The Lingering Flavor of Pomegranate Seeds

In Greek mythology, the goddess of spring is Persephone. The Greeks imagined her as the green miracle of rebirth, the effervescence of all melting streams, the archetypal Maiden. Daughter of Demeter and Zeus, Persephone blushes the land with warmth after winter.

Hades, however, lord of the sunless underworld, wants her for himself. Hades slinks up to Olympus to locker-room-talk it over with his brother, King Zeus, who has the unholy gall and/or stupidity and/or brain damage and/or evil to suggest that Hades should abduct Persephone when Demeter is distracted, because Demeter — herself the goddess of harvest and the fruitful earth — probably won’t understand. So Hades bides his time in the shadow-realms until Demeter steps away. Then he bursts out with a wind of corruption, his chariot opening a gash in the ground and his beady eyes squinting in the sun. He grabs Persephone and drags her back down to, as they say, make her his bride. No proposal, no planning, no celebration. This “marriage” is nothing but rape.

The Rape of Proserpina, Ulpiano Checa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Back on the surface, Demeter hears her daughter scream in the distance. Demeter’s mighty heart seems to fall in on itself, and she races over the world in a desperate search. Think of that vast anguish: the Great Mother’s Great Daughter is missing. Terror and grief threaten to split her open, like the chasm Hades left in the earth, and no one but no one dares tell her what happened. After nine days of this, Demeter begs the sun for help. The sun admits he witnessed the crime. It was Hades — the villain! — and Zeus — no, that can’t be, not her father… can it be? — but then the sun mansplains to Demeter that she should calm down and relax because Hades is a good guy. Demeter’s rage goes critical. It mushrooms white-hot. It swells, it explodes, it blisters the land with her fury.

Nothing grows. Crops shrivel. Harvests fail. People starve, stop sacrificing to the gods. This threat to Zeus’s base finally gets his attention, and he implores Demeter to calm down already. Teeth set, she declines, demanding the return of Persephone, as in yesterday. Ok, ok, says Zeus, just stop whatever this is that you’re doing. Zeus barks at Hades to release Persephone. Hades says he will, but first he gives Persephone a ruby-red pomegranate seed. That tiny shock of sweetness and tart explodes on her tongue as Hades springs his trap: she now has to spend half of the year with him underground, when the earth will feel the bite of winter.

Older men deciding the sexual fate of young women. Male oblivion to a mother’s love, to the need of all women for respect and autonomy. Indifference to the pain of victims. These themes sound so familiar because they are. They play out every day, in movies, tv, the internet, the news. Hades hovers over every act of sexual predation, from lewd comments to copping a feel to rape. Sexuality expressed as an exertion of power represents an irruption of the forces of death, an ending of innocence, a stifling of potential, and someone’s personal induction into a psychological shadow-world between life and death.

The Abduction of Persephone by Hades, Jan Peter van Baurscheit the Elder (1669-1728), Musee Royal des Beaux-Arts

As a metaphor for sexual initiation, this myth stinks. Notice how the story demands perfection from Persephone while indulging others’ loathsome behavior. Zeus can plan his own daughter’s kidnapping and rape, and Hades can carry out those crimes on his niece, but if Persephone so much as eats a pomegranate seed–well, see? she took the payoff. Maybe she had too much to drink. What was she wearing that day? Those togas are just asking for it... And here is where young women make their mental notes, consciously or subconsciously: I better be perfect, or I’m going to hell. No! Enough! So what if she ate a pomegranate seed? She hadn’t eaten anything else for days, she was locked up and assaulted by her uncle, she was in pain and barely able to sleep, too tormented by trauma and the shame of her own helplessness and not knowing what new terrors approached. Persephone owes no explanation to anyone, not for the attack and not for the pomegranate.

I know of no mythic tradition other than Greco-Roman that feels the need to portray Spring being kidnapped, raped, and held hostage by Death. Greek myth is one of the deep rivers that feed the roots of western culture. Their stories became enshrined as our stories, as surely as the ideal of democracy became our ideal. They float below the surface, in what we commonly call the subconscious mind, that vast, intricate, continual simmer that handles all your body’s squishes and rhythms, and all the skills you’ve learned so well that you no longer need to think about them: walking, talking, doing the dishes, world views, and beliefs, including all the uglies: misogyny, racism, homophobia. But subconscious patterns can change. The conscious mind can reshape the subconscious.

Patriarchy, as Hades and Zeus exemplify, targets women and children and people of color and the LGBTQ+ community and members of vilified religions in order to keep us afraid and compliant, but in the process it wounds the patriarchs, too. Demeter’s rage hurts the sky god himself. But more directly, power causes brain damage. People in power lose their capacity to empathize, to imagine into the viewpoint of others. They lose the capacity for love. No wonder so many sexual harassers simply have no idea that their “advances” are actually aggression, or that their desire for sex is not shared by their victims. Nor do they register or care about their victims’ fear. They need radical re-training in basic compassion.

Persephone, British Musuem

Incidentally, creativity thrives in a climate of trust and support, when we feel safe enough to take risks, when we don’t have to use all our energy for survival, when we’re not coerced into roles for which we have no aptitude or desire. The myth mirrors that. When Demeter and Persephone are left alone to do their thing, the world flourishes. When they fall under attack, the earth withers.

In studying Persephone, some mythologists catch echoes of a time when perhaps she ruled the underworld alone, when she reigned over the dark, mysterious realm of the dead. But how could a single goddess oversee death and new growth? Isn’t that a contradiction? Not at all. The Queen of the Underworld governs the dark depths that support all life. She guides the entire cycle. Hades makes death seem a terror, a defeat, a violent seizing, but the deeper truth of Persephone is that life is a miracle, like the coming of spring, and death is always a peaceful return, no matter its outward circumstances. Persephone simply turns the wheel. She pushes up the green shoots after winter, and she blesses the dead when they cross her threshold.

“The new myth tells the story…”

“The new myth tells the story of the endless development of Cosmos out of Chaos and of the interrelatedness of all things–atoms, mountains, people, woods, rivers, and microbes–in a fragile community of which it is urgent that we become aware not only as romantic or objective observers, but as outgrowths of Gaia with at least a temporary mission of consciousness.”

–David Leeming, Myth: A Biography of Belief

The Goddess on the Interstate

A few weeks ago, driving through the forested hills of northern Pennsylvania, I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Not Mother Earth, It Was Father God.” I almost choked on my latte.

The night before that drive, a man in Las Vegas had placed himself high in the sky with a cache of weapons and ammunition, looking down over a dancing mass of music fans through the mono-vision of a rifle scope. From that position as far as possible from Mother Earth, he rained down pain until raw red blood ran from hundreds of broken bodies. This was a country music festival. Not urban, not techno, but music of the country, music of the land. The shooter claimed dominion over the earth, as the Book of Genesis instructed him. He also lived out the western myth of male, militaristic monotheism: one and only one, high above the world, in charge of everyone, especially their deaths. A.k.a. Father God.

Queen of the Night, 2000-1900 BCE,
British Musuem

The bumper sticker explicitly tried to deny the sacred nature of Earth. Mother Earth, the sticker claimed, is not divine (and therefore neither are earthly mothers, nor women). Only the father is a god (and therefore normal fathers are divine and so, by extension, are men). The sticker sought to silence, erase, and diminish Mother Earth, the better to continue Father God’s agenda of exploitation, ownership, and coercion. This is what fake news actually looks like: monstrous lies on which monsters build hollow, violent power structures. The same hollowness yawns inside Harvey Weinstein and all his ilk and inside our sexual predator president. Surely it echoed inside the Las Vegas shooter.

I hope it goes without saying that no penis is any more or less sacred than any uterus. Both channel life forces. Both represent the powers of creation and creativity. Yet the Father God thunders that no one should have any other gods before him, that no one shall see beauty in any graven images, meaning sacred statues of other divinities. No one gets attention except himself. Everyone else, according to his twisted ego, is false, wrong, nasty, bad.

In reality, however, life balances perfectly between the intertwined magic of earth’s soil and water, and the sacred sky energies of sun and air. We are equally the children of Mother Earth Goddess and Father Sky God. Neither one alone could make the family of life. Neither one takes precedence.

Mistress of the Animals holding a lion in each hand, 700 BCE – 600 BCE,
British Museum

Mother Earth is true news, real news, solid news, up and down and all day long. She is an image of the fecundity and life-giving nature of Nature. She tempers the blind, racing madness of monotheism with her slow gestational transformations, her cyclical solutions, her abundance, her skill at weaving intricately complex and diverse ecosystems, and most of all her wisdom.

Gods and goddesses are not literal beings who patrol the clouds. They are citizens of the imaginal realm where they catalyze our mortal hearts and minds, helping us apprehend particular inflections of the divinity that streams into existence through all that is in every moment. The sacred cannot be reduced to any god or goddess, but all gods and goddesses show aspects of it. This can be extremely useful for living a more meaningful life, but it can be extremely dangerous when imbalances such as monotheism take over.

It wasn’t Mother Earth who gave us an obscene form of capitalism that despoils the planet and concentrates wealth in the bulging wallets of a tiny minority. That was Father God. It wasn’t Mother Earth who saddled us with technology addictions and the threat posed by artificial intelligence. That was Father God. It wasn’t Mother Earth who gave guns more rights to fire than people the right to stay alive, who grants far more money to the military than to education and healthcare combined. That, too, is Father God.

The bumper sticker had a pronounced defensive tone. Whoever attached it to their car must have felt that the old meme needed repeating, which suggests that its metaphor has weakened. That makes this a dangerous time, as the news makes plain every day, a time of spiritual crisis and transition. Unsavory characters exploit power vacuums such as this, including pussy-grabbing presidents who howl their lies on Twitter.

Cybele, mother of the gods, by Antonio Fantuzzi (1537–45), 1543,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

This is a time to imagine the Goddess, to call on her, to serve her. She will outlast the hollowness of monotheism. She came into being long before it did, and she’ll still be here long after we all fade from memory’s last memory. Even the longest human life lasts only a flicker for her. We rise from her soil and from her soul, we look around in astonishment and grandiosity, then we sink back into our source.

Unquestioned myths and scriptures work on us below the surface, without our conscious awareness. We act them out blindly. But when we engage with them, when we meet them fresh and see past their hypnotic familiarity, we can change them. We can re-create them.

Genesis opens with the conceit that a lone Father God created the world and humankind. It denies, devalues, and de-legitimatizes Mother Earth from page one. But the Father God doesn’t seem up to the task of single parenting. In his fury at Adam, he spits blunt words like bullets: “For dust thou art,” the bully god sneers, “and unto dust shalt thou return.” That venom would fit neatly into a presidential tweet, in its character count, its violence, its lie, and its strategy of shaming.

The Goddess, however, might address Adam differently. Sometime when you find yourself near trees or river or ocean or hills, listen close for her quiet voice: For living earth thou art, my child. To living earth shalt thou return.

“Whether or not our rigid mature minds reject play…”

“Whether or not our rigid mature minds reject play, everything is still the display of the natural secret essence of the elements. If we are serious and rigid, our subtle elements become congested and cannot reflect this wisdom display. If our mind is calm and vast and playful, we can always recognize this essence display.”

— Thinley Norbu, Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis

True Myth and Fake News

When my mythologist tribe visits town, I like to pour Chardonnay from a vineyard called True Myth. The wine goes down like nectar, a goddess adorns the label, and the name always makes us laugh, because we share the conviction that no, myth is not literally true, but yes oh yes, myth is truly true, deeply true, soul-true. In other words, myth tells lies to tell the truth. Myth reveals its truth not in the literal facts of its images, but as their meaning cloaked in metaphor.

For example, who is the goddess on the wine label? The bottle makes no overt introductions, but the prominent word “true” reminds me of Aletheia, the ancient Greek goddess of truth. Aletheia doesn’t embody only the kind of truth regarding facts and data; she also personifies disclosure or revelations. Aletheia reveals what had been hidden.

The Greeks mythologized lies, on the other hand, as the Pseudologoi, or False Words — a nasty horde born of Eris, the goddess of strife. It’s easy to imagine the Pseudologoi as stinging winged beasties, especially these days when they swarm from the mouths of the president and his apologists. But there’s also a different tale that tells of a single goddess named Pseudologos. As the story goes, when Prometheus was making Aletheia in his workshop — the same divine studio in which he fashioned humankind — Zeus summoned Prometheus away from his work. Prometheus’s ambitious assistant Dolus, whose name means trickery or deception, set about making a copy of Aletheia. The copy’s features and radiance matched Aletheia’s exactly, except that Dolus ran out clay before he could make the copy’s feet. When Prometheus came bursting back in, he stopped in his tracks, breathless at the copy’s likeness to his own work and greedy to garner the glory for creating both goddesses. He hurried them into his magic kiln, and when they came out, glowing hot from the fire of the gods, Prometheus breathed the spark of immortality into both of them. They both exhaled, and then Aletheia walked with slow, steady, measured steps, but Pseudologos could only stand still, because her legs ended in stumps.

Prometheus Creating Humankind while Athena Looks On, Louvre Museum

Have we not all faced difficulty in distinguishing truth from lies, and plagiarism from originality? Even clever Prometheus fell for the trick, and we are but muddy mortals. And notice how the blurring goes both ways: lies can seem so much like truth, and truth can seem so much like lies. Both are sculpted from the same clay. Both are equally alluring. But Pseudologos has no feet. She has no firm foundation in reality, and she cannot move on her own. She needs the aid of accomplices. Isn’t it interesting that her existence springs from an excess of ambition, in both Dolus and Prometheus?

Aletheia, on the other hand, has an independent existence. She stands on strong, supple feet. The solid earth supports her. She doesn’t back down. Careful and conscious, she neither rushes to judgment nor jumps to conclusions.

See how mythic images raise the ante on everyday metaphor? Magical, fantastic, and full of wonder, myth bursts with gods, goddesses, and creation on cosmic scales. Mythic imagery doesn’t just tell lies to tell the truth; it tells fabulous lies, huge lies, amazing lies.

Fake news works on a similar principle. It, too, tells big lies, and its lies also have some deeper meaning. For example, consider the slander that circulated about Hillary Clinton and the pizzeria during last year’s election season. The facts of the story were patently ridiculous, but the deeper meaning that many of us ignored — myself included — was that Clinton had a real image problem, and that some voters loathed her with a malicious, toxic furor. Then there is the story about Donald Trump’s visit to Russia, and the prostitutes peeing in a Moscow hotel room. The meaning of the story is that many people believe the president to be a dirty conman who treats women like commodities and is in bed with the Russians, financially and politically. But we don’t have all the evidence yet. This story might turn out to contain literal truth as well, aka true news.

Fake news scratches the age-old itch of myth — a deep desire to believe the unbelievable, to participate in magic, to thrill along with a flight of imagination. But fake news is not true myth. The truths of fake news are passing, ephemeral things, as fleeting as the headlines, and their lies are designed to manipulate.

Our slippery times speak in slippery terms: alternative facts, reality tv, infotainment, misinformation, post-truth. Each is a euphemism for the ugly fact that money-mongers lie to gain, preserve, and augment their power. Fake news is a powerful weapon in their arsenal. Fake news lies to drain us of our power. Myth lies to remind us of our power, here and now and always.

Truth, Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593)
Our power begins in recognizing and discerning between Aletheia and Pseudologos. Does a story arise from someone’s ambition? Who stands to to gain from it, and how? Does it stand on its own, or does it require co-conspirators? Is it a near copy of the truth but missing a crucial detail? Does the story rush itself? Does it lurch away from scrutiny and race ahead to tell more false words?

Myth tells lies to tell the truth. It can even tell lies to tell the truth about telling lies. Maybe Aletheia and Pseudologos aren’t so much two distinct beings, but two ends of a gradating spectrum. Maybe the more truth a story contains, the stronger its feet grow, the further it can stride. Maybe the more falsehood a story contains, the more its feet thin into mist and blow away.

On the True Myth wine bottle, we can’t see the goddess’s feet, but the label proclaims, Her Secret Is Patience. May Aletheia share more secrets with us. May her strength and beauty walk with us, along with her patience and wisdom.