The Maiden Returns

March 29, 2019
Wildflowers in Death Valley, California. Photo: Chuck Abbe.

Spring is when most Witches celebrate the maiden goddess Persephone and her reunion with her mother Demeter. Persephone is the Queen of the Underworld and Demeter is the Goddess of Grain.

According to the standard version of the myth, the child-goddess Persephone is picking flowers with her nymph friends when the god Hades emerges from his underworld kingdom and abducts the maiden, forcing her to become his wife. The distraught mother Demeter retreats into her sorrow, refusing to tend her plants. The earth dries up.

Alarmed at the dying vegetation, the remaining gods unite to pressure Hades to relinquish the maiden goddess. Hades relents and agrees to release Persephone, provided she has eaten nothing while in the land of the dead. Of course this is trickery, because Persephone has eaten one pomegranate seed. A compromise is reached, whereby Persephone spends one-third of the year in the underworld and two-thirds of the year above ground.

While this myth explains the fertile and fallow periods of the agricultural calendar quite well, there are parts of the story that don’t fit. How is the Goddess of Death able to spend most of her time in the land of living? Gods and goddesses go back and forth between these worlds all the time, but welcoming the spirits of the dead isn’t a job you can just pack up and leave, except maybe for a long weekend. If Persephone is integral to the world below, and the poets insist that she is, then surely she can’t live in Greece two-thirds of the year. She would be considered a full-time resident for tax purposes (and husband Hades has a ton of assets).

Many scholars resolve this confusion with the conjecture that Persephone has been syncretized with another goddess, who is Demeter’s daughter in the myth. Since Persephone is often addressed in Classical texts by the title Kore, which means “Maiden,” this inferred goddess is called Kore. Separating Persephone into two personas goes a long way to clearing up the confusion.

But there is another problem. Persephone’s cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries, welcomed her back to the land of the living at the Autumn Equinox, rather than in the spring. In a lot of ways this makes sense, since the spring wildflower season in the Aegean is succeeded by hot dry months inhospitable to agriculture. Recall that Kore-Persephone is picking wildflowers when she is abducted. At the same time, Classical texts often place Kore’s return as the spring. This is most commonly considered the season of the world reborn. Perhaps the timing of the myth has been modified to apply to other localities or later agricultural practices.

When does Kore-Persephone leave and when does she return? It probably depends not only on hemisphere, but climate. In low-desert places in the northern hemisphere, most agricultural activity ceases as summer approaches. Or perhaps it depends on whether you live by an agricultural calendar at all. If you follow an academic calendar, summer is a time of rest and productivity reboots in the autumn. Spring is when most Witches celebrate the maiden goddess Persephone and her reunion with her mother Demeter.

Sources:

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Compete Edition, London: Penguin Books, 1960.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Gregory Nagy, trans. Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University.

Patricia Monaghan, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Books, 1990.

Persephone. Theoi.com.

The poppy is believed to be Persephone’s flower. Photo: Cristian Bortes, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Calling Hestia

October 12, 2018

Hestia, you who tend the holy house [at Delphi] with soft oil dripping ever from you locks, come now into this house, come…draw near and bestow your grace upon my song.

Medusa in Art

November 18, 2016

I’ve been looking at art work of the goddess Medusa lately, and I’ve been surprised at the amount and breadth of art that is available on this goddess. I was aware of a few much-reproduced classical images and also aware that Medusa is a popular subject among contemporary artists, but the scope of art involving Medusa was surprising even to me. Of course, the amount of historical art available under Creative Commons and Public Domain licenses is to some extent reflective of the popularity of the subject in the early 21st century. Still, there is far too much material to ascribe its availability solely to fashion and fad.

Medusa is the Greek goddess who turned everyone who looked upon her face to stone. She has been depicted and described as both unspeakably beautiful and horrifyingly ugly. Medusa is also referred to as “the Gorgon,” a woman with snakes growing out of her head like hair. Some classical writers insisted that there were two other Gorgons, sisters to Medusa and unlike her immortal. The hero Perseus took up the challenge of slaying Medusa, a task with logistical difficulties since he had to behead her without gazing upon her.

Artwork with Medusa as a theme can be divided into six categories: Greek archaic, classical Greece, Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Romantic, and postmodern (“postmodern” referring here to the time period from 1970 to the present, not to the political philosophy). Art depicting Medusa seems to be varied in all time periods, though the Perseus theme was popular in all periods up to the Romantic, so the following examples from each period are not representative.

Plate with Medusa in center surrounded by sphinxes, sirens, and  animals.  Greece, 660 B.C.E. Source: Walters Art Museum.
Plate with Medusa in center surrounded by sphinxes, sirens, and animals. Greece, 660 B.C.E. Source: Walters Art Museum.
Detail of a pair of Gorgons on handle of vase depicting a wedding scene. Greece, 350 B.C.E.  Source: Zde/Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of a pair of Gorgons on handle of vase depicting a wedding scene. Greece, 350 B.C.E. Source: Zde/Wikimedia Commons.
Roman mosaic of Medusa. 300 C.E. Photo: Carole Radatto.
Roman mosaic of Medusa. 300 C.E. Photo: Carole Radatto.
Perseus (left) with sword raised to decapitate Medusa. Baldassare Peruzzi,1510.
Perseus (left) with sword raised to decapitate Medusa. Baldassare Peruzzi,1510.
Medusa, bust by Harriet Hosmer, 1854.  Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Medusa, bust by Harriet Hosmer, 1854. Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Medusa Masquerade at 2011 WonderCon. Source: The Conmunity - Pop Culture Geek.
Medusa Masquerade at 2011 WonderCon. Source: The Conmunity – Pop Culture Geek.

The Crow Goddess in Ancient Greece

March 4, 2016

Apollo with Crow.
Apollo with Crow.

Another excerpt from my book-in-progress. Crows and ravens are conflated in ancient Greek myth.

A less familiar goddess who has a link with crows is Coronis. She is one of the Hyades, the seven sisters of light who are rain-makers. Olympic genealogy has her the parent with Apollo of the healing god Asclepius. She is also tied to Apollo in a story where the mistrustful Apollo sends a crow to spy on the goddess, and she does indeed cheat on him with another god. Apollo has Coronis bumped off by his sister and punishes his crow for not halting the liaison by changing him from white to black. This story accomplishes three things: 1) it solidifies Apollo’s ownership of the crow while denigrating the crow at the same time; 2) it explains why the god of light would have a black emblem; and 3) it justifies usurpation of the goddess’s cult by making her demise a result of her own betrayal. Reading into this story a bit, I would guess the unruly priestesses of Coronis resisted the cult of Apollo effectively for awhile.

The goddess Athena is believed to have turned Coronis herself from a white crow into a black crow. This is why the raven rests on the bust of Pallas in the Edgar Allan Poe narrative “The Raven.” Pallas is another name for Athena. The story goes that Coronis brought Athena some bad news, and the goddess in a rage changed the feathers of Coronis from white to black and banished her from the Acropolis. I disagree with those who categorize the crow as a familiar of Athena on the basis of this story. I think crows and ravens were banished from Athena’s temples because her priests wanted owls to nest there. Crows like to nest in high places (hence the term “crow’s nest”), and they mob owls. The purpose in the mobbing is to defend chicks and eggs from owl predation, and yet crows seem from our perspective to pursue owls with an unnecessary vehemence, seeming to attack them on principle. At any rate the two birds could not have cohabitated, so crows would have to be banished from Athena’s domain. In addition to firmly linking Coronis with the crow, this story again makes the crow an oracular bird.