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The Death and Resurrection of Persephone, in stages

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“My daughter craved [power above ground]
Inanna craved the [power below ground].
She who receives the decree of the underworld does not return.
She who goes to the Dark City stays there.”
– The Descent of Inanna

III.  Resurrection (transformation).  

So it ends as it began:  a dispute between Persephone and Zeus.  Aphrodite rescues a human infant from a certain death and gives this child to Persephone, who, being in the land of Death, cannot bring forth life.  Persephone raises the child to adulthood, and Aphrodite demands him back.  And Zeus, who was unyielding when it came to his own daughter being bound to the Underworld, bows his head against Aphrodite’s demands and lets Adonis choose where he wants to live.

He chooses Aphrodite, and Persephone is left alone and forlorn in her realm.  When Hermes comes to take Adonis away, she tells him, “Ask our father that if the laws of the underworld are no longer sacred, does this apply to everyone?”

She does not expect an answer, and she does not get one.  But when Charon brings the newly dead across the Styx that night, Persephone refuses to take them.  It goes unnoticed by the King of Olympus at first, but as the Dead fill the shores of Styx, they began to overflow, eventually unable to cross at all.  

Her husband looks at her as if he no longer recognizes her, but she is content with that as long as he doesn’t interfere.  She holds his gaze until he turns away, and then she smiles.  She thinks she’s won this game they have been playing for eons, but it doesn’t feel much like victory yet.

She expects Hermes to come, but this time, she has managed to bring down the King of Gods himself.   “What is the meaning of this, Kore?”

She laughs because she has not heard that name in years, and these days, when mortals fear to utter her name, when no god can forget her portion in their offerings and no godly feast is complete without a place set in her name, she is still not worthy of her father’s regard.  

Demeter calls her Kore to hold on to happier memories, but he calls her Kore because he refuses to acknowledge the power Persephone has.

“I abide by your rules, as ever, Father,” she says.  “Those who enter the land of the dead can never leave – unless, of course, it suits your purpose to bring them back.  But I do not recall any laws concerning those who never cross the Styx at all.”

She doesn’t say any more than that, and in truth, she does not need to.   If Zeus refuses to yield, then Gaia herself will turn against him for the burden Persephone will place on her by refusing to take the dead into the underworld.

“What do you desire, Persephone?” he finally asks, and she smiles.

*

“What do you desire, Demeter?” He had asked her mother once, after Demeter refused to let anything grow on Earth, rendering the offering altars at Zeus’ temples desolate and him powerless to oppose her wrath at him and Hades for having taken Persephone away.

And Persephone has always been her mother's daughter, so much so that there are few people who have even considered that she has a father. Among the Olympians, the daughters of Zeus occupy two niches: those who are loved and acknowledged by Zeus, and those who are all but ignored by the king of Gods. But Immortal Persephone, the Goddess of Spring who rules the barren graveyard of the underworld, has ever lived between worlds, managing to escape the mundane laws that seem to govern everyone else. And here too, she manages to defy reason and tradition. For she is the only daughter of Zeus that he neither ignores, nor acknowledges. He has always been all too aware of her existence, planning her life for her, but never wanting a part in her life, beyond that.

Athena is his favorite, loved more than any of his immortal sons are. And Artemis, the free spirited daughter he never wanted, is still loved more than Persephone.   They both reign supreme as the Olympian Virgin goddesses, while she's a maiden in name only.

Once, so long ago she barely remembers it, she asked her mother for the gift of virginity, and her mother, laughing, granted it. For what more did Demeter ever want than to have her daughter forever by her side? But the will of the Earth Mother had been nothing compared to the promise Zeus had made to his brother. And she was exiled from the world above, married to the deathless King of the spirits.

*

Athena’s mother loved Zeus unconditionally and mistakenly believed that he loved her in equal measure.  So she had told him that their son would be more powerful than Zeus himself, and Zeus could never allow anyone to dethrone him, to make him bow his head.  Zeus, as fond as he was of her, was shrewd enough to appreciate her unconditional love, but wise enough to realize it’s a risk to have that unconditional love of powerful goddesses directed towards anyone but himself.

So he arranges a marriage for Aphrodite to Hephaestus, who is perhaps the one man she can never love.  He benevolently grants Artemis eternal chastity when she asks for it, and he trains Athena to love the world of ideas and weapons, and she becomes wise enough to abhor love.

Persephone, however, is no threat to him.  So he takes no active part in her marriage, but when he sees his dread brother Hades overcome with passion for Persephone, it is only too convenient to let Hades have the girl, taking her away from Demeter.  

For Persephone’s true power lies in the power she has over her mother, the one woman Zeus could never overpower.   

*

Demeter does not resist him like Hera does, and because he senses power in her, he courts her first.  When he talks of marriage, however, she laughs.

Zeus never forgives this offense.  Hera's sense of honor - honor as dictated by the laws Zeus himself created - compels her to accept his suit after he has forced himself on her.  Demeter, though, has no respect for his laws or her own honor as he sees it.

When she lies on her birthing bed, she does not call for him, nor asks for a boon for her first-born child.  And Zeus, who is only too happy to ignore his numerous offspring, waits for Demeter to bring her lovely daughter to his court, as Leto had presented her twins, despite Hera's wrath.

What angers him the most, perhaps, is that Demeter calls for Hera to attend her birthing bed, and Hera, who is ever planning ill for his offspring not birthed by her, ignores his wishes to go attend to her sister.

Hera, he knows how to punish, but Demeter has placed herself and her daughter out of his power.

His power is infinite, however, and so he waits for the day that he can make Demeter feel it.

II.  Death (dying).

When Persephone comes of age and every god on Olympus not lusting after Aphrodite sets his mind on her, Demeter finds the Earth not large enough to hide her daughter from them. She knows she cannot rely on Zeus’ protection for she knows that Zeus still begrudges her her independence, and he certainly has no love for Persephone after the girl herself asserted her will against him, young as she was.

But when Apollo courts her, Demeter lets her guard down. In turn, seeing Demeter hide her smile behind her hand at the sight of Apollo bringing her gifts, Persephone is inclined to accept his suit.  He brings her sunflowers and abandons his lovely muses to watch her dance.

Persephone herself, however, has no use for light, as much as she appreciates Apollo’s. She is drawn to death, from the first, to death and darkness.  

One day, they’re sitting in a forest as Apollo plays on his harp lightly, and the peaceful silence is broken by an arrow flying past them.  Apollo’s brows knit together as he keeps playing, but Persephone is too interested in the direction of the arrow to pay much attention.  She’s up on her feet within seconds and chasing the arrow.

She comes upon it to discover a dying stag.  She kneels by it, watches it die, but turns away once life has left its body to find Apollo’s sister watching her intently.  She’s not like the other gods, and Persephone has rarely seen her on Olympus.  No, Artemis prefers the ever changing forests where she can watch the passage of time, prefers companions who die rather than the immortal ones who betray her for the love of men.    

So Persephone shrinks from Apollo’s shimmering light, from his love, drawn in instead by Artemis’ ruthlessness, her drive for the hunt, and her affinity for the night and its many mysteries, such as they are for gods.

She doesn’t have a talent for the hunt as Artemis does, but she enjoys letting Artemis teach her, and sometimes, Persephone comes so near death that she can feel the blood of the dying animals vibrate within her own immortal veins. Artemis finds her in thrall like this once, and laughs, and says, “I relish the chase, Kore, but you seem to find your fulfillment in death.”

There’s no reproach in it, though. She and Artemis are of like minds, and as much as Artemis compels her to be pulled away from Olympus and into her wilderness, she is always happy to follow Persephone back to Olympus when she goes to see Demeter.

*

Once she comes upon a dark patch of earth near a cave, when out hunting with Artemis, and she’s compelled to leave her companions behind for the sake of curiosity.

It is not a flower in bloom that draws her to her fate, as the poets would say later.  Rather, it is a decaying bloom, dying despite the eternal spring Demeter has blessed the Earth with.  But it exists on the boundary between worlds, overwhelmed by the shadow of death that exists at the outskirts of Hades.  She plucks it and it falls apart in her hands, but she is not satisfied, so she steps one foot over the threshold, into the cave that seems to lead inward and down.   But before she can set her foot down, a sound distracts her. She turns back once to see Artemis laughing with her nymphs, not having yet missed Persephone’s absence, and the lyrical sound of that laughter is the only thing holding her back.  But it is enough, for now.

Later, she sees that same flower in bloom – an illusion created by Hades, she would later learn -- and her curiosity gets the better of her.   She touches it and it withers again, but she waits to see it grow yet again.  Artemis is not with her today, and she wants something else to occupy her mind, wants to experience this realm that makes such miracles – such death and rebirth – possible.

When she crosses over into the cave, the flowers in her hair wither, the petals falling on her trail.   When she comes upon the River Styx and places her feet inside it to cross it, the diamonds around her neck – made of moonbeams and given to her by Artemis – lose their luster and turn to coal.  She snatches them off and lets the pieces fall into the water.  When she emerges on the other side, her golden robes – a gift from Apollo - cling to her, having lost their sunlit luster.  And she enters the land of Death without any markings of her divinity, vulnerable both to its powers and its laws.

Hades, whose name she has only heard in whispers around Olympus, greets her at the gates of the Underworld, and she finds it curious that he should be waiting at the gates for her. “You anticipated my visit?” she asks.

“I could not miss your radiance, and that is not the way gods take into the Underworld.”

Anticipating being led into secrets beyond her age and power, she asks, “How do gods enter the Underworld then?”

Hades smiles, and says, “They do not enter the Underworld.”

When she has no answer to that, Hades asks, “Will you stay, Daughter of Zeus?”

And he makes it sound like she has a choice.

*

Persephone, at least, has the illusion of choice, but Demeter is not given even that much. So while Persephone roams around the underworld and explores and learns Hades’ dread world, Demeter runs from one corner to another of her own world, searching for her Kore.

Hades could not have seen Persephone unless she let herself be seen by coming to his threshold, but once he has seen her, nothing else would do. And suddenly, Zeus’ careful balance of power was near tipping over for Hades was no longer satisfied with his lot. He wanted to be – demanded to be – let back inside Olympus, leaving his realm unguarded, so he may compete for the hand of Kore with the other deathless gods.

So Zeus did not ask Demeter, did not give her a choice, for he already knew the contempt his request would be met with, if she did not outright laugh at him. And it had been ages since Demeter had had that kind of power over him, but he could not let the echo of that laughter - not even filled with contempt as much as it was with utter dismissal - go.

He would never give her that power over him again, and he would steal from right under her the one thing – the only thing – that mattered to her. So instead of meeting Hades’ insolence with reproach, he smiled at his brother and granted him this boon.

So they tried to lure her in with blooming flowers, underestimating the lure Death had for her, and she was drawn in, not by the bloom, but by the fact that it died. And rebloomed.

And Zeus underestimated Demeter, once again, for she did not so much as plead before him for the sake of her daughter. She searched the Earth for Kore for all of nine days, days that felt long as the months of carrying her, but with no hope of having her near her at the end of this labor. At the end of these nine days, Artemis, also desolate with the loss of Persephone, came to Demeter and told her of her suspicions.

Demeter’s grief turned outward and turned into wrath and contempt, but instead of giving Zeus the satisfaction of seeing her like this, she withdrew from Olympus and went to live among humans, denying herself the divine gifts that her daughter could no longer partake of.

*

It is Demeter who brings Earth its first drought, refusing to nurture Earth or its people, but Persephone is what brings Earth its first winter.

As was decreed by the Fates, the Olympian gods – Zeus, foremost among them – draw a large portion of their power from the offerings left on their altars by mortal beings. But humans, barely having enough to eat in the next year, do not have anything left to offer to the gods, and so Demeter makes her absence be felt on Olympus with the intensity that she herself feels the absence of Kore.

But Persephone’s absence, in truth, is felt all over Earth in its first winter. When Persephone crosses over the threshold of Hades and wanders the underworld -- being within it, but not of it yet -- it opens both worlds up to each other, and both mortals and gods hold their breaths as this transformation takes place. Meanwhile, the gates to the Underworld are left open for any Gods who would want to cross over (though no one else dares), and the dreary, cold winds of Hades blow through the cave and out into the world, and humans both freeze as well as starve.

*

(In the old days, before Persephone crossed over the threshold of Hades, humans used to hang their dead from the trees, offering them up to the birds of the sky, as no god would accept such offerings. Later, this ritual of offering the dead to the birds came to be a sign of the uncivilized world, a sign of people devoid of the blessings of Persephone and the teachings of Demeter, her holy mother.

But when Persephone came to live beneath the Earth, humans learned from Demeter how to bury their dead so Persephone could bring them back again in the Underworld, giving them back their bodies, which had been allotted to her on that fateful day that she herself had long forgotten and that Demeter did not like to think on.

Before that time, the shades wandered aimlessly in Hades, desolate and purposeless. Because they did not have bodies, they could not feel anything, and death – the fate of every mortal – was an experience to be feared most dreadfully. Their only salvation was Lethe – the river of forgetfulness – for their only relief from their desolation was to forget that they had ever been alive, been anything more than shades wandering through Hades aimlessly.

But Persephone, as she transformed in Hades, transformed Death as well, opening her two worlds to each other, bound by the laws of both, but not yet able to attain power over either.

Persephone’s power, however, extended over a greater portion of humanity than even Zeus.’ Zeus had them for but a blink of an eye to Persephone’s eternal hold over them. And in this knowledge lay her power. But she did not come to this understanding immediately, nor did she come to it without suffering.)

*

When Persephone returns to her mother, Demeter embraces her and it is as if they were never parted, and neither talks of the separation that is past or the separation that will come again every year.

Artemis does not speak of it either, but Persephone feels her anger, her sense of betrayal, in the tenseness of her body as they embrace. Because Artemis cannot bring herself to withdraw from Persephone, she withdraws into herself instead.

They try to hunt together, Artemis drawn in by the chase, and Persephone, more than ever, by death. But there is something different about the animals now. At the sight of Persephone, instead of running from their fate, they submit, and Artemis finds herself unable to kill them in her presence.

So now there’s a rift between them that can never be healed, a rift spanning the length of a mortal lifetime, such as it is.  That’s the distinction between them now, Artemis who attends to the birthing bed and helps women with child birth, and Persephone, who waits for her offerings by deathbeds.

Persephone leaves Artemis to her hunting, choosing to spend her time with Demeter while the Moon goddess runs through the forests in darkness. Back on Olympus, the gods shrink from Persephone, act as if she belongs forever to that world from which she is exiled for a time, and she finds herself missing watching Artemis hunt and kill.

The order of Artemis’ world demands that she punish all of her companions – mortals with death and goddesses with exile – who leave her, after having sworn an oath to her. She finds herself unable to punish Persephone, but nor can she forgive her.

“Would you rather that he had taken me by force to the underworld?” Persephone asks her once. “Would you forgive me more easily if it hadn’t been my choice?”

Artemis turns the question on her, “Was it your choice?” She is uncertain whether she fears a denial or a confirmation more.

“Some of it was, and some of it was fate, and still some of it – maybe a lot of it – was forced on me. But I did cross the threshold myself, and I am not certain I would make a different choice.”

And this is where Artemis has trouble understanding Persephone. Artemis, who demands utter loyalty from her companions and sees utter betrayal in anything less, does not understand how Persephone, so like herself, could have ever put herself in a situation where she had anything less than complete agency over herself, put herself under the power of something else the way Artemis has vowed never to. But the fact that she is willing to try, that she cannot just dismiss Persephone like she has so many of her other companions, means that Persephone is not the only one who has been transformed by this experience.

When time draws near for Persephone to return to her dread Husband, Artemis asks, “Do you love him?”

“I was drawn in by his power. And I would have loved him – steadily and with intensity as he loves me – if not for his deception. If he had given me a choice, I might have chosen to stay with him.”

And Artemis, who should perhaps be jealous, smiles because she understands that in this, too, they are of like minds, Artemis, who can never forgive betrayal, and Persephone, who will never forgive deception. She says, “I wish he had,” for she understands that if Persephone had been given a choice, she would never have chosen to bound herself to the Underworld for half the year and would have been free to come and go between the worlds as she pleased.

When they part again that year, Artemis holds on tightly to her hand as Persephone clings to Demeter. Demeter, bereaved and desolate, can let her go and look forward to the reunion, but Artemis, angry and inconsolable, cannot stand to send her to him willingly.

In the Underworld, Persephone finds that death does not become any easier for having gone through it before. If anything, it is worse now that she knows that she has no choice in this, and it is this that makes her resent her lot and her husband.

She finds him waiting for her again at the gates of the Underworld, and when he smiles at her, her first instinct is to go to him, but she remember also his smile as he had handed her the pomegranate seeds and bid her eat them.

So she turns away from him, holding on tightly to her moonbeam necklace that had turned into coals again on her way down, but Artemis had promised her that it would gain back its luster when she returned to her.

The Underworld is different now from when she left it, filled with a sort of life it never had before Persephone came to it. The dead, having their bodies again, can continue a kind of existence here, able to recognize their kin now that they do not have to drink from Lethe. With Hades’ help, she also carves out a piece of Underworld for the Blessed among the dead, and she is grateful to him for letting her shape his world to her liking, but she would never tell him that, lest he think he has been forgiven.

Next, she asks Apollo for a piece of his sun for her new world, and because he had loved her once, he grants her this. From Artemis, she asks a piece of the moon, and Artemis gives this willingly. Demeter gives her seeds of the Earth and allows them to grow in the Underworld the way she would not let things grow in the absence of Persephone on Earth. And soon, a piece of Underworld possesses more beauty and life than Earth does while Demeter makes all of the world feel her loss. Persephone, however, finds that she misses her mother, misses Artemis, and even Apollo, with a stronger yearning in this place that is filled with reminders of their blessings.

So instead of mourning her loss, she goes back to the dark part of Hades, and walks among the dead, learning their lives and their stories through the day, and at night, such as it is here, she returns to her husband.

And so it is through the years, with each death becoming harder and harder on her, even as humans learn to deal better with the lot given them. They can prepare for winter and drought, but she does not know how to prepare for an exile from all the people she loves, and she cannot help but want to punish Hades all the more for it each year, unable as she is to punish Zeus, who allowed all of this to happen.

He loves her light, Hades had told her in the beginning.  So she leaves her fire behind on Earth when she descends, and the sun falls out of her hair, turning it dark and drab, and she wonders if it still draws her husband in like it had at first.

He loves the signs of life she brings with her to his realm, he had confessed to her in those first weeks before his deception, so she leaves that behind, too.  And lies in his bed lifeless and unmoving as he moves above her, and finally, he tires of her.  She thinks, perhaps unjustly, that he might have liked her better if she fought back.  After all, he had loved her fire.

In the ninth year that she returns to Earth, Artemis is absent from the temple that Demeter receives her in every year, and she cannot wait to accept all her offerings and receive the blessings of her mother so she can go look for her.

When she finds Artemis in her forest, surrounded by more dead animals than Persephone has ever seen her kill in a day, she embraces her and feels Artemis stiffen in her arms again as she had that first time she returned.

And Artemis says, “Persephone, this cannot go on. You absence is harder to bear every year, and I cannot even rejoice in your return for I cannot stop anticipating your return to Hades.”

The queen of the underworld flinches at that, because this is the first time Artemis has called her by her new name, and she wonders if this means that they cannot go back again. But the truth is that they could have never gone back, not after Persephone found the lure of Hades greater than the draw of Artemis, but they could have gone pretending.

“But you live on Earth, are all but exiled from Olympus, and that does not make Apollo’s love for you any lesser.”

“Because our worlds are not separated by the laws of gods and men. He can visit me as often as he likes, but I cannot see you as I wish to, no matter how much I yearn to.”

“What will you have me do, Artemis?”

“Fight him,” Artemis says.

“I have been, but it is not as easy as you seem to think. I have no one else there.”

“Not Hades,” Artemis says, and Persephone fears that she knows what Artemis is suggesting. “He is but a pawn, and he can be yours, Persephone.”

She has lost herself, she thinks, but she knows that she cannot stand to lose Artemis, too. So she asks, “How?”

“Your power is the only one beyond Zeus’ domain of influence. Make him feel it, make it infringe on his rules and make him change them.”

*

The truth is that Persephone never falls in love with Adonis. Oh, she loves him, to be sure, as only one deprived of any other life can – steadily and intensely, but it is not what Aphrodite feels for him. Still, she chooses to let Aphrodite think that, chooses to let Aphrodite bring Zeus to break his own rules, as only she can. And when Adonis is given his choice, and chooses Aphrodite, Artemis shoots him with an arrow made out of moonbeams, and places him back under Persephone’s power.

Because the Goddess of Beauty weeps prettily and laments her loss, it is easier for Persephone’s father to side against his daughter, allowing Adonis to come back to Earth. And Adonis, a mortal, is given more freedom to go between worlds than Persephone, a goddess, was given. Zeus can see himself as benevolent because he sees Aphrodite as powerless, and Persephone wonders if perhaps Aphrodite is the wisest of them all.

But Persephone does not just want to win her honors back. Persephone wants Zeus to know that he has lost. So she lets him think that he is siding against her, even as he plays fully into her hands, and when he breaks his own rules, it allows Persephone to force him to give her her choice back so she may come and go between the worlds as she pleases, exerting power over both as only she can.

I. Birth (creation).

When she is still a young girl, Kore comes upon a muddy river littered with stones and weed upon which she cuts the soles of her feet.  As she sits there waiting for her skin to heal and form anew, she picks up the mud and fashions it into her own form.  This form, she holds on to as Demeter carries her home and keeps it hidden.

She bides her time, and when she watches Artemis ask Zeus for the boon of sovereignty over herself, asks to be under no man’s power, Kore presents the form she’s created to her father and asks him to grant it life.  He breathes into it, and in turn, the form breathes.  But when Kore wants to name the creature, to have power over it, Zeus, greedy as he is proud, seeks to lay claim to this creation.  Kore, too young to understand the entirety of Zeus’ dominion, refuses to yield.  Demeter intervenes on her daughter’s behalf only to be denied, so she pleads before the only power that Zeus, too, must obey.   

And the Fates say to him,  “Since you gave the creature its life, you’ll derive power from that life, when they worship you and offer sacrifices in your name, but because this creature shall not rival gods, it must be mortal. And since Kore fashioned its body, let her have it in death, and derive her power from the shades.  And so shall it be with all livings things that must also die, humans and animals alike.”

And Zeus, in his arrogance, is content to have power over humans’ lives, not understanding the power death would come to hold.

Persephone, by creating mortals, in effect, creates Death. The order of the world demands that mortals be different from Gods, be lesser, but death gives them something that gods can not (must not) ever experience. Persephone, however, knows (learns), the way Zeus never can, that to exert complete control over her domain, she must experience all that mortals do. So she becomes the only god to ever experience Death, even before she understands the lure it holds for her.

Death did not exist before this moment when Kore, in her innocence makes a toy and inadvertently creates a world that Zeus can never exert full power over. Before this moment, Underworld was little more than a prison where fallen gods like Kronus, and Uranus before him, were banished, the only thing marking it from the rest of the Earth being its power to hold people inside it once they had crossed the threshold.

And so her fate is set even before Hades ever lays eyes on her, but no one, least of all she herself, understands this decree yet. Or its power.

*