Daffodils are in a vase on the table where I write and plentiful in the front yards around my neighborhood. Redbud trees are blooming in various shades of pink, purple, and white. A few weeks ago, in Chicago, crocus were popping through the snow. These are happy signs of spring.
Every year when I see these flowers blooming, I hear, “Persephone returns! Persephone returns!”
Persephone is the maiden in Greek mythology who was abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld to be his wife. She went unwillingly, kicking and screaming, so to speak. At least, this is the commonly accepted story of classical mythology.
But since the early 90’s, when I was working in HIV/AIDS, assisting people with living while preparing for their death, I’ve resonated with a different version of this story, one in which Persephone is in charge of her destiny. Where Persephone is transformed by her choice to descend into the darkness and emerges triumphant. She hears the call, she responds to the needs of others, she leaves all that she loves and all that is familiar. She embraces the arduous journey that will, in the end, transform her, and transform the world.
For those of us that have followed Covid-19 guidelines this last year, this story may resonate. Certainly, we didn’t choose this virus, but we did what needed to be done. We stayed home. We wore our masks. We separated ourselves from the familiar and so many that we love. This year has been a heroic journey.
In Charlene Spretnak’s pre-Hellenic version, Persephone was enjoying her life, playing in a meadow and picking flowers with friends, when she heard the moans of the dead.
She was distressed. Was there no one to welcome the spirits when they arrived to their new home? She asked her mother, Demeter, about this. Demeter admitted it was her duty but she was too busy overseeing all things growing above the ground to attend to things below. Persephone understood. She was a young maiden, no longer a child. She was old enough to respond to her destiny. She decided she would go and do what she could. The world of the living would never be right if the spirits of the deceased were not properly received.
Naturally, her mother was bereft. In the classic version, her daughter was taken from her. In Spretnak’s version, while she didn’t want to be parted from her child, she also recognized Persephone was old enough to make this decision. Indeed, the work needed to be done: there could be no harmony among the living while the dead were ignored. Light and darkness both must be blessed. So, Demeter escorted her daughter to the crevice in the rocks where she would descend. They embraced one last time and Persephone left.
In both versions, once Persephone is gone, Demeter is inconsolable.
Parted from the one she loves most in all the world, she is unable to do anything but grieve. She is unable to work and commands all crops and flowers to stop growing. Seeds and plants become dormant and the land becomes barren. For months upon months, Demeter is deeply depressed.
But then one day, after endless days had turned into countless months, something unexpected happened. While walking across the empty land that had once been a beautiful meadow where Persephone had played, blades of grass began sprouting. Then a few more. And more after that. She could hear something. Yes, the grass was singing! What was it they said? “Persephone returns! Persephone returns!”
Sure enough, Demeter looked ahead and her daughter was emerging from the underworld! As they ran towards each other, the meadow sprouted into bloom.
And so, the seasons are marked by Persephone. She returns in the Spring and all things sprout into living. She leaves in Autumn and the leaves begin to fall.
These last twelve months have been an extended winter of sorts. A barren season of sorrow and mourning. For a year we have been burrowed in our houses, separated from family and friends. Loved ones have shed their mortal bodies and crossed over to a place we can’t see. Businesses have died. Learning has stumbled. And work? What can I say about work? Surviving this pandemic has been our work.
No, finally, our long winter may be ending. Signs of spring are emerging. One in six Americans has received the vaccine. Schools are reopening. And safety guidelines are being updated by the CDC.
The earth is rejoicing. Persephone returns!
What a long hard winter these twelve months have been. We have suffered. Suffered greatly. And, hopefully, we have been transformed.
Dear Friends, may this season be a home-coming: a coming home to being alive.
Happy Spring Equinox! Persephone returns!