Searching for Persephone
In the old stories told by the Greeks, one stands out for its anguish in the parting of a mother and daughter. This is the story of Persephone and Demeter. Demeter (whom the Romans called Ceres) was goddess of the grain and crops. It was she who ensured that a great bounty was harvested every year to feed the people. In some ways, Demeter still smiles on our efforts, as she rewards the toil that UU volunteers invest in producing vegetables every summer to feed their neighbors.
When the story opens, all is well. Demeter delights in her daughter, a beautiful maiden admired by all. But such a strength was also a vulnerability, for the god of the underworld, Hades, also desired Persephone. One day he caught her unawares and snatched her to live with him in the underground.
Demeter, frantic with worry and grief, searched all through the land for Persephone. She rent her hair and uttered cries like those of an animal in pain. And as she continued to search, she felt misery.
That lack of hope translated itself into the world’s becoming more and more cold. Crops ceased to grow, and the people began to starve. They offered entreaties to the other gods, and finally Zeus intervened. He commanded Demeter to hasten to welcome Persephone back from her sojourn underground. As Hades brought Persephone closer to the threshold between the underworld and the world above, he gave Persephone, who was hungry, a pomegranate to eat. She bit hungrily into the fruit, crunching the tiny seeds and feeling its juices running down her chin.
And just as Persephone put out her hand to grasp the welcoming one of her mother, Hades laughed. In eating the pomegranate, Persephone had violated a prohibition of the sister Fates and become bound to the underworld for half of every year. She was destined to spend six months above, and six below.
And that is why we have six months of cold winter, reminiscent of the time when Demeter’s grief swallowed the world’s capacity to grow tender things from the ground. Yet it is always followed by six months of spring and summer when Persephone’s carefree beauty abounds and all things grow to fruition.
Where do you find yourself in the story of Persephone and Demeter? In the loss of someone whom you loved beyond life itself? In not-knowing the contours of another’s life that slipped out of your grasp when you weren’t looking? In the darkness of being underground for a time, whether with depression or grief or despair, never really knowing if you would ever see sunshine again?
Or do you, like Persephone, take uncommon delight in the returning robins, in the first shoots of daffodils or tulips piercing the muddy earth and reminding us that they are just waiting to unfurl their colors for us? When they come, those colors are like the crayons children use in kindergarten, so stunningly vivid that they look made up rather than real.
Despair and hope, right there in the same story, in the same relationship. And some of us, both men and women, have been both Demeter and Persephone in our lives, searching for that which is lost and seeing no way out of a dark place. May those of you who still find yourselves there remember that the story is bracketed by hope, by the assurance that all things pass and spring does, indeed, return.