by Charlotte Dovey
Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of corn, or the harvest, a goddess much loved by humans. Persephone is the maiden of the spring, and as there can be no harvest without sowing seeds in the spring, she is integral to Demeter’s domain and purpose. Therefore, her loss would be devastating to Demeter, and there would be no harvest without her.
One day, after becoming entranced with her blooms, Hades carried Persephone away. Now Hades is not Death himself, but rather he is the god of the underworld, of death. This means that he does not kill but he does govern death, judge and manage its rules. He knows that there is no death without the creation of life. It is no small wonder that he decided that Persephone ought to be his wife.
Persephone was not pleased to go with Hades, at least at first. She wept because her purpose was to be with Demeter, to blossom into Demeter’s harvest. Demeter also wept with grief because she is barren without her child. When Persephone was whisked away, Demeter adopted a small boy, Demophoön, but as this child was not hers he could not replace Persephone. Without Persephone or spring seeds, Demeter would not, perhaps could not, yield the autumn harvest.
Zeus interceded and sent Hermes, the messenger, to reason with Hades. Hades saw the wisdom of releasing Persephone back to her mother, but he also knew that she belonged with him in the underworld, so he swore her to return; this oath involved swallowing a pomegranate seed, a symbol of binding marriage vows, that with them bring life (offspring, children), and after harvest (death), the promise of regenerated life, or further generations.
Demeter, too, had to succumb to reason: without sowing seeds to bring life forward there can be no life, and without the harvest we cannot collect the seeds to perpetuate life. Not only does life bring death, but death in turns brings more life. Therefore, Demeter permitted Hades to take her daughter away during harvest and return her to the human realm in the spring. Demeter’s sacrifice of death, then, gives the promise of renewed life to the living.
This idea is reflected not only in ancient Greek myth, but also in our understanding of sacrifice that is necessary for continuation, death (or completion) is necessary for life (continuance/rebirth). Walt Whitman reflected upon this in attempting to make sense of the senseless deaths of so many men during the American Civil War, and their children who survive them:
“A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he…
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.”Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself, 6
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