Today, I have another response to another post over at Glow in the Woods. I’ve been spending more time there recently – perhaps because of the time of the year? – and I find that it continues to be a place of refuge for me. It also continues to teach me much about mourning and grief, whether my own journey through it or the journeys of others. It is a healing place, one that has brought comfort to many in the darkest moments. I like it there.

I like it there, even when I don’t agree with everything that’s said. That’s okay. One person’s grief may well be different from another’s. No matter whether I agree or not, the posts there always get me thinking, and that’s a good thing. In the most recent post, one of the contributors writes about identifying with ancient goddesses of grief: the Greek Demeter and Hecate, the Norse Frigga, and so on. She focuses especially on Demeter, and the more I read, the more I understood her reasoning. And the less I found myself relating to Demeter.

I read a lot of Greek mythology in my younger years, and it continues to hold a certain fascination for me. I can’t say that I ever had much interest in Demeter, a mother-goddess figure whose most well-known myth involves the abduction of her daughter Persephone. In the end, Persephone wed her captor (Hades) and became Queen of the Underworld. Not much is ever said how she feels about it all. We see mostly Demeter’s mourning, her triumph at her daughter’s return, and then the relapse of mourning when it’s revealed that, because of her actions in the Underworld, Persephone will have to remain there six months out of the year.

It was not one of my favorite myths. As an origin story for the seasons, it makes sense. Persephone’s descent into the Underworld is mimicked by the coming of winter; her return to the upper world an ushering in of spring. As a story of characters, it confounds me. Persephone and Hades are hardly developed at all, their relationship after abduction shadowy and largely ignored. The focus was entirely on Demeter and her grief, and as a young woman untouched by bereavement, I was not much moved by it. Honestly, I hadn’t given her very much thought until now.

Demeter and I, we both lost our daughters. But even so, I can’t come to identify with her too much. I understand her pain, but in so many ways, I can’t consider her an archetype for myself.

For one thing, she turned her grief into destruction. Her grief is the causee of the barren seasons. When Persephone returns to the Underworld, Demeter turns from a nurturing mother to a mourner. In some stories, she destroys crops out of spite, unwilling to allow the earth to be fruitful even as she is denied her daughter. In other stories, she is merely negligent, unable to keep up with her worldly tasks because she is so distraught with grief. I admit, I can understand that last bit, but it’s something I’ve tried to avoid myself. I’ve tried to turn my grief towards creation, to make life better for myself and for others, if only in small ways. While I understand the importance of mourning, I also understand that I can’t allow it to rule my life, to take from me the ability to hope and love and simply live.

For another thing, Persephone returns to her mother six months out of the year. I find myself contemptuous of Demeter for that reason alone. Yes, initially, she thought she had lost her daughter forever, and her grief was unbearable. So unbearable, in fact that, in one version of the story, Zeus grows so tired of it that he goes to Hades to implore him to let Persephone return to her mother. (To be fair, most other versions have Zeus acting out of concern for humans, who were dying under the blanket of drought Demeter had brought upon them.) In the end, Demeter is reunited wth her daughter. Will I ever have that? Not in this world, not in this lifetime. My daughter – and so many other daughters, other children – will never return, even for a short time. We don’t even get six months of the year with them. We get nothing, no consolation prize. All the seasons of our lives are mourning periods, no matter how green and happy Demeter may be.

No, Demeter never, to me, seems to be the model of mourning. If I had to select a Greek figure of mourning that I most identify with, it would likely be Niobe, for whom I have always felt great pity.

Niobe’s only sin was that she was prideful. As with so many Greek myths, her hubris was her destruction. (The Greeks really had a thing against being too proud. It brought down a lot of people in Greek myths and tragedies.) She had a number of children – it varies depending on who is telling the story, from merely four to an extravagant twenty. At a ritual dedicated to the goddess Leto, she made the mistake of boasting of the number of her children (or the beauty of them, again the stories vary) in comparison to Leto’s two. Leto became so enraged that she sent those two children (the major deities Apollo and Artemis) to slay Niobe’s children. All of them.

What mother hasn’t boasted about her children? Or at least thought of boasting about them? Yes, it was foolish of Niobe to do it, because she was Greek and at the mercy of their incredibly flighty and vengeful gods. Her children were all murdered, her husband killed himself from the grief (or was also struck dead because he vowed to avenge them), and nobody felt badly for Niobe because she had brought it upon herself. She climbed up to a mountainside, wept until she turned into a rock, and now weeps for eternity. Her story was intended as a warning, that even parental pride could be destructive. Perhaps – but such a price to pay! And brought upon her by a mother-goddess. I’ve never liked Leto since.

Niobe will never get her children back, no matter how many tears she weeps. And she weeps alone, on her mountainside, secluded in her grief, and the world moves on unaware. That’s how I feel in my grief, though I feel myself more sheltered in the supporting arms of family and friends. A shelter away from those who would feel nothing for my loss. I cannot make demands like Demeter and get what I want. Lauren will never return to me. I can only mourn. That’s the comfort I have left to me.

As for other goddesses of mourning, there is Hecate, the triple-spirited goddess of grief and the night. She is depicted as a guide through the mourning process, and I could devote a thousand words to her alone.

Some other time, perhaps.

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