In our traditional education of mythology, mostly found in English Lit class, mostly Greco-Roman in region and time period, certain insights and wisdoms have been lost. When we study goddesses in secondary roles, that is, roles where a supreme male god presides over lesser gods – think Zeus and Thor – the women’s stories and characters will always leave us wanting. These stories have been handed down to us through various incarnations. Many of the credible messages for women were discarded long ago.
Our main perception of goddesses from anywhere in the world nowadays gets funneled into two stereotypes; namely, virgin and mother. These goddesses are as safe and simple as fairy tales; indeed, one could argue it is through fairy tales and their childish fables that myths of the ancient fem are spoon fed into our culture.
By the same token, when we explore ancient goddess myth and play connect the dots with other neighboring or earlier civilizations, we find rich, complex messages that are much more satisfying to our psyches. For instance, Aphrodite, Hera and Demeter may offer more insight from their pre-Hellenic origins rather then after. Each had histories of preeminence in the agricultural societies that worshipped them. All demonstrated strengths beyond love, marriage and childbirth, including leadership, wisdom sharing and equality among men and women.
Why is goddess myth so important? What can we gleam from goddess myth that hasn’t been examined already? Case in point – Few people know the earliest stories of Demeter and Persephone contained no male characters. The whole shebang had to do with a daughter leaving her mother’s home to find her own life. This is a perfect message for the Empty Nester.
The Human Connection
The kidnapping of Persephone has become the central focus of the story, underscoring the powerlessness of a young girl and the negative response of her mother. When we look at the earliest record of this myth, however, a more human story emerges. Demeter says good-bye to her daughter who is ready to enter adulthood. Her journey is a step into the unknown by way of darkness in the underworld. Demeter faces her own emotional challenge and journeys in her own right by figuring out how to cope with the loss of her daughter, thus all life withers and winter begins. Certainly Persephone’s is the proverbial hero’s journey, a precursor to Christ’s decent into Hell and the old standby – a girl’s initiation into adulthood through menarche.
What distinguishes the female from the male version of the myth is the human element. The separation of mother and daughter is a milestone in every parent’s life. This ancient goddess myth, then, validates Demeter’s emotions and gives value to her role in the story. When her daughter returns in the spring, Demeter is reunited with Persephone. Spring Equinox demonstrates the literal and figurative rebirth of the characters, even though things will never be as they once were. Both women have survived, but they are changed. By telling this story in its human version, we honor the challenges of what mothers and their adult children face.
A Mother and a Daughter
In our society women and their daughters struggle. Mothers worry about their daughters growing up too soon and daughters yearn for freedom to be treated like they are older. It is argued that for thousands of years prior to the Golden Age of Greece, women wielded power as heads of financial institutions and spiritual leaders. The relationship between women might have been different. Our relationship with our children as they age can be different. The separation of mother and daughter in the Demeter myth, which yields the start of a new season, Autumn, shows the unfolding of the human drama, reminding us to let our children become adults. The steps along this path are sprinkled with the seeds of understanding.
The myth of Demeter and Persephone was celebrated for over two thousand years in an annual rite called the Thesmophoria. A woman centered ritual, participants walked a fourteen mile pilgrimage over three days, chanting, praying, fasting and acting out the perennial myth of Persephone’s journey. At the end of the trek, the congregants shouted, “She is risen, She is risen.” Sound familiar? A Mother/Daughter religion plays precursor to a Father/Son religion.