Don't Blame Persephone

Posted on 9.16.2014 by George Emlen

Don't Blame Persephone - Have a Moon Cake and Sing

greek_goddess_200.jpgIt is fascinating to reflect on the way the ancient Greeks saw the passing of summer and the onset of fall. In the well-known myth, the goddess Persephone is abducted by Hades to live with him in the underworld, where he is king. But her mother Demeter, queen of the harvest, is furious with her husband Zeus for conspiring in this scheme and retaliates by refusing to allow anything to grow. They strike a bargain: Persephone will spend half the year on earth, assuring that life will regenerate each spring, and then return to the underworld for the colder and darker six months.

An intriguing twist in this story is that Demeter almost succeeds in bringing her daughter back full time, except that Persephone is tricked by Hades into tasting some pomegranate seeds. Since anyone eating or drinking in the underworld is forbidden to leave, this is a pivotal moment. It's tempting to think we could have avoided this whole winter thing if Persephone had resisted the offer. But it turns out that Persephone, in some versions of the myth, actually was enjoying being queen of the underworld and knew perfectly well what she was doing when she took the seeds. In this more nuanced telling, the myth embodies our own ambiguity about the transition into the darker months – not a time to be dreaded so much as a season to be celebrated for its own qualities. We turn inward, hunker down and draw together as the earth sleeps.

In this secular age we see this moment as a purely astronomical event, in which the 23.5º tilt of the earth's axis presents a constantly changing face to the sun. At the equinoxes the sun's light and warmth fall directly on the equator, resulting in days and nights of equal length for both southern and northern hemispheres. It would be a big stretch to blame Persephone for all this celestial activity.

Yet, as we make our personal transitions from the brightness of summer into the bittersweet cool of fall it might be helpful for us to keep in mind her fateful decision and embrace the new season with joy. Indeed autumnal celebrations around the world abound. The Druids used to burn a giant wicker man that embodied the spirit of vegetation. The Chinese eat mooncakes filled with lotus, sesame seeds, dried fruit or a duck egg. Closer to home, we at Revels bring together a couple of thousand like-minded souls in a festival of community singing, life-size puppets, a boisterous percussion ensemble and giant electric butterflies as the sun sets on the Charles River. As long as we have to say good-bye to Persephone for another winter, what better way than to give her a royal send-off, wishing her safe passage and a speedy return next March?


George W. Emlen