By Dori S. Koehler
People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again… Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations… usually….[i]
It’s fashionable in this contemporary moment of #MeToo to dismiss the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It is, after all, a story with a rape narrative at its center. In the context of current political discourse, it’s easy to see why this myth can feel dark and icky. Taken literally, it sets up a dangerous path for those who identify with symbols of innocence and naiveté. Conventional interpretations of this myth are used to validate violation and subjugation of innocence. But new research offers a different interpretation; one that focuses on rising from the violation patriarchal imbalance has perpetrated on humanity. We need this interpretation now more than ever.
If you don’t know the myth of Eleusis, you can find it here. In short, it’s the story of a young girl plucked away from her mother and married to her uncle, lord of the underworld. It’s also the story of a mother searching for that daughter and of their ultimate reunion. Archeological research shows that the mystery cult worshipped at Eleusis offers rites that honor both Persephone and Demeter fully in their power as sexual, generative beings. It shows us that the transformative power of this myth lives in the way it works through the continued cycles of life and death.
This new interpretation of Persephone’s story is the subject of Carol S. Pearson’s Persephone Rising: Awakening The Heroine Within, which has just been released in paperback. Dr. Pearson’s work focuses on Persephone’s rising from the underworld. From this perspective, she suggests that the alchemical experience of transformation Persephone’s story shows us eventually gives way to deep down in the gut happy-making feelings of joy. As the late, great Marion Woodman wrote, “Birth is the death of the life we have known; death is the birth of the life we have yet to life.”[ii] This perspective aligns much more closely with the version of the myth that lived in the hearts of devotees for hundreds of years. The truth of this myth is eternal. It lives in every part of our lives, and it continues to live in our stories today.
I Am The Woman of Balnain. The Folk Have Stolen Me Over Again….
Sing me a song of a lass that is gone. Say could that lass be I?
Merry of soul, she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
These lyrics from a folk song written by the legendary Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson about a tragic, if not equally legendary, 18th century Scottish figure known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, rose to global prominence as the theme song of the Starz hit show Outlander, a series that has been hugely popular both for its empowered portrayal of female sexuality and for the way it takes on issues of gender, power, committed romantic partnership, and sexual violation. If you follow my blog at all, you know that I’m completely obsessed with this series. You also know that I’ve written a fair amount about it, most notably a blog about the series as erotic epic.
Outlander is epic both literally and figuratively. Speaking merely of the book series alone, it clocks in at about 6,500 pages. It spans literal time as well as narrative time. The first installment was published in 1991, the most recent in 2014. And that’s just the main tale. There are side stories and spinoffs. This New York Times best selling series has been published in over 27 countries and 24 languages; there’s no denying that the story of the Frasers is a global phenomenon with a fandom to match.
So, yes, Outlander is an epic, and as such multiple archetypal themes are woven throughout. Resonance of Eleusinian myth is all over the series. I could write a book—and I still might—that exhaustively explores the symbolic connections between this myth and Outlander. It’s too much for a short blog. But trust me, it’s in there. Here’s a list of a few of the Eleusinian tropes present in Outlander:
- Transportation to the underworld—the land of the ancestors—through picking a flower
- Trauma and sexual violation of innocence
- Death of a female child
- A mother’s boundless grief
- The creation of a (emotional) wasteland due to this death
- Separation and reunion after an exhaustive search
Perhaps most central to this series is the relationship between Eros (desire, life, or Persephone) and Thanatos (death, transformation, or Hades). Eleusis’ resonance in Outlander is present through a series of descents and ascents in and out of the underworld. Each time Persephone symbolically returns to the land of the living, her rebirth brings a deeper level of intimacy and a stronger presence of joy. For the sake of example, let’s look at two major instances of the underworld trope: Claire’s crossing into the past and Jamie’s rape at the hands of Black Jack Randall.
Descent 1: Claire Disappears Into The Past
Just like Persephone’s story, Outlander begins with abduction. Claire, a World War II army nurse, is on a second honeymoon in Scotland with her husband, Frank. She and Frank have been separated for five years by the war. Their relationship is in an obvious state of dysfunction. They visit a circle of standing stones and witness an ancient Celtic ritual. Later, Claire returns to pick a flower she can’t seem to forget. She NEEDS to know what kind of flower it is. As she picks the flower—a forget-me-not—she hears a noise that sounds as though it is coming from the stone. She touches the stone, and the world transforms around her. She awakens in 1743, disoriented, like Persephone in the underworld, and like Demeter, she immediately seeks a way to return her Persephone to her own time.
Descent 2: Jamie’s Rape and Recovery
One of the most fascinating things Diana Gabaldon is able to do in her series is to unhook archetypal images from gender. The best example is the way she transforms a strapping young highland man into the symbol of raped innocence through his interaction with a redcoat captain known as Black Jack Randall. The television series version does this remarkable well. In episode 106, Jack Randall makes it clear that he has an obsession with the darkest realms of the soul. When he tells Claire, “I dwell in darkness, madam. And darkness is where I belong. I need no sympathy from you and you’ll get none from me,”[iii]he communicates that his intentions are to possess Jamie, to drag him down into the underworld with him.
During each interaction he has with Jamie, Black Jack Randall violates him. He flogs him, he tries to break him through violating his family members, and in the end he leans into Jamie’s protective warrior instincts to force him to give himself up. He threatens Claire, the person who means the most to Jamie, and in return Jamie gives him his body. Jamie’s violent torture and rape at the hands of this manifestation of Hades is another clear indication of the presence of this myth in Outlander. During this traumatic event, Jamie’s soul is thoroughly unraveled, and part of his soul is knitted forever to Randall. Randall possesses Jamie, and Jamie knows it. In order for him to transform this trauma and live with joy, Jamie must ascend and return to the woman who heals every scrape and every bullet hole.
Claire, like Demeter, refuses to give up even when she has no hope. She leverages all the power of the gods to free him from a prison that is regarded (like the Greek underworld) as inescapable. Jamie is healed only through a delicate balance of Claire’s caretaking touch and his erotic desire for Claire. He cries out to her. In the book he even calls out deliriously for his own mother, and Claire heals him, both body and soul. The story continues with its cycles of descent and ascent, including the death of one daughter (aptly named Faith) and birth of another daughter, born 200 years in the future and (named Brianna after Jamie’s father, Brian), but that’s a whole other blog, perhaps a whole other book.
The archetypal energies that drove the ancient mystery cult at Eleusis come together in Outlander like concentric circles, continuing to develop the cycles of abduction, violation, transformation, and rebirth. And what is it that is reborn? It’s the power of erotic desire and eventually of true vulnerable intimacy. This is accomplished through the echoes of the myths rather than a retelling of the myth itself. As Dr. Pearson writes “We discover this deeper part of us by determining whom and what we love—not so much whom or what we want to care for but what lights us up.”[iv] This certainly describes the mythic significance that fans of Outlander find in their experience of the series. The other morning, I saw a post on a Facebook group called “I love Outlander” with a picture of show’s lead actors holding a sign that reads, “How has Outlander positively affected your life?” The post was filled with stories of people leaving jobs, ending unhappy marriages, creating lasting change—i.e., engaging the series as a way of making life. This tale abducts us, like Persephone, into a world of transformation, as it requires that we stay there for a long time, processing, engaging, consciously and unconsciously.
In doing so, it allows the story to breathe, kaleidoscopically transforming the rugged and dashing Jamie into Persephone, the feisty and independent mother/daughter pair Claire and Brianna into Demeter, and the sadistic, irredeemable Black Jack Randall into Hades. As it evokes these symbols, Outlander turns time itself into Persephone’s journey. It highlights the alchemy of grief and separation,encompassing the vast scope of life with one notable guiding orientation—the absolute necessity of erotic energy. Eros, this series suggests, is Persephone herself. She is life, and existing without her, life isn’t death; it is oblivion.
Dori Koehler, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and scholar of American popular culture. She is a professor of Humanities and Popular Culture at Southern New Hampshire University. She also teaches Classical Mythology and Shakespeare to children online through the Gifted Home Schoolers Forum. Her book The Mouse and the Myth: Sacred Art and Secular Ritual is available on amazon. Her latest article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays through John Libbey Publishing. She lives in Santa Barbara with her husband and their cocker spaniel, Lucy.
[i]For the sake of ease and consistency, I will quote the television show for this blog. Season One of the series aligns itself closely with its original literary source. This particular quote opens Episode 101, Sassenach.