In mid February of 2016, I stood on the dike along a bend in the Connecticut River watching the ice floes come down from the north. First, there were just the sludgy, half-submerged chunks with their edges clicking together in the surface water. Then whole islands of white snow took their place and set a new pace for floating toward the sea. Finally, and faster now, continent after continent came round river bend with a deep slicing of ice in water, sounding that kind of roar that is both huge and nearly silent.
The sun had done its work on mountains and ice pack; winter was loosing its hold. The sun set salmon with the ice flowing toward sky’s streaks and a nearly full moon rose opposite in a still light blue sky.
I felt the seasonal shift in my cells. An image rose in my mind’s eye of the Greek Goddess Persephone climbing out of the Underworld to take her place on one of the ice floes and lead the parade toward spring time.
When Persephone’s story is told, we hear how the innocent girl Kore was picking flowers when the earth opened and out rode Hades to kidnap this beautiful maiden and make her his consort in the Underworld. The details of how brutal the abduction and Kore’s role in what happens vary depending on who tells the tale, but once in the Underworld stories align to show that the young girl transforms into the woman Persephone – meaning She Who Shines in the Dark – and she tends to the dead who dwell there with compassion. She steps into her role as Queen of the Dead.
On earth, the grief of Persephone’s mother the Goddess Demeter is so great that its ripples cause the plants and the crops of the earth to die. Worried that humanity soon would be wiped out, the other Gods convince Hades to let Persephone return to her mother. But before she goes Persephone eats some pomegranate seeds.
Demeter waits for Persephone at the edge of the Underworld and their reunion is ecstatic. Now ripples of joy bring life back to the earth. But because she has eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone must return there for a period of time each year and while she is gone Demeter mourns again and life recedes.
Images of Persephone emerging from the Underworld show her as a beautiful young woman because, of course, she was – the first time -when she emerged. But on the day I stood on the banks of the Connecticut River, Persephone must have been making her multi-billionth trip out of the Underworld. The passage of time must have marked her. These reflections inspired my poem about Persephone emerging.
Fresh from Death
Necklaced still in
lais of the dead.
Dressed in dark mold
skirting with hair tangled:
her worms. Seeds
in her belly – unseen –
the only slip of color: red.
No longer young.
not now beautiful,
from the Underworld.
A crown of dirtied light
and each prong a plough
driven an eternity of times
through frozen earth to find
the roots where sap is siren
signing, “Come.” Bruised
arms and legs shake,
wake the ten thousand cells
to pull her through tree’s scar
shaped like an owl’s eye.
She emerges. A river
below her. Ice murmurs
the surface before sinking.
Banks weedy with last season’s
death: goldenrod stripped,
pods emptied, stalks broken
all along the tongueless way
of water flowing south.
She’ll make it her chariot,
find an island of white to ride.
Blackbird comes to rest
in the nest her crown has become,
Water laps her toes, her clothes
are dissolving. Where she is dirt
all of winter’s dark, the sounds
shook from the dead’s good-byes
surrender here in the bend
to river’s blueing blush, a rising
takes the banks, spreads itself
to slake the thirst of fields folded
now into her watery embrace.
The Persephone I encountered loves Life and fights her way back to its realm each year. But she also is touched by and opens her heart to the Dead and the dark mystery of the Underworld.
I imagine that she takes her annual leave with care, promising to come back in the Fall, and in return is given gifts to take into Life: seeds gestated in the dark to catalyze spring’s return; messages from the dead to bring Love into the lives of their beloveds above; and the ability to shape shift, releasing the muck and rot of the Underworld that clings to her so that it becomes the fertile soil of the new.
Persephone’s great power comes from her ability to live in and honor both Death and Life. She captures our attention once she has put on her springtime dress, but it is her ability to wear many garments – some bright, others decayed – that show her fullness of being.
She offers her power to us; invites us to meet our Persephone Self who is able to flow with both Life and Death. The Equinoxes, where seasons of extreme touch, are the prefect place to practice walking in and honoring both worlds. In fall Death seeps into the fullness of Life while in spring Life springs from the Death of winter and the dry stalks of the last harvest.
In these early days of spring here in the Northern hemisphere, we are invited to walk between the worlds. Religious celebrations such as Ostara, Passover, and Easter offer communal connections and ancient traditions to follow or adapt. You may want to create personal rituals to atune yourself to the wisdom of Death flowing into Life at this time of year.