Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Ruth Krall, "Persephone’s Journey into the Underworld: Lessons for Our Time"

Ancient portrayal of Demeter and Persephone, Apulian red-figure loutrophoro, ca. 4th century BCE, from the J. Paul Getty Museum, at the Theoi Project website

When I announced at the start of this year that I've decided no longer to maintain Bilgrimage, I also noted that if readers have something they'd like me to consider for posting here down the road, I'll gladly do that. Ruth Krall has kindly offered the following essay for publication here, and I'm delighted to share it. 

An interesting side note here: Ruth sent me this essay on the feast of one of Ireland's patron saints, Brigid. It just so happens — and this can hardly be coincidental — that the name Brigid is a pre-Christian Celtic name, the name of a pre-Christian goddess, and the feast of Brigid happens to fall on the very day of an ancient Celtic feast marking the halfway point between between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the day of Imbolc — so that this is clearly one of many ancient Christian celebrations that has taken over pre-Christian beliefs and customs and woven them with Christianity.

I'm not sure if Ruth knew about the synchronicity of sending me this essay on the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc aka the feast of St. Brigid. If so, we did not discuss that synchronicity when she emailed her essay to me.

Ruth's essay follows: 

Persephone’s Journey into the Underworld:

Lessons for Our Time

Ruth E. Krall, MSN, Ph.D

The World is a Wasteland [i]


My understanding of the power of mythology to guide human life is grounded in multiple sources: Joseph Campbell’s many books about the relevance of mythology for our personal and collective understandings of life [ii]; Carl Jung’s important work on personal and collective archetypes [iii]; James Hillman’s work, The Blue Fire [iv],  and Marija Gimbutas’ works [v] on the Goddess as revealed in archeological dig after archeological dig.  

Early on in my studies of mythology and female deities, I read Robert Graves’ study of poetic mythology (The White Goddess). [vi] As a seminarian in the 1980’s I stumbled upon Raphael Patai’s seminal work on the Hebrew Goddess [vii].  I wrote my first academic paper on the Goddess in the late seventies. In the 1980’s I joked with my dissertation committee members that I deserved a second PhD. in Goddess studies.   

In addition, there was Charlene Spretnak’s pioneering work on the ancient Greek myth about Persephone and Demeter. [viii] As part of my feminist studies, I found Carol Christ’s [ix] and Judith Plaskow’s [x] multi-faceted work to be revelatory in liberating ways.

Ancient cultures such as Sumer, Babylon, Neo-Babylon, Judah, Israel, Greece and Rome (as well as many Middle Eastern cultures such as Egypt and Assyria) also worshipped a variety of male and female deities. [xi] These deities appear, for example, in Jewish scriptures. [xii] As various political cultures grew in power they often adopted or subsumed the deities of the cultures they conquered and subsequently replaced — giving these deities new names. Inanna (Sumer) became Ishtar (Babylon). Ishtar became Esther (Israel and Judah). Each deity gained, therefore, a nuanced and enriched narrative that reflected the worldview, beliefs and spirituality of her new people. Each deity, in his or her turn, gained political and spiritual power to govern private and collective life. 

Persephone’s Descent to the Underworld   

The Eleusinian Mysteries (1600 BCE – 392 CE) tell us the story: a young virginal maiden (Persephone) was enjoying the advent of spring with her friends when Hades, the God of the Underworld, spotted her. He split open the earth and abducted her to the underworld — where he raped and then married her. She subsequently became his queen and together she and Hades ruled the underworld.

Meanwhile back on earth, Demeter mourned the absence of her daughter. She roamed the earth searching for information about Persephone. The   Goddess of vegetation, Demeter abandoned her forests and fields and the earth became a barren wastelands.

The Crone Goddess Hecate (Goddess of the Moon) had witnessed the abduction of Persephone and the despair of Demeter.  She was moved by compassion and returned to earth from her home on the moon. She told Demeter about the abduction and rape. Enraged, Demeter traveled into the underworld to rescue her daughter. [xiii] But Hades had tricked Persephone by feeding her some sacred seeds.  

As a result, Persephone could return to earth each spring only if she agreed to return to the underworld at the beginning of each winter.    

Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries guided the political and spiritual life of Greece from 1600 BCE to 696 CE. They were celebrated at Eleusis. Spiritual seekers took part in the Lesser Mysteries in the spring and in the Greater Mysteries in September. Very little is known about the actual liturgies and theologies of Eleusis. Pilgrims and participants were sworn to keep the secrets of the mysteries on the threat of death. It is believed, however, that the mysteries guaranteed eternal life and rebirth. Various authors speculate that participation in both the spring and fall celebrations were guaranteed a reprieve from death.  

To contextualize this in a Christian perspective: Pope Siricius reigned (in Rome) from 334 CE to 399 CE. In other words, Christianity existed in proximity to the Mysteries for almost four hundred years. It is intriguing to ponder the question: how did the Mysteries influence Christianity as it emerged from Judaism? Was there theological, mystical, or spiritual interpenetration of the Mysteries of Eleusis with early Christianity during the time that Christian scriptures were being codified, infallible doctrines promulgated, and made canonical? Can we find traces of Eleusis in today’s world-wide Christian traditions? 

In the latter part of the twentieth century a renewed interest in the Mysteries led to the formation of the Nine Gates Mystery School. Many of the world’s mystery religious traditions such as the Kabala, Native American tribal religious practices, and Sufi ecstatic dances have been integrated. [xiv ]

Relevance for Our Time in History

We live in a time of global turbulence. Wars and plagues abound. These plagues are diverse and appear in multiple cultures (Christian and Other-than-Christian). They include global warming, war, poverty, the various isms, and a rapidly mutating COVID-19 virus. They include religious hatreds, out-of-control violence and sexual assaults of many different kinds.  

Each form of violence does not exist in isolation. Instead, each unique form of violence interacts with and interpenetrates other forms. Each form of violence is capable of creating death and despair. Each is capable of mutating into even more deadly forms. Each form, in my opinion, triggers a journey into the underworld. Death, loss, and grief are omnipresent in both worlds: the upper world and the lower world.  The wasteland is universal. No one escapes. The realm of Hades and its grief wait for and reflect every individual’s unique life journey. Again, to emphasize this bleak landscape: no one escapes. No one can bargain his or her own journey back to life. Each suffers and each must find redemption, salvation, and resurrection on her or his own.  

There are no guarantees of rescue — only desperate prayers. There are no guarantees of resurrection — only prayer-filled petitions emptied of hope. There is no guarantee that the Great Mother will take pity on the earth and its two-legged and four-legged inhabitants.

Inside the great silence and the Great Mystery, the self is emptied and purged of its humanity; its identity. Only the hidden face of the Divine Self hangs over the primordial sea from which new life emerges and re-emerges in eternal cycles of birth, death and re-birth.  

The Renaissance of Hope

Unless the human spirit is so beaten down and broken (by violence, sexual assaults, alienation, poverty, etc.), hope is a beacon lights that guides our way through our personal and collective mysteries. Believing in life and in rebirth, we line up our personal compasses with this distant and almost invisible beacon.  

Life and the renewal of life are possible. In our depression and abject despair we cling to hope. We participate in the mysteries. We seek salvation. We beg for resurrection. We claim life.

All of the world’s great and enduring religions teach us this. The divine SHE is returning to us: the Great Mother (the Holy Mother) has many names: Cybele, Lilith, Leto, Isis, La Virgin of Guadeloupe, Mary, Parvati, Madonna, Asherah, Eve, Coatellique, Ixazalvoh, Yellow Corn Woman and White Buffalo Woman.   

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen a renewed interest in the feminine. As cultures crisscross oceans and continents, women seek a renewed identify and a renewed solidarity with each other. In the plague of sexual violence, women and their daughters often lose each other. Each, to heal these desperate wounds, must make a journey to the Underworld. Each must confront Hades. Each must seek to rescue others. Each must seek, first, to heal their personal wounds. Only then they are able to heal the wounds of others. Make no mistake, the round-trip journey into Hell and back into life is arduous. In twenty-first vernacular: the journey is not for sissies. It is a hero’s journey. It is a journey of redemption. It is a journey of resurrection.   

I believe that the mysteries of Eleusis live in the psyches and dreams of today’s women. As survivors of men’s violence and sexual abuse, we have made the arduous journey to Eleusis and we have returned —reborn.  


i. Joseph Campbell (1988). PBS Special: The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers), at the Moyers on Democracy website

ii. Campbell, Joseph (2008). The Hero With a Thousand Faces: The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell.  New York: New World Library.

iii. Jung, Carl (nd). The Myth is Not the Territory: Archetypes, Mythology and Alchemical Transformation in Depth Psychology, disucssed by Gelerah Khoie, Pacifica Graduate Institute in a lecture entitled "Archetypes, Mythology, and Alchemy in Jungian Analytical Psychology, uploaded to YouTube by Disco Liberation Movement

iv. Hillman, James and Thomas Moore (1997). A Blue Fire. New York: Harper Perennial.  

v. Gimbutas, Marija (1999).The Living Goddesses. Berkeley: The University of California Press at Berkeley.

vi. Graves, Robert (2013). The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

vii. Patai, Raphael (1990). The Hebrew Goddess: Jewish Folklore and Anthropology. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.  

viii. Spretnak, Charlene (1992). Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths. Boston: Beacon Press. See also Charlene Spretnak's website.

ix. Christ, Carol (1980). Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon Press.   

x. Plaskow, Judith (1972-2003). The Coming of Lilith: Essays in Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics.  Boston: Beacon Press; (with Carol Christ), Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press; (with Carol Christ), Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. New York: Harper One.  

xi. Op.cit., Patai, Raphael.

xii. Their names appear in the books of First and Second Kings; for example, first Kings 14:23.

xiii. There are many stories of underworld journeys in the world’s mythological canon: Inanna, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Jesus (who travels into hell) to harrow it and to rescue the righteous dead.   

xiv. For a testimonial, see this video on the Facebook page of Nine Gates Mystery School

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