Ha…ha…ha. I recorded a video several days ago. I spent an hour on it. 3 takes because I was out of practice and kept losing my place. Unfortunately that meant it was pretty much unusable. I forgot certain things because I remembered already saying them in the horrible take I deleted. Realized I was talking too generally and that I want to zero in on my experience. So I’ll be trying that again this week or next. It won’t be out in time for “Autism Acceptance Month,” but that’s okay. Autism Acceptance Forever! So today I’ll do something else. Also, shiny new blog theme! The other one was starting to get a little tired and today it just annoyed me. Green now! For Spring!
I love the story of Persephone. I meant to do a video on it this month but I could never quite get it right. I felt I was rushing things and not doing it justice. So for my “3 things” post this month, I’m going to talk about what this story means to me and some contemporary works that represent the same things.
Something I love about myths is that they never really mean just one thing. There are multiple levels and they can be adapted to apply to a variety of situations. On the surface the story of Persephone is about the change in seasons. That’s how I learned it in my middle school mythology class. Discussing it that way makes it easy to study and dismiss as silly superstition designed to explain natural phenomena we understsand better now. But let’s look at some other parts of the story.
Given the nature of the story, content warning: Brief discussion of rape and death.
1. Life Cycles (Journey)
Metaphors are so important to the way we process and communicate parts of our lives. Sure, a major component of Persephone’s story is the seasons. But that doesn’t only have to refer to literal seasons. We all have are dark and cold periods, we all have our time in the sun.
The video I had planned to make was going to be titled “tasting the fruit of the Underworld.” At the end of the story, Persephone is allowed to leave and go back to the land of the living – but she can only stay there if she hasn’t eaten during her time in the Underworld. If she has, she must return and spend her time divided between the two. Near the end of her time there, she had indeed eaten some pomegranate seeds, and therefore she goes back every year and the story is this is why we have seasons
Eating there means she wasn’t just visiting the land of the dead, the way we may visit someone else’s suffering in trying to understand and/or comforting them. By eating, she is living with the darkness and it becomes a part of her. Once we experience loss, death, suffering, etc in our own lives, it is a part of us. It’s not something you can just leave behind, it changes your view of the world so you know you will always return to times like that.
The video game Journey is one of my favorite works of fiction. There are no words in Journey, no combat, no enemies. There’s just you and a mostly-empty world. (By default there is also one other player, but I play offline so I can explore freely and not feel obligated to hurry or do things their way.)
It’s a very light, low-stress game. I find it to be the most effecitve meditation I’ve ever experienced. But that’s not to say everything about it is happy and bright. There are different levels to the game – you play around, find the door, and continue onto the next one.
Several of these are dark and even a bit frightening. Even knowing there’s no danger even to your character, having played and knowing exactly what happens, the way the building shakes and thunders is unsettling. Even knowing the patterns to keep moving forward, the strong cold winds blowing you back feel like a serious obstacle, igniting the determination to overcome them and triumph.
Every “dark” stage is experienced as real and presents a challenge, every one is a relief to leave behind, but each one stays with you and reminds you what to expect when you come to the next. They make you stronger and more capable of taking on the challenges ahead. Like life. I like the straight-forward feel to Journey. It’s always essentially the same game. Take something like Final Fantasy X, with its random encounters. I always felt like I stepped wrong, like there should be a way to avoid them because it seems they’re triggered by your movements and they interrupt your movement forwards. In Journey, there is only one way forward and it’s through these areas of trouble. So you learn to embrace them as part of the process, the way the hard times we all experience are just a part of life. Not something we’ve done wrong, just a stage we know we have to travel through.
2. Mother/Daughter Relationships (Gilmore Girls)
The story of Persephone and her mother Demeter caught my attention from the first time I heard it. I think it was the first myth I really consciously identified with and considered a favorite. I love my mom a lot. But we had some difficult years. Teen emotions plus executive functioning difficulties I didn’t understand even after years of testing and therapy. To this day I’m not sure if my mom was told and just didn’t pass it on because they thought it would give me excuses or if they didn’t know either. I don’t really want to ask.
But basically, I wasn’t able to organize myself or keep on top of homework. I did great on tests but was performing terribly in my final grades because of that, which was really irritating for a mom who had worked as a principal for most of my life. It was irritating for me too, truth be told. It’s really not fun to know you’re smart and getting top grades on tests but to be lagging behind all your classmates and having teachers call you out for it all the time, then having to go home and be a disappointment to your parents. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t figure it out, so I just kept getting more and more angry and this gap kept growing between my mom and me. I felt like the worst parts of myself were always on display whenever we were together.
I think the first place I encountered Persephone’s myth must have explained her abduction as typical of ancient Greek marriages. It was approved by her father, after all, and it wasn’t unusual for the time that Persephone didn’t get to choose. So I just saw a girl growing up and leaving home. And then an overprotective mom who invested a lot of herself in her kid going to great lengths to control the situation and get her back under her watchful eye. I felt for Persephone as I imagined her in my head. She can only be taken in the first place because she ventures away from her mother’s watchful eye. I thought maybe she needed that space and that maybe I could be better if I had some distance from my home and family too.
I got that distance when I went away to college. Five hours away and probably almost a month before I saw my parents again. I started sobbing the second they left. It got better and I got more used to being away, more used to standing on my own. But I still missed them a lot. I did get better when I had to figure things out for myself and take responsibility for my day-to-day life. I became my own person, and more and more when I came back home or my family came to visit me I felt like we could be closer and happier. There wasn’t this magnetic hold, like I was just a part of them. We chose to spend time together.
Aspects of this are all over popular culture. But for me the best example is Gilmore Girls, which also grabbed my attention right from the start for exactly the same reasons Demeter and Persephone did. Laurelai (Is that seriously how it’s spelled? In my head that last “a” was always an “e.”) and Rory had the relationship I thought I wanted with my mother, Lane and Mrs. Kim had the one I felt I actually had, Laurelai and Emily had the one I expected to have when I grew up. At the time that seemed horrible. When I re-watch the show now I notice that over the seasons Laurelai and Emily grew closer too…and that Laurelai and Rory had their own problems and sometimes couldn’t stand talking to each other. Laurelai’s relationship with her mom is my favorite part of the show now. They still have problems to work out, but they’re constantly moving closer.
My mom and I get along very well now…much better than Laurelai and Emily! I think the cyclical back and forth helps with that. Not necessarily on such a strict schedule as Persephone or as the Gilmore’s Friday night dinners. But more symbolically, that recognition that I can be my own person living my own life away from my parents but they’re still an important part of me and I’m best and happiest when I make room for them too. I think maybe Laurelai and Emily still had so many problems at the beginning because Laurelai kept herself closed off for so long. She and Emily didn’t get the chance to adapt their relationship as they changed so it’s hard for them to understand each other. They get better when they realize that no matter how different they are or how much has changed, they still belong to each other.
3. Death (Beautiful Darkness)
I talked about this comic awhile ago. It’s a deeply disturbing but also incredible story about a bunch of cartoon characters who fall out of their home and have to make their way in a strange new environment. That environment is actually “the real world,” and their home was a little girl named Aurora who has died out in the woods.
For me, the “marriage” has always been a very minor part of Persephone’s story. It wasn’t something I could relate to when I first heard it, so it got pushed to the background and then the parts that were important to me from the start overpowered it. I don’t think of Hades when I hear or read this story. It’s not his story. He’s just the plot device that delivers her from the home of her mother to the one she’ll have as an adult. Or put another way, it’s the device that delivers her from the land of the living to the land of the dead. One of her names just means “girl” or “maiden.” So it can also be understood as a way to make sense of death, particularly the death of the young.
When Persephone is taken to the Underworld, she makes it brighter. But it causes pain for those left behind. Eventually she comes back, but never fully, the way we eventually move beyond grief and are able to remember our loved ones happily but always with the knowledge that they aren’t really here and we can’t keep them. Her visits are tinged with sadness, but at the same time there’s the hope of life beyond death. She’s not gone, she’s just waiting on the other side where her presence is a comfort to the others who have already gone on ahead.
Beautiful Darkness also offers a bittersweet perspective on life after death, at least the way I read it. All these cartoon characters are her imagination, a representation of her mind that lives on. It’s changed. The main character, probably Aurora as she imagined herself in life since they share the same name and appear similar, starts naive and innocent but is almost immediately shown the evil in the world. She becomes a killer, as one possible meaning of Persephone’s name is “to cause death.” She can never go back to being the same carefree little girl she used to be, she will never be alive in the same way, but she doesn’t disappear. Whether that’s understood as a literal life after death or her memory continuing to affect the people around her, that provides some hope.
At one time I was very concerned with understanding what stories meant, especially ancient myths that held a place in religion. My own religious stories were supposed to be a literal historical account. I wondered at first if people used to believe in myths the same way, and later when I learned about metaphor and started to see Genesis that way I wondered what the metaphors represented. If they weren’t literal truth, surely there must be a straightforward lesson!
You can always find those if you look for them. But these days I much prefer to focus on what they bring out in me, which is often complex and may change from one day to the next. They’re reflections of my mind and therefore change as I do.
Are there any stories you treasure? Any that act as a mirror you can hold up and see what’s important to you and how that’s changed over the years?