Sunday, October 21, 2007

Descent to Wisdom - Persephone Revisited

It came to pass that Hades, Lord of the Underworld, became aware of his sister Demeter’s daughter Persephone. As he watched the young maiden goddess, he was intrigued by her lightness in being, her youth, beauty and light. He, himself, as Lord of the Dead had no experience or understanding of such things.

He began to watch Persephone. He saw the love she shared with her mother, Demeter. He saw her heart swell at the beauty of flowers and the happiness that beauty and companionship gave her. He saw the innocence that being unaware of pain, sadness and death gave her.

Hades began to long to understand these things for himself. The more he watched Persephone, the greater the longing grew. In time, he came to know that watching Persephone would never give him the deeper understanding of light and joy he sought. He realized he would need more direct contact with Persephone to comprehend her gifts.

At last his longing grew so great that he rose from the Underworld to snatch Persephone from the meadow in which she was gathering blooms alone as a gift for her mother. Persephone was terrified, screaming and fighting him as he dragged her into the Underworld with him. As she had been alone, no one heard her cries; no one saw the maiden kidnapped and taken below.

In time, Demeter became aware of her daughter’s absence and began to search for her. She looked in the meadow; she looked in fields and forests. She asked the other Gods if they knew where Persephone was, but no one had seen; no one knew. Demeter roamed the earth, searching for her beloved daughter, to no avail. She disguised herself and went among mortals, ever seeking word of her missing daughter, but no one could tell her what had become of Persephone.

In the Underworld, Persephone begged and pleaded with Hades to return her to her mother. She was inconsolable at the loss of the companionship, love and joy she had left behind. Hades was shocked at this transformation from the lightness in being he had seen while watching Persephone from afar to this pain and sadness she now displayed. Being Lord of the Underworld, Hades did not have the skills of gentleness and compassion that would have helped him understand Persephone’s suffering. Instead, he tried to force her back to her previous joy. Failing that, he roughly sought to probe her being for the light he’d meant to understand. Hades suffered too, as his frustration grew and his longing for understanding went unsatisfied.

Demeter continued to search for her daughter. Becoming more angry and despairing, she finally caused all the fruits of the earth to stop bearing. Nothing would grow and winter settled everywhere, unrelenting. Being certain someone knew where her daughter was, in her desperation, Demeter used these tools to try to coerce information about Persephone from both gods and mortals. Though the gods tried to help her to end this permanent winter, still no one could tell her where Persephone was. Gods and mortals alike were suffering, but she vowed winter would not abate until Persephone was returned to her.

Hades was not alone in the Underworld. Hecate also dwelt there with him. She alone saw him kidnap Persephone. She alone knew both of Demeter’s searching and perpetual winter and the whereabouts of Persephone. Hecate knew that only she could end the suffering of Persephone, Demeter, Hades and all the other gods and mortals.

First Hecate went to Persephone. As she comforted the beautiful young goddess, she explained to her that Hades meant no harm, but only wanted to understand the lighter side of existence. She told Persephone that if she could give to Hades the understanding he sought, this would heal his confusion and longing and he would likely allow her to return to the world above and her mother.

Persephone’s time in the Underworld had given her awareness of pain, suffering and death which had led to her developing a great degree of compassion, so she went to Hades willingly. Now that she understood his intentions, she went in the hope of sharing her light with him and thus being returned to her mother. Hades received the gifts Persephone gave him happily and vowed to return her to Demeter in short order. He soon found, though, that when Persephone was not actually with him, his understanding began to fade. The longer she was outside of his presence, the more joy he lost.

Hecate had watched from afar and new Hades would not now willingly relinquish Persephone as he’d said. How could he, when those things he sought to understand faded when Persephone was no longer present? Hecate saw that the suffering of all would continue and knew she had to take further action herself to remedy the situation.

Demeter had continued her search for Persephone, to no avail. Finally, Hecate went to Demeter and told her what had happened and where Persephone was. Aghast, Demeter went to her brother and demanded the immediate release of her daughter. Hades refused, trying to explain that he needed Persephone with him so that he could know both life and death and the fullness of all things. Demeter was enraged and countered that there was no life without Persephone by her side. They argued back and forth, but neither would relent.

Demeter finally went to the other gods and insisted they force Hades to return her daughter. The gods were so relieved that an end to perpetual winter was in sight that they did indeed force Hades to capitulate. When Hades went to tell Persephone she was to return to the world above, she was filled with a joy so bright it lit up the Underworld. Yet by that light she could see Hades’ sadness at her leaving. Persephone had known innocence, joy and sunlight above and sadness, pain and suffering below. Experiencing both had developed in her a depth of compassion unequaled in any other god and so left her torn and unwilling for either her mother or Hades to suffer.

Hades could see Persephone was conflicted. He devised a plan by which neither he nor Demeter, nor Persephone herself, would experience undue pain. Explaining his plan, Persephone readily agreed. As she left to return to the world above and be reunited with her mother, she accepted three pomegranate seeds from Hades and ate them.

Demeter was so delirious with joy at being reunited with her daughter, that she caused all the plants of the earth to flower and bear fruit. Mother and daughter clung to each other in happiness, until a thought occurred to Demeter. She asked Persephone if she had eaten anything during her time in the Underworld. When Persephone replied, with pretended innocence, that she had, Demeter’s fury returned. She knew this meant Persephone would have to return to the Underworld. Hades had tricked her!

As fruits began to wither on the vine once again and flowers began to fade, Zeus himself proposed a compromise. Persephone would spend two-thirds of every year with her mother, and one third below with Hades. Demeter agreed, feeling she had gotten the best of the bargain. Hades and Persephone, whose plan this had been all along, also agreed and so it was settled. Persephone was to spend the part of the year called Winter, during which her mother once again made the earth barren, below with Hades. In Spring, when her mother allowed the flowering of the earth, she would return above to live with Demeter until the following winter.

Hecate had watched all of this from the shadows and approved. The arrangement allowed Demeter to demonstrate her power every year and remind both gods and mortals that she was not to be taken lightly. Hades was granted the ability to know both pain and joy which improved his ability to rule over the Underworld. To Persephone was given the greatest gifts of all. She alone had known both the light and darkness, joy and pain, of the world above and the world below. These experiences had given her that most precious and hard won blessing – wisdom. And so Persephone the Wise became Queen of the Underworld and rules beside Hades every Winter.

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