The Hymn to Demeter: The Roles of the Gods and Events in Soul Making
At 10:30 p.m. on July 13, 2008 I received the news that my 25 year old son had been killed in the Battle of Wanat in Nuristan province, Afghanistan. The emotional floor dropped out from beneath my feet as I plunged into the darkest and most hellish experience of my life.
As I contemplated a topic for this paper, the Hymn to Demeter kept calling to me. I resisted mightily, telling myself that the subject was overdone--I wanted something fresh and original. Yet, like Hades grasp on Persephone, it would not let me go. After many readings I have come to identify with the various characters and events in this story, many analogous to my own nightmarish journey into soul making. I will explore those characters and events.
The stated purpose of the first Homeric Hymn to Demeter was to inform the Greek audience that it was possible to have a visionary experience that allowed one to rise up after going “down into the squalid darkness.”
is that man,
among the men
is not initiated
in the rites,
has no part in them,
he does not share
the same fate,
when he dies
and is down in
the squalid darkness. (Boer 160)
"…the Gk. language has for the concept of hearing only "akouo" and its compounds, whereas for seeing it has a whole series of verbs at its command. This interrelation show us already that seeing was more important for the Gks. than hearing. The individual words for seeing…denote different kinds of seeing." (Kittel V, 316)
Horao and its derivatives often emphasize personal experience—seeing an image in a dream, an apparition, or receiving a dynamic spiritual insight. It implies far more than seeing with the mere physical eye. The stated purpose of this hymn and the subsequent Eleusinian ritual was to facilitate a witnessed experience that would open the psycho-spiritual eyes to images below the level of ordinary everyday consciousness.
In addition, horao is etymologically related to eidon, the Greek word for idea or image. From eidon the name Aidoneus or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, is derived. Westerners typically associate the sky Gods with glorious new ideas of life, but the Greeks saw Hades also as the God of new ideas or insights that can be gained only by a descent into the depths of a darkened imagination. When the lights go out, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone swallows us up as we enter "into another dimension; a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind; the middle ground between light and shadow.” This is the imagistic realm of soul making.
Lastly, the verb meaning to witness, horao, is in the perfect tense and denotes a past action that produces ongoing results, indicating that the vision at the end of the historical nine day Eleusinian ritual would last a lifetime. This ancient Greek religious initiation, corroborated by historical testimonies, notably changed one’s life.
At least twice the hymn states that the result of the seeing or witnessing would produce "happiness…on the earth." The Greek word for happiness, olbios, connotes external physical prosperity as well as an internal or psychological state of contentment. In other words it is possible to undergo, or more accurately "to go under," a terrible ordeal and rise up into a condition of well being. The sled ride down into dark Hades is not the end of the trip.
The main characters of this drama are introduced at the outset: Demeter, her daughter Persephone, Aidoneus, Zeus and Earth. Curiously, Persephone is referred to only as "her daughter" and not formally named as are the other deities, perhaps because Persephone is not yet a ‘completed’ or fully grown deity. She must first be taken into the Underworld, rooted and only then ascend to Olympus and receive her name. This may signify that we as humans are not really substantial until we have undergone experiences of loss and darkness.
it pushed up
a hundred heads
and a fragrance
from its top
all the vast sky above
smile. (Boer 111)
"This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)
The two most popular death and resurrection rites in the ancient world were found in the Eleusinian and Christian stories. Both emphasized ‘night and day’ as central features. Many Christians forget that the arrival of the kingdom of God, like the Hymn of Demeter, requires the descent into the dark before moving into the light of day. This natural process of psycho-spiritual expansion conflicts with the usual orthodox Augustinian Christian teaching that says suffering, darkness and death are the ‘unnatural’ results of human original sin. This can set a person up for psychological despair when tragedies and losses occur. Both the hymn and Jesus' parable recognize both dark and light forces that are prior to and foundational to human existence and development. What Bruno Snell says of the Greek mind is true of the universal psychological process, “Every human act betrays the vitality of the ultimate cause behind it” (Snell 25). This means that loss, grief, desperation and all such descents into darkness and their subsequent ascents are not just human but mythical in proportion and somehow connected to a larger cosmology. Humans must experience the depths as well as the heights in order to know "happiness".
The seed metaphor is important for soul making. Putting roots down into the dark soil is as fundamental as rising up into the light. This point is part of the significance of Persephone spending one third of the year in Hades ‘growing down,’ and two thirds with her mother on Olympus, or ‘growing up.’ One third, or the number three, is a universal, archetypal indicator of an accomplished process with a beginning, middle and an end. The number is not to be taken as any kind of literal chronology for emotional development, but rather as a symbol of the inevitable polarities of life and the emotional cycles for psychological completion. From a depth psychological perspective, the psyche is moving toward what Jung referred to as the “homo maximus” (completed human) or the mature Anthropos (Jung, CW XIV, 400).
Examination of the Individual Mythical Characters for Soul Making
If the main purpose of this hymn is to initiate persons into a deeper and broader experience of full human consciousness, including darkness and death as well as light and life, then it is important to see each character and event in the Hymn as aspects of an individual’s soul making process. Christine Downing summarizes this point well when she writes,
In each story, every character plays some role in us. In a similar vein James Hillman reminds us, “…if our aim is psychological – that is connecting what happens with soul – then we will search for the most fundamental significance of the events in their archetypal or mythical patterns” (Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology 176). Notice that Hillman writes of ‘events’ and ‘patterns,’ plural. Every character and each event in a myth presents images which are pregnant with potential insights and in-sites into each person's soul making. It is up to the reader to turn the kaleidoscopic tube containing the various shards of the myth and see what new perspectives tumble into the reflective mind.
Demeter’s Role in Soul Making: Matter Matters
This insight reveals that loss takes place in 'da mater' or in the solid earthly realm. While grief may be experienced as taking place in our shadowy inner psyche, practically it is intimately related to what occurs in the material world, in the flesh. Soul-making requires that the visible and the invisible realms work together. In the invisible, interior sphere, symbolized by Persephone in Hades, we experience loss as a feeling of invisibility, of being insubstantial. We are John Lennon’s, “Nowhere man sitting in his nowhere land making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” It feels like Hell.
However, in the visible sphere, symbolized by Demeter (matter), we see the role played by the acquisition and loss of materiality. Persephone, the substantial daughter, is an explicit symbol of familial and relational connections. As the Greeks knew only too well, life involves many personal physical losses and earthly attachments. There could be no better symbol than a child who had been tethered to her mother by an umbilical cord to portray separation and loss. The evolution of consciousness requires both the material and immaterial experiences of loss.
Merleau-Ponty is referring to the important confluence of the physical and non-physical. This point was recognized as being central to soul-making by the second century Christian theologian Irenaeus in his opus, Against Heresies. His copious arguments against the matter-denigrating heretics, whom modern academics call Gnostics, were philosophically and psychologically motivated. According to Irenaeus, the evolution from the ‘likeness of God’ into the ‘image of God’ required the interaction of a physical body with an immaterial soul and spirit. This ontological intermingling of the material and immaterial elements for making soul was further developed by the later Nicean and Chalcedonian councils when they affirmed the notion that Christ’s nature was homoousia -- equally matter and non-matter. In other words, matter mattered as much as soul and spirit.
This means that the objective, material world is very important to soul making. Demeter’s grief did not arise because of the annihilation of her daughter’s existence, but because of her child’s invisibility through the loss of sight, touch and the sound of a living person. The rite at Eleusis would provide a new kind of sight--in-sight as the initiates would enter into the world of Hades.
A Divine Conspiracy
From a limited perspective, the Hymn of Demeter might seem to be little more than an etiological myth explaining the origins of the earthly seasons, or the horrors of Greek mothers and daughters enduring covertly arranged marriages. But if we consider this hymn psychologically and primarily as an initiation myth designed to help people move through loss and darkness, we can see a larger soul making plot involved.
There is a New Age expression that says, “The Universe is conspiring for your good.” An archetypal perspective would agree, yet remind us that the "good conspiracy" may require some pretty awful moments, if not years or decades. It takes time for a soul-seed to germinate, take root and move from the dark soil into the light of day.
On that dark night of July 13, 2008, after I was told that Jason had been killed in the early dawn hours, 4:00 a.m., in a remote village in Afghanistan, I lapsed into what can only be described as a 2-3 minute walking blackout. I came to, standing outside of my house, a tight fist raised to the heavens, screaming, “Fuck you God!” As I returned to consciousness, the glowing white moon on a stark black sky filled my vision. My very first thought was, “You are the only one here who saw my boy this morning when he disappeared from this earth.” There was a queer moment of comfort and connection with my son in seeing the familiar lunar witness. Hecate was my sole companion at that moment.
The next morning I awoke after a night of indescribable grief and troubling visions, and an imagistic voice whispered, “Michael, you are not the man you were yesterday. You will never be the same. You are being dis-integrated. You will be rebuilt. Be patient.”
I spent the next eight months wandering through a labyrinthine Underworld of mourning, seclusion and outrage. My entire self was being demolished; I was no longer the father of a son. What was I? What would I be? Only from an archetypal perspective combined with faith in a soul making cosmos did I know that something entirely new would emerge from the experience.
Several months after his death, in March of 2009, I awoke one memorable morning. Sunlight was streaming through my bedroom window, and I heard a by-now familiar voice which whispered into my semi-conscious waking mind, “Dad, the sun is back, get up; the time in Hades is over, for now.” I am neither exaggerating this quotation nor adding the word ‘Hades’ for dramatic effect-- the voice let me know that the period of groping through the oppressive abyss had come to an end. Since then I have had moments of deep grief, but nothing like those eight months.
Demeter’s moon and sun images have now become my own, bringing to mind a joining together of the Yin/Yang energies--of night and day, above and below, masculine and feminine, working together in that twilight or middle ground where new ideas emerge and souls are made. James Hillman reminds us, “The word eidolon relates with Hades himself (aidoneus) and with eidos, ideational forms and shapes, the ideas that form and shape life.” There are images and perspectives to be gained while in Hades that cannot be gained in the light. This is nuanced beautifully by Christine Downing's comments:
The Role of Zeus in Soul Making
As mentioned earlier, Zeus permitted the abduction of Persephone “far away from Demeter.” Without consulting either Persephone or Demeter, the cloud-secluded ruler of Olympus gave his chthonic brother Hades permission to seize and ravish this young and vibrant girl. Even the great Sun, Helios, defended the wisdom of Zeus’s action to the inconsolable Demeter by saying, “He (Hades) is not an unworthy son-in-law among the gods…” The sun seemed to know something Demeter did not. But Demeter would have none of it. After her conversation with Helios we read, “Yet sharper pain, more savage even, struck her heart…outraged with Zeus…” (Boer 119)
This part of the story suggests an occasional psychological disconnect between the heavenly Father and the earthly Mater. It seems that there are those wonderful times in our emotional lives when the above and below are mysteriously conjoined, but then there are those moments when the heavens seem to mercilessly assail the earth and her inhabitants, reminiscent of the Hebrew Book of Job, resulting in material and emotional disaster. The Gods seem to clobber us from above. Few of us voluntarily go down into the depths. It takes Hades’ forceful chariot abducting us with a phone call, a medical diagnosis, divorce papers served or some other horrific onslaught--quite often when we are picking flowers, like Persephone, at sunrise in a serene field with friends.
I must confess that the Zeus character is the most difficult for me to comprehend. The notion of an almighty God allowing or planning my abduction into Hell is troubling. Yet I must also admit that there is a part of me that wants “to go deeper” no matter what the cost might be. Several months ago I was contemplating John Donne’s fourteenth Holy Sonnet. Donne actually asks to be ‘ravished by God’:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (Donne XIV)
The word "ravish" in the last line comes from the Latin word rapere and gave rise to our English words ‘rapid’ and ‘rape.’ It means to abduct, seize, carry off by force and was originally used to describe the work of pirates and raiding armies. Only later did it develop the sexual connotation we most often associate with it today. Donne's is a bold prayer--a petition to be assailed, conquered and raped by the deity. He seems to understand that such experiences are not only normal to human existence, but necessary to make whole person. Psychologically, this indicates that there are seasons in life when it feels like we are being taken against our will, times of being conspired against by the Gods. Life itself seems to drag us into the depths when we least expect or deserve it. Donne’s prayer recognizes that there can come a point in the evolution of consciousness when a person actually prays for his or her fortress of ego to be assailed, razed and governed by the Holy One.
Nearly one year after Jason’s death, his face and hands appeared to me in a meditation. He extracted a large, glowing red heart from his chest and held it in both palms. From my own chest emerged a discolored, shriveled heart. His bright organ, which reminded me of the paintings of the Sacred Heart of Christ, was slowly extended toward my tarnished heart, gradually surrounding it and finally absorbing it completely. In the trance I communicated to Jason that I could not accept his heart. He smiled and conveyed, “Dad, the work you are going to do will require more compassion than you currently have; this is one reason I gave my life.”
I will end simply, with my paraphrase of the hymn’s concluding lines:
Come Demeter and Persephone,
I enter willingly into the depths of los,
for the loss of my son,
give me the kind of life and character
that will fulfill my soul’s calling.