Persephone's Underworld Journey: Reclaiming A Resurrection Narrative For Women
Long before Christian theologians formally articulated their faith experience as the holy trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, many Western cultures worshipped a Great Creatress in triple form: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Like the Christian trinity, this concept of Goddess speaks of the human need to understand the Divine as a relational being-- a deity that is essentially one but experienced and known through different hypostases , or metaphorical "persons" which relate not only to the believer but to themselves. Unlike the Christian trinity, however, the triple goddess functions as a symbol of the divine that reflects women's experience in a way that the Father-Son-Holy Spirit triad emphatically does not.
All namings of God can ultimately only be attempts to speak the ineffable, and the theological concepts of the Christian trinity and the triple goddess are two such attempts-- constructed by human beings at particular points in time to express a culture's understanding of divine presence in the world. However, this is not to minimize their potency as cultural forces. Seen in a religious context, metaphors and symbols are never innocuous entities but have a crucial and powerful function in the faith lives of the peoples who employ them-- for it is metaphors, symbols, and stories that provide the language and context for prayer, ritual and artistic representations of the divine. Metaphors and symbols actually evolve into a culture's language for that which separates the sacred from the profane.
Women in the Western world have been denied for many centuries of symbolism and language for the Divine that honor their own gendered reality . My purpose in rediscovering the triple goddess is to introduce a religious resource for women who desire sacred imagery and narrative that not only marginally includes them, but validates and celebrates their specifically feminine life experiences. The special beauty of the pagan trinitarian formula of Maiden-Mother-Crone goddess is that it emphatically refuses to spiritualize women's experience, but instead venerates women in their three biological life phases of pre-menstrual, fertile and menopausal, providing powerful and inspiring divine archetypes for women at each of these stages of life.
While the world's mythologies are ripe with triple goddess images (e.g. Triple Hera in Greece, Triple Brigid in Ireland, the three Shakti of Hindu tradition, etc. ), I have chosen the Greek mythos of Persephone-Demeter-Hekate as a particularly potent narrative not only in that it presages the resurrection mystery so central to the Christian religion, but also because it is so widely known to Western culture. Most women in the United States and Canada have heard some version or other of the myth and will recognize the characters and basic structure of the story whether or not they have considered the deeper implications of the archetypes contained therein.
The earliest recorded version of the myth of Persephone comes from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter dated from the seventh century B.C.E. ; well into the patriarchal era. According to this version, Persephone, maiden goddess and daughter of earth mother Demeter, is abducted by Hades, god of the Underworld, and forced to live there with him as his consort and queen. Only Hekate, the chthonic cave-dwelling goddess, knows of the kidnapping. It is Hekate who tells Demeter of Persephone's fate, nine days after the abduction event. In the myth, Hekate is an ambiguous figure, referred to as the goddess "who wore a delicate veil" (interestingly enough, the goddess Rhea, Demeter's mother and Persephone's grandmother, is also referred to as "Rhea, who wore a delicate veil."). Since Hekate appears in so many other Hellenic myths as the hag goddess-- mysterious guardian of crossroads and inhabitant of Hades who later becomes known as "Queen of the Witches," I treat her as the archetypal Crone in this narrative as well.
To continue the narrative: the goddess Demeter, mourning and enraged over the capture of her daughter, allows everything on earth to die. In her grief, she appeals to several of the male gods to help her gain Persephone's release from Hades. The gods comply and Persephone finally emerges from the Underworld, her passage lit by Hekate's torch. The now-mature Maiden rejoins her goddess mother, who again blesses the earth with fertility and abundance.
However, since Persephone has eaten a seed of the pomegranate (fruit of the Underworld), she is forced by cosmic law to return to the Underworld for a third portion of each year. This, as tellers of the story often conclude, explains the vegetative cycle of the seasons: while Persephone dwells in the Underworld, Demeter decrees that nothing on earth can thrive. Only the return of Persephone to the light-filled world occasions the growth of crops. If we accept this interpretation as satisfactory, we miss the very rich meanings that can be gleaned from this story for women's spiritual emancipation.
I suggest that we retrieve the myth of Persephone as nothing less than a resurrection narrative for women. Focusing for the moment on the character of Persephone alone, we can trace the feminist trajectory of the tale as follows: maiden goes into The Underworld/Death, maiden becomes initiated into the mysteries of darkness and Death/The Underworld, maiden emerges fully divine from the Underworld, and the cycle continues.
I am intrigued by the work of women scholars such as Charlene Spretnak and Clarissa Pinkola Estès who suggest that there was very likely an earlier, pre-patriarchal version of this myth in which Persephone chooses of her own volition to enter the Underworld rather than being abducted by Hades. 1 This important and fascinating claim certainly endorses a feminist retrieval of this story and allows for an analysis of the triple goddess archetype as it functions independently of patriarchal overlay.
Whichever way we consider the Underworld journey, then-- undertaken either as a result of abduction or of personal choice-- the tale can resonate and serve a healing function for women who have either ventured of their own accord to the deepest recesses of their own consciousness or to the darkest realm of society, or who have been traumatically transported to that condition through acts of violence or abuse condoned by patriarchy.
In the figure of Persephone, women have a suffering and resurrected goddess who parallels the Christ, another innocent divine child who endures the Underworld before a resurrection miracle. And just as Christ's death on the cross is believed by Christians to redeem the human family, so does Persephone in her story function as savior-- for while Persephone dwells in the land of Death, mortals starve. Only when Persephone emerges does Mother-Goddess Demeter bless the fields again. On the spiritual level, Persephone symbolizes woman's internal resources and strength and speaks to the redemptive power of women's solidarity.
In comparing the figures of Jesus Christ and Persephone, I am not proposing a simplistic similarity between them, but rather attempting to show how they both operate in the psyche as avatars of resurrection. The correspondences between Father-Son-Holy Spirit and Maiden-Mother-Crone can be woven in any number of creative ways.
While we are left to wonder about the presence of Father God in the Christian story (we need only remember Christ's cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46] ) Mother Demeter operates in the Persephone myth as a conspicuous defender of her daughter, raging and railing against the injustice perpetrated by Hades. From our human perspective this divine child-parent relationship is touchingly intimate and eminently more comprehensible than the absent divine parent modeled in the gospel account of Christ's Passion. The goddess Demeter functions in her tale as an archetype of fierce motherhood who intervenes in her child's somber circumstance. Far from being the passive, pathologically accepting mother figure central to the Christian tradition, this mother is an indefatigable advocate to her suffering daughter.
Hekate is as ambiguous a presence in the Persephone myth as the Holy Spirit is in the Christian mystery. However, to cautiously introduce a parallel, Hekate can be considered similar to the Holy Spirit in that she travels freely between the earthly and subterranean realms and serves as a mediator between the two. Hekate and the Holy Spirit can also share the epithet of "Wisdom" in their respective contexts, for both bestow grace to the divine children in their stories. However, it is most realistic to consider Hekate as a unique hypostasis in the Persephone myth, one without direct correlation in the Christian trinity.
It is not insignificant that, from her vantage point in her cave Hekate does not actually see Persephone's abduction but only hears the sounds of the struggle. She is therefore not a witness in our visual terms, but in the psychic sense. Without actually seeing anything, Hekate knows what has happened. Her witness comes from wisdom and experience. As Crone goddess of the crossroads, Hekate is an archetype for the woman who has survived her own Underworld experience and who possesses gnosis , or sacred knowledge.
Accompanied in classical iconography by her hounds of hell, Hekate is the "veiled one," represented symbolically by the dark moon phase, when meaning remains shrouded. Although she cannot save the maiden from entering the Underworld, she brings torches to illuminate the search for Persephone and appears again at the reunion of mother and daughter: "Then to them came Hekate, who wears a delicate veil and she also caressed the daughter of holy Demeter and from that time on, lady Hekate was the servant and companion of Persephone." 2 Ultimately, the trinity of maiden, mother and crone are joined in eternal solidarity and become One. Using the trinity of Persephone, Demeter and Hekate as a spiritual model, women can reconsider the value of the Underworld journey and begin to examine the mysteries of death and resurrection in female terms.
How might we revision the Underworld journey as a valuable experience for women? I am not condoning the idea that women must endure actual physical suffering of any kind in order to achieve maturity. Rather, I am attempting to expunge the traditional view of Persephone as symbol of female victimization and propose we reconsider her as an avatar of women's powers of resurrection.
When we choose to experience the Underworld as Persephone's dominion, it presents us an opportunity to safely confront the realities of sexism, domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse and the rampant objectification of women's bodies. Using the triad of Persephone-Demeter-Hekate as spiritual resources, we are encouraged to express our own primordial rage and to feel the appropriate revulsion toward cultures that trivialize women's innate power and deny her freedom and authority while belittling female solidarity. Spending a season in the Underworld teaches us how to eventually transform our collective fury into productive energy. When sheltered by the protective darkness of the Underworld and blessed by the triple goddess, women can freely explore their own wildness, their unbridled sexuality and bawdy humor and confront and claim the sacred aspects of Womanhood that have nothing to do with being pretty, obedient, nice, polite, nurturing, light-filled, helpful, cheerful or reverent.
Those of us who have been initiated into the Underworld at any age have served as high priestesses of the Darkness and have earned the freedom to travel at will from the light to the dark. If we choose, we can go back there to support our spiritual sisters as they learn the ways of the Dark without having to endure our own painful initiation again.
Unlike the Easter observance, which proclaims Christ's triumph over death, the central salvific message of the Persephone story proposes death as a mysterious continuation of life's journey rather than the ultimate termination of existence. The integration of life and death is a special wisdom that women own in their very bodies, which experience blood and pain as productive and life-giving, not solely the unhappy results of accidents or the intentional results of violence and war-making. All women inherently know that one must travel to the Underworld in order to bring forth new life, literally or in the creative sense. It is woman's birthright, then, to possess the ability to visit the realms of life and death with equal grace, and to know our intrinsic ability to thrive in both realms.
1 see Clarissa Pinkola Estès, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Ballantine Books, New York, 1992, p. 412-13. See also Charlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths, Beacon Press, Boston, 1984.
2 Translation by Danny Staples in The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysteries, Albert Hoffman, Carl A.P. Ruck, and R. Gordon Wasson, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Inc. New York, 1978.
While the Christian narrative features a divine Son who experiences death and resurrection, the ancient Greek myth of Persephone offers a resurrection mystery of a divine Maiden Daughter. This paper explores the myth of Persephone as a resurrection narrative for women and suggests a comparison between the Christian trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and the triple goddess (Maiden, Mother, Crone).
Victoria Weinstein is in her third and final year of the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A former high school English teacher and musical comedy actress, she is preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and hopes to combine a career in ministry, teaching, and writing.
Miss Weinstein delivered a version of this paper called "Blessings of the Crone: A Comparative Analysis of the Triple Goddess and the Trinity" at the Conference on Female Spirituality.