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Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Narcissus and the Pomegranate. An Archaeology of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter -by Ann Suter.

When I first came across references to this book, my first reaction was to go to Amazon and buy!

The book is a comprehensive exploration of the earliest Persephone story: The Hymn to Demeter by Homer. In theory the Homeric hymn is the oldest and closest record of the original myths celebrated at Eleusis.

But the book costs: £71.73 (reduced from £75.50). All I can say is, thank you Francis Trigge, Rector of Welbourne in Lincolnshire for setting up the first public library in England, so that the poor may read the precious texts previously restricted to members of prestigious institutions and the rich.

My first impression of the book (and I haven't read it all the way through yet, so I don't have any strong conclusions) is that Ann Suter's careful sifting and winnowing of the facts, helps me to clarify my own thought about some of the things that have irritated me, thus far. Namely the habit of using Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical reading of myth to gain an understanding of the underlying forces that created the myth, and secondly, the habit of lazily creating synthesis from similar but different versions of the same myth, in effect creating new myth. I'm not against it...really (only a little bit) but the concept of the Hymn to Demeter being all about:
"a middle-aged woman's reactions to her adolescent daughter's increasing sexuality and independence"
is just the kind of statement I often come across in relation to the Persephone myth. And it kind of bugs me because though it may well be a universal truth (I am middle aged, I have two daughters) it is too simple to be satisfying.

Whilst Ann Suter's conclusion that:
"The Hymn incorporates the kourotrophos myth ('the rearing of boys' the story of the child Demophoon, whom Demeter places in the fire each night)  into the hieros gamos myth and turns the later into an abduction myth, using the Hesiodic story of Hades' "snatching" of Persephone. ... Eventually, the story of the Hymn -- the abduction, the search and mourning, and the reunion of mother and daughter -- became the canonical version of the myth"
Is far more interesting, and is something I have never thought of before, though it seems an odd theory somehow...doesn't add up.

Ann points out that the Persephone spoken of in The Iliad and The Odyssey differs from the one in The Hymn to Demeter: Neither in the Iliad, or The Odyssey is there any mention of Demeter and Persephone, nor is Persephone's abduction by Hades mentioned.

Persephone is referred to as 'dread', 'pure' and 'noble'.

Persephone has the power to accomplish curse:
"His mother, grieving for the death of her brother, prayed the gods, and beat the earth with her hands, calling upon Hades and on awful Proserpine; she went down upon her knees and her bosom was wet with tears as she prayed that they would kill her son- and Erinys that walks in darkness and knows no ruth heard her from Erebus."(Iliad book 9)
Persephone is described as having power to raise the souls of the dead and restore or withhold their wits:
"You must go to the house of Hades and of dread Proserpine to consult the ghost of the blind Theban prophet Teiresias whose reason is still unshaken. To him alone has Proserpine left his understanding even in death, but the other ghosts flit about aimlessly."(The Odyssey book 10)
Once in The Odyssey she is referred to as Zeus's daughter, but there is never any mention of her mother, or of her spring time return. Never is she called Kore.

Hesiod writing the Theogeny some two hundred years after Homer, hardly mentions Persephone at all. He calls her 'dread' Persephone and 'The white-armed daughter of Zeus and Demeter abducted by Hades with the consent of Zeus'.

So the Hymn to Demeter actually has more in common with the Hesiodic tradition, than the Homeric.

I'm not sure if anyone believes in dear old Homer (as a wise old man with exceptionally bad eyes) any more? I can't believe in him any more than I can believe in Greek myths as the creation of The Greeks alone.

But the Homeric hymns are regarded as the canonical version updating old myths to reflect a new hierarchy, dressed up as a struggle for power between the Earth goddesses and the sky god Zeus.

Previous to Demeter and Kore being seen as mother and daughter, Persephone was a goddess in her own right, the linguistic and archaeological data suggest they were worshipped as a pair for the first time no earlier than the Dark Age 1200 BC–800 BC.

To be continued.