Grief is a sacred journey

Descending into Darkness with Persephone

Persephone & Demeter, Eleusis, 430-440 BC (wikipedia image)

Persephone & Demeter, Eleusis, 430-440 BC (wikipedia image)

Honeybee in autumn clematis

Honeybee filling pollen sacs with autumn clematis

I watch star-shaped autumn clematis blossoms tremble in the breeze. Honey bees stuff their pollen sacks with nectar. One Monarch floats on the wind, a silent traveler moving south. It’s the quiet season on my land. An occasional crow or blue jay squawk or goose honk from the sky, but warbler, grosbeak, and mockingbird serenades are gone.

A soft breeze cools my shaded face. The waning sun warms my legs. Half warm, half cool. On the cusp of change.

It’s just past Fall Equinox. Days grow shorter as the sun speeds south on the western horizon, half way between northern summer pause and slow December dark.

The Earth knows what happens next. So do I.

DSC01939-001I see reddening at the edge of the forest. Ten years ago, this was the time of ash tree glory. Most ash are dead or dying now. Their browned leaves drop before turning autumn apricot and luminous maroon. I grieve for the ash and for chestnut, beech, and elm that died before them. I grieve for the struggling forest and my own lost youth.

It’s the season when Persephone enters darkness, abducted into the Underworld by Hades. Her nubile body is forced to leave the world of summer flowers, innocent childhood, and Her Mother Demeter’s safe protection. She must descend.

Red maple turns next, and then sugar maple, hickory, and oak. Cool nights and sunny days spread red, orange, and purple. While the trees scavenge late nutrients to store in winter roots, I watch the show.

Hictory tree in autumn

Hictory tree in autumn

Like Persephone, I’m afraid of the unknown dark. I once blamed this on my father’s November death when I was a girl, but it’s more than that. It’s ancient body wisdom. All the animals prepare for the fearsome dark. Gather nuts and seeds. Get in the firewood. Store the harvest. Clean the desk for a winter project. Buy snow tires. Be ready.

“I can’t stay here another winter,” I told my son in February.

“Let’s talk about it in April,” he said with a laugh. “You say that every year.”

“I love being here,” I said in April. “I cherish every sunset and every spring ephemeral.”

Willow & my snowshoes ready for a walk

Willow & my snowshoes ready for a walk

“Remember what you said in February?” he asked.

“I remember.”

Today, I feel the tug toward darkness, inward turning and a time of hibernation. Although something in me resists, this season suits me now. Quiet solitude, cold low sun, fierce wind and ice, winter soup and dry firewood, a glowing wood stove after following animal tracks in snow. I’ll adjust to night that comes in the afternoon and snow that keeps me close to home.

sunset in snow

Persephone’s mother Demeter turns the earth barren and fruitless when no one will tell where Her Daughter has gone. She brings a season of famine and drought, until the gods cry for mercy. Then Hecate, the ancient Crone who stands at the crossroads between the worlds, the one who travels from light to dark and back again, spills the truth.

The King of Darkness stole your Daughter. She’s Queen of the Underworld now. Since she ate pomegranate seeds in the Great Below, she’ll split her time between there and here. She’ll be both Queen of the Underworld and Maiden of the Spring.

Trout lily, an early spring ephemeral

Trout lily, an early spring ephemeral

Persephone becomes a Queen. In the symbolic language of mythology, she needs the time of Darkness to become her fullest Self.

In spring, the lost daughter and the grieving Mother Earth will meet again. They always do. The Sun will return to warm my body and melt the snow. Once again, I’ll search for flowers and gorge on green.

Persephone will be born again. Just like the Earth. Just like me.

***

How does the coming winter make you feel? Or the coming summer if you live in the southern hemisphere? Do you have ways of preparing for cold and dark? Do you plan projects for that time? For another post about what Greek mythology means to me see Home with Hestia: Goddess of the Hearth. For another post about dealing with winter on my land, see My Hector Home.

35 Comments
  1. Okay. It’s THAT time of year again. I, too, feel the depressing closing in of the season. It helps to cook up Storm Food, hearty soups and stews to fill my freezer for the days I get snowed in or simply don’t want to face the weather outside. Heaters to provide that extra bit of warmth on cold nights. And lining up a project or two. Maybe I’ll learn to knit this winter – a long warm scarf of bright colors.

    • Good projects, Robin. My winter project is to find the way into a second book. I have the topic and focus, but it will take some going down and in to pull it all together. And get the chimney cleaned. And soup. Always soup. We’re getting a hint of what’s to come.

  2. Beautiful, Elaine! Thank you for this message of hope and resurrection. Jenna

    • Thank you, Jenna. I enjoyed writing this piece and weaving together a little mythology with a lot of nature. These are the places I live and love.

  3. Elaine,

    This post is a wonderful recollection of the poetry of the fleeting seasons. Meanwhile, I am so struck by your beautiful hickory tree photo, which looks so human and otherworldly. I see the image of a laughing girl enclosed in the darkness of the tree! (If you don’t see her, let me know, and when I have a chance, I will draw her for you.)

    Thanks & love,

    Myra

    • Thank you, Myra. I see her. Or I see my version of her. Are those branches at the top the girl’s arms stretching up and out? I usually see this particular hickory as a wise old crone. Shagbark Hickory is strikingly beautiful in all sorts of weather. The loose bark catches snow and makes wonderful patterns and designs. Vic created a path along a small creek just so we could visit this gorgeous tree. I visit her still.

    • I see a young girl’s gleeful face with upraised arms, and just beneath it and overlapping, a downward looking mature woman. If I could manipulate computer graphics, I would do so! Instead, I’ll trace this on paper and send it to you, the old-fashioned way.

      I do love the way you have intentionally woven your experiences and mythology in this seamless writing. Your focus on nature makes it work so eloquently, and the lovely photographs enhance it so well.

      Until later,

      Myra

  4. Hi Elaine, just wanted to stop by and let you know how beautiful this post is. Your writing is so rich and flowing in colour, full of wondrous energy. You know I felt quite sleepy before I came across your words and now I feel so vibrant, so wide awake … I love how you have woven in the myth of Persephone with the autumnal Equinox. Wonderful story-telling and pics too. Oh how I love autumn with her red, yellow, russet dresses.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I’m experimenting with weaving together mythology and memoir, so it makes me very happy this post spoke to you. I’ve been studying mythology, particularly ancient women’s myth for more than 25 years, so it’s time to say more about the way mythology helps me understand life and the world. The tricky part is to say enough to give people a feeling for a myth without drowning them in facts. I love the colors of autumn, but I can’t help shivering a little as I remember last winter in the northeast.

  5. This is very powerful Elaine and so beautifully written thank you. We are turning out towards summer here in the Southern Hemisphere but the winter months I usually welcome as a way of turning inwards and lying low until such time as rebirth occurs again ..

    • Susan, I thought about you when I added the sentence about entering summer in the Souther Hemisphere. Thanks for your encouraging words. This piece is a taste of where I’m heading in my writing. I want to talk about mythology from the angle of what it means in my everyday life. I did some of that with Orpheus in my book, so I know I can do it. Right now I’m working on a piece inspired by a drawing I did a few months after Vic died. It was inspired by Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and the Goddess Daphne. Hope I can pull it off.

  6. Lovely, Elaine. My roommate has been anticipating the arrival of winter with fear and loathing, but trying to combat that by focussing on how much she loves flannel sheets and good soups. These days for me winter brings the fear that one or the other of my elders might not make it through. Even the perennial change of seasons changes as we age.

    • I don’t fear or worry about winter but notice the natural pulling in. It feels like an impersonal necessity that follows my choice to stay on my land in upstate NY. I like huddling around the wood stove and hot soup. I even enjoy snowshoe hikes in the woods. I know this worry you have about your NY elders. MY mother-in-law is 99 and slowly sinking. But slowly. So far she lives in her own apartment in Ithaca with health aids coming in for 5 or 6 hours a day. I’m in charge of the whole circus of getting supplies, paying bills, overseeing the helpers, and answering the same questions over and over again. It isn’t like Alzheimer’s dementia, but a slow loss of short-term memory, especially after an evening glass of wine.

  7. Thanks for this wonderful perspective on our approaching winter. Thank you also for your book. My 81 year old mother-in-law is living with us now. She has been so depressed after losing her spouse of over 50 years 11 years ago. Trying to understand the grieving process, which never ends, but should not drown ones own being has given me more compassion for her and working with her so she may again be herself even in the midst of such great loss. Thank you again for sharing your suffering and how you continue to live fully.

    • Thank you for caring for your mother-in-law. I’m also caring for mine who is 99, although with the support of health aids and me, she lives in her own apartment about 30 minutes from me. It’s true the grieving process never ends, but it softens and, like any other big life event, it transforms everyone who opens to it. I promised myself and my husband that I’d be all right on my own, and I was determined to make that happen. He died when I was 62 and in good health, so there was time to create a new life built on the old one.
      Grief is a powerful teacher. One we try to avoid at all costs in our culture. But then it just goes underground and makes a mess of things. Best to you and your family.

  8. Thanks, Elaine, for reminding us so eloquently how the hard winters seem harder as we age. I love the beginning of winter because it means I can indulge my hermit and stay inside and work–the painting and writing that I love.

    But by January, and certainly February, I wonder why I am still here when my sister is in West Palm, Florida, and would love to have me live near her. I go there for a few weeks, and she comes here in the summer, but . . .

    Yet I, too, am not ready to give up upstate NY with it’s spectacular nature and deep seasons.

    • I laugh when I read your comment, Lynne. I have similar feelings about being here and getting away from the winter. I went to FL last winter for a workshop and will go to another in March 2016. I’ll long to get away and then I’ll long to get home to feed the woodstove, make soup, and live in silence. My hearing problems make winter’s silence soothing and relaxing.

  9. My G-d Elaine. Absolutely stunning. Your writing is like a flowing poem. To read it is to enter the quiet place. You gently command it and it happens of itself. Magic!

    • Thank you, Dennis. I’m trying to weave ancient mythology with my natural memoir style. Not all of my experiments work, but I felt this one did. I’m honored you felt the same.

  10. I love this piece, Elaine. A few years ago we had a blackout in Boulder that took the heat out of my apartment. It had been a long time since I’d felt the fearsome teeth of winter. I will admit, I panicked. My husband, who is from Arizona, was confused by my hysteria. I carry deep memories of frigid Midwestern winters, an experience he’s never had in his own body. Of course the heat came on by the time I went to bed. You could hear every person living in the apartment building yelling “woo-hoo!” at the same time.

    • Thanks, Norah. Ah, the heat. I have a well insulated home and a wood stove, a very efficient catalytic converter sitting in the middle of the house. Chimney was cleaned yesterday and there’s a stack of firewood on my porch. Until I build the first fire, I’m warmed by the inadequate furnace that keeps me warm in threshold seasons. I understand the visceral fear of cold. When I drive somewhere at night in the winter, I make sure I have heavy boots and a thick coat in the back of my car with a flashlight. Never know when I might have to walk a few miles home in the snow.

  11. A wonderfully colourful post Elaine. I love the metaphor of autumn connected to the mythological Persephone. Us four season people learn to adapt to them all a certain way. We can smell the air as it transits from summer to fall (as it dramatically changed today). The hardships of winter have us wishing to be somewhere warmer and the advent of spring makes us quickly forget the frigid winter once again. And the cycle repeats. 🙂

    • The cycle repeats. I think you’re going to break the cycle this winter? I could move to NC in the winter or AZ or a number of places, but I love living here and watching the seasons move through their changes. Last winter we got a little stuck and some of us (like me) lost hope that Persephone would return. We all hope that won’t happen again.

  12. Wow, Elaine: Myth and natural beauty wound around the “stick” of the Equinox, very appealing to me and to all your readers as I can tell from the comments. To quote Bill Moyers, your “rituals express a spiritual reality.” I can definitely imagine your next book as a poetic tapestry of myth and memoir.

    God bless you in your ministrations to your mother-in-law. I know from experience with Aunt Ruthie it “ain’t easy.”

    • To begin, Marian, thanks for commiserating about my mother-in-law. No, it ain’t easy.

      Many mythological stories tie back to Nature. Since I love writing about Nature, I seem to be entering the world of writing about mythology that way. I’ve found many psychological and spiritual lessons in these dream-like myths and want to make the ones I know accessible to people who have never considered mythology seriously. I’m grateful for my persistent and deep-thinking mythology class friends who know how to translate sources from German, French, or Spanish, and are adept at everything from reading Plato to leading our art projects and creating group rituals.

  13. Wonderful weaving of the personal and the mythological. Love the idea of getting a winter project set up. And I realized when I was reading this that I’ve always wanted to be one of those writers who stays up late at night and writes, but I’m a morning person. Winter is when I can indulge in this fantasy, writing for hours as I look into the darkness, and still go to bed at a decent time.

    • Thank you, Mark. As you know, I’m practicing writing about mythology. I’ve known for a long time that this is what I want to explore, but I didn’t know how to begin. I use these stories to make sense of life every day, so that’s a good place for me to begin. After many drafts, this one came together in a way that made me happy. It helped to take an early draft to my writing class to get feedback from the teacher and five other writers.

      Winter is a demanding time of year where I live–high altitude (for around here) on a windswept hill with beautiful views but lots of snow. It was easier to rise to the occasion with Vic, but I’m learning how. I have a reliable band of wonderful male helpers who make it possible.

  14. Nicely written Elaine thank you for your talent and spirit. The message of the mother, maiden, crone (Demeter, Persephone and Hecate) is perfect for most people.

    I do so love the god Pluto though. Leaving the past behind and beginning new in what is the “darkness” of the unknown. The kingdom of Hades to me is not a hell nor is Pluto a god that is a devil persona. A different world, frightening, a change from the world of our experiences, our responsibilities to family, work, all we are accustom to.

    I had a recurring dream for several years of being Persephone and waiting breathlessly for the arrival of my Pluto who would sweep me up into his arms and we would fly into the dark night and then plunge the depths of the earth into a sparkling cavern of glistening crystals lighting his kingdom as beautiful as anything above. The dream would always end with the need to keep my promise to go back to the world of my mother, my responsibilities. I look up into the beautiful eyes of my beloved husband and say: “I wish I ate all of the pomegranate seeds.” It is a long dream and quite beautiful. I think this dream is what gave me the courage to drive here to this new place where I had never been before, meet my love e and stay to make this new life. I look forward to the winter. The darkness and the snow gives sleep, rest, not death to the plants and a fertility for the growing season to come in the Spring. Projects yes, writing, publishing, learning, seed catalogs, dreaming in the long darkness of new ideas.

    Spring will come to the world again, it does not depend on Persephone or me. Growth will come back, not a”rebirth” but an awakening from a re-freshening sleep.

    “Yes, my David, my personal Pluto, I finally did finish the pomegranate seeds, I will now spend the rest of my life here in your paradise.”

    Peace my friend, Georgia (Mrs. David S. Warren)

    • Georgia, I love hearing from you. After years of writing about my personal grief descent, I’m broadening my writing to include mythology, particularly the descent myths. I don’t know what else will arise, but that’s the focus at the moment. I’m trying to make mythology meaningful to those who haven’t taken it seriously or don’t know the stories. In my book I used the myth of Orpheus, because that’s what I was studying during Vic’s illness and after his death. I’ve been in a mythology class for more than 25 years and have been a student of astrology since 1967, another symbolic language filled with mythological stories.

      I’m with you in valuing Pluto. I love your description of his world. At the moment I think of Pluto as the realm of the unyielding “what is” that can’t be changed by my will or my ego or my anything. Fate or destiny unfurled. I must adapt. For example, Vic’s cancer and the unending change that unfolds from that. Or my hearing loss and the transformations it forces on me. As a girl, I would have most identified with the Persephone/Hades story if I had known it. And, like you, I know that Greek Hades is not Christian hell. Greek Hades is a land of transformation and riches, but also a place where what we was and were attached to is changed. We go for transformation, not to be punished.

      I hinted about the transformation that occurs in Hades in this particular piece by saying that Persephone had became the Queen of the Underworld. But blogs are best kept short, so I make decisions about how much of the myth to include. I love your pomegranate seed dream words. I get it. (I put a small hand-made red pomegranate shaped vase filled with coffee beans in Vic’s hand in the cremation box.)

      I want most to write about Inanna. I delight in all her stories and learned so much from the details of her descent to be initiated into Death or the Great Below. A Jungian writer and I are giving a workshop this winter about mythology and dreams as helpful tools for dying and grieving. We’ll focus on dreams on Friday night and on Inanna’s descent all day on Saturday.

      What a gift it is to meet our life companion. I’ve known your husband David since the 1970s, as you know, and love hearing about your happiness from afar. Thanks again for writing. I’ve known for a while (before I knew you were David’s amore) that you were a student of mythology and metaphysics.

      • You must let me know when the workshop is happening. Will it be real pricey? I have been studying Jung along with his friend Hermann Hess for a bit of time now. I must admit that Hess gave me more insight into Jungian thought than did Jung. To read them together is a treat. I began with the “Glass Bead Game” and worked backwards with Hess to his beginnings and then forward again until I read “Glass Bead Game” again. So much of Hess’s or so much of Jung’s writings are word for word of each other it makes me smile. I can in my mind’s eye see them sitting together discussing stuff, each putting it to paper in in his own manner. I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of Jung including some of his introductions to other work, but I could be wrong. His intro to Wilheim’s I-Ching book is darn good. I may do a series of paintings of “my” Hades someday, it is amazing, shops and vendors, food sellers, lovers walking hand-in-hand and Pluto was a man of the people, always knowing names, about their families. Pluto was a goodly leader, though probably not a god. Keep writing, The Synchronicity book has still not arrived, I look forward to it. Peace, Georgia

        • Georgia, the workshop will be at the Jung Society of Sarasota, FL in March. It costs $20 for the 2 hour Friday lecture and $70 for the lecture and the 6 hour workshop on Saturday. Here’s the link with all the details: http://cgjungsarasota.org/events/lecture-elaine-mansfield-jean-benedict-raffa-ed-d/

          I have not come close to reading all of Jung, although I’ve read a lot. I have the Collected Works on my shelves and dip into them often. Wilhelm’s I-Ching intros is one of my favorites along with “Answer to Job.” I’ve learned a lot from his students, including Maria Louise von Franz and Marion Woodman. I hadn’t thought of Pluto as a man of the people, but of course he was. I don’t know exactly what you mean by “not a god.” One thing I love about Greek, Egyptian, and Sumerian mythology is that the deities have passions and flaws. Of course, if anyone reads the Christian Bible carefully, they’ll see the same thing in Yahweh or God.

          The synchronicity book is print-on-demand now, so that might slow things down. Here’s one of Vic’s articles I think you might enjoy: http://www.lightlink.com/vic/astrol.html. It’s called “An Astrophysicist’s Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology.” He gave it at a big conference so we enjoyed making hats for him to use during the talk–including a hardhat and a baseball cap with a Pisces symbol on the front. His sign. We liked to laugh.

  15. I consider most of Greek (and the later edition of Roman) gods the mythology of some kings, chiefs, leaders, landowners, etc. They were so powerful to those below them they became deified. That’s all. Glad you liked the I-Ching intro. Sorry your workshop is so far away. I’d have some fun there. I’m not a 100% fan of Jung, but still I enjoy his writings and how far he took his profession.

  16. A beautiful post, Elaine… very compelling and thought provoking…
    I love the way you highlighted Persephone´s figure over here as you related it to your personal experiences…
    I like to look at this myth as a cyclical interpretation of Nature and even of our own personal cycles of growth, harvest, and winter, so as to speak…
    I think there are many layers here but what counts here is the moral of the story and the presence of these opposed forces (Eros-Thanatos) and, furthermore, their struggles…
    All my best wishes to you. Aquileana

    • Thanks for you helpful comment, Aquileana. I see the myth in a similar cyclic way of Eros and Thanatos reflected in our inner and outer worlds as we learn to live in this world of opposites. I’ve loved finding this descent/ascent cycle in so many stories since I took up a serious study of mythology 25 years ago. One of my favorites is Inanna in all her richness and fullness. She still has to cycle down.

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