Persephone: Queen of Individuation

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.

2 thoughts on “Persephone: Queen of Individuation

  1. Pingback: Mything Motherhood

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