There is no official wheel or quarter day when Persephone returns to her mother Demeter and the earth begins to blossom with life again, but I celebrate it on either Brigid’s Day on February 1st, or on the vernal equinox. That variation appeals to me because in the story of Persephone, she is in the Underworld for three months in some versions and six months in others. So I go with what feels right. This year, it didn’t feel quite right in February, but it feels very right today.
The fall is my favourite season, and I also really love the winter. But there is just something special about spring. It’s not just that we’ve spent several months inside and now we can enjoy warmer and sunnier weather, but because we’ve spent that time in close quarters, we’ve had no choice but to work through details we ignored before. We prepare for the time that we can step out and get back to work. We’ve dealt with something during those quiet, cosy days, and now we can bring what we’ve learned into a new cycle of life.
The story of Persephone is adapted from one of the few remaining stories of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and there are some intriguing differences. Persephone is kidnapped by the god of the Underworld while she is out naming wildflowers one day, and she is taken to the Underworld against her will. Looking at it from an allegorical point of view: no one wants to deal with what’s down there in the darkness – fair enough. Who does? In this story, fears come get you and take total control: Persephone’s mother Demeter talks to Zeus, Zeus talks to Hades, Hades talks to Zeus, Zeus talks to Hermes, Hermes finds Persephone and brings her out … you get the idea. Persephone does not have a lot of authority.
But Inanna takes control of her fears and goes willingly. She goes on her own, knowingly gives up what she needs to in order to gain admittance to the Underworld, and it is her sister who she meets there – the Queen of the Underworld as a reflection of herself rather than someone outside herself. She chooses to work with her own fears. And when she wants to leave the Underworld, she does ask for help, but ultimately she arranges her own reinstatement as the Queen of heaven and earth; because she has done this deep work, she is able to free herself and resume her life.
I love that there is a movement afoot these days to reclaim Persephone. Obviously I’m not the only one who is a little frustrated at her being moved around like a piece in a game. And obviously there is more to her story than that – it just feels thin. Sometimes I see her interpreted as the goddess of the Underworld, which is interesting. Personally I’m not sure it really works because she still comes above-ground for several months of the year and that is never dealt with as far as I know, but I see what they’re trying to do – a conversion from a pawn to a Queen is a powerful change.
More successful, I think, is to leave aside what her more literal role might be and look more seriously at what is happening figuratively. The pomegranate is key. As the fruit from the Tree of Life, it brings a deep wisdom and understanding of life and death and rebirth. Her time in the Underworld shows us that in order to access this knowledge and to fully process it, we have to be quiet. We have to spend time alone, and it’s not easy. There is a practice in Buddhism called the dark retreat, which involves enclosing yourself in a totally dark space for three months. You see no light, and nobody, although someone brings you food and other basics. You just sit and meditate in the black darkness. It’s not an easy practice and it’s something only advanced meditators do because all kinds of things come up when you’re quiet like that, with absolutely no connection outside yourself and no stimulation for any of your physical senses.
We can look at our daily meditation practice as a mini-Bardo retreat. Even if it’s just for a moment (which is all I’ve ever managed) that we can be completely still and quiet and be comfortable in the darkness, fears come up. It shows you how they are always there, but we keep them down with noise and distraction. Once you let them arise, though, there is something comforting and stabilising about it. Looking at your fears, it takes away a lot of their power. I see you. It’s The Moon Tarot card, shining a light on the things in the shadows. That’s what happens when Persephone – when we – have some of those pomegranate seeds and begin to understand the deep connection between our mind and the Divine. You’ve done that work for the year now, so come join the wildflowers again!