Persephone, Goddess of Spring and Queen of the Underworld

“Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure; And Spring comes green again to trees and grasses.”
In the poem, A Spring View, cited in the earlier blog post, A Spring View, Du Fu evokes the feeling of new growth and hope emerging after a time of war. We might think of war, in a sense, as one manifestation of the Winter of human existence. It is a time of difficulty and hardship, which we associate with death not birth. It is a time when the ordinary person survives in any way possible. On the surface, the landscape appears barren and lifeless in Winter. It is a time when life goes under ground and survives in the subterranean realms beneath the soil. Winter is a time of dormancy, endurance and survival.

In the Five Element cycle, it is associated with the element of Water. Yet each season contains in it the germ of the next, and each depends on the season before it. To fully understand the nature of Wood and Spring, we must look backward and understand its origins in Winter. Enduring the hardships of Winter is what makes new growth possible in Spring.

The Greeks told the story of Persephone, the goddess of Spring growth and daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Persephone is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld and death, and becomes his queen. This seems a curious marriage: the maiden goddess of Spring becomes the queen of death. It is not the happiest of myths, and Persephone does not go willingly. However, the union is sanctioned by Zeus, king of the gods, because it is in alignment with the proper order of the cosmos. Hades rules the realm of the unseen and unconscious essences that, although invisible, are very much a part of our lives.

The myth tells us that for wholeness and depth we must have a relationship to the underworld. The power of regeneration, the ability to reinvent ourselves and rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of devastation, comes to us because of our time in the underworld of Hades. Thus it is that Persephone, goddess of Spring, is also the queen of death. It is only when we deepen ourselves and, willingly or unwillingly, develop a relationship to our own darker realms that we are able to experience the renewal and rebirth of Spring.

The grief of Demeter for her daughter is so great that Zeus relents and Persephone is allowed to return to her mother. However, while in the realm of Hades, Persephone eats a pomegranate seed. Having eaten the food of the underworld, she can never be completely free of it. Persephone has lost her innocence, and she will spend a third of each year in the dark realm.

The underworld is a frightening place, and it is tempting to try to live out our lives in the bright world of spring, summer and the harvest season. We are like Persephone’s mother, Demeter, who is devastated by the abduction of her daughter and wants her back full time. In the Five Element cycle, it is as if we are trying to live only in the relatively Yang seasons of Spring (Wood), Summer (Fire) and Late Summer (Earth), and avoid the relatively Yin seasons of Autumn (Metal) and Winter (Water). Doesn’t this sound familiar? In our extraverted and youth-oriented Western culture, we value growth, productivity and “the pursuit of happiness.” We try to avoid the disagreeable emotions of grief and fear, and place little value on the inner wisdom and character that comes through embracing all that life brings us.

In the end, it never works. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, life will always pull us down into the darker realms for a time. If we allow it to touch us and affect us, we will always come back to life fuller and wiser for the experience. Societies and economies also spend time in the underworld. The last several years have brought an economic Winter to the USA and to much of the world, and we are only now beginning to see the glimmer of Spring. For the ordinary working person, it feels as if we have been abducted, like Persephone, by dark forces beyond our control. We have been thrown into a time of hardship and despair, surviving in any way possible. Yet the seeds of the Wood element are there in the darkest times, pulling us out of despair and give us the hope and vision we need to take the long view, and see our way through to the next cycle of regeneration.

Reference: Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, Harper Collins 1992, pp. 40-54. On the myth of Persephone.