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A serious study of myth can be a maddening thing, especially when it comes to making sense of the variant threads in the ancient tales that have been passed down to us concerning the Goddess Kore-Persephone. I have seen a fair number of people express bewildered frustration over their inability to reconcile the standard Homeric sequence of events with what we find alluded to in the poetry of Orpheus. They assert that in the famous Hymn to Demeter that provides the mythological basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Persephone is an innocent young maiden out picking flowers with her girlhood companions when Haides, the lord of the dead, carries her off to his shadowy realm. She is such an innocent that she seems to have no independent personality of her own. Her whole life up to that point has been as the satellite of her mother and she lacks any kind of distinctive name, being called simply Kore or The Girl. It is only once she makes the willful decision to accept the seeds that Haides offers her – pomegranate seeds, mind you, the fruit of marriage sacred to Hera – that she begins to develop something like a personality of her own, reflected in the change of her name to Persephone. Therefore, reductionists argue, there is no room for the Orphic “prehistory” of this Goddess and thus it is best viewed as a late and artificial intrusion, interesting perhaps for its implications but not to be regarded with the same weight of authority that the Homeric-Eleusinian myth possesses.
I am not so certain of that. While it is true that we must wait until the Neoplatonic philosophers and Christian apologists to get a full and cohesive narration of the myth of Zagreus – and even then there is a great deal of contradiction in our sources – authors as far back as Herodotos, Plato, Pindar and even a few Presocratic philosophers betray a general awareness of the myth and reference many of its most important details. Furthermore, there is no inherent contradiction in the sequence of events if we read it with a certain sensitivity.
The Orphic account can be summarized in the following way: long before Kore was out gathering flowers with the Nymphs her mother kept her secluded from the world in a cave where she spent all of her time weaving a grand tapestry containing all of the wonderful things she longed to see. One day her father Zeus came to her disguised as a great serpent and he seduced her. From their unspeakable union sprang the bull-horned child Zagreus who was later torn apart by the Titans at the instigation of the jealous Goddess Hera. Kore was greatly angered on account of the sorrowful things she suffered and was appeased only through mystic rites called orgies after her orge or wrath.
One of the reasons why I find it plausible to place this myth chronologically before the other is because it tallies with the experiences of many who have suffered rape and incest. Often they retreat in upon themselves, creating a simplified and artificial personality which they present to the world. They lose interest in many of the activities that excited them previously, disassociate themselves from anything sexual or adult and surround themselves only with innocent, unchallenging and playful companions. This is precisely the situation we find Kore in prior to her encounter with Haides – indeed her picking flowers could even be read as a desire to regain the lost beauty of her innocence.
If we accept this interpretation of the story then it casts Haides’ actions in an interesting new light. Because while he unquestionably abducts her forcefully she does not respond to him as a rapist. She accepts his proposal of marriage and takes her rightful place at his side as queen of those beneath the earth. Indeed when Theseus and his companion later come to liberate the Goddess and return her to the sunlit world above, she makes it abundantly clear that she’s happy where she is and punishes them for their impudence. Though we are given precious few details of what transpired between the abduction and the offer of pomegranate seeds we can guess at his treatment of her by the fact that she willingly accepted those seeds and all that they represented. Indeed Haides seems to show nothing but gentle affection and respect for his bride in that he first went to ask her father for her hand in marriage and unlike his Olympian counterpart he engaged in no extramarital dalliances. Aside from Persephone Haides is romantically linked only with the Nymph Minthe and that was well before he was wed. Such fidelity is truly extraordinary among our Gods and speaks highly of Haides’ feelings for his wife. Likewise Persephone took no lovers, though she was briefly enamored of the child Adonis – perhaps because he reminded her of all she had lost, her innocence as well as her own son who is so often compared to the Syrian Godling.
Therefore in a strange way Haides’ rape of Kore may have been liberating and healing by taking her out of surroundings that were a constant reminder of her past trauma and into a strange new realm where she could find her own bearings and craft an identity for herself on her own terms. Her controlling, worrisome mother may have served to keep her trapped in the limited and powerless role of victim despite her best intentions to care for and safeguard her daughter. Only when all of the bonds were broken, everything dear and familiar to her had been stripped away could she begin the journey into transformative wholeness. And that could happen only in a place of fertile darkness where the souls of the deceased come to be nourished after the anguish of life on earth. Haides their lord is a quiet, aloof and solemn divinity, a far cry from the intensely emotional and smothering embrace of Kore’s mother. Perhaps in the solitary and still darkness the Goddess was finally able to sit with her grief, to let it out and no longer have to pretend that she was the happy, playful, flower-loving child any longer. Once her tears and rage had passed she was able to see what was left – and what was left was Persephone.
Thus I accept the Orphic chronology because it enhances one’s interpretation of the rest of the myth and brings out nuances in the characters of the Gods involved. It is also the only place that makes any sense, since it couldn’t have transpired after Haides’ abduction of her as that would have surely introduced an enmity between the brothers which we can find no trace of in our sources. So either it happened then, in some pocket alternate reality or timeline or else we must discard it altogether. And I am unwilling to accept this final option since Dionysos and Persephone so clearly have close ties. Not only can we bring in all of the evidence of their joint cults and the strong chthonic traits that Dionysos possesses – but there is even a familial resemblance when you examine their personalities and functions. If Persephone isn’t Dionysos’ other mother then I can think of no way to account for all of this. Therefore I feel it best to accept the testimony of Orpheus whose divinely given wisdom and musical skill are without rival.
A proper woman should have no interests outside the home. Her whole life is defined by her relationships to others. As a child she is to be chaste and obedient to her parents, dutifully performing her chores and learning the skills she’ll need to be a good wife and mother. After marriage she is to be an efficient caretaker of the home, keeping it neat and orderly, having the food ready when her man returns after a tough day at work, being supportive and attentive to all his needs. One of the most important of the man’s needs, of course, is offspring and should she happen to prove infertile she will be seen by all as a failure and only half a woman. When the children come it will largely be the woman’s responsibility to raise them, teach them, nurture and care for them. And she is to be content with all this and only this. Women who want more, who crave a different sort of fulfillment, who think that they have something other than their wombs to offer society are treated with scorn and distrust since they are encroaching on the territory of men and threatening to unravel the very fabric of society. Grudgingly they may be accepted if they forsake their own femininity. It’s possible, after all, for a woman to compete in the world of men if she is willing to make herself into a counterfeit man but a woman who wants to be both worker and mother – that is an extreme aberration of nature. Who will care for the children while she’s away, even if those children are in school during the hours of her absence? How can she give her full attention to the job when her thoughts so frequently drift back to the home she’s left empty, the chores she’s left neglected? Won’t there be conflict between her and her husband whom she’s rendered impotent by emphasizing in inability to properly provide for his family?
These notions may strike some as absurdly comical and antiquated today since we’ve made so much social progress and most households cannot function on a single income anyway, yet working women are still under great pressure and constantly bombarded with harmful messages like these. Often their most vocal critics claim a religious basis for their condemnation. Christianity in particular has long had an antagonistic relationship with women. The Bible is full of disgustingly misogynistic passages and admonishes women to remain in the home and keep silent in the church, relying on their husbands for proper instruction. Though women were among the first converts to the new faith they were limited to supportive roles, caring for the apostles and making financial contributions to the cause. They couldn’t preach, they couldn’t hold positions of authority and they couldn’t dispense the sacraments. When some movements within the early church like the Montanists attempted to deviate from this pattern they were condemned and persecuted. The only exception to this were Virgins, Nuns and Martyrs – but to gain any sort of acceptance they had to renounce everything that made them women. Once the Christians gained sufficient power in Rome they waged war on uppity Pagan women like Hypatia of Alexandria:
“And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles…A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate…and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her…they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her…through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire.” (John of Nikiu, Chronicle 84.87-103)
Sadly this was just the beginning of Christianity’s war against women. I hardly need detail the atrocious legislation, pogroms, inquisitions and witch-trials that have taken placed over the last thousand years and more, nor do I have to chronicle how this campaign is still going on in the church and many Western societies today. All you need do is turn on the nightly news to see renewed attempts to repeal women’s hard-won rights and curtail their basic human freedoms.
In stark contrast to this stands the Pagan religions which honor the divine feminine, value women’s contributions and even grant them positions of power and authority. There are whole Pagan sects open only to women or which grant leadership roles to women alone – though I tend to think such groups are just as unhealthy and unbalanced as Christianity. Hellenic Polytheism has always struck me as far more sensible in this regard. The position of women in Classical Greek society may not have been ideal – though things did improve significantly during the Hellenistic era – in the realm of religion they had an equal footing with men, as Euripides (Melanippe Captive Fr. 13) attests:
“Men’s criticism of women is worthless twanging of a bowstring and evil talk. Women are better than men, as I will show …. Women run households and protect within their homes what has been carried across the sea, and without a woman no home is clean or prosperous. Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part, because women prophesy the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos. And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rites of the Fates and the Nameless Goddesses, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women’s hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the Gods. Why is it then, that women must have a bad reputation? Won’t men’s worthless criticism stop, and men who insist on blaming all women alike, if one woman turns out to be evil? Let me make the following distinctions: there is nothing worse than a bad woman, and nothing better in any way than a good one.”
Indeed, a significant portion of the divine realm that the Greeks honored was female and served by female priests. One of the most important of those female divinities was the Goddess Artemis, who I think has a valuable message for the working women of today. She affirms that it is possible to be independent, powerful, driven to succeed – and yet also nurturing, protective and concerned with raising the young.
Artemis is one of the three Parthenoi or Virgin Goddesses of the Greek pantheon, belonging to no man and undefined by their relationships with others. As a child Artemis asks her father the king of the Gods to grant her this independent status for all time:
“One Artemis was sitting upon her father’s lap while still a maid and she spoke these words to Zeus, ‘Grant me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever and [many other requests]’ … And her father smiled and bowed assent. And as he caressed her, he said: ‘When Goddesses bear me children like this, little need I heed the wrath of jealous Hera. Take, child, all that thou askest, heartily.’” (Kallimakhos, Hymn 3 to Artemis)
She did this so that she could pursue her own interests – hunting, athletics, spending time in the wild with the animals. The lovely 27th Homeric Hymn invokes her in this form:
“Over the shadowy hills and windy peaks she draws her golden bow, rejoicing in the chase, and sends out grievous shafts. The tops of the high mountains tremble and the tangled wood echoes awesomely with the outcry of beasts: earth quakes and the sea also where fishes shoal. But the Goddess with a bold heart turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, then the huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow.”
She called to herself bands of young women who were similarly fierce in their independence:
“Atalante slept on the skins of animals caught in the hunt, she lived on their meat and drank water. She wore simple clothes, in a style that did not fall short of Artemis’ example; she claimed the Goddess as her model since wished to remain a virgin. She was very fleet of foot, and no wild animal or man with designs on her could have escaped her.” (Aelian, Historical Miscellany 13. 1)
That does not mean, however, that Artemis felt contempt for men and the more traditional roles of women. Indeed she is very much involved in the human lifecycle. First she is protector of pregnant women:
“We pray that other guardians be always renewed, and that Artemis watch over the woman with child.” (Aiskhylos, Suppliant Women 674)
She was also the Goddess whom women called upon to aid in their delivery:
“Labour pains are thy peculiar care. In thee, when stretched upon the bed of grief, the sex, as in a mirror, view relief. Guard of the race, endued with gentle mind, to helpless youth benevolent and kind; benignant nourisher; great nature’s key belongs to no divinity but thee. Thou dwellest with all immanifest to sight, and solemn festivals are thy delight. Thine is the task to loose the virgin’s zone and thou in every work art seen and known. With births you sympathise, though pleased to see the numerous offspring of fertility. When racked with labour pangs, and sore distressed the sex invoke thee, as the soul’s sure rest; for thou Eileithyia alone canst give relief to pain, which art attempts to ease, but tries in vain. Artemis Eileithyia, venerable power, who bringest relief in labour’s dreadful hour; hear, Prothyraia and make the infant race thy constant care.” (Orphic Hymn 2 to Artemis Prothyraia)
“Sokrates : Take into consideration the whole business of the midwives . . . For you know, I suppose, that no one of them attends other women while she is still capable of conceiving and bearing but only those do so who have become too old to bear . . . They say the cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless Goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself . . . Is it not, then, also likely and even necessary, that midwives should know better than anyone else who are pregnant and who are not? . . . And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.” (Plato, Theaetetus 149b-d)
In fact, one of her first actions was to assist at the birth of her twin:
“I, Artemis, will visit the cities of men only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid – even in the hour when I was born the Moirai (Fates) ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body.” (Kallimakhos, Hymn 3 to Artemis)
Nor did her concern end at birth. Artemis was honored with the title Kourotrophos which means “Nurturer of young” and she was asked to watch over children, granting them strength and health. She is especially involved in the maturation of young girls who served her as “little bears” at Athens:
“Girls playing the bear used to celebrate a festival for Artemis dressed in saffron robes; not older than 10 years nor less than 5 … the Athenians decreed that no virgin might be given in marriage to a man if she hadn’t previously played the bear for the Goddess.” (Suidas s.v. Arktos e Brauroniois)
And Artemis was one of the Goddesses invoked during marriage:
“Virgins about to have sex dedicated their virginal lingerie to Artemis.” (Suidas s.v. Lysizonos gune)
Artemis, then, is a very good Goddess for the working women of today to honor. She shows that you can, indeed, have it all – the bonds of family and independence, a fulfilling job and interests outside the home as well as being a loving partner and a nurturing mother. It may not be easy and often requires sacrifice, but that’s true of anything of value in life. And Artemis will help those who honor her for she a powerful and gracious Goddess.
Hera is so much more than just the Goddess of marriage, though that is perhaps the most profound expression of her powers and nature. The true key to understanding who she is is change, growth and transformation. Hera is a catalyst, an outside force which sets things in motion, which nurtures growth and the transition from one state to another.
Her very name itself is said to be connected etymologically with the Horai or Seasons, in whose company she is frequently depicted. She is the embodiment of this seasonal change: the Argives said that each spring, Hera would bathe in the river Kanathos to regain her virginity, and at Stamphylos she was gifted with the names Pais, Teleia, and Chera, representing the lifecycle of the human female. Yet it is significant that one step is left out – mother.
And that is because she is not a manifestation of the nurturing, fruitful earth out of which all material substance arises and to which it must inevitably return. No, Hera is the force that acts upon that substance, which causes the lilies to bloom, young girls to grow into women, cows to give birth in the proper season. But none of these happen within her, from her, but rather she is the force that acts upon them from outside, like a potter shaping clay at his wheel, or a maiden plaiting a garland of flowers she intends to offer on Hera’s altar at her marriage.
And in the lives of most women in antiquity, this was the single biggest transition that they would make, for without it, they could not become women. In ancient Greek, the word for bride and woman is the same. So, in that sense, Hera watches over them as they transition into fullness, as they pass from girlhood into womanhood, like Artemis, with whom she shared the epithet Kourotrophos.
Similarly, marriage itself is transition, bringing two separate lives, two separate families and households together into one – thus Hera was also called Zygia, the “Uniter”. This requires constant change as one alters everything about their lives: how they act, how they eat, how they sleep, new responsibilities, when and where they may come and go, who they may associate with, and how they may associate with them. Marriage is never a static thing, and two people can spend a lifetime getting to know each other and becoming comfortable with the person who emerges.
Also, this role applies to the role of heroes, whose name also has been linked with that of Hera. Consider the greatest hero known to the Greek world, Herakles, whose name means either “glory of Hera” or “one made famous through Hera”. And indeed that was the case, because at every step of the road Hera was there, driving him on, throwing obstacles in his path, challenging him, forcing him to become stronger, wiser, and more courageous – or else to become destroyed by the Goddess, like an impure piece of metal bursting under the pressure and fire of the forge.
But Herakles was worthy of the challenge, and at the end of his trials, ascended to Olympos and was met by Hera who gave him her daughter Hebe as his immortal bride. We see this too in her interactions with Dionysos – who is the force of life upon which Hera acts.
And that action, when experienced personally, and especially by those who are resistant to the process, may seem like persecution, madness, suffering – but it is really transformation and growth into fullness, a testing of the will. And those who come out the other end, pure and full, are truly worthy of being called Teleia and Hero.