Demeter and Persephone at Midlife
by William P. Mueller
(Cambria, California, USA)
This essay focuses primarily on the individual midlife experience of the rejoining of Demeter and Persephone beginning in the second half of one’s life.
Our current twenty-first century patriarchal behavior allows for some wandering souls to not even approach this very important transformational period, let alone experience it, which is an unfortunate outcome. Never rejoining our aged feminine with the wonders of the youthful feminine has left our world in a state of Demeter, barren and wasted as only the sun can do to a desert void of water.
I write this essay from the male perspective of the myth and I look at the masculine and feminine interactions as they pertain to midlife.
Charles Boer in The Homeric Hymns writes what I consider the most important words at the end of the Hymn to Demeter;
you and your
very beautiful daughter,
be kind, and,
in exchange for
give me the kind of life
my heart wants.
will remember you
in my other poems” (162).
This appears to me to be a man who recognizes the feminine charge within himself and that his own feminine has been neglected by the masculine world around him.
In the older days of one’s life, a person hopefully will be able to realize this same result in their lives; all the hustling and bustling of life that confronts the masculine in each of us while the feminine expression is desperate for acknowledgement and a life of its own. She needs the feeling function to be alive and dissolve the meaninglessness of existence.
At midlife a person has the younger and older masculine nature that has been groomed and bred for living an Apollonian life and at the same time they have the older feminine nature which is devoid of the youthful feminine that longed to live earlier but had not much of a chance. This is my story.
I led a life within the sphere of masculine obedience and did not question much for so long. I cannot say that the feminine area of my life was dead, but leading a poor existence to be sure. I knew something was running amok, out of kilter, and depriving me of the life that I knew was out there for me to experience and share.
My awareness of life’s riches was limited to the concepts of getting the college education, providing for my family, filling out the forms and paperwork to make the world spin around.
Everything appeared “normal” as I was wandering down the trail of life until I found myself looking at the end of my fatherly duties for my children as they are now at the age where they walk with themselves. The more I thought about my concept of the time after midlife, the more I wondered what is the point now of continuing living at all.
Suicidal thoughts became more frequent and I became very afraid of what I was thinking; I needed help and I needed it fast.
Fortunately, being mildly educated, I was able to discover that I needed to attend to the feminine within, and I mean better than lip service, or I would surely die a literal death. The will to live erupted the feminine search in me and it became clear that a structured program of contemplation was in order to combat this bigger than life dragon I had created.
The dragon metaphor fits so nicely into the youthful Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell wrote of and I now understand that she was not a dragon at all, she was my Demeter looking for her Persephone. Robert Johnson speaks of the midlife crisis as an exploration within, “This exploration is absolutely essential in one’s evolution, and the man who has not trodden that road is not eligible for the moment of despair that is also the moment of redemption and enlightenment” (54-55).
In the myth of Demeter and Persephone we find that Demeter is in despair as she wanders the earth looking for her precious Persephone, her precious youthfulness just as the masculine looks back to his youthful heroics. Not knowing where her Persephone has gone is what is killing Demeter and she eventually draws the attention of the masculine Father Zeus who actually condoned the abduction of Persephone by the masculine Hades, the dark sided brother.
The abduction by Hades is an appropriate metaphor for what is happening at midlife; one is still not a whole person without their Persephone, the youthful feminine expression within us all.
The abduction of Persephone creates that liminal space between the first half of life and the second half of life and speaking for myself, depression came along with this liminal space. V. Walter Odajnyk speaks rightly of this severe state of depression when it occurs, “at midlife, when a metanoia, a basic reorientation of one’s attitudes and goals is called for” (345).
My experience showed me this is not as easy as one can think it can be; as a matter of fact, it is hellish to experience
hence the significance of Hades. Hades abducted me with his brother Zeus’s permission; the light side of the masculine has to allow this abduction even though the scary experience is with Hades in the underworld of the unconscious.
The experience in Hades can be metaphorically looked at as a gestation period. In a translated version of The Homeric “Hymn to Demeter” by Rice and Stambaugh we read, “For nine days then Lady Deo wandered the earth, holding blazing torches in her hands; in her grief she touched neither ambrosia nor the sweetness of nectar, nor did she bathe her body with water. But when the tenth day dawned, Hecate, bearing light in her hands, encountered her” (27).
Hecate is a goddess of the crossroads and nurtures the birthing process. The human being is born after nine months in the womb where no light exists, no touching of anything exterior. The tenth month of life is on the other side of the crossroad where light finds one’s eyes and where water can clean. Of course, there is no direct time correlation with the midlife experience as I can attest to; nine months was not enough in literal time to accomplish what I needed to accomplish but the point of a rebirth is obvious.
During this gestation period, this liminal zone of existence, the individual brings up the unconscious elements of one’s life, the repressed thoughts, the wishes and dreams come to the surface and attempt to cross over into consciousness.
As Odajnyk mentioned earlier, the basic reorientation of one’s life is in order. Without guidance during this transformational time in one’s life it became incomprehensible for me to stay in my depression and do nothing.
In the beginning stages of my midlife experience I had to wander the earth and search for my Persephone only to not find her. By giving up my search for my Persephone I did not allow the seeds of life within me to sprout and flourish; my depressed state finally called attention to my Zeus.
In the Demeter and Persephone myth, Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger of the gods to the mortals, down into Hades and insists that for things to be restored to balance Persephone needs to stay with her mother Demeter for two-thirds of the year of which she will return to Hades as Queen of the Underworld for the remaining third of the year.
The one-third, two-thirds time frame is still somewhat elusive to me. Some mythical accounts have the time split equally between Olympus and Hades, but one idea that resonated well with me was the concept of the daily twenty four hours. The human being generally sleeps for eight hours per day and is awake for the remaining hours. For me this is much more significant as an explanation for the time spent below in the underworld and the unconscious as well as the time spent in the light of day doing the masculine duties needed to survive.
A balance of dreaming and touching the unconscious every single day is actually a godsend when one thinks of the myth in this way as it applies to our own lives. Without sleep we would go insane. There was a time when I ran around life trying to squeeze more time or shove more things into the hours than could fit and it was a train wreck waiting to happen. There is nothing like a good night’s sleep to replenish the soul for the rest of the day to come.
In conclusion, every one of us needs to confront the goddess within or they will perish. Joseph Campbell sums it up well for all us masculine hero’s when he says, “The meeting with the goddess… is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love… which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity” (99).
Whether Demeter is your goddess to know or Persephone is your goddess to know, you need to know her if your plan is to live past your midlife transformation with feeling, meaning, and love in your heart, mind, and soul. In order to love, one needs to feel; in order to feel, one needs the goddess within. James Hillman’s words are fitting to end with, “In myths Gods and humans meet” (49).
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library. 2008. Print.
Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications. 1994. Print.
Homer. “The Hymn to Demeter.” The Homeric Hymns. Trans. By Charles Boer. Kingston, RI: Asphodel Press. 2006. Print.
Johnson, Robert A. Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness. New York: HarperCollins. 1991. Print.
Odajnyk, V. Walter. “Depression at Signifigant Stages of Life.” Betwixt and Between. Eds. Louise Carus Mahdi, Stephen Foster and Meredith Little. La Salle, IL: Open Court. 1987. Print.
Rice, David G. and John E. Stambaugh. “The Homeric “Hymn to Demeter.” The Long Journey Home: Re-Visioning the Myth of Demeter and Persephone for Our Time. Ed. Christine Downing. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. 1994. Print.