By Carol S. Pearson
To thrive in today’s world, it is critical to be able to track emerging cultural stories that empower rather than limit you. One change I’ve noticed is the shift in the environmental and evolutionary sciences from a focus on “survival of the fittest” stories to narratives about ecological systems—a change that has influenced the thinking of economists, political scientists, and psychologists. A related movement in educational psychology argues that many of us experience a sense of powerlessness because we do not think complexly enough to grasp the big picture of what is happening around us and to us.
In researching my new book, Persephone Rising, I became intrigued by myths about the Greek god Zeus’s boyhood. They tell us that he lived alone in a cave with hives of bees! I knew that Zeus was exiled to Crete to escape a father who wanted him dead. But why bees?, I wondered. This question stuck with me because of the current bee crisis. Honeybees, in particular, seem to have lost their instinctual guidance system and are dying off quickly. Environmental factors like pesticides, pollution, and cell phone signals are being investigated as likely contributing factors. This is not a small problem: it is estimated that bees pollinate about 70 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat.
Complex ecological thinking could have prevented this crisis. That is why I remained curious about the relationship between Zeus and bees. Zeus’s “daddy dearest,” Cronus, ate his children to prevent them from replacing him as chief of the gods, and Zeus eventually did replace his father, becoming the new god of social organization, for both gods and mortals. It occurred to me that observing bees could have been instructive to Zeus, helping him become a systems thinker. Yet, in the story of Demeter and Persephone, Zeus starts out as the villain because he does not understand that he has disrupted the whole of the social order by telling Hades, the god of the Underworld, that he can have Persephone as his bride, without consulting either mother or daughter. Although ancient Greek law gave fathers this right, the Eleusinian Mysteries rites, based on the story of Demeter and Persephone, challenge the resulting practice by presenting a more complex view of the situation. The social order is not just the public domain, governed by laws. It also includes the entire familial and social community, in which love, not right, reigns. Zeus was, then, lacking cognitive complexity when he neglected to check with Persephone and Demeter about their wishes for Persephone’s marriage.
Opening to View a More Complete Picture
Zeus’s single focus on laws and rights makes him ignore a world that he does not value or understand. As the story unfolds, his ignorance of the whole of what makes the human world work undermines the social order. Many people today still need to learn this lesson. For example, business executives who assume that women will give birth to the next generation of workers and raise them well in their spare time, after finishing their more important paid work, create massive social stress and anxiety because they lack any idea of what such tasks require. Similarly, politicians who give lip service to what they consider women’s issues often forget them when they are making policies for schools, local communities, and other institutions. More often than not, education, business, social, gender, and family policies each are considered in isolation, not tracking, for example, how long working hours not aligned with shorter school days create stress for women and families.
Zeus’s arrogant and oblivious actions cause a famine. The distraught Demeter, missing her daughter and feeling dissed by Zeus, stops providing the life force juice for the crops to grow. Eventually, Zeus gives in, because if the crops do not grow and people starve, no one will be left to provide sacrifices for the gods.
Demeter reflects the archetype of nurturance in all its attributes—physical, emotional, and spiritual—so if she is disrespected, a famine can occur at all of these levels. We have the equivalent today: climate change is related to human ignorance about the impact of many of our activities on the ecosystem, including sea levels and weather—i.e., not seeing the whole picture—plus a failure to care for the earth, unfortunately plundering it instead.
Similarly, in economics, many still believe the cultural story that tells us that competition in the context of inequality is all that is needed to motivate people to work harder so that they rise on the social structure, the result being broad prosperity. However, economists now are discovering that if inequality becomes too great, those at the top and bottom income levels do not contribute their fair share as consumers or as workers, and prosperity declines. If we do not notice and care about the entire society and are out only for ourselves, the whole suffers, and likely we do with it.
I wrote more in Persephone Rising about how Zeus’s observation of bees eventually may have helped him connect more dots, become a more complex thinker, and in this way avert the impending catastrophe, which could have destroyed his reign. What I did not know until just recently is that there is persuasive evidence that in the ancient initiation rites dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, initiates did a ritual bee dance. Based on ancient illustrative art, scholar Carol Christ put various pieces together to reveal that these bee dances were a way the initiates in the story of Persephone, and hence the Demeter and Persephone Mysteries, celebrated the natural cycle of pollination.
Caring as a Force that Energizes and Focuses Action
Researching these Mysteries, it became clear to me that they helped human initiates be true to themselves while also understanding their part in natural and social cycles, but I’d missed how important bee social structure and the pollination cycle were to this entire tradition, not just to Zeus’s story. As a mother goddess, Demeter is, after all, like a Queen Bee, who births all the bees and clearly provides nurture. In hives, if the queen is removed or dies, the bees lose focus, flying every which way, and chaos ensures. Similarly, without the creation of caring environments, society breaks down. The Demeter archetype is the link between people and the natural order of things, where babies need to be born and raised, and people need to be fed, clothed, and cared for, and their bodies buried when they die. Except for digging the graves, these all used to be women’s work, and many still are. Today, care and nurturance are necessary not only for children and in the home, but also in the workplace and in governance structures that consider the good of workers, consumers, and our citizenry. Without them, people become demoralized and unhappy and, hence, unproductive.
The goddess Demeter also is credited with bringing agriculture to Greece and teaching its secrets. Understanding how important bees are to human survival helped ancient Eleusinian Mysteries initiates understand not just how to be better farmers, but also how what seems small (like little bees humming around) can be critical to their ability to thrive and maybe even survive. Initiates who came from all walks of life (including women and men, slaves and kings) could identify with those bees, as can we. We matter more than it seems like we do, and if we take time to understand the various cycles of which we are a part, we can influence ecosystems—social, political, and natural—for the better, as Demeter’s story reveals.
Following What Beckons, Pollinating as You Go
Demeter’s lessons tell us that we can demonstrate transformational caring in an uncaring world, while Zeus’s example encourages us to be willing to accept being wrong in the service of win/win outcomes. Persephone, who is a bit like a worker bee, reveals another thriving secret. She goes where she will, in the Underworld and the Upperworld, choosing where she goes through the power of attraction. Worker bees are attracted to the sweetness of nectar. They gather it, and then they fly toward what they love and return to their hive, their communities. As they go, they pollinate all sorts of plants.
Sufi teachings use bees as metaphors for wise living, because they model how the attraction to sweetness, beauty, and other things we naturally love eventually can lead us to the divine and/or our true life path. Spirit, then, is like a fragrant flower, offering the alluring nectar of mystical experience, true love, a vocational calling, or knowing your mission in life. So, in the story of Persephone, she is acting like a bee when she picks the irresistible flower, and the earth opens and up comes Hades. Considered in this context, Hades’s abducting her is similar to any epiphany so important that it changes your life. Having died to what you were (Hades is the god of the Underworld), with your life renewed you may, without even knowing it, pollinate others by your example.
Persephone‘s ultimate role is to initiate the living and the dead into the mysteries of love, sex, birth, life, death, and happiness. She moves annually, and some think freely, between her mother’s Upperworld and her husband’s, Hades’s, Underworld. Like a bee, she absorbs emergent wisdom from both places, and then pollinates humans and gods alike with it. We can replicate what she does in our own spheres, allowing ourselves to be drawn toward sweetness and beauty, always learning and sharing with others, throughout our lives.
And, there is no limit to how far the wind may blow our influence. You might think here of how Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet, is now the best selling poet in America, pollinating our culture with ideas from the Islamic mysticism of his era. Similarly, the Eleusinian Mysteries, which had been largely forgotten for centuries, now are recognized as providing psycho-spiritual wisdom just right for our time.
The Eleusinian Mysteries themselves were a form of social change by pollination. Their leaders did not stage a coup and overthrow their government in order to integrate feminine wisdom into an overly masculine age. Instead, they loosened the hold of dominant (Zeus-like) social stories by engaging a wide range of people in learning and experiencing narratives complementary to his. Today we have a similar situation wherein the Zeus archetype’s focus on achievement and money eclipses all else. Bringing back Demeter/Persephone values is essential for restoring balance—and certainly is a better path than that advocated by those who seem to want to tear everything down.
The Art of Mattering While Joining the Dance
Just as bees dance to communicate with one another where the honey resides, dancing in the Eleusinian Mysteries rites likely was an enjoyable means of delivering on their promise of happiness, prosperity, and freedom from fear. Learning about pollination cycles and then dancing them helped initiates to influence and trust very complex ecosystems and what others contributed to them. The more they understood such cycles, the more prosperous they could be, and the more able they were to see what was outside the range of what they habitually noticed.
In much the same way, the more we, today, recognize all the contributions being made not only by other people, but also by the natural processes that support us, the happier we can be, and the less fear we need to feel. We can allow the sweetness of life to call us to our real life, love, and work, while viewing the complexity of life around us as a dance that can be enjoyed, instead of something fearful to trigger our paranoia.
Thought questions that may generate sharing:
- What psychological, social, and natural cycles/processes are you tracking? What ancient wisdom stories or major religious narratives draw you? What do they tell you about larger patterns important to your and our thriving?
- When have you felt beckoned to a life that is sweet, beautiful, and good? How did you respond, and what happened as a result?
- What can you learn by considering how others see a situation that all of you are experiencing and asking yourself, “What overarching story or event are we in together”? This can be a great way to see past your own perspective in order to defuse conflict and get a handle on the bigger picture or story.
 See Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads: the Mental Challenges of Modern Life. Kegan argues that most of us do not have the cognitive complexity required to be successful personally or professionally in today’s world—that we need to be able to put disparate things together to track a bigger picture, including understanding the attitudes and feelings of others who are different from us.
 See http://feminismandreligion.com/2014/12/01/the-dance-of-the-bees-reading-the-language-of-the-goddess-by-carol-p-christ/ and http://feminismandreligio.com/2014/12/01/the-dance-of-the-bees-reading-the-language-of-the-goddess-by-carol-p-christ/.
 For more about bees and happiness, check out Sue Monk Kid’s novel The Secret Life of Bees. To understand the relevance of other natural cycles to human endeavor and the new movement to mirror nature in what humans create, see Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.