Working with Persephone as a Bipolar Trauma Survivor

Working with Persephone as a Bipolar Trauma Survivor

Persephone has always been my favorite goddxss.

I was first introduced to her in my seventh grade English class. The teacher presented the myth as your typical origin story (the “reason for the seasons,” if you will) but I immediately sensed there was more to her tale than that – twelve year old baby Pagan/aspiring Goth me was completely transfixed by how a young womxn could be both a jubilant goddxss of spring and queen of the dead – and I suspected that there had to be more to the story than Hades dragging a scared little girl down to the depths of the underworld and force-feeding her pomegranate seeds in order to bind her to him forever. Naturally, I began scouring the Internet and local library for as much information about her as I could find. It turns out I was…sort of right.

The oldest surviving source for the myth of Hades abducting Persephone in his chariot and forcing her to become his wife is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (c. 500s BCE). The translation of lines 30-32 by Gregory Nagy from Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies reads:

“She was being taken, against her will, at the behest of Zeus,
By her father’s brother, the one who makes many semata, the one who receives many guests,
the son of Kronos, the one with many names. On the chariot drawn by immortal horses.”

This account is corroborated in other contemporary Greek and Latin texts. There is also an alternative version of Persephone’s abduction described in Hesiod’s Theogony from a century or two before the Homeric Hymn in which Hades, with permission from Zeus, abducts Persephone from Demeter as a baby, presumably to safeguard his intended bride until she comes of age:

“Next Zeus went to the bed of Demeter who nourishes many,
Who gave birth to Persephone who had white arms and who Hades
Snatched from her mother; but Zeus in his wisdom gave her to Hades.”
(Translation by Daryl Hines, 2005.)

At first glance, these renditions of the myth seem to solidify the image of Hades as a cruel predator and Persephone a passive victim who had no choice but to submit to her husband and become Queen of the Underworld, and paints modern readings of Persephone as an empowered feminist figure as mere revisionist literature. However, there are some elements that are being overlooked. It’s important to keep in mind that these accounts were written in classical Greece, a deeply patriarchal culture where the thoughts, opinions and activities of womxn were rarely, if ever, seen as significant and worthy of putting on paper. It should also be noted that bridenapping – the process of a man, often of a lower social status, kidnapping a womxn or girl he wishes to marry – was a common practice in the classical world. (Sadly, it persists today in certain areas of the globe, although most countries formally recognize it as a sex crime.) According to Human Rights Watch, the primary motivation for bridenapping in patriarchal agricultural societies is because a womxn’s family is reluctant to let her marry young due to losing the labor she provides for the family farm and require a “bride price” from a prospective suitor before consenting to marriage (the consent of the womxn in question may or may not be a factor). Many men resort to bridenapping as a way to circumvent payment. If we interpret the myth through this lens, it’s consistent with the idea that Hades, being God of the Underworld, knew Demeter would never give him permission to marry Persephone – especially since she had already denied marriage requests from Hermes and Apollo – and sought to “close the loophole” by appealing directly to Zeus. Since this is ancient Greece we’re talking about and womxn had virtually no rights, such an act would have been seen as perfectly acceptable.

But what makes Hades such an interesting – and polarizing – figure is that, barring the abduction of Persephone, he’s probably the most well-behaved god in the Greek pantheon. Unlike his brothers Zeus and Poseidon (and his numerous nephews, cousins, etc.) he doesn’t rape people, have affairs or mess around with mortals. He keeps to himself in the Underworld, tending to his duties as Lord of the Dead and enjoying the riches of the Earth. (Pluto, the Roman variant of Hades, means “the rich one,” referring to his subterranean domain filled with precious stones, metals, and of course the nourishing soil of the Earth.) However, because humans have a tendency to fear death and darkness, Hades was and still is seen by many as creepy at best and evil at worst: the Greeks referred to him as “the dreaded one” or “unseen one,” and the only time he was really honored was during funeral rites.

Then there is the issue of Persephone’s name. In the myth, she adopts the name Persephone – which means “bringer of death/destruction” – only after she becomes Queen of the Underworld. Prior to her abduction, she was called Kore by her mother, which means “girl/maiden.” Essentially, her entire identity prior to marrying Hades is wrapped up in her youth, innocence and beauty – all of the qualifications for “virtuous” womxnhood in the Greco-Roman world – as though Demeter wishes to keep her daughter sheltered in a state of perpetual childhood or adolescence. (Although, in Demeter’s defense, almost all the men in her family are abusive patriarchs.) It’s as if by becoming Queen of the Underworld – while still retaining her identity/role as Goddxss of Spring – Persephone is able to finally come into her own. Homer refers to her as “dreaded Persephone” and describes her power to heal mortals who had been damned by the gods; Strabo recounts how she turned the nymph Minthe into a mint plant for attempting to seduce Hades. She readily adapts to her new role as Queen and comes into her own as a powerful goddxss, equally capable of redeeming souls, punishing those who cross her, and banishing winter with new life and color in the spring.

Finally, there is evidence that the worship of Persephone and Demeter extends even farther back in antiquity; the Eleusinian Mysteries (the cult of Persephone and Demeter) appears to have originated in the late Bronze Age, with probable roots in even older agrarian myths and spiritual practices. Since it was, well, a mystery tradition, very little was written down and much of its internal practices and rites have been lost to history. Combine this with the fact that the written myths we have today were based on even more ancient oral traditions and recorded by men in an hypermasculine society where unfettered sexism was the unchallenged norm, we start to see that there are many missing pieces to the puzzle – pieces that we will likely never find. This is true for the majority of our most cherished myths and folktales; they are so ancient, and have undergone so many transformations by so many human beings with their own biases and agendas, that they have the ability to speak to people in an infinite number of ways. And this shapeshifting ability is precisely why they continue to captivate our spirits and ignite our imaginations to this very day.

Based on my reading of the myth, as well as my scholarly interest in Greek mythology and my spiritual work with Persephone, I’m of the opinion that the myth of Hades forcefully abducting her is a load of patriarchal BS and is probably a corruption of a much older, more complex story/mystic tradition, where Hades and Persephone were depicted as divine lovers. Because, you know – there’s nothing patriarchy hates more than womxn with power, making their own choices about their bodies, relationships and destinies. For me, Persephone’s myth has always resonated because she is comfortable with her own paradox – she is the floral Goddxss of Spring and Queen of the Underworld, refusing to sacrifice one part of her identity for the other. While it may not be obvious at first glance, Persephone is a goddxss who embodies autonomy, self-acceptance, leadership and choice – she reminds us that, while we don’t always get to control what happens to us or how others perceive us, we can choose to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in, and that we never need to sacrifice the integral parts of who we are to fit other people’s expectations of who we should be. It’s a message I’ve returned to many times over the course of my life; as a bisexual womxn who has survived a number of traumatic experiences – an abusive relationship, an eating disorder, and a lifelong struggle with my mental health, to name a few – I’m used to being put in a box by other people, whether well-intentioned or not, and having the different parts my identity scrutinized, exaggerated and erased. Persephone reminds me that I owe nobody an explanation or apology.

While I have always loved and admired Persephone, it was when I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder at age 26 that I felt called to work with her as part of my spiritual practice. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I felt her calling me.) While the majority of my practice is based on Celtic spirituality and folk magic rather than Greek, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I began feeling her spiritual presence in my daily life – what deity could better understand the challenge of navigating a constant shift between light and darkness, summer and winter, color and gloom? Shortly after my diagnosis, I did some prayer and journeywork to connect with her. She has since become the main goddxss who I work with on a regular basis. And I’ve learned quite a bit from that relationship:

~ One of the first messages I received from Persephone, when I was facing a major upheaval due to an unexpected move and was terrified of losing myself (and my sanity) in the midst of so much change, was “you cannot lose yourself, because you are always yourself – whether you realize it or not.” She reminds us that our true selves are always there under the surface, even in – especially in – times of crisis and change. It’s our choice to live in a way that honors who we really are, or not. Either way, we must be prepared to accept both the positive and negative consequences of our choices.

~ Persephone accepts people just as they are, and at the same time holds them accountable for their actions. (She is, after all, Mother of the Dead.)

~ A central theme in her myth is that true leaders take care of their people, wherever they find themselves. Thus, Persephone is a goddxss with a very strong sense of social justice. She is very pleased by activism as a devotional act.

~ Contrary to popular belief, Persephone epitomizes sexual empowerment and autonomy. She teaches her devotees (especially womxn, femmes and Queer folk) not to accept any lover who is threatened by their independence or boundaries.

~ Another message that I consistently receive when I ask Persephone for guidance during difficult situations is to “plant flowers.” I take this to mean that, no matter what’s going on around me, I can choose to take whatever pain I’m experiencing and use it for creative inspiration – and that I can always choose to make the best of a bad situation, even if that “best” isn’t necessarily the most ideal.

Here’s a devotional I wrote for her from my Book of Shadows. Feel free to adapt for your own purposes:

A Devotional Prayer to Persephone

Sweet Lady Persephone,
lighthearted, sun-kissed Goddxss of Spring,
just and wise Queen of the Underworld

Iron flower, Mother of the Dead, Wife of Hades,
Daughter of Demeter, who of old was call Kore and Proserpina ~

You chose your own name, and your own destiny,
when the world would put you in a box
as eternal maiden or unwilling queen

You allowed no one to define you,
not even Hades, who loved you most

Teach me to love my contradictions
Teach me to be soft iron, like you
Teach me to forge my own path when I doubt my strength
Guide me in the ways of the Queen
who wears darkness and light equally well

You, who bring springtime to the Underworld
and shade to cool the Earth on a summer’s day
You offer wisdom to those brave enough
to taste the pomegranate’s seed ~

Be with me now, Mighty Queen!

Suggested Offerings to Persephone

  • The obvious one – anything pomegranate related!
  • Flowers (all kinds are acceptable, but she has a special fondness for roses and hyacinths)
  • Dark red & purple wines
  • Acts of service for the most vulnerable members of society (children, the elderly, the terminally ill, poor folks, addicts, disabled folks, those struggling with mental illness, incarcerated folks, and trauma victims)
  • Dancing
  • Gardening, especially guerilla gardening (planting seeds & plants in unused, unloved or maltreated spaces)
  • Sex magic (Yes, really.)
  • Art/creative projects
  • Death work (hospice care, mortuary science, funeral care, grief counseling, etc.), especially death doulaship