Lessons from Persephone, the Goddess of the Underworld Call


Lessons from Persephone, the Goddess of the Underworld Call


While the common retelling of Persephone’s story may seem heartbreaking, a deeper, more powerful truth lies within.

In the classical Greek myth “The Rape of Persephone,” Persephone, the daughter of the agriculture goddess Demeter, is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter grieves Persephone so bitterly that the world stops producing food, and winter falls. In order to bring abundance back into the world, Persephone is returned to her mother, but because Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds while she was in the underworld, it is decided that she must stay in the underworld for six months each year, causing the cycling grief of her mother to bring on winter once a year.

The Hidden Story of Ancient Goddesses

Many of the classical Greek tales are hard on women. Women in these myths are raped, abducted, lamenting, or unable to change their fates. But there is a fair amount of archeological evidence that there are older, deeper stories hidden within the ones most commonly known today. Goddesses have clearly been worshiped all over the world from the earliest iterations of human settlement.

Demeter was likely one of the pre-Hellenic goddesses who was worshiped before the northern Zeus worshipers arrived. “The Rape of Persephone,” as well as many other Greek myths we know today, may actually tell the story of this conflict: The masculine invaders work to subdue indigenous feminine spirituality, leading to uneasy alliances and unhappy marriages in myth.

The Dark and Light Aspects of the Mother Goddess

In her book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Charlene Spretnak imagines another version of the Persephone tale, omitting Persephone’s abduction. In this version of the story, Persephone and Demeter work happily to maintain the abundance of the earth. Persephone loves her life with her mother. She plants seeds in the dark earth and whispers to them, encouraging them to grow. In this version of the myth, Demeter was a goddess of both the surface world and the underworld.

However, Demeter works and lives in the surface world. She needs to tend the growing wheat and corn for humans to eat. Persephone feels a strong draw to the underworld and decides that she needs to leave her mother and descend into this mysterious place. While her mother understands this, it causes such bitter grief and loss that Demeter would stop tending the earth while her daughter was gone, calling the earth into barren winter.

But in her journeying, Persephone discovers that she has a special talent for nurturing newly dead souls; that she loves to invite the dead into her realm and teach them her ways, whispering to them as tenderly as she would to the newly planted seeds. So it was that Persephone spent half the year, in the spring and summer, in the surface world with her mother, and half the year in the underworld tending to new souls, expressing the dark aspect of her mother’s goddess identity.

The Delicate Balance of Life and Death

One of Demeter’s names is Demeter Chthonia, with an epithet that refers to the underworld. Demeter’s grain could only grow into the light having started in the mysterious dark. The dead were once called Demetreoi, Demeter’s people. From this perspective, above and below are not so separate from each other as we think of them now.

Many ancient goddesses presided over both life and death, light and dark, love and war. There is some evidence that the idea that light is good and dark is bad originated from those northern invaders who suppressed earlier goddess religions over centuries beginning around 2000 BCE. (For more on this, see Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman.) Before that time, humans did not see light as good and dark as bad. It was all a part of the same cycle of life.

From this perspective, Demeter and Persephone may represent two aspects of the same goddess figure. Death, as we learn each winter, is necessary for the rebirth of life, which we witness each spring. The cycling of the natural world is a part of the natural order of things that these goddesses knew long before the Zeus worshipers inserted themselves into these stories.

The Transformative Power of the Underworld Call

When we consider this myth not as a story of rape and abduction but as a tale of the deep desire to understand the darker side of life, we can relate to Persephone and her need to know. Whether we like it or not, we all visit the underworld from time to time. We go through periods of grief and loss; we change, we grow, and we learn from difficult circumstances.

While we’d probably all rather frolic in the warm sunshine with Demeter, there is a lot of value in the cold, dark depths of the underworld, too. Without it, we could not learn our resilience. We could not let go of what no longer serves us. We could not find out who we are when we are faced with challenges.

These dark qualities are a part of us all and not something we need to fear. Like Persephone, we all hear a call to the underworld from time to time, and we may not be able to ignore the call. When we accept the teachings of the underworld, we can learn all about how death can teach us to live cyclically, knowing life will always, eventually, return us to the light.

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Lessons from Persephone the Goddess of the Underworld Call

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