A few years ago I heard herbalist Deborah Frances use sacred stories to describe the rhythms of living in a female body. She spoke about the underworld journey of Persephone, and the plants whose medicine specifically strengthens women who go on that journey. I have been pondering this ever since.
The story of Persephone, briefly recounted, is the tale of a Goddess so radiant that Hades, God of the Underworld, decided she could brighten even his underground kingdom. He kidnapped her and brought her down to his world, away from her family, her friends, the green and openness that she loved. She pined away below ground, unable to shine there as she had shone in her element.
Persephone’s mother Demeter, the Goddess of the harvest, was so distraught at the loss of her daughter that the crops died and the earth grew sere and cold. The other Gods and Goddesses brought the matter before Zeus, and he decreed that Persephone must be released.
However, while underground she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Their substance held her to that dark place. So it was determined that for six months of the year, Persephone could stay aboveground in the green world she loved, while plants blossomed and trees bore fruit. But she had to return to Hades for six months, one month for each seed she had eaten. During these six months, the earth is cold and barren.
Persephone’s journey–a journey through darkness, abuse, and blighting circumstances–is a heroic one, an archetype of female sacrifice and resurrection. By making this sacrifice, by journeying to the darkness rather than staying in the light that she loves, Persephone makes possible the cycles of fertility and dormancy that nurture the planet.
It is interesting to me how much more complicated this story of female redemption is than the clean journey of the male hero–how the pomegranate seeds, like children, can hold us at times in places we would rather not be, how, by bearing children, we also bear with us physical reminders of the places we have been. We can never return home completely.
It is so easy to deny, or ignore, or devalue our darker sides, the shadowy parts of our journey. It’s more acceptable to be sunny and optimistic. The appeal of the eternal summer remains strong–why do we need that cold, dark, dormant season anyway? Why not remain in warmth and abundance perpetually? We celebrate youth, flowering, prosperity. We shy away from age, death, poverty.
There is even a strong superstition in many circles that talking about the shadow side can keep us from manifesting a more positive reality. This superstition keeps us isolated and alone. If we cannot talk freely about our darker experiences, our outer reality corresponds less and less with our inner experience and we grow weaker, or recede deeper into guilt or shame.
But the world is this way! There is age, and cold, and death, and pain. And there is a power in the shadowy things we go through. They are real, and they teach us, shape us, as all experience does. When we can acknowledge this, when we can celebrate ourselves for the hard-won wisdom of an underworld descent, we can stand as full and integrated women–changed perhaps by what we have gone through, but not defeated by it. Stronger. Just as Persephone reemerges, not as the innocent, radiant Goddess she once was, but as Queen of the Underworld.
Deborah spoke about how the physical characteristics of a plant– the tortuousness of the root of Black Cohosh or the prickly stems of Motherwort–have lessons for us. Motherwort, through defining space with its sharply-cut leaves and prickly flowers, teaches us mothers to set boundaries. Hawthorn, one of the classic heart-nourishing plants, carries sharp thorns along with its abundance of healing medicine. jim mcdonald pointed out on an herb walk that this teaches us to heal our hearts with a balance of generosity and self-protection.
Just as thorns can protect a plant from being eaten down to the ground, the scars left by our encounters with the shadow side can provide us with a guardedness that is essential to our continued survival. We have bred plants to be thorn-free and loaded with fruit, just as we have created social expectations for women to be always in flower, always young and radiant. But Persephone teaches us that this very radiance can put us in danger, and that carrying a few thorns can be downright heroic.
It hurts to go through the dark times, the cold, the shadow. But it is devastating to deny these aspects of our experience. A world in perpetual flower would exhaust itself in a few seasons. Our darkness, friends, is divine.
- Persephone, Pluto, Demeter and the Equinoctes (rhythmofanewearth.wordpress.com)