ΑρχικήΨηφιακή ΒιβλιοθήκηΆρθραΆρθρα (Αγγλικά)Kalliteraki, E. - "Psychoanalysis and Mythology: Demeter and Persephone"

Kalliteraki, E. - "Psychoanalysis and Mythology: Demeter and Persephone"

Psychoanalysis and Mythology

Demeter and Persephone


Submitted by E. Kalliteraki

I selected the Homeric and Orphic myths in order to talk to you about the creation of the world.

Homer tells us that the gods and all of the world’s creatures came from the streams of Oceanus which bound this earth and that Tethys was the mother of all his children.

According to Robert Graves, the Orphics say that Black-Winged Nyx (Night), the goddess whom even Zeus revered, was seduced by the Wind and she laid a silver egg in the womb of Darkness; and that Eros, who was hatched from this egg, set the Universe in motion. Eros was double-sexed, had golden-wings and four heads. Nyx lived in a cave with him, displaying herself as the triad Night, Order and Justice; and Eros created earth, sky, sun, and moon.

I chose to talk about Demeter and Persephone because I believe that their myth integrates all that I have thus far mentioned. As Kakridis tells us, myths depict a world that can, at times, be logical while, at others, illogical. Myths, he adds, were not created in order to be aesthetically beautiful but so that they would correspond to other realms of consciousness. It just so happens that they can be beautiful in addition to their intended function.

The myth I am about to present is indeed very beautiful because it includes Man’s entire course through life, from Birth to Death. And it is true that Eros holds the thread of the universe and then come Order and Justice. Because within the Night lies Man’s secret; it is that magic power of the darkness that sets the world in motion, since, as we all know, we come from darkness and to darkness we go.

From the Night’s darkness, Erebus, came Destiny, Geras (Old Age), Thanatos (Death), Restraint, Hypnos (Sleep), Dreams.

Demeter was the daughter of Rhea and Chronos, Ge – Da – Meter, Mother Earth, the one that presides over the crops and over the grains in particular. The word Da was an ancient name for Ga –Gaia (the Earth). The goddess was named Da-Meter or Da –Mater. Demeter was also called Thesmophoros, "giver of customs" or even "legislator", as well as Lusia, "bathing", and Erinys, "implacable", after bathing in the river Ladon to wash away her rage when Poseidon raped her. They also called her Obnea, which stands for nourishment and bliss.

Diodorus of Sicily informs us that she alone harvested the wild wheat when men still knew nothing of it. She was also the one who provided them with laws and justice.

 Demeter is the ploughed, fertile soil. She was not deemed fit to be a wife like Hera, and she is not on a par with the mind. She is the immortal spring of life, a peaceful, kind and caring goddess. However, she is also a goddess who, when not in control, can become so enraged that even the Gods are fearful of her.

Demeter had a Daughter(Kore) with her brother Zeus. This Daughter was named Persephone after Hades abducted her, for only then did she become a woman. Persephone stands for the one who brings Phonos-Murder, the one who brings on catastrophe. Indeed, Persephone’s abduction brought catastrophe upon the earth because her mother’s pain and sorrow dried it up.

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter goes:

"I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awful goddess --of her and her trim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus rapt away, given to him by all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer.

Apart from Demeter, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits, she was playing with the deep-bosomed daughters of Oceanus and gathering flowers over a soft meadow, roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus, which Earth made to grow at the will of Zeus and to please the Host of Many, to be a snare for the bloom-like girl -- a marvellous, radiant flower. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea's salt swell laughed for joy." [Homeric Hymns (ed. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)]

Kore could not resist this radiant flower, and so she became the Queen of the Underworld.

Nobody would tell the mother-Demeter where her Daughter had gone. Hecate alone would console her and help Demeter in her search to find the lost girl. Demeter was enraged and the earth dried up, because this separation feels like Death. And it is this separation that will transform the Kore into Persephone. It is at this point that the pain will become unbearable and it will throw the mother into a state of depression and the daughter into deep mourning. How difficult it is to be separated from the object of one’s love.  Until then the virginity of the Kore did not encompass mourning. Innocence/purity does not think of death. This violent abduction shatters the mother-daughter relationship, thus, we could indeed infer that the change of object is a violent act.

So, Hades, the son of the Titans, of Chronos and Rhea, took Kore with him to Tartarus.

Hades, Haides or Haidoneus, "house of the Haidou" was how they called the underworld, which was later known simply as Hades. Hais-Haides probably means invisible, as opposed to the sun, which is visible. Also, Haidios means eternal. [Karl Kerenyi, The Mythology of the Greeks.] Hades had emerged from his mother’s belly, found himself in his father’s stomach along with his brothers, and then they all came to an agreement and he took the Underworld as his kingdom, Erebus.

Down there in Erebus was where Hades and Persephone’s palace was erected.  It is that Infernal area which, in the language of myth, symbolizes the unconscious and whose ruler is Pluto.

The Underworld is where the shadow-souls of the dead came to, sometimes led there by Hermes and sometimes on their own. They reached the Asphodel Fields, which were always covered with thick mist and run through by various rivers. Amongst them, Acheron, the river of Woe; there was also the fountain of Lethe, located next to the white cypress, whose water would erase all memory of your previous life should you drink it.

In Greek Mythology, there is a goddess whose name is that of a psychological function. That goddess is Mnemosyne, who is also to be found in Hades: according to the little we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries, she was a fountain under the shadow of a white popple, wherefrom all the initiated souls drank. Mnemosyne is also the mother of the Muses. She is the goddess that protects the poetic process of the poets. We know that the poet is the one who represents our childhood, in which we are to find the solution to our conflicts.  As Hesiod informs us, Mnemosyne knows and sings about the past, the present and the future.

This is the poetic process that is so similar to the one of psychoanalysis. The poet is primarily the past, which is the beginning of the world.

We could say that the myth of Persephone is a symbolic representation of the inner-life adventure: in order to gain insight, it will have to be immersed in despair so that it will subsequently bloom. It mirrors the power of change. For people are unable to experience the change of the seasons lest they mourn. Only thus will they attain a past. And the past is an integral part of the world.

Furthermore, this is the only myth that no historian has ever been able to discredit, as has been done with other myths, because its symbolism suggests the beginning of life. It is the wheat that will die, and will return to earth in order to be born again. It is the notion of destiny. For, as Caston Bachelart tells us, the main characteristic of the human being is not his nature but his story, the one he wants to live, to dramatize, to make his destiny.

None of the scholars so far has been able to explain why Persephone has to abandon her spouse, no matter how vile he is, in order to get back into her mother’s arms. Walter Burkett claims that this is something unique to the particular Greek myth.

Having left her mother’s shelter Persephone will know Hades’ love and she will love him back, having eaten the pomegranate seeds he will give her in order to bind her to him. The pomegranate was the food of the dead. Both the pomegranate and the anemone had sprung from Adonis’ blood. Just before Persephone left to meet her mother, Hades gave her seven seeds from the pomegranate, which are said to represent the seven phases of the moon. These phases are what farmers await to herald the appearance of the first spouts.

So, Persephone went back to her mother and all at once the seeds in the earth sprouted anew. The mourning period was over.

Myths are expressed only through symbolism; however, due to the pain and the rage they can cause, they are often idealized.

The idealization of the love that Demeter felt for her daughter was but the dichotomy of her own self. In her daughter’s face she could see a part of herself, which she could not comprehend, since this split part was the exclusion of erotic love, which she considered as the main reason for the loss of her Daughter. So, she became a prisoner of her own archaic and merciless superego. A possible cause for her fear could be the notion of darkness, of the night, one that she could not bear since it entailed Eros and the woes of narcissism. According to Paul Diel, the myth of Demeter symbolizes yet another notion: the multiple myths of Man that are exposed to perverse temptation.

Persephone, trapped within this split, was doomed to oscillate between her desire and the incomplete separation from her mother’s archaic power.

Persephone was not a symbol for independence, as Aphrodite was for instance, and, therefore, she could not express herself without the intervention of her husband or her mother. That is probably why she imitated her mother by ruling over the Underworld; furthermore, she was ruthless in her punishment of Hades’ occasional lovers. She is not as innocent as we would like her to be.

I would like to share another story with you now.

Anna suffered from panic attacks. She could not go around on her own, she felt as if she would suffocate, as if the world was going from under her feet. She was a beautiful woman, married, with two sons. Her panic attacks, however, were not her only problem.

Anna could not understand why her husband was angry at her for wanting to stay with her mother, who lived in a nearby neighborhood, every other two months.

"I take care of my family, but at night I go back to my mother’s. It’s very difficult for me to let go of her. For me, she’s a very good mother."

She refused to be separated from such a good mother. Indeed, her mother was a very good mother, objectively speaking. She had taken very good care of her children. She had two daughters and a husband who had been so deep in debt, he had to stay hidden all the time. His wife, without ever blaming him or uttering a single complaint, stood by him until he died. Then she helped her daughters through their studies and they adored her. So, they took turns staying with her every two months. They claimed that even that wasn’t enough, but their husbands refused to let them stay for longer. Then came the panic attacks for Anna and she felt as if something was smothering her and choking her and she couldn’t figure out why this was happening to her. Her sex life was satisfactory; however, she could not even go out on an excursion with her husband and her sons. All she wanted to do was go back to her mother.

The concept of a very good mother!

Demeter was a very good mother. She adored her daughter. In Mythology, what characterized her in the eyes of those who worshipped her was her being the goddess who provided the fruit of the earth, hidden in the soil, in other words, the dark realm of death, and the fact that she was inseparable from her Kore – Daughter.

However, is that what happiness is?

How much freedom can there exist in such a relationship – a relationship so welded? A relationship so absolute that it can turn into a predatory object since it is omnipotent and controlling? For, the more the mother enjoys her Life-giving power, the more this power of hers can become lethal. The notion of the male presence is meaningless to her. Even Zeus was in awe of her.

The mother is the beginning of life; our strong attachment to the mother pre-exists the erotic love towards the father.  The introjection of a good mother is of essence for the blossoming of our life.

Separation, frustration, woe and then mourning are our only course towards satisfaction.

Persephone will return from Hades, but she will no longer be the same. She will have tasted the pomegranate and she will have known erotic love and the mysteries of the dark. She will be the guide to all those who will visit her Kingdom, which symbolizes the infernal, the underground, the secret, the world of the subterranean course, of the unconscious.

And we also have the dreams, which represent the myths of Men as well as their individual histories.

The origin of dream is in the myth and the basis of the myth lies in the unconscious. Freud hoped that reason would unveil the myths of mankind, which express the wishes of childhood, most of them incestuous, and with which Mythology is abundant.

Let me finish my presentation then with the dream of one daughter:

"I was on a barren mountain. I was walking through burnt-down forests. There was no river or spring anywhere in sight. I thought I was on the moon and I had always thought of the moon as a scary place. I was desperately seeking for a green leaf. (Silence) I was thinking of my mother. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a landscape that seemed too far, and I could see the ocean. I started to run down the mountain."

And finally some lines of the Greek poet Athena Papadaki from her poem


I realized so many diaphanous dreams 

the world grasped me and propped me up.

Whether sworn or promised,

as if my fate was pre-destined and plausible,

I reached to the mother inside

and I extract honey from stone.

If something immortal remains within me, this is utopia.

Athena Papadaki

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