Persephone’s Smile

The myth of Persephone suggests three stages in creativity that can deepen our art practice. Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, is renowned for her beauty. She loves to roam in the fields and everywhere nature celebrates her presence with a profusion of flowers. Hades falls in love with her, and after asking Zeus for her hand, abducts Persephone into his underworld kingdom. Demeter is overwhelmed with grief. She cannot find Persephone anywhere, and when she learns the truth, in her anger she causes Nature to appear barren. The matter is brought before Zeus and it is decided that Persephone can return to the world of the living provided she has not eaten anything during her stay in the underworld. However, she has eaten 6 pomegranate seeds, so she must spend 6 months of every year there, during which time Nature is visited by winter.

What do we learn from this myth? At a simple level, Persephone is the mediation between Demeter and Hades. She has beauty, innocence, love of nature, but she also becomes Queen of the Underworld. She resides in darkness and in light.

Her name means “she who destroys light” or “bringer of destruction.” From this we see that her figure probably combines two forms of divinity: a Kali-like figure from the underworld and the maidenly Kore, who is associated with innocence and growing things. The doubleness in Persephone’s character, however complex, is preceded by two stages of personification that are equally important.

The first stage of creativity comes to us in the figure of Demeter. She is the goddess of nature in its green and fruitful state. She brings harvest and abundance, and in her Roman incarnation as Ceres, she is goddess of cereals. The etymology of creativity relates its Latin origin, crescere  (to grow), with the goddess Ceres, thereby connecting creativity to growth and to Nature.

To appreciate the significance of this concept, we need to remind ourselves of the mainstream understanding of creativity. Today, creativity is synonymous with artifice. We pride ourselves on our knowledge of the brain and its mechanisms. We talk of mind as simply a bio-mechanical phenomenon, so that creativity becomes just another chemical by-product. With our culture’s enthusiasm for performance and productivity, we market “creativity chemicals”, mental exercises that supposedly release creativity in you quickly, as well as charts that identify creativity as residing in certain zones of the brain. Our culture demands speed, so learning and experience have to be presented in terms of minutes and hours rather than indefinite, timeless experiences. Our culture demands clarity, so we offer superficial synopses and recipes for success. Our culture demands easy access, so we have books, courses, and tapes that promise to “upgrade” and “boost” creativity as if we were discussing computer technology rather than the body. Creativity has become something in a box; we have imprisoned it in a grid of logic. Like fast food, course-derived creativity often has very little nutrition to offer.

However, if we immerse ourselves in nature we can find a creativity that feeds us. This idea is based on the premise that nature is a living system, and that life feeds life. Another premise is that nature is greater than a human being in the obvious sense of its complexity, variety, and vastness. With this new understanding, we can see ourselves as within nature rather than apart from it. Being within nature, being inside nature when we consider the air we breathe and the totality of the biosphere, we realize that we have the possibility of receiving finer impressions and insight from nature, that is, our interaction with nature is such that a greater dimension of our consciousness comes into play. Such a process is quite different from studying a slide or dissecting fragments for the sake of science, valuable as those activities might be. Instead, we can develop a practice that cultivates certain kinds of seeing, impressions, and by extension, a new aesthetic process.

The myth tells us that Demeter is the goddess of harvest and abundance. By association, a theory of creativity that derives from our experience and observation of nature and a creative practice that works with natural processes should yield abundance. We can test such an assertion, but the test would first require our willing immersion in Nature, aesthetic practices in harmony with natural rhythms, and an ecological point of view toward the problems of life. As well, “abundance” cannot be measured, in this case, by market success or total product. Instead, we look to the inner dimensions of creativity.

Demeter, on her own, offers us an incomplete vision of Nature and the possibilities of creativity. She belongs to the realm of the full sun, to fruit and grain, to celebration. But we know that reality also includes darkness, and we know that Nature is not always friendly. The entry of Hades into the story, a god who resides in the underworld, points to the invisible dimensions of Nature.

Hades brings death into the narrative. His negotiation with Zeus tells us that his presence is legitimate. The Greek imagination allowed death and the mysteries of the after-life to be a part of Nature in a manner that was more than mere acknowledgment that we all die.

The second stage of creativity suggested by the myth describes death as a part of Nature in a way that restores mystery rather than simply confirms fact. We start with the observation that Demeter-abundance is coherent within herself and does not contain her opposite: barrenness and death. In the same way, Hades, as ruler of the underworld, is coherent within himself and cannot have abundance and life in his character. When we place his character next to the character of Demeter, we find another interpretation for the dichotomy: there can be no abundance without loss, no celebration without death. Hades’ presence in the myth affirms the need to appease the forces of the underworld in every act meant to promote fertility, health and plenitude. A closer reading of the myth offers us a yin-yang flavor: every ray of sunshine evokes a stream of darkness, every birdsong the crack of winterchill, but all this without in the least diminishing the joy in the light and warmth. We are simply sharing with the Greeks the awareness that nature does not possess absolutes (and certainly not in a pantheistic view of reality such as the Greeks had), but that on the level of experience, light and darkness, for example, will contain elements of each.

A creativity informed by Hades in the Persephone myth is able to face whatever is unpleasant and even frightful. The Hades stage is cognizant of unconscious influences on our practice. Talent, training, ideas, physical fitness are only some of the conditions for successful work. If we have unconscious programs that debilitate us, attitudes that seek excuses and escape, then all creativity will be sabotaged. We have to face what painter Ciel Bergman has called “the inner critic.” We have to face our hidden motivations for work. In such ways, we enter the domain of Hades, the underworld. We can, like Orpheus or Aeneas, return alive to our own world, but there is always a price to pay, a tribute, a sacrifice that acknowledges the power of the underworld. And, with our human power to remember and to name, we can bring to full awareness what was once only dreamed or feared. And we will be allowed to use the gifts of Hades (remembering dreams, protecting ourselves and others against demons, knowing other people’s unconscious motivations) in our work.

If Demeter and Hades are separate and coherent, then how can this blending of characteristics take place? Their separateness is important to ensure the particularity of all elements in their domains. We are really talking about a kind of attention–that we bestow on things Demeter attention which evokes our gratitude and joy at the bounty and fullness of Nature and that we wear our Hades attention which knows how to approach loss, grief, death, the mysteries of after-life. An art, such as the ancient Greeks created, which personifies these different kinds of awareness makes it easier to remember and to evoke appropriate responses.

Hades is made to fall in love with Persephone. Because she is an immortal herself, he must get permission from Zeus before he acts. His “propriety” reminds us that even the gods cannot act outside their lawful limits. But what else does Hades’ story tell us? He is the lord of death and Persephone in her Kore state is feminine beauty, innocence, and life. Death longs to experience life and its attributes, but cannot do so on his own. So he takes Persephone. The ground opens up one day as she wanders the fields and she disappears into the underworld. The details of her disappearance alone strike horror in the heart of any parent. No one anywhere on earth knows what has happened to Persephone, and not even the god-like powers of Demeter allow her to discover what has happened—at first. Loss and grief are part of the domain of Hades, and the metaphorical treatment of the death of youth and how we experience it is clear.

The desperate love of Hades and the terrible grief of Demeter once more emphasize the separation of their natures. Only in the character of Persephone are we given the possibility of mediation. Her presence in the myth allows the bringing together of Demeter and Hades opposites, life and death. Through Persephone, Demeter experiences grief and, hence, an aspect of Hades reality. Through Persephone, Hades experiences the world of living nature, an aspect of Demeter reality. The apparent compromise of having Persephone spend 6 months on earth and 6 months in the underworld brings the myth to a cyclical harmony and gives us poetically the origin of winter and spring.

Persephone presents us with the third stage of creativity. She knows both innocence and death, the joys of Nature and the mysteries of the Underworld. Persephone also knows beginnings and endings and brings them together. She reconciles the visible and the invisible. However, her beauty conceals a terror for the naive, because she has many aspects, and we only want to see her fragility and beauty. When she surrounds herself with the blooms of narcissus, do we see she is about to be taken? Do we see she is the Queen of Darkness? Do we see her return with the power to bring life back to the earth (mediated through Demeter)? To be able to see all her faces while we gaze at her beauty, to not forget her freshness, innocence and fragrance while we remember that her smile conceals her “other” significance as “she who destroys light” is a test of our ability to keep ambiguities and polarities alive for the span of their energy.

The Persephone aspect of nature reveals that what is most precious to us about nature flows between invisibility and visibility. Flowers seem to come out of nowhere, from seeds hidden in the earth; fruit, vegetables, grain one day so glorious and the next day withered; certain skies and seascapes create longings for perpetual renewal and feelings of well-being and peace, while the next day the same place presents skies and seas that are gray depression and regret, as if the perfection of the previous day had never existed. What we all recognize as the passing nature of phenomena is the territory of Persephone. But while we are able to accept that weather and seasons change, we seldom explore, firstly, how fickle our sense-memories are, and, secondly, where the beauty we celebrated has gone. “Flowers die” is the terse summary, but the comment “flowers live” is hardly adequate for what they give us. The plant lives and dies, but what we call the bloom, particularly when it seizes us in its fragility has been a phenomenon every bit as spiritual as it has been physical. Roses, poppies, irises, for example, show us their exquisite souls even as perspective and scale are momentarily destroyed and we feel engulfed by their petals. Wherever their Persephone beauty escapes to in the gradual change of the seasons, we can follow, if we are guided by spirit and imagination. That realm is not memory (remember the lilies by the pond?); it is not invention; it is not sense data and their associations. We don’t really have a category for this kind of experience ever since the Romantic poets like Coleridge and Keats fell from favor. Certainly painters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Ciel Bergman, and Jack Wise, among others understood.

The third stage of creativity also subsumes the other two, even though we are free to work with only one of the first two stages. The stage of Demeter is the sensuous acceptance of life’s bounty. Nature as food. We cultivate impressions from our immersion in Nature and respond with gratitude to what is given. The second stage is the Hades realm, which recognizes the everpresence of death and suffering in life. Particularly important is how we develop resilience: the surfacing from our depths of creatures we didn’t even know existed needs a certain kind of toughness. We also develop ways of entering the darkness and returning with treasure. The third stage is Persephone, who, in her assimilation of the maidenly Kore and the terrifying Queen of the Underworld, links beginnings to endings. She teaches us how things start and where they go after their time is up. She presents us with a way of reading appearances, particularly attractive appearances, the experience of which we can spoil through maudlin associations, trite thinking, or neediness.

Persephone’s smile: is our imagination strong enough to withstand the urge to sleep and once more resort to regrets, longings, commonplace illustrations?