The Queen of the Night
March 16, 2023
March 30, 2023


Persephone, Second Century BCE, Cyrene, Libya

At this point of the year, the equinox (literally, equal night) occurs. The spring, or vernal, equinox takes place in March in the Northern Hemisphere and marks the autumnal equinox in the Southern. It was a significant event in ancient times represented by the stories of Persephone and her mother, Demeter.

The Persephone myths come down to us from Ancient Greece but likely had a much earlier origin. (She is mentioned in Linear B inscriptions on Mycenaean tablets dated between 1400-1200 BCE, well before Homer.) She was said to have been abducted by Hades, god of the Underworld, when she wandered off from her maiden attendants, enchanted by a particularly sweet-smelling flower. Some accounts say the bloom was from the genus, narcissus. As she reached down to pick it, the earth swallowed her up. This was all part of a scheme carried out by Hades to get himself a queen. Her mother, Demeter, unable to tolerate or appreciate Persephone’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, searched for her everywhere. Not finding her, she pined, and since she controlled the seasons, fertility, and the cycle of crops, the earth grew barren. This precipitated a global crisis.

To calm her down, Zeus, aware of what his brother had done, sent Hermes, his messenger, to get Persephone back. Persephone, whether deliberately or accidentally (such things being wonderfully vague), tasted the seed of the pomegranate before she left, which compelled her to remain in the underworld forever. This dropped a monkey wrench in the works, and a compromise had to be cobbled together. Negotiations between all parties swiftly followed and a shared custody arrangement was agreed upon. Persephone would spend part of her existence below ground and part above. That decision didn’t please everyone. How could it? But it was workable enough to handle Demeter’s upset and Hades’ lack of a wife, while inadvertently giving Persephone the power to transition the gap between life and death. Frankly, I think Persephone came out the best from this arrangement and it casts an interesting light on the accidental or deliberate part I mentioned above.

In keeping with that, Plato comments on her wisdom in the Cratylus. He says that her name indicates that the goddess is wise because she is able to grasp, comprehend, and follow things as they are swept along and thereby understand them.

Whether for that reason, or another, Persephone is always portrayed fully robed, unlike other goddesses, likely as a token of respect but also out of fear given her extraordinary powers. She is often depicted carrying in her hand a pomegranate, a torch, or a sheath of grain.

Together with Demeter, Persephone became a key figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries which celebrated human death and rebirth, centuries before it became a Christian theme. Easter is said to occur around this time in the Northern Hemisphere because it marks the return of Persephone to the upper world and with her, the promise of Spring and renewal.

Not all people believe in the cyclicality of life that these myths demonstrate. Science tends toward the linear view. Ironically, the subject most resistant to cyclicality is economics, and yet the repetition of booms and busts continues unabated, observable to all. I, for one, think of cycles as friendly and grounding regularities that give me comfort. The bad is always followed by the good and vice versa. It is the pattern of our lives, after all.

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