With the arrival of Mothering Sunday, it occurred to me that the idea is not really a new one. It has all sorts of historical resonances, not least of which is the tale of Demeter and Persephone. A Greek myth packed full of meaning and symbolism.
There are certain stories that resonate with every generation. And as the needs and fashions of every generation change, so too do the characters in the stories. Examples could be anything from the romantically doomed 18th Century 'Young Werther' by Goethe, a great hit in its day, right up to the modern chick-lit 'Bridget Jones’s Diary.' You can probably think of plenty more.
Ancient depiction of Demeter (or Ceres) with wheat sheaves.
What these stories and so many others have in common is that readers of the age in which they are written find themselves reflected in the aspirations and misfortunes of the characters. They consciously recognise themselves, as if in a mirror. ‘It’s just like us!’ people say. ‘It’s just what I’m going through!’
Myths, on the other hand, and though they apply equally to everyone (whether they know it or not), resonate often at a far more unconscious level. Myths are not 'like us’ at all. Not like we think of ourselves. They deal with our darker side, with gods and demons, of metamorphosis, relationships full of jealousies and lethal revenge. You would probably do well to say ‘they are nothing like me!’
It's not all doom and gloom, however. Some myths are educational. Others can seem profoundly magical and redeeming. One of my favourites, appropriate for Mothering Sunday, is the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
Demeter and Persephone
Demeter and Persephone, Asia Minor c. 100 BC.
More than just a story, the myth of Demeter and Persephone was once celebrated in a ceremonial sense at the core of the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece. Scholars have scratched their heads for centuries over what these mysteries were, and what the ceremonies and rites associated with them looked like. But they do seem to have entailed great secrecy and withdrawal from the normal world for a period of days. They were also accompanied by all manner of mysterious ceremonies and erotic goings-on. Those who were initiated into them were revered. It was a great honour.
A Victorian notion of The Eleusinian mysteries - from The Family Magazine, 1834.
So, here is the myth itself, the story of Demeter and Persephone. (For those who prefer the Roman equivalents, Persephone is named Proserpine, and Demeter becomes Ceres.)
Demeter was the daughter of Zeus. She was the goddess of the grain and of the harvest, and is often depicted with a sheaf of wheat in her hand. Her daughter was Persephone, who one day whilst out in the meadows picking flowers (narcissi, some say, or poppies) was abducted by Hades the god of the underworld. Demeter mourned the loss of her daughter and decreed that the land should be laid waste and that no flowers or crops should flourish until her daughter might be returned to her.
Demeter Mourning for Persephone, Evelyn de Morgan 1906.
With the aid of the clever and inventive god Hermes, who journeyed to the underworld on Demeter's behalf, this was eventually achieved. (You can often spot Hermes in paintings and carvings, by the way, due to his winged sandals or helmet, or because he carries the Carduceus - a staff entwined with serpents.)
The Carduceus of Hermes - a symbol of healing even today.
Hermes brought Persephone back to the light. Demeter was overjoyed and thus all the flowers bloomed again and the land was restored to fertility. A happy ending - though there was just one catch. Persephone, during her stay in the underworld partook of the fruit of the dead, the pomegranate. By so doing, she was compelled thereafter to return to the realm of Hades for several months each year. A journey that coincided with winter.
The Return of Persephone, Frederic Leighton 1891.
Clearly this powerful story is one which relates to the cycle of the seasons. Persephone’s return symbolises the return of nature and life with the coming of spring. Demeter, reunited with her daughter brings forth the harvest, nourishes humankind and sustains civilisation as a consequence. A powerful even if uncommon source of contemplation for Mothering Sunday.
The Eleusinian mysteries
It is easy to see how this became the foundation for the Eleusinian mysteries in which the cycles of life and death were celebrated in nature. But it also seems to refer to the descent of spirit into matter, of spirit into the human body at birth. Like most religious ceremonies (religion is a word which simply means ‘to re-connect’) the Eleusinian mysteries were most likely a means of reconnecting the aspirant to the spiritual source, or what the psychologist Carl Jung would have termed 'a process of individuation,' becoming whole.
Bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water) c 440 BC.
On a purely personal level, the myth is also symbolic of the search for that which is lost, whether a way of life we once enjoyed, an idea we once celebrated, or any creative impulse which we might have buried away in obscurity for one reason or another. The quest to restore Persephone takes place whenever we seek to re-connect to what is precious. That's why it takes us forward to modern celebrations like Mothering Sunday.
Mothering Sunday and the Mitochondrial Eve
Now before we dismiss all this as just a fanciful story, let me tell you that the concept of a sacred lineage between mother and daughter has a very real basis in scientific fact. In each of our cells there is a vital substance known as Mitochondrial DNA. It is concerned with, among other things, the production of energy to sustain the cell. It is only passed on via the female. Consequently, it is possible to trace the lineage of everyone back to a primal source, a single female called the ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ who is estimated to have lived approximately 100,000–200,000 years ago.
The journey of the Mitochondrial Eve.
We all come from this source, but only via our mothers. Something to think about on Mother's Day next (this Sunday, 15th March, for those of us in the UK).