THE GODDESS WITHIN
BY JENNIFER BARKER WOOLGER AND ROGER J. WOOLGER
 
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CHAPTER SEVEN
 
DEMETER:
MOTHER OF US ALL
(Excerpted)
 
I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
In the back of my mind to guide me . . .
 

-LOUIS MACNEICE, "PRAYER BEFORE BIRTH"

 
MODERN DEMETER
 
Hard to mistake Demeter. She's the one surrounded by kids; the one whom babies seem to hang on as from a sturdy tree; the one dishing out the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; the one who does know where the diapers are; the one tending the bruised knees; the one happily cooking for the extra six her husband casually brought home from baseball; the one up all night tending that fever; the one with the seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy.
 
The Demeter woman is, in short, the mother among the goddess types. Demeter is more than just a biological mother, though. It's not just having children that makes a true mother, it's an attitude, an instinctive way of caring for all that is young, tiny, needy, and helpless. Demeter love is a totally dedicated and selfless form of giving and nurturing that we all recognize, however dimly, in the word mothering.
 
Of course, we might not have had such mothering as children; we might only know it through the archetype Erma Bombeck calls Everybody Else's Mother. But the longing is still there even if we didn't experience it, a deep, unshakable fantasy of that warm, enveloping, and utterly satisfying embrace.
 
It is important to understand what is unique about Demeter's mothering. We are not saying that the other goddesses cannot be mothers, but that to be a mother is the primary guiding principle in Demeter's life. All the goddess types can and do have children and mother them in their different ways. Aphrodite mothers in her indulgent, sensuous way, loving to dress her children up, spoil them with treats, and take them out to the movies. Artemis mothers in a rather fiercely tender, feral way, treating her offspring more like whelps than anything. Athena can't wait till hers are fully articulate so that she can talk to them and nurture their education and mental growth. Persephone,- too, is deeply caught up in her children, but in a more psychic and intuitive way than in terms of their physical well-being. Hera's mothering is so full of rules, strictures, and expectations that there is little tenderness in her nurturing.
 
Yet it is only Demeter who is fully identified with the very activity of mothering, almost to the exclusion of most other concerns. That inexhaustible energy we noted is derived from her total dedication of purpose. She lives almost entirely for, her children;, she is literally on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
 
The Demeter woman is so caught up in being a mother that she neither has nor makes time to worry about getting a new dress or her hair done (Aphrodite concerns). She has not the slightest wish to go off alone (Artemis) and mostly hates the thought of leaving home at all. She has little or no interest in reading books or newspapers or catching the news on TV (Athena obsessions), nor the slightest concern about her children's horoscope or their past lives (Persephone fundamentals). Being on the board of the local planning commission (Hera priorities) excites her about as much as her husband's humdrum job.
 
Naturally the Demeter woman could find time for all or any of these activities and interests that are so dear to the other goddesses - she knows about baby-sitters - but the fact is, she really doesn't want to. She is happy and deeply fulfilled doing exactly what she is doing, being a mother.
 
Nothing illustrates Jung's idea that archetypes are impersonal sources of energy better than the Demeter woman. Even though she is constantly giving out to children, husband, and every stray friend in the vicinity, she never seems to tire or to think of herself. It is truly instinctive and unself-conscious, without any ego on her part. There is an open mouth - she fills it; a child is crying - she comforts it; a hand is bleeding - she puts a bandage on it. She is no more an individual personality when she gives out in this way than a mother bird or a mother cat is to her young; she is simply mother.
 
DEMETER, THE NURTURER
 
Other goddess types are sometimes in awe of Demeter's prodigious nurturing energy and her seemingly selfless devotion to her children and family. "Can she be faking it?" an Athena might ask. "Is she really so unflappable in the face of all that infant mess, noise, and chaos?" Hera might wonder. "How does she always have meals, clothing, lunch boxes, and pills there at the ready?" Persephone might ask in amazement.
 
Actually some degree of cynicism might be in order around the slightly saintly aura of certain Demeter women. America in the fifties developed a stereotype of the flawless mother in sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, which may have been a sentimental model for many mothers but an irritation to those who fell short of it. And
yet, like all media stereotypes, these shows hit upon a fundamental aspe ct of the archetype, the selfless devotion of the Madonna.
 
What the other goddess types may not comprehend, if they have never experienced within themselves the incredible power of the mother archetype, is the deep, natural, instinctual fulfillment in everything that Demeter does. It is not ego fulfillment as Athena and Hera
might understand it, nor even spiritual satisfaction, as in Persephone's book, but something quite unknown to any of them.
 
Closest in temperament to Aphrodite, her opposite on the Goddess Wheel, Demeter is ruled by love - not independence like Athena and Artemis, or power like Hera and Persephone. Like Aphrodite she lives for the other, gives herself for the other, loses herself in the other; it is the other that is the source of all her fulfillment, not herself. The only difference between Demeter and Aphrodite in regard to love is that for Aphrodite the other is the adult beloved, whereas for Demeter the other is the child.
 
Symbolically Demeter stands for everything to do with earth and vegatative nature; for the Greeks she was a goddess of grains and the mystery of planting the seed that will grow into new life and food. Later, when we examine her mythic background, we will see how multilayered the Greek understanding of this mystery was. But for the moment let us note how deep her connection is to every aspect of the life force, particularly as it affects young, growing and needy beings,
 
A healthy Demeter woman is always in touch with physical reality, which is to say the realities of the body and its needs, be they food, warm clothing, getting enough sleep, illness or injury, and - in little babies - needs to eliminate. She seems to understand all the basic instincts that belong to our animal and bodily nature. In this respect she is very different from Athena, whose awareness is very mental and often quite alienated from the body.
 
DEMETER GROWING UP
 
The Demeter instinct to nurture can easily be spotted in young girls playing with their dolls. It will be there in those elder sisters who derive pleasure from helping mother with the new baby. Not so much in Artemis, off playing with the boys, or Athena, with her nose in a book, or Hera, organizing some club that she will head. When Demeter is strong in a growing girl, she will be sweet, with a loving temperament appealing to all who know her.
 
Because the young Demeter is so identified with her mother, there will be an almost symbiotic relationship between them. Mother's values are totally her values, mother's dreams are unquestionably hers too. Whatever her mother's goddess style, the Demeter girl will model herself upon this. If mother loves to cook, daughter Demeter will excel at cooking; if mother raises pedigree puppies, she will too. But most of all she will idealize the style of mother's home and how she raises them all as children, longing for the day when she can replicate such a home and children for herself (When, as will happen, a mother does not provide any role modeling for young Demeter, she will be obliged to become her own rn ' other's mother. She will "carry" her mother emotionally, becoming rather old and serious before her time. Since she has experienced some of Persephone's "mother loss" very early in life, she may well com ensate this loss by marrying and having children while still quite young. This pattern is evident in the burgeoning population of pregnant and mothering teenagers.)
 
In the healthy young Demeter, however, her worldly horizons will be quite limited by her fixed idea about home and family. During adolescence she will seem to be a sweet, but rather dull homebody to her other, more ambitious goddess sisters. While her Aphrodite sister is absorbed in teenage fashion magazines and the dating game, Athena is out campaigning for human rights, and Artemis is away at national athletic meets, budding Demeter is still mostly at home swapping neighborhood stories with mother.
 
Adolescent Demeter is not averse to the opposite sex. Her sexuality, as it blooms, is usually quite natural and uncomplicated, even earthy, though she sometimes risks being overly attendant to her partner's needs at the expense of her own. It is simply the nurturer in her that always puts the other first. She will often be as attractive as her 'Aphrodite sisters but in a quite unself-conscious way; hours in front ,of the bedroom mirror is not her style. "Be yourself" is her motto.
 
In her late teens young Demeter may already have a sweetheart teady with, one she will eventually marry. He is likely to be a dependable young man who intends to work in a local sales business that won't take him far from the hometown. Unless she herself has some idea about nursing or wants to work in a day care center, working will rarely figure in her plans. Occasionally she develops some practical skill, such as baking, catering, dressmaking, or pottery, that she can use close to or in her home, but just as often she will have no
vocational ambitions at this stage in her life. In her dreams she mostly enivisions a cozy home not too far from mother and, of course, those adorable babies that, it seems, she was born to raise.
 
Unlike young Hera, Demeter doesn't marry for position and prestige in the community; the "young man most likely to succeed" doesn't necessarily attract her. Basically she is looking for a worthy and reliable father for her children who will provide for them all. She may in fact be very naive about work and income for herself, hoping to leave that entirely to her mate. It is simply not in her consciousness to think about being independent and having a career the way Athena, Artemis, and Hera do so naturally.
 
Many a young Demeter mother whose marriage collapses finds herself in serious trouble as a single mother. She is unable to fit into an economic system that she is in no way trained for and that basically favors men. These are issues her feminist Athena sisters may have thought about theoretically, but there is a huge and unacknowledged gulf between the Demeter and Athena worlds. The busy single career woman in the city and the housewife in the suburbs, ferrying kids around, have little or no common ground in modern society. So, Athena's insights, brilliant and accurate as they are, come too late to divorced Demeter as she encounters the harsh realities of a social system that effectively punishes mothers who are not part of a marriage unit.
 
Part of modern Demeter's woundedness is that there is no place for single mothers and indeed for women with their children in the world; they have both been effectively banished from the world in order to maintain for men a sentimental abstraction called "the home and the family." Historically this is a relatively recent happening, but it is essentially an unhealthy state of affairs, one that we will return to later in this chapter.
 
DEMETER AND MATRIARCHAL CONSCIOUSNESS
 
In ancient Greece, Demeter was the preeminent Mother Goddess and had the specialized function of presiding over all forms of reproduction and renewal of life, especially that of plant life. An evolved and complex figure, she stands historically midway between the ancient Neolithic cults of the Great Mother, which flourished in Sumer, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Crete from approximately 4000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., and the Christian era in the West. She retains many of the characteristics of these early cults: she is a goddess of fecundity, fertility, and regeneration; she has a mystical identity with her dark underworld sister, the Queen of the Dead; she gives birth to a Divine Son, who remains her youthful consort rather than becoming a husband or mature equal.
 
Demeter's central symbol was the sheaf of wheat and, in her mysteries at Eleusis, a single ear of corn. We shall have much to say about the symbolism of flower, fruit, and seed, which makes her very much our Lady of Plants. Her sacred land animal was the pig -frequently a fertility sacrifice all over the world because of its multiple uterus. Her sacred animal at sea was the dolphin.
 
Demeter's cult is thought to have arrived in Greece from Crete via the early Mycenaean culture of the Peloponnesian peninsula. If this is true, then she is a direct descendant of the Cretan Mother Goddess, who flourished with her attendant maidens, snake-bearing priestesses, and bull cult during the third and second millennia B.C. In other words, Demeter represents the survival of matriarchal religion and its values well into the patriarchal warrior culture of the classical Greeks. The miracle is that the tolerant religious pluralism of the times did not suppress it. Instead, as historian of religion Mircea Eliade.describes it, Demeter's religion came very much to complement the ruling patriarchal spirit of Zeus's Olympian cult.
 
The sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis, where her Mysteries were celebrated, was in active use for nearly two thousand years. In A.D. 396 this, "the oldest and the most important religious center in Europe," as Eliade calls it, was destroyed by Alaric the Goth. In his wake came "41 men in black," the Christian monks. A certain local uncanonized "Saint Demetra" survived the Christian suppression, however, and is still known today. Eliade speculates that the spirit of the Mysteries did not entirely disappear, while Ezra Pound was convinced that the troubadours' spring celebrations of kalenda maia and their courtly worship of "the lady" drew upon remnants of Eleusinian worship that survived among country peoples of Europe.
 
Another vestige of the old matriarchal consciousness of the Mother Goddess was transmitted in the popular Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary among Mediterranean people. Almost certainly there is a psychic if not a cultural continuity between Mary, the Mother of God, and the ancient Great Mother goddesses of the Mediterranean and Near East and the goddess Demeter. But even though we know of many medieval representations of Mary with corn and flowers, she lacks the emotional power of the ancient Earth Mothers and their daughters.
 
Like everything else Christian, the Blessed Virgin suffered a severe dislocation from the very earth itself; her honorific title, Queen of Heaven, indicates that her divine nature was thought of as spiritual in a "higher" rather than in a cthonic or earthy sense.* Even then, strictly speaking, her status remains that of a divinely chosen woman, not a goddess. Whatever earth connections she once had have long since disappeared.
 
* Several Greek gods and goddesses are given the attribute cthonios, which means "subterranean" or "dwelling beneath the earth." Some, like the spring-born Persephone are thus "autochthonous," which means "born from the earth."
 
It is hard for us today to imagine what it must have been like to have a goddess and her earth mysteries at the center of cultural and spiritual life. More than two thousand years of Judeo-Christian culture have accustomed us to thinking of everything divine as masculine and somehow belonging "up there" in the heavens. As a result we have almost forgotten what it is to regard the earth we walk upon as sacred, as truly our mother, and as the dwelling place of both goddesses and gods.
 
Outside of the cities, with their supposedly superior, "civilized" consciousness, certain places-caves, springs, groves, mountains have always been felt to be sacred by virtue of the spiritual energy that emanates from them. They were often sites of great and awe-inspiring natural beauty. Delphi, where Apollo was worshipped, is one such place that has survived virtually unspoiled to this day. All over Ireland, originally a matriarchal culture, there are many "holy wells" that, though later benignly Christianized, were seen originally as the genitals of the Earth Mother, from which the life force, the woivre, or "serpent power," flowed. The sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis was also built up over a sacred well, where doubtless telluric or geomagnetic earth energy welled up and was felt by the more sensitive of the initiates into the mysteries.
 
Although Demeter is not strictly an Earth Mother - this title belongs to her grandmother, Gaia or. Ge, whose name means "earth" - her myth and her cult belong very much to what happens in and beneath the earth. She and her daughter symbolize the dynamic cycles of nature that occur within the body of the earth and, by virtue of the mystical principle of correspondence, within the body of evety woman.
 
Representations of Demeter are actually not of a huge, rotund, pregnant figure like many ancient Earth Mother goddess icons that have come down to us from the Neolithic Age. In all her stories and vase paintings Demeter is represented as approachably human and even modern in her iconography. According to The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the goddess is tall, radiantly beautiful, "slim-ankled," and "golden haired" (like the corn). As a goddess she is awesome when fully revealed, but there is nothing primitive in this image of her. Like all of the classical Greek goddesses, hers is a highly evolved and many-sided psychological and symbolic portrait.
 
ETERNAL MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
 
When we talk about Demeter as she was imagined by the Greeks, we must really talk about two goddesses, not one. The heart of both Demeter's myth and her cult - the so-called Mysteries of Eleusis - revolved around her loss, mourning, and reunion with her beloved daughter, Kore (pronounced kore-eh), whose name simply means "maiden" in Greek. Nearly all the stone steles and vase paintings that survive show two mature women: Demeter and Kore together. They hold either sheaves or ears of wheat, flowers or torches, or combinations of both - and sometimes serpents.
 
This closeness of mother and daughter emphasizes how profoundly feminine this religious and mythological constellation is. It must harken back to those Neolithic times when, in matriarchal consciousness, the male was totally other and secondary. As Erich Neumann puts it in his book The Great Mother,
 
The close connection between mother and daughter, who form the nucleus of the female group, is reflected in the "primordial relationship" between them. In the eyes of the female group, the male is the alien, who comes from without and takes the daughter from the mother. (pp. 305-6)
 
Kore, the daughter, later came to be known as Persephone. Contemporary scholars cannot agree as to whether this Persephone, who was queen of the underworld, was originally a separate goddess, whose worship became assimilated into that of Demeter, or whether she is merely another aspect of Demeter herself. We treat Persephone as a separate goddess in this book only in the sense that when, in her mature form, she became queen of the underworld, she acquired particular powers and atributions that are unique to her. Psychologically we view it as artificial and indeed dangerous for any individual woman to treat the goddess of death separately from the goddess of life. In fact, as our chapter on Persephone shows, when a women overidentifies with Persephone's closeness to the.spirits of the departed and the death realm to th& exclusion of the other goddesses, especially Demeter, psychic disturbance is a predictable outcome. For the moment, when speaking of Demeter, we shall refer to her daughter simply as Kore, the maiden, so as to distinguish the different perspectives.
 
What, then, was the story of Demeter and her daughter upon which the celebrated Mysteries of Eleusis were based? It is one of the most elaborate core stories of any of the Greek myths and one that we shall only summarize for its main themes and psychological dynamic. As for the Mysteries themselves, though much has been written about them, we have found most scholarly commentaries to be speculative and inconclusive though at times richly suggestive.
 
The myth, as most fully treated in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, runs as follows:
 
While gathering flowers with the daughters of Ocean, her other maiden sisters, Kore, Demeter's daughter, is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, and carried off to his realm. For nine days, grieving inconsolably, Demeter wanders the earth, but neither gods nor men dare tell her of her daughter's true fate. Finally Helios, who sees all, tells her it was Zeus who had plotted with his brother Hades to let the Dark Lord marry the maiden.
 
Her grief now swelled to anger at Zeus, Demeter deserts Olympus and hides herself among mortals disguised as an old woman. She comes to Eleusis and sits by the Well of the Maidens. When the king's daughters question her, she tells them she has just escaped from pirates who have forcibly carried her from Crete. When she offers her services as a nursemaid, the daughters of King Keleos arrange for her to help raise the infant Demophon, son of the queen, Metaneira.
 
But Demeter does not nurse the infant Demophon. Instead, she rubs him with ambrosia and at night secretly hides him in a fire, for the purpose of making him immortal and eternally young. Before the ritual is completed, the horrified Metaneira discovers her son in the fire. Demeter berates Metaneira for her shortsightedness, saying that her son is now denied immortality. The goddess now sloughs off her disguise of old woman and reveals herself in full grandeur and beauty, so that the house is filled with dazzling light. She idemands that the people build her a temple with an altar below it and promises to teach her rites to human beings henceforth.
 
Once her temple is completed, Demeter retires inside it and stays "far from the blessed gods, wasting with grief for her daughter." And now she sends a terrible drought upon the earth, which threatens to destroy the human race. She spurns all messengers from Zeus, refusing to set foot on Olympus or to let any fruit grow on the earth until she sees her daughter once more.
 
Finally, persuaded by Zeus, Hades relents, but not before giving Kore a sweet pomegranate seed, which she eats. By this it is agreed by Zeus that she will spend one-third of the year with her husband, Hades, in the underworld and the rest with her mother, Demeter, and other immortals. Mother and daughter are joyously reunited at Demeter's temple at Eleusis, and Demeter miraculously sends up fruit and foliage all over the earth. Finally, before returning to Olympus, Demeter instructs the inhabitants of Eleusis in her sacred and secret rites.
 
"Blessed is he among mortals who witnesses these things," concludes The Hymn to Demeter, "but whoever is not initiated into them or dies without them descends unblessed into the gloomy darkness.... And greatly blessed on earth is he whom the gods love for they send Ploutos with his abundant wealth to this man's great house."
 
THE TRIPLE GODDESS AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LOSS
 
According to ancient tradition the Great Goddess was always triple. Her triplicity is to be seen in the waxing moon, the full moon, and the waning moon, and in how she ruled the upper world, the earth, and the underworld. In human terms she was Maiden, Mother, and Crone. It is these major phases of a woman's life, and the other triplicities by analogy, that are encompassed by Demeter's story. For Demeter sees herself as innocent and untouched Maiden in her daughter, Kore. She is Mother of that daughter and of all that grows. And when she loses Kore, she plays the old woman, the Crone, whose childbearing years are gone and who stands close to the end of the cycle, to death.
 
Corresponding to each traditional phase of the cycle are three great losses for every woman who bears children, especially a woman who bears daughters. All of these losses are hinted at in highly condensed form in this extraordinary myth:
 
First, -as a young woman enters puberty, she must undergo the loss of childhood innocence; this is the inner "death of the maiden" that every woman to some extent experiences (and which every mother may be reminded of when she sees it happen in her daughter). This phase is symbolized by the flower.
 
Second, there is the loss a mother undergoes when her daughter (or son) is taken in marriage or leaves home permanently. The marriage of a loved first daughter is always a painfully wrenching experience, as every mother knows. Finally, when all the children, of either sex, have left home, she may experience an "empty nest" depression. This phase is symbolized by the ripe fruit.
 
Third, there is the biological loss each mother undergoes at menopause when she can no longer bear children. Depression often occurs in women at this time, whether or not they have been mothers. The fruitful phase in life has passed, whether or not it was made manifest, and a certain mourning is in order. Yet when successfully traversed, this loss can become a rite of passage into the mature wisdom of the older woman, whom the ancients called the Crone. This phase is symbolized by the seed.
 
Poignant as these three losses and their variations are, the myth also shows us that each of them is an opportunity for an awakening to a new form of consciousness; in fact, each of them is an initiation into the next phase of life. When the maiden dies, she becomes a nubile young woman and before long a mother herself, blessed with her own children. Many of the stone steles from Eleusis show the joyous reunion of Kore with her mother, Demeter. But she is no longer a girl; she is now a full-grown woman and with her is a young son. The flower maiden has now become a fruitful mother.
 
When the mother comes to the end of her own childbearing, she passes the torch of motherhood to her daughter, ceding the full power of fruitfulness. In dying to the mother in her, the aging woman now has the potential to enter the spiritual community of the elder women, the guardians of the mystery of death.
 
These phases are rarely completed successfully in the lives of many women today, partly because there remains so little consciousness of these issues in a predominantly masculine and aggressive culture. Nowhere do we find a vision of motherhood and the feminine cycle that is both spiritual and grounded in the body which feeds, nourishes, and inspires women as it did in the period when Eleusis flourished.
 
Demeter today is wounded to the same extent that our whole culture is alienated from the greater cycles of the earth and the lesser cycles of individual women. We have succeeded in reducing a mother to a convenient, if unpredictable biological reproduction machine that either helps or hinders (as in Third World countries) our relentless greed for power and wealth. We have taken the mother out of the community and workplace at large and confined her to a sentimental abstraction called the family. There has been little or no room for Demeter consciousness in our religious and cultural practices until relatively recently, and even today mothers and children are usually the very lowest priorities in any social or economic planning.
 
Nevertheless, signs such as the struggle for natural childbirth methods, family therapy, a new awareness of nutrition, and the awakening of "Gaia" consciousness of the earth as an organic whole (which Demeter shares with Artemis) may herald the slow, if painful reemergence of Demeter in our world. We may be a long way from the vision of the Greeks at Eleusis, which nourished the classical world for nearly two thousand years, but we hope that the commentary that follows, on the three phases of the Demeter cycle, will help modern mothers understand a little more deeply the sacred dignity of their calling. ...
 

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