What if Demeter, the timeless fertility goddess of ancient Greek myth, slipped through a crack into the twenty-first century, shook off her ankle bracelets, corn tassels, and garlands, and began a tour of our improbable culture? In tracing her tracks, I relied initially on Helene P. Foley’s translation of The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, an epic poem composed 650–550 BCE, not by Homer, according to most scholars, but by an unknown bard of the oral tradition. Such poets as Dante, Milton, Swinburne, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Glück have explored the many variants of the Demeter-Persephone myth, as it is one of the most profound mythologems or traditional, archetypal narratives of the ancient world. The abduction of the Kore or maiden to the underworld by Hades is a construct embedded in the very matrix of our collective consciousness.
The story deals with the separation of mother and daughter within a patriarchal culture, the exploitation of youth, and the disruption of authentic connection with the earth. The Eleusinian Mysteries to which the myth is tied lasted 2,000 years and are the origins in the West of our concepts of “mysticism” and “mystics” (mystes). Scholars believe the story of Demeter and Persephone was retold as part of the yearly harvest ritual. These rites, conducted in the fall at Eleusis north of Athens, promised to its initiates not only immortality but also a new way of being in the world. Men and women alike could participate, and came from all over the known world at that time to do so.
Demeter Goes Skydiving begins like many epics in medias res, or in the middle of things, with an image of Demeter tumbling from the sky, and becomes an exploration of eating disorders and other addictions, the issue of how young girls, and increasingly boys, are inducted too early into a culture or metaphoric underworld of perfectionism, extreme athleticism, and disconnection from the earth. Yet as the underworld landscape with its parallels to the underside of our global culture drew me in, the issues broadened to include questions about domination hierarchies, warfare, the environment, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the power of greed and materialism to breed an ethos of dissatisfaction and disenchantment.
If Demeter were to arrive at our malls and freeways, what would she perceive, what would she say, and how would she move to resist or transform our current malaise and hopelessness? Out of this question, a new Demeter is born, one who is both myself, as mother and writer, and not myself, a figure risen mysteriously from the very bones of the earth to lead us where she will. Not surprisingly, as the poems emerged, I discovered equivalents in myself to Persephone, Hekate, and even Hades, since they rise up not as mere allegories, but as living figures of a sacred cosmic drama playing itself out in ever-new configurations within both the interiority of the individual and in the culture.
Susan McCaslin (PhD, University of British Columbia) is a full-time, prizewinning poet with twelve published volumes of poetry who taught English at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C., for twenty-three years. Her most recent volume is Lifting the Stone (2007). She has edited two anthologies and is on the editorial board of Event. Her work recently appeared in the West Coast anthology Rocksalt. Susan lives in Fort Langley, British Columbia, where she is working on a book on the poetics of mystical experience. More information: http://www.susanmccaslin.ca.
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