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Why We Need Harry: Harry Potter and the Process of Individuation

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When J.K. Rowling gave Harry Potter to the world, she had little to no idea how far the fan phenomenon would go. With the release of each book, the fandom grew experientially, and still continues to grow. For example, a couple years ago, Wizard Rock, a genre of grassroots music written, performed, and inspired by the books, was defined only by Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, and the Remus Lupins. Now there are more bands than I can begin to name, including Melissa and the Anellis, named after the host of the popular fan podcast, PotterCast. That people are interacting so strongly with Harry Potter demonstrates its mythic powers, but are not always using these powers to inspire new, non-Harry Potter-themed creations. Of course, there are exceptions.

Within the Harry Potter dialogue, there is much discussion toward understanding the why’s and what’s of both the books and the fan phenomenon, but little discussion on the how’s. For this reason, I recommend plugging Harry Potter through the translator of mythology and depth psychology. These disciplines provide a language and some tools for understanding Harry Potter in an endearing fashion, not simply as a passing phenomenon. The languages of myth and psychology help a reader (or viewer) internalize the myth, to experience it on a deeply personal level, rather than letting the words or images stay on the page or screen and beyond consciousness. One example of this is the application of Jung’s theory of the process of individuation. Through an understanding of this process, one can experience Harry Potter not just as a literary hero, but also as a metaphorical self through whom we can all undergo a part of our own individuation process.

The process of individuation is the process by which one becomes an "’in-dividual,’ that is, a separate indivisible unity or ‘whole’” (Storr 212). There are two levels of understanding this. Linguistically, we acknowledge the individual to be one with traits unique from the rest of the group. The traits are often unconscious personality traits, but they manifest within the person’s life from personal expression of opinion to the manner in which one dresses. The other level is one in which a person achieves a degree of wholeness such that he or she is no longer psychically divisible, meaning he or she operates within and acknowledges the realm of psyche and is not constantly shifting gears for the sake of the collective outer world. As demonstrated in the phraseology, this is a process, one that may never be fully achieved, and only then, in old age. Myth offers the possibility of the process and provides the metaphorical tools to help guide one to this state of wholeness.

A central misunderstanding of the process stems from the parallels with Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey called the monomyth. This process of separation, ordeal, and return is essential to individuation because it is through the constant repetition of these steps that one can truly become whole, limited only by the willingness of a person to see it thusly, because the goal of the quest is for the boon of the Self. The hero’s journey as story structure gives a sense of finitude that the journey ends at the end of the story, rather than acknowledge the ongoing process through which the hero, ourselves, must journey. Jung never intended the process to be complete within the framework of the Western psyche, and probably marveled at the Eastern quest for enlightenment. I believe that he would have scoffed at the number of young people taking an interest in the process as a possible goal of life, not just as a theory to study. Indeed, the popularity of Harry Potter has brought renewed interest in the hero’s journey. Exploring the books through individuation offers a different perspective by which to understand the books, and, hopefully, keep them relevant as fans move into new stages of psychic development.

The “scientific”, “concrete” evidence of this process comes from Carl Jung’s rediscovery of alchemy. While the subject is often disregarded in the modern scientific community as a non-science, Jung recognized within it a “mine of symbolism” that removed the alchemical process from a literal transformation into gold into a metaphorical parallel to “the way a human being, with a correct use of will and imagination … can enter a process whose goal is the creation of an internal structure he called the self[,]” symbolized by the Philosopher’s Stone (Schwartz-Salant 2). From this reading, the alchemist’s latent goal was to unlock or uncover missing or well-covered psychic energies while manifestly experimenting with substances and chemicals, which, incidentally, helped induce the hallucinations that guided the alchemist closer to his latent goal. Many of the alchemical writings that survived the wrath of the Church are written cryptically, as though written by the psyche itself. The fear of the Church against this discipline suggests a fear at the loss of power over the subjects due to their own psychic awakening and, thus, the pulling away from God and the Church. For this reason, many alchemical texts were destroyed. Clearly, the central body for worshiping the Christian deity was suffering from its own God-complex.

J.K. Rowling has said or has been credited with saying in numerous interviews that she drew inspiration for Harry Potter from alchemy and classic British literature, namely Jane Austen and Grail romances. The story is of Harry Potter, an orphan, who learns he is a wizard after living with his non-magical relatives after the death of his parents. Not only is he a wizard, but he is also famous for vanquishing the Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard committed to a reign of terror that extends beyond the boundaries of the Wizarding community. Harry learns that Voldemort was not fully killed but only defeated, and that he is still pursuing Harry while slowing regaining the power he once had. It is Harry’s mission, with a little help from his friends, to avenge the death of his parents and rid the world of this evil forever. With each book, chronicling one year of Harry’s life, he comes closer to achieving his goal as he learns more about magic, his opponent, and himself.

The stories are told solely through Harry’s perspective, with a few necessary sidetracks at the start of the novels to set the stage for the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort or one of his helpers that occurs at the end of each book. This narrative perspective places the reader in Harry’s position, even if he is not the character to whom he or she is mostly drawn. It is through Harry that the reader experiences Hogwarts, Harry’s school, Hogsmeade, the wizarding village near the school, and Harry’s relationship to the various members of the Wizarding world. Because the series is told through Harry’s perspective, as he learns more about himself and the Wizarding world, so does the reader. As Harry develops into a stronger wizard, so does the reader, though unconsciously. As Harry finds the hero’s strength, so does the reader. But how does this happen? As I have previously suggested, the key is the alchemical process, as psychic parallel for the process of individuation. Through literature, this manifests as literary alchemy, the process by which an individual, or prima materia, is transformed through engaging with literature, which serves as the metaphorical catalyst that launches or guides the prima materia through its transformation. Because of the limited nature of this assessment, I will focus on some key plot points and symbols rather than try to confront all of the symbols that are critical for an alchemical understanding Harry Potter and individuation.

The first book lays the groundwork nicely: Harry, once he learns that he is a wizard, gets thrown rail station trolley first into the Wizarding World during the first part of the book. His first adventure involves trying to protect the Philosopher’s Stone that is hiding in the Hogwarts castle from theft. Although he is convinced one of the professors is going to steal it, it is actually the target of Voldemort. That both hero and arch-nemesis are seeking the same boon is significant to how the series ends. Voldemort seeks the Philosopher’s Stone for its power of eternal life. Though he and we are unaware until the last part of the seventh book, the power of Voldemort’s life lies in Harry because he was inadvertently made into a horcrux the night his parents were killed. A horcrux is a vessel of some kind into which one places a piece of his or her soul. It is very dark magic and often involves a murder as a part of the spell. Harry is Voldemort’s Philosopher’s Stone, which, Jung notes, is sometimes called the orphan (Schwartz-Salant 45). For Harry, the Philosopher’s Stone means something different, but he is not concerned with what that meaning is. He is more focused on ensuring that Voldemort does not get the Stone. Consider how Harry gets the Stone at the end of the first book: With Professor Quirrell and the spirit of Lord Voldemort standing behind him, Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised, a mirror that shows one’s deepest desire, which Dumbledore charmed to give the Stone to someone seeking it with no intent to use it. As Harry gazes at himself in the mirror, he feels a sudden weight in his pocket and realizes the Stone has just been magically given to him. The image here is that Harry must look within himself in order to reach the Stone, implying that the most rewarding boon is the one found within the psyche that will lead an individual into wholeness. This lays the groundwork for the rest of the series. Through self-reflection, Harry, acting the part for the reader otherwise incapable of going on a literal journey, can grow into the hero he is expected to be, and he takes the readers along in this journey.

As Harry proceeds through the trials and ordeals of both Voldemort and adolescence, the events of the Tri-Wizard tournament both foreshadow the rest of the series and provide several metaphors for the alchemical process of individuation. When the tournament is announced, it is open only to seventh years and one champion will be selected from each participating school, Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang. The impartial judge choosing the contestants is the Goblet of Fire, a symbol parallel to the Grail. Three champions are selected, plus Harry, whose name was mysteriously entered into the Goblet. Jung often references the alchemical significance of the trinity becoming a quarternity, symbolizing perfection by union with the divine feminine (Storr 236). Furthermore, this movement into a quarternity represents a union of the four elements crucial to Western alchemy: Harry represents fire and Cedric of Hogwarts represents earth, as those are the elements associated with their houses. Not much is known about the other two participating schools within canon, but one can surmise the other two elements based on the school’s preferred mode of transport. Viktor of Durmstrang represents water because the students arrive to Hogwarts by ship, while Fleur of Beauxbatons is associated with air because those students arrive by flying carriage. The quintessence of the four elements is their mutual goal of winning the Tri-Wizard cup. Harry’s role in the quarternity is to attempt to bridge the three schools. His actions during the tournament win him the respect and loyalty among the other competitors that become crucial in the last book of the series.

The three events of the tournament take the reader through the alchemical process and also a condensed hero’s cycle. The first task is to rescue a golden egg, the cosmic egg, from a nesting mother dragon. Each champion is to come up with a way to get past her in the least amount of time with the least amount of damage. This is the nigredo because the prima materia, the champion, while risking fire to rescue the egg, is exposed to the full onslaught of the tournament. Before this event, the champions thought that this was just fun and games. By going through this blackening phase, they enter a limbo between being students and being tournament champions. More pressure rests on Fleur and Viktor because Hogwarts as double the chance of winning.

The rescued egg holds the clue to the second task, which can only be heard by opening the egg under water. The only way for the reader to fully understand the power of the cosmic egg, the image suggests, is to plunge into the unconscious and listen to it in its own element, pictured as water. The voice within the egg is a mermaid, a catalyst figure that lures the alchemical hero into the abyss, which is the test behind the second task. The champions are to rescue a special friend from the Mermaid Kingdom in the lake by the school. Harry, the first to arrive on the scene, stays to make sure everyone is rescued properly, and eventually saves his friend, Ron, and also Fleur’s sister, Gabrielle. This albedo task is both a cleansing process after the nigredo but also represents and foreshadows the sacred union to come later in the series. Harry’s swim into the Mermaid Kingdom represents his willingness to embrace the feminine. He has to fight against the Mer-King to allow him to take Gabrielle to the surface, raising a piece of his inner feminine into consciousness.

The last event, the maze, ends with Harry and Cedric unexpectedly transporting to a distant graveyard when they grasp the Tri-Wizard Cup unexpectedly transporting Harry and Cedric to a distant graveyard. The events that transpire in the graveyard are Harry’s rubedo because the events that happen bring Harry into a transformed state closer, though not entirely, to one of purification: he witnesses Cedric’s death, a symbolic death of things to come, Voldemort’s rise as a homunculus from the cauldron, a brief reunion with his parents caused by the power of the phoenix feather embedded in the cores of both Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands. Through Harry, the reader experiences a death of innocence, but also a transformation into wisdom. The graveyard sequence is not only a period of being in the unconscious, but also of being in the shadow.

Like the Philosopher’s Stone book-ending the entire series, the Goblet of Fire and the Tri-Wizard Cup bookend the events of the fourth book. These cups are intentional parallels to the Holy Grail, which is symbolic of the quest of individuation and parallel to the Philosopher’s Stone. In the Grail romances, the Grail is symbolic of the hero’s boon that is sought but rarely found. This is the boon of the Self, of psychic wholeness. With each adventure, the Grail knight, like Harry, grows stronger. A representation of the Philosopher’s Stone can be won at the end of an adventure, but it will only be the genuine stone after a campaign of adventures.

Another psychologically relevant symbol, but not necessarily alchemical, of Harry’s individuation is the "King’s Cross" chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Having just been struck with the killing curse from Voldemort, Harry awakens in a sort of netherworld between the realm of life and death imagined as London’s King’s Cross station, the location of Harry’s threshold crossing into the Wizarding World, to the screaming of a mutilated, naked child. Dumbledore is there and Harry is given the opportunity to ask him several questions previously unasked. To Harry, Dumbledore represents both the Wise Old Man/Mentor archetype and also a manifestation of his wiser, shadow-self containing the good aspects of his shadow. This final conversation with his mentor allows him to embrace, if not integrate to a degree, these aspects of himself. The screaming thing is the piece of Voldemort’s soul that Harry has unknowingly carried around for sixteen years. This is the negative aspect of his shadow. As though to emphasize that these negative aspects are inherent in the psyche and individuation, Dumbledore urges Harry to forget the child, because there is nothing he can do for him now. This is not in opposition to Robert Johnson’s urging to acknowledge the shadow. Harry on several occasions acknowledges Voldemort’s role as his arch-nemesis, and understands that a link exists between the two of them. This scene enables him to understand to what extent that link exists. By defeating Voldemort, Harry is conquering his shadow. I doubt such a feat is possible within the "real" world, but the image is an admirable guide for the readers. Harry is given the choice to live or die at this point. Should he die, he becomes a martyr to Voldemort’s cause. Should he live, he will be able to complete his task of defeating Voldemort. Either way, his partial death is self-less and thus affords all of his friends protection against further harm from Voldemort. To bring to a close this phase of Harry’s individuation, he asks Dumbledore once he has decided to live whether or not this is all in his head. Dumbledore responds, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” (Rowling, Deathly 723)

A comment is necessary about the horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows, because not only do they carry the plot of the last two books, but they also function in the prolonging of life in a negative, superficial manner without the transformative significance of the Philosopher’s Stone. These tools are ego’s tools to escape the individuation process used to prolong the end rather than focus on the inner work, the alchemical process that will make present life more memorable. There are seven Horcruxes: Riddle’s diary, the Gaunt ring, Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup, Ravenclaw’s diadem, Voldemort’s snake Nagini, and Harry. As mentioned above, they are vessels to contain pieces of a person’s soul. Voldemort, fearing death, created them in the hopes of indefinitely prolonging his life. Considering that Jung’s message is to bring about the wholeness of psyche, splitting the soul is counter to the process of individuation, and explains Voldemort’s downfall. The more he split his soul, the more focused on ego he became. We can assume that each piece of soul hidden in a horcrux is a good piece of Voldemort, those aspects he chose to repress rather than address. Thus he became the shadow.

There are three Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Invisibility Cloak. These three are tools to cheat death, as they are described in Rowling’s fairytale, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” In the tale, the brother who is most happy is the one with the invisibility cloak. With this, he was able to live his life to the fullest possible extent while remaining shielded from death, which allowed him the time and opportunity to pursue individuation and achieve it before dying.

The Harry Potter series is not only an entertaining series of books about which people are fanatics. It has a strong hold on those fanatics and lends itself to discussion. Fan conferences are not just opportunities for fans to dress up and meet other fans. They are also academic conferences for scholarly dialogue. Scholars from all disciplines are likewise fascinated by the Harry Potter series and base their interpretations on the assumption that the Harry Potter series is vital to understanding the various trials and tribulations of both adolescence and the modern socio-political atmosphere. It is my contention that Harry Potter is a myth for modern times, with enough timelessness to be a respected myth for future generations. In order to understand the power of this myth, it is helpful to look at it through the lens of depth psychology. As modern myth drifts further from sacred narrative, it becomes progressively more psychological. Interpretations of modern myths follow the hero into the unconscious as he or she quests for the boon of the Self, the goal of the individuation process symbolically understood in the alchemical process as the Philosopher’s Stone. The confines of this paper prevent a full psychoanalysis of Harry Potter; however, the few examples I have given demonstrate that such a mythic reading is possible, and that doing so can unlock an understanding of the fever behind the fandom.

Works cited

  • Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art. London: Diamond Books, 1994.
  • Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
  • Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
  • —–. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York, Scholastic, 2000.
  • —–. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
  • Schwartz-Salant, Nathan, ed. Jung on Alchemy. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1995.
  • Storr, Anthony, ed. The Essential Jung. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1983.

Persephone: Queen of Individuation

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The Homeric "Hymn to Demeter" is one of the oldest, primary sources for the Demeter and Persephone myth. This myth tells of the separation of a mother and daughter through a supposed abduction and rape of the daughter and the mother’s suffering for her loss. Because the Homeric Hymn is from Demeter’s perspective, much emphasis has been placed on the pains of her separation with Persephone’s story to be understood only through the story she tells her mother upon their reunion. Persephone’s half of the story is as much compelling as that of her mother’s because her myth is one of individuation for young women and, in the broader sense, as a myth for exploring the shadow. A mother’s pain of separation from her daughter is a crucial myth, but modern Persephones are faced with similar growing pains in the need to leave their mother. The task is, by no means, easy, but it is necessary in order for a woman to achieve self-actualization and potentially grow into a mother herself.

Individuation and the Hero’s Journey

Individuation is understood to be the process by which one becomes an individual and achieves self-actualization (Jung 275). The Western individuation process is linked closely with the mythological hero’s journey, which, as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, provides a road map for finding the boon of the Self under the guise of the adventure narrative story structure. I avoid the phrase "heroine’s journey" out of personal preference because the different phrase implies to me a different outcome, whereas I believe the goal of all modes of the hero’s journey are fundamentally the same, differing only by methodology. There are two facets to this journey: the masculine and the feminine. The masculine journey is one of questioning and seeking rituals and boons outside the frame of and individual’s reference, exemplified by heroes who quest in the unknown and having a great adventure. One modern example of this type is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. The feminine journey, on the other hand, involves a close connection to the roots of the individual’s axis mundi and protecting and fortifying one’s home base, as in, for instance, J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece, the Harry Potter series. From my own exploration, most myths, fairytales, and similar stories from the West focus on the masculine hero’s journey, with both male and female heroes being sent on a quest of some sort. Perhaps this is a result of occidental religious tradition, in which with the gods reside outside and beyond the individual’s frame of reference.

Persephone’s myth links closely with the feminine aspect of the hero’s myth. She is torn away from the world she knows and plunged into the unconscious. She does not have to journey far to find her Self. She just needs to look within herself, as symbolized by the underworld. The feminine hero’s journey entails contemplative exploration. As often remarked upon by Joseph Campbell, girls are forced to become women, and women are forced to become crones as a matter of biology, not social conventions. It is therefore necessary for women to find their selves within the framework their body presents to them. Traditionally, young women would find themselves married and/or mothers before they have undergone their inner journeys. Thus, it has been necessary to also undergo this journey within the confines of their conscious obligations to family or other groups. Modern literature has many examples of stories where this traditional model has gone wrong: female characters who reach middle age feeling the need to leave this world of marriage and parenting in order to quest for their own voice, to conduct the inner journey, to figure out when they like to go to bed, so to speak. As a young married woman somewhere between the major stages of adolescence and middle age, marriage and parenthood, I feel discouraged for the future of my marriage because of all this literature. And this is where I turn to Persephone for strength.

Persephone’s Intentions

Theorists have regarded Persephone’s story as a rape. She is abducted from her mother (with the blessings of her father) and forced into the role of wife-hood. John Daughters, in his short story "Hades Speaks" included in the collection, The Long Journey Home, attempts to look at this story from the perspective of Hades. His version gives Persephone Lolita-esque adolescent qualities: a young girl rebelling from her mother, pulling away from her father, experimenting with her femininity, eyeing other men until she finally runs away with one of them and uses the opportunity to finally break the ties between herself and her parents. This teenage rebellion is often the fear of parents, especially in terms of mothers and their daughters. Mothers have difficulties releasing their daughters, and if the daughter takes matters into her own hands, then the blame is usually placed on the men, the fathers or "abductors,” not the daughter’s need fulfillment. Looking at Persephone’s story from this perspective paints her more as an individual than as a victim. From the beginning of the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter", it is apparent that Persephone’s separation was inevitable. She went to pick flowers on her own with her friends rather than with her mother. She had already begun to pull away.

The Homeric Hymn continues to further say that once in Hades, Persephone was forced to eat the pomegranate seeds. This episode comes after a period of moping and starving herself. A little depression is inevitable after a life change, but since the Homeric Hymn tells the story from Demeter’s perspective, we truly do not know not if Persephone was forced to eat the pomegranate seed, or if she chose to eat it knowing that it sealed her fate as a resident in the underworld. From the modern reader’s perspective, it is not too far-fetched to assume Persephone told her mother she was forced to eat the seed simply to appease her mother. We only assume she is telling her mother the truth because he mother assumes her daughter speaks the truth.

Persephone does eventually return to her mother, but in a new and limited capacity. The agreement between Demeter, Zeus and Hades allows her to spend a portion of the year with her mother, and the remaining portion with Hades. After the initial plunge into the unconscious, or psyche’s underworld, the hero will eventually return, changed and armed with new weapons and strengths. Persephone’s myth, as a feminine journey, demonstrates the need of every woman to tend to her conscious surroundings, but suggests permission to escape her obligations and plunge into the shadow. Spending too much time in one realm or the other is not conducive to individuation, because self-actualization requires a balance between both spheres of the psyche. I firmly believe that this is what is necessary for coping with the stress of being a woman in modern Western, especially American, society. Remaining in the conscious or the unconscious for too long creates an imbalance in life, which eventually can lead to feelings of depression and despair that negatively affect the other people in a woman’s world.

Psychology of the Kore

There are four parts to the Demeter/Persephone myth: a. their relationship before the separation; b. Demeter’s search and grieving for her daughter; c. Persephone’s adventure in Hades; and, d. their new relationship after her return. From a social standpoint, this models the relationship of mothers and daughters and how it is affected by growth and the fear of on-coming old age. The mother does not want to release her daughter because she is afraid of losing a crucial element of herself, but the daughter does not want to stay lest her mother bar her from achieving her goals. From a psychological perspective, every woman bears within her a bit of both characters, either literally or metaphorically, depending on her place in her development.

The Demeter and Persephone myth has played various roles in my life, and I can interpret it a few different ways depending on the situation to which I apply it. When reading the myth for the sake of researching this paper, I was drawn to the sense of empowerment the myth implies that Persephone experiences upon separation from her mother. In the world in which I grew up, much emphasis was placed on making young girls capable of succeeding in the male-dominated world, especially in my "progressive," suburban elementary schools. I personally attribute this to a general response to the feminist movement of the seventies. However, all the support was given without any tools to maintain it. My mother pre-dated most Baby Boomers and never fully grasped feminism, providing a counter-weight to the "girl power" I received at school. It was not until my mother became terminally ill that she unleashed her full Demeter qualities on me, and then it was a response to a sense of abandonment as my three siblings had already left home and the fear of her oncoming death. I entered the Kore stage of my development, the adolescent maiden, under these circumstances, and sought stories of freedom and empowerment, much like Persephone seeking flowers away from her mother.

In his essay, "The Psychological Aspects of the Kore," Carl Jung describes the Kore, Persephone, as having her "psychological counterpart in those archetypes which I have called the self or supraordinate personality on the one hand, and the anima on the other" (Jung 182). This is to link the Kore/Persephone with the identification of the feminine aspects of the psyche. Furthermore, the three primary women of the myth – Persephone, Demeter and Hecate – represent the entirety of the feminine: the innocence of youth and maidenhood, the strength of womanhood, and the wisdom of old age. Demeter and Persephone play off one another as a pair of opposites. The contrast between the opposites emphasizes a woman’s place as both daughter and mother by confronting her with the two aspects inherent in her personality. "We could therefore say that every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother, and that every woman extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter" (Jung 188). Thus, she develops a sense of identity amongst other women in her position.

If a woman is caught too heavily in one aspect of the mother-daughter relationship, then she is likely to project that aspect onto other women and daughters in her life. The imbalanced woman is "so identified with the mother that her own instincts are paralyzed through projection," that she must experience an "abduction" in order to separate from her inner mother (Jung 97). I interpret abduction to refer to a forced separation brought about by either a woman’s actions, external or internal, such as going to school, getting married, or experiencing a depression. Likewise, a woman who is so identified with the daughter will feel stunted and incapable of being a mother. In this case, her abduction is a plunge into a form of underworld whereby she can gain her freedom and personal voice.

Seeking the Feminine

Concurrent to my research for this paper, though without initial intent to use it, I read Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, and followed her analysis, with heavy skepticism, on the feminine model of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Murdock writes that a descent to Persephone is when a

woman moves down into the depths to reclaim the parts of herself that split off when she rejected the mother and shattered the mirror of the feminine. To make this journey a woman puts aside her fascination with the intellect and games of the cultural mind, and acquaints herself, perhaps for the first time, with her body, her emotions, her sexuality, her intuition, her images, her values, and her mind. (Murdock 90)

She then goes on to tell of her own parallel experience of the Demeter/Persephone myth when her daughter left for college. Though she alludes to the idea that Persephone has a new sense of self after her descent to Hades and "has no intention of going back to the status quo, regressing to identification with her mother again" (Murdock 98), Murdock does not fully consider her daughter’s experience as different from her own. She is wrapped up in her own grief, such that she sees her daughter’s difficult time at school as parallel to that grief and separation.

The young Persephones entering the world today are of a different generation than the target women of Murdock’s book. There is much more room for personal self-expression and development, a sense of allowing girls to be girls. The present generation of young women are told that it is okay to be smart or not, to be overweight or skinny, to become either an engineer or a housewife. What is important, according to this message, is that they are happy and true to themselves. There are still plenty of outlets within the media that objectify women and confuse this message, but various online social networking sites have created an opposition force strong enough to counter the media, and the media has listened in some sense. Women are finding themselves in different ways than before, and are finding a sense of self younger to a degree than Murdock’s book suggests. I have to acknowledge here that this new woman model that I am suggesting is not universal across our country, and is greatly affected by a young Persephone’s experience at home, school, online, religious institution, and extracurricular activities. Many schools offer a girls’ team for almost every sport – my niece was on her school’s football team – and many of the girls’ parents, mothers especially, try to provide a nurturing environment, something they may have themselves been denied growing up and they wish the best for their daughters.

Furthermore, Murdock removes the Persephone myth from the initial individuation process, lacing it halfway through the heroine’s journey, after a woman has renounced her femininity and her mother, and gone the path of masculinity and the father. When she is ready to regain control of herself, she plunges into the depths, entering "a period of voluntary isolation, seen by her family and friends as a loss of her senses" (Murdock 88). Rather than seeing this myth as a guide for young women, she writes of this myth as a guide for older women. The myth is what it is, and it will lend itself to interpretation depending on the reader. For a woman of Murdock’s target generation, the myth is an opportunity to embrace the Kore and to find oneself in the depths of the psyche. For the modern young woman, the Persephone myth is an excellent resource for plunging into the depths as the catalyst for beginning her own individuation process to launch on a heroine’s journey, to speak, bypassing the plunge into the masculine.

Since I am a part of this new generation of Persephone women, and since we are still a relatively new phenomenon, I do not know if we will respond in middle age with a need for some masculine energy or if we will be fairly self-actualized. Much research, though not necessarily within the spectrum of psychology or mythology, has addressed concern for the new generation as a whole. I have heard the generation labeled both as "Generation Next," and "Millennials," within the contexts of new opinions towards marriage and family, stability, motivation in the work place, and a new concept of privacy. I imagine similar things are said of every generation, but my generation and the ones following me have grown up and approached individuation with reliance on the Internet and in the shadow of 9/11. The shadow is as much an active part of our conscious lives as it is unconscious. This makes myths all the more crucial because they provide a way of filtering through the "junk." Persephone’s myth, in this time of the shadow, helps young women separate from their mothers while also providing a sympathetic underworld figure. Persephone is not corrupted by her station in Hades, but draws strength from it. Young women need this model of Persephone as a guide through the frightening conscious shadow world they are entering.

The underworld, as it appears in Greek mythology, is the metaphor for that society’s shadow, much like how the duality of heaven and hell form the basis for the modern Christian shadow. This is not only the land of the dead, but it is also the land of the unknown, the unpleasant, and the forgotten. Because she took her station as the queen of the underworld, Persephone can rightly be labeled as the "Queen of the Shadow". This label also gives Persephone the added duty of being a mythic role model for those who explore psyche’s shadow world as part of the individuation process. Persephone’s myth is rather appropriate for the myths of young women because it shows that one can explore the shadow without embarking upon an epic, if not metaphorical, masculine journey. Persephone becomes the queen of the underworld, which gives her the ability to explore the territory with free-reign, and her station as queen affords her protection and a degree of control over the ugly creatures she will encounter during her exploration. In this way, she can explore the realm of the shadow with confidence and not with fear. The literary hero’s journey, whether masculine or feminine, gives us the tools to plunge into our own journey. This journey to self-actualization will awaken many scary demons within the unconscious – forgotten traumas or attributes that cannot possibly be a part of us. The encounters are frightening. The myths involving the eager hero, such as Persephone, demonstrate that the demons can be defeated and self-actualization can be achieved through the feminine, inner journey.

Works cited

  • Athanassakis, Apostolos N., trans. “2. To Demeter.” The Homeric Hymns. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1976. 1-15.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Bollingen, 1949.
  • Daughters, John. “Hades Speaks.” The Long Journey Home: Re-Visioning the Myth of Demeter and Persephone for Our Time. Ed. Christine Downing. Boston: Shambhala, 1994.
  • Jung, Carl G. “Conscious, Unconscious, and Individuation.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al. New York: Bollingen, 1959. 275-289.
  • Jung, Carl G. “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al. New York: Bollingen, 1959. 182-203.
  • Jung, Carl G. “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al. New York: Bollingen, 1959. 75-110.
  • Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey: A Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Boston: Shambhala, 1990.

Works consulted

  • Bolen, Jean Shinuda, M.D. Goddesses in Every Woman: A New Psychology of Women. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1985.
  • Woolger, Jennifer Barker & Roger Woolger. The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths that Shape Women’s Lives. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987.