Monday, April 09, 2007

Persophone (Proserpina)

Near Enna's walls is a deep lake
Known as Pergusa.
The swans on that surface make a music
Magical as the songs
On the swift currents of Cayster.
Trees encircling it
Knit their boughs to protect it
From the sun's flame.
Their leaves nurse a glade of cool shade
Where it is always spring, with spring's flowers.

Proserpina was playing in that glade
With her companions.
Brilliant as butterflies
They flitted hither and thither excitedly
Among lilies and violets. She was heaping
The fold of her dress with the flowers,
Hurrying to pick more, to gather most,
Piling more than any of her friends into baskets.
There the Lord of Hell suddenly saw her.
In the sweep of a single glance
He fell in love
And snatched her away-
Love pauses for nothing.

Terrified, she screamed for her mother,
And screamed to her friends. But louder
And again and again to her mother.
She ripped her frock from her throat downwards-
So all her cherished flowers scattered in a shower.
Then in her childishness
She screamed for her flowers as they fell... (Tales from Ovid, Ted Hughes, 51-2)

If this isn't the greatest story in the world, what is? Well, The Odyssey gets in there, and the Iliad, and Gilgamesh, and Ishtar, (a progenitor, of sorts) for starters, all come close, but nothing is like the story of Persephone. It takes abundant narrative shifts, and its protagonist practically disappears before our eyes. We barely get to know her and she's gone; when she returns she has become the Queen of the Dead, living, if it can be called that, in the Underworld. The story as we have it from the Hymn to Demeter and Ovid is more about Demeter, her mother, who is very like a witch in this story, than Persephone, known to the Latins as Proserpina, who is also called Kore, the daughter, which is the name given to all those lovely clothed feminine counterparts to the kouros.

For most, the story represents the etiology of summer and winter. Not for me. I am with those who find that explanation a bit weak. Much more satisfying to me is to understand the story of Persephone as the story of marriage in the Ancient world-marriage as rape-as presented from the mother's perspective, mourning, her torch and sickle in hand, or gnawing idly on Pelops' shoulder.

Persephone's quiet disappearance is so familiar; women in the literature of the ancient world do it so well. I think of Penelope's quiet, veiled presence in the Odyssey, so powerful, and yet almost never fully there. I think of Nausicaa in the same narrative--a character I identify with the young Penelope, by the way-whose vivid and lively presence entrances us for a few brief minutes and then is gone. I think, of course, of Sappho, smiling from the shadows.