Lost Flowers – the Deflowering of Persephone
The vi’lets from her lap, and lillies fall: She misses ’em, poor heart! and makes new moan; Her lillies, ah! are lost, her vi’lets gone. (Ovid)[i]
A shower of broken petals falls from the sky as the once untouched Persephone cries out in grief that something tangible has slipped through her hands. I find this image arresting, a moment in the myth where one holds one’s breath knowing that something deep has already happened, that a change in status has occurred, that something is already lost.
To understand this profound moment, I move back and forward in the linear structure of the myth, back to the beginning of Ovid’s telling of virgins gathering flowers in the field and forward, word by word, phrase by phrase to understand the mythological and the psychological implications of these lost flowers. I believe that in these early images of the myth, I will find the richness of Pluto, the blessing of darkness and violence that comes to all who let go of that tenuous hold on a psychological virginity and awaken through an experience of grief. I wonder as I examine the images, if being virginal is the same as being innocent and whether the de-flowering of Persephone in Ovid’s rendition is the psychological removal of a psuedoinnocent, adolescent state, a state of unconscious action in which Persephone is unaware of her own violence.
Three virgins goddesses play in a springtime field of violets and lilies, Diana, Athene, and Persephone. Venus and her winged son, Cupid plot to expand their influence into the Underworld, by shooting an arrow deep into the heart of Pluto[ii]. Venus sees the three untouched ones, and will not tolerate leaving Persephone virginal, outside the realm of erotic awakening. Here, I pause for a moment and imagine the virgin flowers growing in the field. Unused, uncultivated, unexplored, untouched; these are standard dictionary definitions of the virgin and before Persephone’s assault, these flowers grow untouched in the field.
This field of flowers is an erotic wilderness, a pristine field of deep-passionate violets and shimmering white lilies whose blinding beauty and arousing scent is the unknown territory for Persephone who is not knowledgeable of the erotic. The flowers are described in some translations of Ovid as “shining”, displaying themselves in a biologically aesthetic manner, their beauty exposed in an essential truth of their nature. As James Hillman writes, the flowers display themselves in a “sheer appearance for its own sake” (295).
A flower’s shining display of beauty attracts every being, from the smallest insect to the smallest child. The child instinctively reaches out to capture a flower’s beauty, crushing the fragrant softness beneath their tiny, murderous fingers, ripping the essence of the bloom apart petal by petal. Children have a desperate need to unravel the mystery of the flower and a “cosmic longing” to penetrate into its hidden self. This is, writes Hillman a “cosmic dependence” a “keeping things in the embrace of each other and maintaining the intercourse of their self-revealing conversations” (294). It is a need to tear apart in order to comprehend and absorb the self-centeredness of beauty, a need to commune with the absoluteness of beauty. The child’s virginal, killing fingers shred the soft, fragrant petals to discover the hidden parts.
Mysterious and compelling, the flower’s masculine and feminine parts are hidden inside, the names of the parts are erotic sounding: corolla and calyx, pistil and stamen. The child touches what was untouched, what begs to be touched, and what needs to be ripped apart, penetrated, killed in order for its truth to be perceived[iii]. There is unawareness and self-absorption in this child-like need to rip a flower from its stalk, disconnecting it from its life force, accelerating its inevitable decay.
But does this unawareness of the erotic kill and the self-absorption of the child-virgin equate to innocence? Innocence is a state of ignorance, free from any guilt or deceit. Children in reality are rarely free from any guilt or deceit, they seem to come into the world knowing how to dissemble and deceive, how to run and hide when their actions are revealed. To propose that a child is always innocent is to fix the child into an archetype of the divine child, a symbol of promise and redemption and salvation, writes Guggenbühl-Craig (57). Persephone seems to be the divine child, the daughter of the divine mother and father, pristine and innocent as the divine child archetype promises. But this is only in a literal reading of the myth. Such literalism does the images of this myth particular disservice[iv].
Unlike male hero myths and other myths of the divine child, Persephone does not wander in the field alone, but is accompanied by her fellow virgins who fade in the telling, seemingly unconnected to the story and unaware of what is happening. Diana and Athene’s presence in the myth seem to be in their distance; they are complete in their virginity, full formed and developed in their exclusion of Eros. They are not child-figures, but goddesses of power in their own right. Aphrodite is not interested in Diana and Athene; she has already lost her battle with them. Persephone is not full-grown; she is the mother’s daughter and is still child-like. Persephone has wandered into this field of flowers with a determined self-absorbed child’s intention: to hunt the flowers down, pick them and crush their stalks with her fingers. Persephone intends to kill them[v].
The flower-killer Persephone is not innocent but she is untouched. The virgin state is a state of self-enclosure[vi], a state of almost selfish absorption where disregard for others becomes a way of being. Ovid’s tells us of Persephone’s childishly self-centered attitude in the field of flowers:
While like a child with busy speed and care She gathers lillies here, and vi’lets there; While first to fill her little lap she strives
Persephone is self-absorbed, filled with a child-like greed and competitiveness. She does not merely pick flowers for pleasure’s sake; she is in a contest to pick more than the others. There is an unacknowledged violence in her actions, a ruthless disregard for the shining display of beauty presented before her. She runs from one flower to the other, in careless speed, pulling them up to fulfill a narcissistic need to have the most. There is no reflection in her actions, just a compulsive hunger for more[vii].
Who is this untouched child Persephone, violently picking flowers in the field? In earlier Greek versions of the myth, she is named as the Kore, the maiden. Her identity is that of the mother’s daughter and she does not exist apart from the mother. In reference to the older myth, Ovid’s version has Aphrodite call Persephone, not by name, but by referring to her as “Ceres daughter.” There is no separation of the child from the mother in the beginning of this myth. As Persephone picks her flowers, one images is an adolescence extended beyond wholesomeness, entangled with the mother into what Hillman calls “a spiritual exaggeration we call neurotic” (228)[viii]. Persephone is lost in the world of aesthetic beauty without relationships other than her relationship to her mother, without consciousness of the soul of the flowers, without awareness of her own violent actions. The flowers in her hands have no meaning as she searches frantically for more. She annihilates everything in her path. She is the mass-murderer of flowers.
What can save Persephone from eternal adolescence, rip her from the unhealthy intertwining with her mother, from her own ruthless need to gather more and more flowers? Her violence must be met with equal violence, but violence in service to Eros.[ix] Pluto who has been struck in the heart by the arrow of Cupid/Eros provides this violent service. Swooping down in his dark chariot, Pluto quickly removes Persephone from her own unconscious acts of violence, sweeping her first up in the air and then down under the earth. Persephone’s initial response is that of the adolescent still intertwined with her mother: she cries out to her mommy. Her cries to Ceres are in vain. The mother can hear the daughter’s cry, can feel the moment of the daughter’s anguish in her own, but like all mothers’ who must deal with the heart-breaking abduction of their daughters into adulthood, Ceres is powerless. Persephone’s second cry is to her companions, those distant virgins who cannot hear her call. But Persephone is not one of them, has never truly been one with Diana and Athene, for they are full-grown in their virgin state, and she is not. Her cries go unheeded and as she struggles to escape Pluto’s grasp, she tears the upper portion of her garment and the flowers she has gathered fall from her grasp.
Her garment is torn, ripped apart like the petals of the flowers she has snatched from their stalks. Like the tearing of the hymen; this is a deep moment of change in the story. Persephone is no longer untouched, no longer virginal. She lets go of her imprisoned flowers, dropping them from her cruel grasp. Persephone is de-flowered and also deflowered. She has been opened and penetrated, her self-absorption killed by the renting of her garment and the loss of her flowers. In this one moment, this one sublated[x] experience of being a killed virgin, killing other virgins in the field, Persephone has a moment of epiphany: she and the flowers are one. Ovid says that she is so young that this loss causes her fresh distress, but I imagine in the moment, a deeper mourning, and a deeper loss. Persephone has identified with her victims and knows that she too has been ripped apart.
Persephone has also identified with her abductor and knows the shame of her own actions. She experiences both identity and difference simultaneously and is transformed. This is a moment of epiphany, a moment when the linear structure of the myth falls apart and everything happens within a moment of revelation. This is a moment of immediate experience and re-memory. Once the truth is known, once the experience is integrated into one’s psyche, the aura of a psuedoinnocent state melts away and true empowerment begins. It is this moment in the myth, where Persephone’s journey of self-awareness truly begins.
[i] I am using two different translations of Ovid’s work. The first is a poetic translation into English verse under the direction of Sir Samuel Garth by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve. The second is a modern translation into prose by classicist Mary Innes. I felt that using both translations allowed for different insights into the myth.
[ii] The idea of extending Eros into the Underworld is a fascinating concept, but unfortunately cannot be developed within the context of this specific essay. Perhaps in a future work, I may have the opportunity to focus on the role of Eros in the Underworld through this particular myth.
[iii] Giegerich’s psychological interpretation of the Actaion myth presents a dialectic of touching the untouchable as a union of opposites, which is the event of Truth (237). Persephone is the untouched violating the untouched. This sets up its own dialectic tension that needs to be resolved by a third thing, her own violation by Pluto.
[iv] Guggenbühl-Craig writes of the necessary paradoxes that arise whenever the archetype of the divine child appears, in this case the slayer or abuser of the divine child (57). If we literalize the myth of Persephone and Pluto, Persephone becomes merely the divine, holy child and the eternal victim, abused by Pluto the incestor-uncle. The deeper meaning of these images, the soulful call to awakening and to ones own power, is lost in such literalization and Persephone would remain the eternal abused victim.
[v] This is comparable to Giegerich’s first determination in his interpretation of the Actaion myth. The soul wants to know itself and the only way it can do this in its current, unknowing state, is to seek out the Other as a goal (204). This is the essence of the desire to hunt and the essence of Persephone’s compulsive hunt for more and more flowers.
[vi] Joanne Stroud writes that the virgin is unawakened, self-enclosed and remote, living an inward life (4). She quotes Shakespeare in saying that virginity is “peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon” (5). I see Persephone’s virginity as a self-centered state that must be destroyed in order for her to gain her own power.
[vii] This brings to mind, James Hillman’s discussion on the puer, in regards to the Mother Complex. Hillman writes, “When the collective unconscious in an individual life is represented mainly by parental figures, then puer attitudes and impulses will show personal taints of…the perennial adolescence of the provisional life” (277).
[viii] Hillman further writes, “It is the puer in a complex that “unrelates” it, that volatizes it out of the vessel-that would act it out, call it off and away from the psychological-and thus is the principle that uncoagulates and disintegrates. What is unreflected tends to become compulsive, or greedy. The puer in any complex gives it its drive and drivenness, makes it move too fast, want too much, go too far…” (229). Certainly, Persephone’s picking of as many flowers as she can, exhibits this unreflected tendency to greediness.
[ix] Guggenbühl-Craig writes of the blessing of violence done in the service of Eros as violence committed in the service of the individual human being or human community (75). Since Eros/Cupid is the cause of the violence of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto, Persephone’s abduction is done in the service of her own soul.
[x] This idea is based on Giegerich’s concept of sublated psychology, “a psychology that comes as its own self-sublation and starts out as one that has immediate psychology as a sublated moment within itself…Something that comes as its own self-sublation cannot be imagined; it can only be thought” (124). In this example, Persephone experiences both the imaginal (i.e. her as the abducted flowers) and the logical (her as abducted girl). Psychology, Giegerich further writes, exists as tension and distance between the imaginal and the logical, encompassing them both (124).
Giegerich, Wolfgang. The Soul’s Logical Life. 2nd Revised Edition. Trans. Peter Lang. New York: Lang, 1999.
Guggenbühl-Craig, Adolph. From The Wrong Side: A Paradoxical Approach To Psychology. Trans. Gary V. Hartmann. Woodstock: Spring, 1996.
Hillman, James. A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman. Ed Thomas Moore. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Stroud, Joanne. “Forward”. Images of the Untouched. Ed Joanne Stroud and Gail Thomas. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1982.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. London: Penguin, 1955.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve. http://www.huygens.org/~hanssen/ovidius.html
About the Author:
Maggie Macary is a cultural mythologist with a doctorate in mythological studies with an emphasis in depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. After 25+ very successful years in corporate American, Maggie has turned her attention to writing about the hidden stories in contemporary culture.