The day of the Autumn Equinox is approaching fast. Recently I have found myself wondering: on what days exactly did Persephone descend to the Underworld and return to the World Above?! I did some research and found material of great personal significance.
We live in an age where it has become popular (or cool) to redefine gods as “energies”, “vibrations” or “cosmic archetypes”. For that reason, I wish to say upfront that to me the gods are “real”. They are “far more real” to me than many of the material things that appear so rock solid in everyday reality. The gods were there long before our personal lifetime, and long before the period of history we happen to inhabit. The gods will also be there long after we die.
Having said that, based on years of teaching and facilitating powerful (at times life-changing) ceremonies and rites of passage for people, I do believe that the ancient myths or stories we tell about the gods do hold and present many archetypal patterns. This is why those stories can be used as sacred charts to map The Great Within (as like calling the inner realms when I teach Sacred Art). This is also what makes those ancient stories so timeless and people from every era will find teachings that have immense value.
Today I want to talk about Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter in classical Greek mythology. The most common version of her story is that Hades, the god of the Underworld, abducted her (one day, when she was picking flowers) and forced her to come live with him in the Underworld or Great Below. Because she eats six pomegranate seeds she is forever changed by, and committed to, life in the Underworld. Her Mother Demeter, grieving madly for her daughter, stops plants from growing in the Great Above, the world of Daylight and Life. Eventually Demeter and Hades hammer out an agreement: Persephone is to spend half the year in the world of the living and the other half taking her place as the Queen of the Dead in the Underworld. This division is how seasons came into being. -Today we know that, astronomically speaking, seasons are created by Earth tilting on her axis, but this does not invalidate or detract from the story of Persephone!
There are other versions of this famous myth. My students and I have ceremonially enacted this myth and discovered that Persephone wanted to explore the mysterious of the Land of the Dead! She wanted to leave her mother and have sex with Hades. (There are many remarkable connections between Death, Sex and Ecstasy -but that falls outside the scope of today’s blog!)
Today I found even one further version of the story:
An earlier form of the Demeter and Persephone myth tells a drastically different tale with no mention of a rapist uncle. Sensitive child Persephone heard the cries of the dead in the underworld and chose to go to them to comfort and release them. She gains maturity and strength through her selfless acts and becomes queen of the underworld. Demeter missed her daughter when gone, and still did not allow plants to grow while Persephone tended the dead. Persephone’s return marks the beginning of spring
-Susan Levitt, https://susanlevitt.com/about/writers-resume/spring-equinox/
My younger self (from about fifteen years ago!) would have wanted to know “what the true story is”. After half a century on this planet I now view things differently: I believe that all three stories are valid and that they offer templates or pathways for deep inner work.
I have lived away from my country (and family) of birth for over thirty years (which means my entire adult life). I have made the whole world my “playground”, as it were. I teach internationally and my paintings are found in collections all over the world. My life’s work is global and I love working with people on and from all continents. My mother (who is in her eighties now) has always lived in a different world from mine, a much smaller world which consists of the small village she lives in, and its immediate surroundings.
This has created a permanent situation of “not enough”: I don’t visit often enough, my visits aren’t long enough, understandably she wishes that she would see more of her three grandchildren overseas. The only “visit” that would satisfy her needs is (presumably) a permanent return to The Netherlands (which has never been on the cards).
About fifteen years ago (when I had lived abroad for fully fifteen years) my mother once called me up and told me tearfully that her next-door neighbour had said “the nicest thing ever” to her. In enquired what the man had said exactly: “It is time your daughter knows where her place is. I have a good mind to drive all the way to London, yank on her hair to force her into my car and then deliver her back to you where she belongs!”
Sadly, my mother never has never decoded this as the shocking description of an abduction it is! Until today she holds on to the “Manly Hero” piece: this man who cares enough about her to force her errant daughter and globetrotter to return “home”. What a gift! (Or what a poisoned chalice!)
Once I got over the shock (this took time) I asked myself: what scenario is being described here? And I realised that this is a 21th century version of the Persephone myth!
Recent events in my family-of-birth have brought this myth (and memory) to attention again. I decided to sit with it, to properly focus on it. The moment I set my emotional reactions aside, I am being presented with some very interesting material – an opportunity to learn more about my place in the larger constellation that is my family of birth.
Are there specific days in the year when Persephone makes her Descent and Ascent? I have read articles by various authors. Opinions vary (just as the period Persephone spends underground varies from four to six months) but some people actively honour and venerate her as the Goddess of the Equinoxes.
Ah! The penny drops! I knew that I was not done with this myth – there was a reason why it came “to the boil” again. My birthday is March 20th. When I was a child my mother used to call me her “Herald of Spring”. My birthday literally marks the Spring Equinox or Persephone’s return to the realm of Demeter. (In other words: the situation my mother’s neighbour is trying fix: the return of the prodigal daughter!)
Some say that the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent was a template for the (arising later on the timeline) Greek story about Persephone. People who have read my first book, Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life, will know that even as a child I did psycho pomp work at night. I would help souls transition to the Afterlife. Essentially, I spend my days in the world of the living and my nights in the Land of the Dead, have done so from birth (or at least for as long as I can remember). According to some linguists Persephone means “She Who Kills The Light” -and I often call myself a Darkness Worker. I work with sacred darkness: the Land of the Dead, shadow work, ancestral healing work. My true “soul home” is the dark Scandinavian winter with the Northern Lights crackling overhead and The Wild Hunt riding out. Hades is said to mean “The Invisible”. My life as a painter is dedicated to making the invisible (other worlds, the spirit world) visible for others.
For me Persephone is a key archetype in my life and an astrologer friend has commented on certain placements in my natal chart showing this clearly too. My way of coping with traumatic events is embarking on rich darkness journeys, such as this one. I could have remained stuck in the place of mad outrage at my mother’s neighbour and her total failure to discern the patriarchal and even abusive dimension of this story. (I once said to her, when she trotted this story out again, if he actually shows up, I will lock my door and call the police!)
However, I can still “harvest the pomegranate seeds” (to mix my metaphors well and truly!) and learn profound lessons about the serpentine movements that govern my birthday, my professional life, my visits to my country of birth and dialogues in my mother tongue (literally stories rolling off my mother’s tongue in this case!)
From now on I will eat six pomegranate seeds before I visit The Netherlands, also known as The Low Lands (yes, literally low lands as in "the land below sea level"!), to remind myself of the obligations of my soul. The symbolic correspondences are limitless. Did I mention that, for most of the year, our family lives on a Hill in London? The Great Below and the Great Above are a Mountain and Valley, in my life, forever twinned and forever communicating. I am the herald or messenger -and also the psychopomp or soul conductor. Her story plays out in my own life, in every 24-hour period. Persephone lives!
Imelda Almqvist is an international teacher of shamanism and sacred art. So far she has published two books: Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages) in 2016 and Sacred Art: A Hollow Bone for Spirit (Where Art Meets Shamanism) in 2019. She has presented her work on both The Shift Network and Sounds True. She appears in a TV program titled Ice Age Shaman, made for the Smithsonian Museum, in the series Mystic Britain talking about Neolithic arctic deer shamanism. Her third book, Medicine of the Imagination ( Dwelling in possibility) will be published by Moon Books in 2020.
Imelda was a presenter on the Shamanism Global Summit in both 2016 and 2017 and on Year of Ceremony with Sounds True. She is a regular presenter on The Shamanic Path with Sounds True. She appears in a TV program made for the Smithsonian Channel (the series is called Mystic Britain) about the Mesolithic site Star Carr in Yorkshire talking about arctic deer shamanism! Imelda divides her time between the UK, Sweden and the US. She has just finished her third book “Medicine of the Imagination: Dwelling in Possibility” and has started her fourth book, about the pre-Christian spirituality of The Netherlands.
Please check out the art and Rune Drum videos on her YouTube Channel!