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September 22 fall equinox

by Pat Hacker | September 17, 1998

As the legend goes, Demeter, the sister of Zeus, the daughter of Cronos and Gaia who were the first of all gods, was the greatest of the earth mothers and the powerful goddess to whom was given the responsibility for all growing things, and of the harvest of foods and grain. It was Demeter who gave the earth its lush green summer meadows, the fragrance of flowers, sweet fruits and vegetables, vast pastures and green hillsides for grazing cattle, fields of grain to sustain life on earth and rich, abundant harvests.

Demeter passed to the mortal women of earth the secrets and knowledge of agriculture; the knowledge of when and where to plant, the skills of cultivating, harvesting and caring for the earth so that there would be all that people needed. Demeter was said to love her duties and responsibilities and that she was loved and honoured with celebration, song, feasting and offerings throughout earth. It was also said that Demeter was a powerful, strong woman of great stature, possessing hair the colour of wheat. The corn dollies we made at Lammas (August 1) were no doubt figures of Demeter, and the weaving of wheat sheaths represented her elaborately braided hair.

Demeter had one child whom she adored; a beautiful and gentle daughter named Persephone. Persephone was a young girl, probably between 14 and 16 years in mortal age, and she spent her days playing, dancing, singing and weaving garlands of wildflowers in the meadows with her cousins, Artimis and Athena.

Sometime during the mid-summer of an endless year in time, Persephone wandered away from her cousins. Her laughter and singing had been heard by Hades, the powerful god of the underworld and the brother of both Zeus and Demeter. Hades had longed for a wife to share the underworld with him, but any maiden he approached turned him down. Hades, watching Persephone on the green earth, fell in love with her and desired her, so he caused a great crack in the earth to open so that he could pull Persephone down with him into the Underworld below, the dark gloomy world of the dead.

Being unable to find Persephone where she usually played with Artimis and Athena, Demeter began searching the world for her. No one knew anything about Persephone’s disappearance; neither gods nor mortals to whom Demeter spoke could offer help or comfort. In a state of broken-hearted despair, Demeter wrapped herself in a cloud and, for ten days, moved through and across the earth searching for Persephone. At last, she spoke with Phoebus Apollo who sees all things on earth (as each day he pulls the sun across the sky behind his golden chariot). Phoebus Apollo was able to tell Demeter that he had seen Hades abduct Persephone into the underworld to be his queen, with the full knowledge of Zeus. Persephone had struggled but was over-powered by Hades’ strength.

Demeter was overwhelmed by grief. She no longer cared for her duties on earth. She chose only to spend her days grieving for her lost daughter. Demeter wandered the earth, disguised as an old woman and, as she did, the earth fell barren and was overtaken by famine. Mortals had no food and the earth was dying. Gods and mortals alike appealed to Zeus to help restore the earth to fertility and abundance.

Zeus understood that the power of the great mother goddess to create life and growing things was beyond even the power of the great god Zeus himself. Therefore, Zeus called upon Iris, his messenger, to travel on a rainbow from Olympus, the home of the gods, to Demeter to plead with her to end the famine.

Demeter realized that Zeus needed her and that she held a great power; her life, her energy and her vitality were necessary to sustain life. Demeter knew, now, that she could negotiate with Zeus for a position of power.

The message Demeter sent back to Zeus through Iris was that she would not return to Olympus under any circumstances until Persephone was released from the underworld. As sovereign of heaven and earth, Zeus had far-reaching powers to change the order of things, yet he had to respect the jurisdictions of the other gods; Neptune’s authority over the oceans and seas, Hades authority in the underworld, Demeter’s authority over the green earth. Zeus had also to recognize the limitations imposed by Olympian rules and laws.

Hermes, the messenger of the gods of Olympus, was dispatched to Hades to plead for the release of Persephone. Zeus ordered that if Persephone had eaten nothing during her stay in the underworld, she must be released to return to earth. Now, as it happens, that poor dear Persephone had neither eaten nor drunk anything during her stay with Hades as she, too, was pining for her mother and her former life on earth.

Knowing that Persephone could be detained in the underworld if she had eaten or drunk anything, Hades attempted to trick her and take advantage of her sweet and tender nature. He pleaded with Persephone to share some food and drink with him before she left the underworld. Persephone was so delighted to learn that she would be returning to earth that, in the spirit of kindness and forgiveness, she shared some food with him. Persephone ate six grains of a pomegranate.

On learning this, Demeter fell into even greater despair as she felt she had lost her daughter for sure.

Zeus made a powerful intervention at this point and decreed that Persephone could return to earth and to her mother, but she would have to go again each year to the underworld to spend one month for each grain of the pomegranate she had eaten while in the underworld.

Reunited at last with her daughter, Demeter decreed that as long as Persephone was on earth, the flowers, fruits, vegetables and gains would grow. When Persephone returned to the Underworld, there would be no growing things on Earth. For six months, the trees shed their leaves, plants and flowers sleep, vegetables and grains wait for the spring and summer when Persephone returns.

This is one way to understand why we have winter.

ritual
  1. The ritual for the fall equinox can begin with casting the circle and calling in the directions, as well as the goddesses and spirits important to this time of year, such as Demeter and all the great mother goddesses across the earth. As the circle is formed, someone should symbolically cleanse the area with a broom or besom.
  2. It is still warm enough even in northern climates to celebrate out-of-doors and even bare-footed. Dress in the colours of this time of year which are rich earth tones of gold, orange
  3. Prepare an altar facing north; use a green candle to represent earth and the north, a yellow candle to represent air and the east, a red candle to stand for fire and the south, and a blue candle to represent water and the west. Have on the altar a pomegranate, some oat cookies or Scottish oat cakes and a chalice with freshly pressed or hard cider for libation.
  4. Invite one member of the circle, or your priestess, to read the story of Demeter and Persephone. At the end of the story, pass the split pomegranatearound the circle so that each woman may take six grains and eat them in memory of the love between mother and daughter, the sadness of separation and the beginning of the period when the earth sleeps. Remember, as well, that this begins a time of introspection and a time for each of us to return to the centre of ourselves for reflection and renewal.
  5. As you pass the chalice around the circle, talk about the story of Demeter and Persephone and what it means to women and to each of us. What messages and deeper meanings does this story hold for us as women? Why has the story of Demeter and Persephone survived in literature and art, continuing to fascinate readers today as always? What other stories in literature or film carry the theme of Demeter and Persephone? There is also a Sumarian myth of Inanna, a great mother goddess who descends into the underworld to face death, yet to survive and return again to earth.
  6. Open the circle and release the spirits. Remember to give back to the earth some of the cider, oat cookies and some of the pomegranate seeds as an offering to Demeter.

Blessed be!

more to consider

All religious traditions seem to have some legend or story about going into the Underworld to return again. It is a symbolic theme that appears in a lot of popular films, too. Going very close to annihilation to survive and triumph.

Demeter didn’t initially approach Zeus herself because she didn’t realize her power. This is like many women who don’t realize the power we all have in the world.

resources for this story

calendars

  • Return of the Goddess Annual Date Books, by BURLEIGH MUTÉN, Stewart Tabori and Chang, New York (for submissions of poetry or slides of artwork, email Burleigh Mutén at goddess@crocker.com)
  • Witch’s Calendar, Llewellyn Worldwide

National Film Board of Canada films directed by Donna Reed

  • Goddess Remembered
  • The Burning Times
  • Full Circle

books

  • The Goddess Workbook: A Guide to the Feminine Spiritual Experience, by JILL FAIRCHILD and REGINA SCHAARE, The Great Goddess Press, Portland, Maine | 1993
  • Return of the Great Goddess, by BURLEIGH MUTÉN, Stewart Tabori and Chang, New York (for submissions of poetry or slides of artwork, email Burleigh Mutén at goddess@crocker.com)
  • Book of Greek Myths, by INGRI and EDGAR PARIN D’AVLAIRE, Doubleday | 1962
  • Drawing Down the Moon, by MARGOT ADLER, Beacon Press, Boston | 1992
  • A Woman’s Book Of Rituals and Celebrations, by BARBARA ARDINGER, New World Library, San Rafael, CA, Second edition | 1995
  • The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, by ZSUZSANNA BUDAPEST, Winghbow Press, Berkeley, CA
  • Rites of Passage, The Pagan Wheel of Life, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN | 1994
  • Wheel of the Year, Living the Magical Life, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, fifth printing | 1995
  • Ancient Ways, Reclaiming Pagan Traditions, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, fourth printing | 1993
  • Wicca, A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner, by SCOTT CUNNINGHAM, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN | 1993
  • The Great Cosmic Mother, by BARBARA MOR and MONICA SJOO, Harper Row | 1989
  • Arladne’s Thread A Workbook of Goddess Magic, by SHEKHINAH MOUNTAINWATER, The Crossing Press, Freedom CA | 1991
  • Women-Church, by ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER, Harper and Row, San Francisco, CA | 1990
  • Encyclopedia of White Magic, by PADDY SLADE, Hamlyn Press, London | 1990
  • The Spiral Dance, by STARHAWK, Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA | 1991
  • The Women’s Spirituality Book, by DIANE STEIN, Llewellyn Publications
  • Jambalaya, by LULSAH TELSH, Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA | 1990
  • Women’s Rituals, by BARBARA WALKER, Harper and Row, New York, NY | 1990
  • The Women’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, by BARBARA WALKER, Harper and Row, San Francisco | 1990
  • Earth Magic: A Dianic Book of Shadows, by MARION WEINSTEIN, Phoenix Publishing Inc., Custer, WA | 1980

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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