By Carol S. Pearson
Are Public Events Evoking Anxiety in You or Those You Know? The recently released paperback edition of my book Persephone Rising: Awakening the Heroine Within includes a new preface that demonstrates how this story and its main characters—Persephone, Demeter, Zeus, and Dionysus—parallel key contemporary public figures, political parties, and movements. As we view these, we may feel uneasy or even anxious as the archetypes become activated in us. This discomfort can be alleviated by experiencing our response as a call to express these same archetypal patterns in our own lives, only in more evolved forms than what we are viewing that troubles us.
Something huge and new is happening in our time.
When I wrote Persephone Rising, I was taken with the idea that the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone—which was the basis of the most honored of their initiation rites—was prophetic. It mirrored archetypes in transition in our own time. That was in 2015, but now it is as if the story is being played out in our public events in ways impossible to miss.
In the myth, the chief of the Olympian Gods (Zeus) is in a power struggle with the Earth Mother (Demeter) that is weirdly similar to the conflict between the main opponents in today’s culture wars. While that struggle is the foreground, the real transformation occurs because an adolescent goddess (Persephone) is simply trying to have the life she wants. In the process, she defies expectations about the choices available to her, using her creativity to engineer the life she desires. In the myth itself, she also helps each of the other major characters evolve, with the result that by the end of the story, a sense of community has been restored.[i]
So how can we, as women and men, gain Persephone’s ability to change everything by being true to ourselves?
Persephone Rising Today Through Context Awareness Coupled with Creativity
The Persephone archetype provides energy that helps us when we are feeling trapped or stuck to find a path to personal success and fulfillment. This can be true of anyone, but it is a quality of the heroine within because women as a group are just now beginning to recover from the limitations of patriarchal attitudes and social institutions. As a coping mechanism to thrive with limited options, many women throughout history developed field awareness, enabling them to size up situations and then use their creativity to get what they wanted. This ability has now been unleashed in a context in which women’s options are far greater than they once were.[ii]
Women have fought for their rights in many times and places, often advocating for the rights of others, as well. The Women’s Movement of the late 1960s and into the seventies took off when the National Organization for Women promoted consciousness-raising groups throughout the country where women simply shared what they were feeling and thinking. This is happening again with the #MeToo movement, where women sharing privately has emboldened others—female and male—with similar experiences to speak out publicly.
Persephone embodies an archetypal spirit of liberation in the culture and for you and me that is still needed. I was surprised how women (and some men) in prestigious jobs who appear to be liberated did not speak out when abuse was happening. But somehow people, even today, still learn early what they are not supposed to acknowledge or say. The curse of silence is only now being dispelled. As it is, Persephone’s heroine energy can offer anyone—male or female—the ability to see the world afresh, ever seeking out new paths to greater aliveness even within the moving and changing obstacle course that has defined what women (and men) can and cannot do in any given time.
The Persephone spirit was shown not long ago by Elizabeth Warren, silenced in the U.S. Senate during debate on Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General and forbidden to read a letter Coretta Scott King had written in 1986 opposing his elevation from U.S. attorney to federal judge. Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” That phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” went viral and energized the contemporary women’s movement, likely because so many of us have had an experience where we were warned not to rock the boat and had to do so anyway to remain true to ourselves. Although prevented from participating further in the debate in the Senate, Warren showed Persephone’s ability to be creative. After leaving the floor, she read the letter on Facebook Live and accepted multiple invitations to read it and discuss the matter on national television.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Nikki Haley, President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, refused to accept a demeaning insult. When a White House advisor suggested that she was confused in stating that the administration would be imposing more sanctions on Russia when in fact the President had changed his mind without telling her, she simply responded—with her words covered widely by the media—“With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
RBG, the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, shows how an inner sense of authentic purpose, combined with a brilliant legal mind and a commitment to collegiality, can achieve results (in her case, legal rulings) that open possibilities for everyone. Most men today are not trying to oppress women, but habit formation is strong. Ginsberg understood this and talked so that male justices could get what she was staying. Well into her 80s, Ginsberg now inspires the young to generate memes about the “Notorious RBG” celebrating her as a heroic role model, not because they want to walk in her shoes, but because they want to be as fearlessly themselves as she has been.
RBG was so well attended that it was broadcast later on CNN, and a movie about her is pending. As in all these cases, the Persephone way is not about demonizing others, but about doing what is needed to fulfill one’s purpose and also learning to find creative strategies to gain cooperation—as Ginsberg has done so many times in a predominantly male Supreme Court—while also espousing the vision of gender balance in the court of the future.
However, the Persephone spirit is not just for women; it is the inner calling in any of us that promotes the courage to speak our truths, even when we know that we live in a society that expects us to keep quiet about them. The Persephone spirit can be found in all nonviolent liberation movements, and particularly today in the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ movements, each of which claims the rights for themselves that previously have been reserved for white, heterosexual males, especially those in the upper and professional classes. At the same time, many men are also recognizing that the old cultural ideal of macho, stoic manhood has kept them locked in silence about their inner pain and vulnerabilities. Vets speaking out about PTSD and the prevalence of depression and suicide among their numbers also reflects the Persephone spirit.[iii]
Every one of the liberation movements began with people sharing with one another what they want and what is keeping them from having it. The Tea Party and other movements on the right also began with people speaking out for what they want and against what they believe limits their freedom. The energy of rising occurs when individuals have the courage to speak their truths. Sometimes this leads to whole movements, and often, initially, to conflict, until all get heard and some consensus is restored. To get there, Persephone’s ingenuity also is needed. I remember a feminist colleague long ago telling me her secret “Swiss-Cheese Model of Success”: find the hole and keep nibbling. Many today similarly advise us to notice where any small opening occurs and take it and go on and on from there.
From Individual Courage to Social Transformation
The Greek rite mentioned above was a liberation movement of its time, called the Eleusinian Mysteries, after the city of Eleusis, where Demeter’s temple was built. This rite prefigured our diverse democracy. Initiates included an egalitarian mix of women and men, slaves and kings, in a class-based society where such groups usually did not come together. The participants went on a pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis, walking 14 miles while gaily singing, chanting, and telling satirical jokes aimed at those who evidenced hubris (arrogance), all designed to celebrate Persephone’s choice for freedom and the birth of Dionysus. The January 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC felt to me the way those ancient rites might have been experienced by the celebrants, and although we did not walk 14 miles twice, it seemed as if we had. In that march, and the others around the country and the world, women wore “pussy” hats and carried humorous signs, accompanied by supportive men—often husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, or friends.
The celebratory energy of Persephone rising is often there in men who do the unexpected. The 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman, which is based on a true event from the 197Os, dramatizes the story of an African-American police officer newly integrating the force. He defies expectations by having the audacity to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and engage white fellow officers in the process. By the end of the film, the relationship between the officers most involved in this courageous caper has a joyous quality, similar to that of the Eleusinian pilgrimage and the aforementioned march.
Modern technology provides new avenues for people rising. It is not unusual for there to be a protest right after a president is elected by those who opposed him, just as the Tea Party organized after President Obama took office. However, the Women’s Marches all over the U.S. and the world after Trump was inaugurated would have seemed as improbable as Persephone’s rise. They were started by one woman in Hawaii who posted the idea on Facebook to have a march to declare that “women’s rights are human rights,” rather than by a partisan group. The post was taken up by others until the Washington, DC event became the largest march ever—completely peaceful, with participants, about a third of whom were male, taking good care of one another. In Washington, DC, the most typical chant was a call and response: “What does democracy look like?” “This is what democracy looks like.”
The powerful can no longer control the dialogue or the access to communication or economic opportunities the way they once did. People are crowd-funding their efforts, and those with entrepreneurial ideas can launch larger enterprises without initially investing much in brick and mortar or marketing. You and I can speak our truths through social media and reach those who share our interests. Videos and posts often go viral and are seen by millions. If you listen to your own dreams and aspirations, and then get creative, the avenue is there to begin the process of gaining support for your success.
Persephone Rising as a Way of Being
Participating in the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC taught me many things. We were so many that we were often packed in so tightly that we literally could not move. A child near us needed a porta-potty, and people passed him over their heads, like in a mosh pit, to get him there and back to his parents. Everyone was taking care of everyone else. While a number of the press accounts might have led some people to assume that the march was an angry protest, it actually was filled with fellow feeling and good cheer. I’m not making a statement here about political views, but rather about a way of being together. In fact, the small, conservative church that my Republican parents attended, and that nurtured me in my childhood, felt that way, too, although it was not the same as feeling this with strangers. My hope is that someday soon it will be possible for all of us to come together in this supportive fashion, across our different perspectives.
What I learned from the Women’s March experience was how very many people know how to be individuals and at the same time practice mutual support. This way of being reflects what happens when Persephone energy rises in us. It triggers a commitment to authenticity in the form of living out the purpose that is uniquely one’s own, and through that process wanting others to do the same. Persephone’s gift is her ability to defy prevailing expectations of what she could be or do and instead answer an inner call to an uncharted path. At the same time, she carried forward Demeter’s commitment to caring for herself and then, in widening spirals, more and more others. Thus, Persephone is an archetypal character that supports the commitment of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all. Persephone’s achievement of freedom had ripple effects, just as ours do when we are buttressed by the rising Persephone energy.
So what does this mean for you? Knowing that Persephone is rising in women and men today can help you have the courage to take risks to be your authentic best self. What you do, in expressing your unique gifts, may look very different from what anyone else does. However, as you flourish through being true to your own nature, you inspire this in others, and others do the same.
Our society is enriched by everyone who follows this path.
[i]The well-known myth of Demeter and Persephone,which many of us have encountered in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, was the public version of the secret sacred story of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was a rather profound ancient rite. Although Hamilton’s version portrays Persephone as a rather passive figure whose destiny is defined by others, recent scholarship calls this depiction into question. Persephone Rising provides additional information about what is known about the Mysteries and its characters and narratives that can be helpful to you and me today. In the ancient story that was revealed only to initiates, Persephone was portrayed as a powerful role model, embodying patterns of behavior rising in women and men in classical Greece and again now.
[ii]Historical patriarchy has silenced women in all kinds of ways: denying women the right to education and most career paths, teaching history that excludes our stories, demeaning us if we speak our truths. In retrospect, it seems such an ugly quality in people to deny members of any group their rights in order to feel smarter, more capable, and more worthy than they, and these attitudes are still with us.
[iii]The opioid epidemic, along with the abuse of other drugs that affect elite groups, has led more and more people afflicted with the pain of addiction to share their experiences rather than hide them out of shame, as many alcoholics also have learned to do. The result of this speaking out has been a growing awareness that these problems should be treated as mental health issues rather than moral failings.