems to be all we are shown of human depravity. Homer’s tale, on the other hand, forces to acknowledge our inner darkness.

The Profile of an Abuser

For instance, although Hades compromised with his fellow gods, he probably did so only because he had no choice. He wasn’t a particularly nice god. He threatened people, treated the dead badly, and cheated on Persephone after she became his wife. From what we know about Hades, he does not seem like someone whose compassionate heart would entice him to relent.

True, Greek gods in general are not known for their compassion, but it says something about a society’s culture when a god can steal a goddess, isolate her, and manipulate her so she cannot leave him, yet suffer no ill consequences. Doubtless, it happened regularly among humans, as well. Today, it still happens. Thirty percent of women and 25% of men in the United States reported being physically abused in 2010. Almost 50% of men and of women experienced psychological aggression that included verbal abuse and coercive control. [4]

We might not like stories that highlight our tendency to abuse one another, but those stories are real.

Indeed, Homer’s story gives us clues to Hades’ personality. When Hades got the message that Zeus wanted him to send Persephone home, Hades “smiled with his brows” and enticed or forced Persephone to do what she knew could only hurt her in the end. Persephone was fortunate to have a mother who cared enough, and believed in her enough, to find her and bring her home. Not every woman, or man, who is abused is believed. Many are cut off from family and friends, and they have no other place to go. An abuser will groom his victim, break her down with intimidation and humiliation, then control her with threats and promises. We don’t see all of this in Homer’s tale, but he gives us hints.

The Hope of a Feminist Persephone

Originally, I had planned to write this column about the rich, bracing beauty of the fall season. I wanted to explore our connection with the drizzle, the crisp air, the return of the clouds, the changing, drifting leaves. I wanted to look at how this wondrous season enrich us. Darkness is a fertile time, when we can reflect on life and love and hope and truth and mystery, and when our creativity can burst forth.

I was going to talk about how if I’m going to sustain my recovery, I need time to sit in the darkness, to befriend my inner self. I figure that’s probably true for you, as well. The seed starts growing under ground, where there is no light at all. In autumn, we remember of how important it is that we face the shadows in our own souls and in the souls of others. The willingness to face that darkness is part of the power of the patriarchal myth.

Spretnak’s version hearkens back to a time when we lived in matrilineal societies in which women ruled. I love how it shows the underworld as a nurturing place, generative, a world in which the dead learn and grow and live in peace together. I appreciate the strong women and kind men in her tale. She shows us a world we might inhabit some day, one in which women are strong, independent, respected, and in control of their destiny. Although not as exciting as the male myth, the feminist one it has its place, even if it doesn’t force us to ask hard questions such as, Is there something basically sinful about us that causes us to rape and pillage and disparage one another? Will we ever be able to change that?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I believe that if we refuse to admit our depravity, we will be doomed to act from that ugly, hurtful place within us.

A Nice Gloss

When I was a little girl, my mother read me the story of Demeter and Persephone from a book she herself had when she was young. In A Child’s Book of Myths, author Margaret Evans Price softens Hades’ behavior for us. She has Cupid strike him with an arrow, so the god falls desperately in love with Persephone and should not be judged as cruel or unkind, for Cupid’s magic could cause an ogre to fall in love with a basilisk.

Later, when Hermes comes to rescue Persephone, the young woman is not helpless. She bargains and demands, and because Hades loves her and wants her to be happy, he lets her go home for half the year.

Evans give the tale a nice gloss, with nothing in it to upset a young girl. Still, it has its own darkness, for Price excuses the god’s behavior. As in Homer’s tale, Hades is never punished for using force against another human being.

Facing Our Darkness

It’s not easy to see how the stories we tell reinforce acceptable gender roles and identities, how they glorify or excuse violence. We have to look. This means not only facing the darkness in others, but also facing it in ourselves. We all have elements of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades within us. Like them, we ignore the needs of those for whom we are responsible; we give up our power; we overwhelm and hurt others. To behave differently, however, we must notice that darkness resides in our soul.

Darkness is not all bad. The underworld can be a nurturing, enriching place, where seeds stir into life. It can also be frightening, a place where shades wander aimlessly, moaning, bickering, hopelessly seeking reconciliation. During this autumn season, perhaps we can turn inward, search our souls, and discover the truth of our darkness, the nurturing truth and the frightening truth.

By facing our shadow side, we disarm it. Recovery encourages us to be courageous in our honesty, so that when winter yields to spring, we are ready to burst forth renewed, like Persephone rejoicing in her return to the upper world and resting in her mother’s love. Darkness can be a time of regeneration. It can hold the seeds of hope, peace, and joy. I invite you to seek the shadows, for true recovery depends on it.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Photo Credit: by Siska Vrijburg from Unsplash

  1. “Homeric Hymn to Demeter” trans. Gregory Nagy,  lines 332-333.
  2. Ibid, lines 357-358.
  3. Ibid, line 373.
  4. Michele C. Black, Kathleen C. Basile, Matthew J. Breiding, Sharon G. Smith, Mikel L. Walters, Melissa T. Merrick, Jieru Chen and Mark R. Stevens, “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report,”National Center for Injury Prevention and ControlCenters for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, November 2011, 5http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf, 4-56.