The Maiden’s Sorrow
A serious study of myth can be a maddening thing, especially when it comes to making sense of the variant threads in the ancient tales that have been passed down to us concerning the goddess Kore-Persephone. I have seen a fair number of people express bewildered frustration over their inability to reconcile the standard Homeric sequence of events with what we find alluded to in the poetry of Orpheus. They assert that in the famous Hymn to Demeter that provides the mythological basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Persephone is an innocent young maiden out picking flowers with her girlhood companions when Haides, the lord of the dead, carries her off to his shadowy realm. She is such an innocent that she seems to have no independent personality of her own. Her whole life up to that point has been as the satellite of her mother and she lacks any kind of distinctive name, being called simply Kore or The Girl. It is only once she makes the willful decision to accept the seeds that Haides offers her – pomegranate seeds, mind you, the fruit of marriage sacred to Hera – that she begins to develop something like a personality of her own, reflected in the change of her name to Persephone. Therefore, reductionists argue, there is no room for the Orphic “prehistory” of this goddess and thus it is best viewed as a late and artificial intrusion, interesting perhaps for its implications but not to be regarded with the same weight of authority that the Homeric-Eleusinian myth possesses.
I am not so certain of that. While it is true that we must wait until the Neoplatonic philosophers and Christian apologists to get a full and cohesive narration of the myth of Zagreus – and even then there is a great deal of contradiction in our sources – authors as far back as Herodotos, Plato, Pindar and even a few Presocratic philosophers betray a general awareness of the myth and reference many of its most important details. Furthermore, there is no inherent contradiction in the sequence of events if we read it with a certain sensitivity.
The Orphic account can be summarized in the following way: long before Kore was out gathering flowers with the nymphs her mother kept her secluded from the world in a cave where she spent all of her time weaving a grand tapestry containing all of the wonderful things she longed to see. One day her father Zeus came to her disguised as a great serpent and he seduced her. From their unspeakable union sprang the bull-horned child Zagreus who was later torn apart by the Titans at the instigation of the jealous goddess Hera. Kore was greatly angered on account of the sorrowful things she suffered and was appeased only through mystic rites called orgies after her orge or wrath.
One of the reasons why I find it plausible to place this myth chronologically before the other is because it tallies with the experiences of many who have suffered rape and incest. Often they retreat in upon themselves, creating a simplified and artificial personality which they present to the world. They lose interest in many of the activities that excited them previously, disassociate themselves from anything sexual or adult and surround themselves only with innocent, unchallenging and playful companions. This is precisely the situation we find Kore in prior to her encounter with Haides – indeed her picking flowers could even be read as a desire to regain the lost beauty of her innocence.
If we accept this interpretation of the story then it casts Haides’ actions in an interesting new light. Because while he unquestionably abducts her forcefully she does not respond to him as a rapist. She accepts his proposal of marriage and takes her rightful place at his side as queen of those beneath the earth. Indeed when Theseus and his companion later come to liberate the goddess and return her to the sunlit world above, she makes it abundantly clear that she’s happy where she is and punishes them for their impudence. Though we are given precious few details of what transpired between the abduction and the offer of pomegranate seeds we can guess at his treatment of her by the fact that she willingly accepted those seeds and all that they represented. Indeed Haides seems to show nothing but gentle affection and respect for his bride in that he first went to ask her father for her hand in marriage and unlike his Olympian counterpart he engaged in no extramarital dalliances. Aside from Persephone Haides is romantically linked only with the nymph Minthe and that was well before he was wed. Such fidelity is truly extraordinary among our gods and speaks highly of Haides’ feelings for his wife. Likewise Persephone took no lovers, though she was briefly enamored of the child Adonis – perhaps because he reminded her of all she had lost, her innocence as well as her own son who is so often compared to the Syrian godling.
Therefore in a strange way Haides’ rape of Kore may have been liberating and healing by taking her out of surroundings that were a constant reminder of her past trauma and into a strange new realm where she could find her own bearings and craft an identity for herself on her own terms. Her controlling, worrisome mother may have served to keep her trapped in the limited and powerless role of victim despite her best intentions to care for and safeguard her daughter. Only when all of the bonds were broken, everything dear and familiar to her had been stripped away could she begin the journey into transformative wholeness. And that could happen only in a place of fertile darkness where the souls of the deceased come to be nourished after the anguish of life on earth. Haides their lord is a quiet, aloof and solemn divinity, a far cry from the intensely emotional and smothering embrace of Kore’s mother. Perhaps in the solitary and still darkness the goddess was finally able to sit with her grief, to let it out and no longer have to pretend that she was the happy, playful, flower-loving child any longer. Once her tears and rage had passed she was able to see what was left – and what was left was Persephone.
Thus I accept the Orphic chronology because it enhances one’s interpretation of the rest of the myth and brings out nuances in the characters of the gods involved. It is also the only place that makes any sense, since it couldn’t have transpired after Haides’ abduction of her as that would have surely introduced an enmity between the brothers which we can find no trace of in our sources. Of course it’s always possible that it happened in some alternate pocket reality or timeline, in which case such arguments are irrelevant.