I have never been fully comfortable with Demeter. Intellectually I understand Her importance, both in the ancient world and today, but emotionally I am somewhat put off by Her. I identify more with Her wayward daughter Persephone. While I am aware of my own bias, the fact remains that my relationship with my own mother colors my perceptions. I cheer Persephone’s escape from Her oppressive and suffocating mother, as I escaped mine. So much of Demeter’s identity is bound up in Her daughter that if you have had a negative experience of the mother-daughter relationship, it can certainly poison your idea of Demeter. Who is Demeter, other than a mother? Who is Demeter beyond Persephone?
In trying to make my peace with Demeter, I began thinking of other ways that the myths surrounding Her could be interpreted. Demeter’s story is essentially one of loss, and Her ensuing battle with depression. Taking out the mother-daughter aspect makes it easier for me become comfortable with Her.
After Her loss, Demeter wanders the earth, searching for what was taken from Her. When She can’t find it, She puts on the guise of an old woman and ends up working in the palace of the local king, caring for his young son. She puts on a fake face, like many people who have suffered a loss or are depressed in some way. She pretends to be happy, telling everyone “I’m fine”, “It’s okay”, and “Nothing’s wrong”. She tries to make Herself happy by pretending She already is. Inwardly She falls more and more into Her depression.
Eventually something happens that causes the mask to fall, and all the festering painful emotions are exposed to the light. In the myth of Demeter and Persephone, this happens when the Queen stumbles onto Demeter attempting to make the young Prince immortal. When the Queen’s panic broke the spell, Demeter’s mask of being happy fell away as Her second chance was wrenched from Her. Her misery and anger revealed, She retreats into the temple that the Eleusinians build for Her. Demeter retreats into Herself, spending all Her time mourning for Her daughter. She neglects Her duties for the fertility of the world and the crops die and people begin to starve. Similarly, when we give into depression and retreat into ourselves, our creativity dries up and we begin to starve if we stay too long disconnected from human contact, wallowing in our pain.
Yet, strangely, it is only when we allow ourselves to feel our pain that we can begin to heal ourselves. We must allow ourselves to mourn. Too many people in Western societies, especially boys and men, are taught to suppress their emotions. They are told “boys don’t cry” and instructed to “man up” if they dare allow themselves to feel.
How unhealthy this suppression is! To ignore and suppress a feeling – whether it is a desire, a fear, or grief – only increases its power. We must acknowledge our pain in order to begin moving through it. Acceptance is always the first step.
Another way I found myself better relating to Demeter is as a feminist figure. True, Her over-identification with Her daughter and the role of Mother could very well be seen as anti-feminist, a throwback to the days when being a wife was the only career open to women, and the child consumed the entire existence of the mother. This is a condition that we are taught to believe is totally without power, without dignity. Yes, the myth tells us that Zeus went behind Demeter’s back and married off Their daughter without Her consent, or even informing the girl.
But, in the end, Who is it that gives in? Is it Demeter, the downtrodden female, Who surrenders? No, it is mighty Zeus, King of the Gods, Who caves in the face of Demeter’s awesome wrath. Once Her anger and grief was focused towards a goal, nothing could stop Her. Even Zeus quaked before Her fury. Here is another lesson for us. This lesson applies to all people, no matter their gender, but it is especially valuable for women. This lesson is that we should not be afraid to get angry when we need to.
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