Persephone versus Anti-Persephone in MirrorMask

The film is the 2005 collaboration, MirrorMask, between fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. The story follows Helena, a teenager and daughter of circus performers, who, after her mother falls ill, journeys into the world she has unintentionally created in her drawings to find that the Queen of the Light has fallen into a deep sleep and cannot be awoken without the charm. Helena volunteers to find the charm, and her quest leads her into the Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess has just run away. The charm, the MirrorMask, helped the princess to leave the world entirely and switch places with Helena. Knowing that Helena may eventually find the mask, she slowly destroys the drawings hoping to prevent Helena’s return. Helena outsmarts her, and returns home to a happy ending with her parents.

The archetype present in this film is the mother/daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I propose an alternative reading of this myth that implies that Persephone’s abduction was not entirely a plot by Zeus and Hades, but, rather, an opportunity for Persephone to gain independence away from her mother. Under this reading, Persephone’s grief at being separated from her mother was exaggerated to appease her mother, and that she knew with certainty what it would mean for her to eat the pomegranate seeds on her way out of Hades. This reading hinges entirely on a Jungian interpretation as a myth of individuation. The only other evidence that suggests that Persephone’s story was not a simple abduction and rape is that there is no concrete evidence of a child between Hades and Persephone. Myths involving sexual intercourse between a god or goddess often include the birth of a child.

One other central theme to the film is the concept of the shadow. Helena’s adventure is plagued by the chaos left by the princess, identified in the script as Anti-Helena. Similarly, the queens of the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Shadows are both sides of Helena’s perspective of her mother. Helena’s journey involves exploring both sides of her dream world and reaching an understanding that the two sides of her mother (kindly versus possessive) are out of love for her. In order for Helena to succeed on her mission, she has to confront her own shadow self, Anti-Helena, with the MirrorMask and reflect her back into the realm of her psyche in which she belongs.

The shadow is an important theme in Neil Gaiman’s stories, especially to the extent that one must both confront and integrate with one shadow, otherwise one’s personally balance is disrupted in a bad way. In this film, the balance is disrupted with a complete teeter-totter and the shadow lives in the conscious realm, and the ego is forced to live in the unconscious. The unconscious is slowly destroyed in the film by Anti-Helena as she destroys Helena’s drawings. The possibility exists of Anti-Helena’s balance as long as she learns how to better relate to her mother, which is the exact thing Helena has to learn in her own life.

Intro, 0.44-4.54 minutes

This scene establishes the relationship between Helena (Persephone) and her mother (Demeter), and how her mother’s love and worry for her daughter will induce to her do whatever is necessary to find her. Helena, on the other hand, reveals her feelings and desire to get out of the circus. The circus represents the garden of the gods. It is removed from “reality” in a contained fashion. As Helena cries out that she wants to leave this “garden,” her mother remarks that she could not handle “real life.” This scene also establishes the theme of the shadow, as depicted in Helena’s sock puppets playing against each other.

After the end of this scene, Helena’s mother falls ill and is rushed to the hospital to have surgery. This is parallel to Demeter’s distraction when Persephone goes off to pick flowers.

Descent into the Underworld, 20.09-24.34 minutes

In this scene, Helena is lured by some late night violin playing, and is pushed through the door by Valentine, a juggler, trying to escape some deadly black stuff. Valentine represents both Hades and Hermes throughout the movie, but mostly Hades in this scene. He is the one who forces Helena into the dream world and becomes her consort throughout her adventure.

Once through the door, Helena encounters a sphinx, which, much like the Sphinx that guarded the gateway into Thebes in Oedipus the King, represents a threshold guardian between the conscious/unconscious, living/dream, or rational thought/primordial thought. Rather than answer a riddle, however, Helena has to feed him a book. Then she can proceed fully into the underworld.

After the end of this scene, Helena realized that there is a Kingdom of Light, whose queen is sleeping and can only wake with the help of the charm, and a Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess ran away using said charm, the MirrorMask, and who bears strong resemblance to Helena.

Light versus Shadow, 37.17-38.53 Minutes

I wanted to include this scene because it sets up the idea of the shadow, but otherwise has nothing to do with the Demeter/Persephone story.

Following this scene, Helena continues on her journey and winds up in the clutches of the Queen of Shadows, who is really angry that her daughter ran away and really just wants her home.

The Dark Palace, 1:10.27-1:11.39 & 1:19.51-1:20.59 Minutes

This scene shows the extent of the Queen of Shadows’ longing for her daughter, to the point that she will accept Helena as a substitute, giving her full power and benefit of the princess. Helena is transformed into a copy of Anti-Helena, much like how Demeter placed the baby into the fire to make it immortal. Although we see her at the dinner table and talking about food, we never see Helena actually eat, suggesting that she will be able to return home. Helena reminds the Queen that the chaos in the world is caused by Anti-Helena, just like the personal chaos Demeter experienced after Persephone left her.

Meanwhile, Valentine, who all this time has lead Helena around her dream world, returns to take Helena home to the upper world, fulfilling his Hermes role.

The Return and Homecoming, 1:32.10-1:34.45 & 1:36-28-1:38.02 Minutes

Valentine and Helena find the MirrorMask in the Princess’s bedroom and run away from the Queen. When they get to the threshold, Valentine almost keeps her in the underworld (feeding her pomegranate seeds) by keeping the mask for himself. Helena returns to her correct world by integrating Anti-Helena back into her psyche and the world is right again. Her mother wakes up, the two are reunited, and they live happily ever after. Helena now has a better appreciation for her mother.

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One thought on “Persephone versus Anti-Persephone in MirrorMask

  1. Pingback: Mything Motherhood

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