Persephone and the Discomfort of Darkness

by Carrie Gessner

Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.

pers01
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.

Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.

When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” [1]. And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:

Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. [2]

pers0
Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1912

Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.” [3] What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?

stqI think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology [4], but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” [5]. As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.

A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.


[1] Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] “Questions about The Star-Touched Queen.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/questions/766624-is-there-an-indian-myth-or-fairy-tale-this. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.

[5] Chokshi, Roshani. The Star-Touched Queen. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 171.

 

Metis: Mother of Wisdom

by Meagan Logsdon

The ancient world often portrayed its wisdom figures—whether literal divinity or personification of virtue—as feminine. The Greeks gravitated toward this in the form of Athena, wisdom-warrior goddess, and later in the form of Sophia, one of Plato’s four cardinal virtues. Yet before these two more renowned figures was Metis.

Housefly_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_18050Hesiod’s Theogany[1] places Metis among the second generation of Titans. She is the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and her siblings numbered in the thousands. Hesiod calls her the wisest among both gods and mortals. Zeus took her as his first wife, perhaps desiring to have constant access to her counsels as he was establishing his rule. However, Metis was prophesied to bear children who would inherit her great wisdom and who could potentially overthrow Zeus. To prevent this, Zeus deceived Metis into transforming herself into a fly, whereupon he swallowed her, unaware that Metis had already conceived a child. For Zeus, it was enough that he had corralled Metis in such a way that she would never bear her fated children but would still “devise for him both good and evil.”

Lodged in the belly of her husband, Metis did not sit idle. She crafted weapons and armor for her daughter, Athena, and when she sprang from Zeus’s head on the banks of the river Trito, she was fully matured and battle-ready. Pindar, in his Seventh Olympian Ode[2], tells further that Hephaestus split Zeus’s head with an axe so that Athena could emerge, perhaps because the smithing of Metis was so painfully cacophonous to the thunder god.

Pallas_Athena_by_Franz_von_Stuck
Pallas Athena by Franz von Stuck (1898)

Neither Hesiod nor Pindar shed any light on how Zeus was able to trick Metis, and so here we enter the realm of speculation. Could it be that Metis perceived her husband’s fears in light of the prophecy and, rather than leaving him and risk the world crumbling into chaos in her absence, altered herself to perpetuate the effects of her own wisdom in Zeus’s rule? She knew his might alone would not be sufficient to maintain order. Into his depths she went, creating a somewhat blurred symbiosis of masculinity and femininity from which issued Athena, out of her mother’s womb first but then her father also—a womb containing a womb.

This dependence of rulers on feminine wisdom is carried over into Plato’s Republic[3], where he envisions the head of his utopia as a philosopher king, a friend to the feminine embodiment of Wisdom or Sophia. Plato also calls Sophia the noblest of the parts of virtue in his Protagoras.[4]

A similar personification of Divine Wisdom as feminine can be found in the Hebrew scriptures. The first chapter of Proverbs entreats the hearer to heed Wisdom’s voice and avoid disaster.[5] Some of the early Christian Fathers, including Justin Martyr and Origen, would eventually attempt to marry Platonic philosophy with these passages, describing the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) as an aspect of the Logos—the pre-incarnated, cosmic Christ—from John 1.[6] Here in Christianity, too, is the universe born and sustained through the partnership of masculinity and femininity.

Thus, when vehicles change—Greek mythology to philosophy to Christianity—Divine Wisdom, following in Metis’s metamorphosing footsteps, changes with them. Yet always, in whatever form, she persists as a creative force, a vital bulwark against disorder.

Jacques_Louis_Dubois_-_Minerva
Minerva by Jacques Louis Dubois

[1] http://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html#n30

[2] http://www.bartleby.com/library/prose/4043.html

[3] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

[4] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/protagoras.html

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+1%3A20-33&version=NRSV

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A1-5&version=NRSV

Daphne’s Laurel Tree and the Me Too Movement

by K.P. Kulski

In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heinepagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.

As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be Stone_Buddha_covered_in_tree_rootsrepetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.

In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or laurel-forest-2228307_960_720greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.

Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”[1]

This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini DaphneDaphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.

Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.

But what does that mean?

The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to

The Dryad
The Dryad

practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.

The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for John Roddam Spencerthe withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.

These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.[2]

John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide[3]

We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a LaBelleDame-Cowper-Lwarning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”

However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1969), 115.

[2] John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 08 MAR 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad

[3] Ibid.

Venus Rises

by Kaitlin Bevis

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” ― John BergerWays of Seeing

When people think of the Goddess Aphrodite, they think of sex. Of lust. Of cheating and scandal. They think vanity. Every version of Aphrodite I saw or read growing up went the extra mile to also portray her as a dumb blonde. Part of that is because of myths that did not portray her in a positive light. She did cheat on her husband, she was promiscuous, and her vanity did kind of start an epic war in Troy.

But then again, why is Aphrodite, a goddess who was forced into marriage to Hephaestus despite her long-term, established relationship with Ares, judged more harshly than Zeus for cheating on Hera? Why is her promiscuity viewed more harshly than the fact that Zeus was a serial rapist? The Trojan War was bad, but remember that time Zeus unleashed Pandora’s Box on human kind?

The way we interpret and reinterpret stories is a window into our values. The fact that Zeus is often a multi-dimensional character with some flaws whose worst crimes never seem to come up in most retellings and reimaginings, and Aphrodite is a stereotypical vain, mean-girl slut, says a lot about our current values.

Double standards are nothing new, but there’s a particular insidiousness to the double standards surrounding women who are confident in their beauty. Don’t believe me, check out what happens when a group of women start responding with “I know,” to compliments.

“Oh my gods.” Adonis threw up his hands in frustration. “Could you be more conceited?”

Why is that a bad thing?” I demanded.I honestly don’t get how anyone manages to function in a society with such a contradictory social code. You claim to value hon­esty, yet you thrive on lies. Calling a plain person plain is somehow an insult instead of a statement of fact, meanwhile the only acceptable form of validation is from other people giving you compliments and then you have to deny them?”

 — Aphrodite

It’s no wonder so many women are plagued with self-doubt. Women are socialized to constantly belittle themselves “What, this old thing,” and downplay their achievements, “Oh, thank you, it was nothing, really.”

That’s why rewriting Aphrodite into a complex, actual character was so important to me. Here was a woman who was confident in her sexuality and her appearance and played by the exact same rules as the men in the Pantheon. Historically speaking, that’s huge. That our modern-day society took a character from an ancient society that was totally cool with things like rape and owning people and reduced her to a more offensive, one dimensional, cardboard cut-out of every stereotype negatively portraying women you can think of, is frankly terrifying.

 

The final book in the Aphrodite Trilogy, Venus Rising was released June 9th. Please enjoy this spoiler-free excerpt. Venus Rising Banner

Prologue

Aphrodite

I’M NOT PERFECT. But I was designed to be. Once upon a time, Zeus sculpted me from foam and death. He made me into a puppet. A box. A symbol. A thing designed to be perfectly obedient to him.

I bent and twisted beneath his onslaught of lightning and thunder, but when the storm cleared, I remained. Fragile and broken, but still alive. His death released me from his vision of perfection, leaving me free to find my own. That’s when I discovered how far from perfect I truly was.

I’ve been called promiscuous, shallow, arrogant, self-centered, annoying, and worse by beings who physically can’t lie. They’re not wrong. I’m riddled with flaws. I am neither strong nor brave. I cling too tightly, love too freely, and fear that without my beauty, there’s nothing left of me. Nothing real.

But life goes on, regardless of my uncertainty. As time passed, I had no choice but to learn to stand on my own two legs, shaky as they might be.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I’m nobody’s statue or posable doll. I am neither a box nor a symbol. Yes, I’ve been loved by war, struck by lightning, hugged by spring, and mauled by the sea, but I’m more than a victim. I am greater than my story.

I’m real, flaws and all, and that’s terrifying. Every day, I become someone else. Someone stronger. Wiser. Better. I’m becoming myself.

But that process isn’t always pretty.

If you want to learn more about Kaitlin Bevis, visit her website www.kaitlinbevis.com for bonus content.