Persephone’s Dilemma

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Persephone's Choice

Persephone’s Dilemma

Persephone’s dilemma: the pomegranate seeds. Many variations are found in different versions of the Persephone myth. All that I have seen so far agree that her father, Zeus, agreed to give her to his brother, Hades, without not just her consent but also without her knowledge. Just another example from the world’s literature of violence against women across time and space. That is how Persephone came to be in the Underworld in the first place: through the collusion of her father and uncle. Even I do not see how a young girl can fight that kind of strength against her. It is what it is, whether I like it or not. I cannot find a way in my mind to reinterpret that part of the myth.

After her mother, Demeter, in her grief and rage caused the Earth to go barren and be covered by Winter, Zeus worked out an agreement for Persephone to be allowed to return from the Underworld to Earth, bringing with her Spring and a return to life on the barren Earth. But, here is the hitch, at least for those of us who do not like Winter. While in the Underworld, Persephone had eaten some seeds of the pomegranate, binding her to her husband, Hades, with the requirement that she return to the Underworld for part of the year, during which time the Earth again experiences Winter. The time varies from three months to six months in different versions of the myth.

A major variation in different versions of the myth is how Persephone came to eat the pomegranate seeds in the first place. In some versions, she was tricked into it. In some versions she chose to eat the seeds, knowing full well the consequences. It was that variant that really got into my brain almost from the first day (September 15, 2015) I began to read the Persephone stories.

In my world, I do not see women as weak creatures who can be easily fooled. Over the years, studying copper miners’ wives as an anthropologist, or working with women as an obstetrican/gynecologist, I have seen women cope creatively and strongly with many different situations in which they found themselves, situations not of their own choosing. So, in my visual reinterpretation of the myth, I simply don’t buy that Persephone was tricked into eating the seeds.

Persephone had no choice initially about being in the Underworld with Hades. But in the various versions of the myth, she is not painted as being unhappy once she is there. Her mother, Demeter, is furious and grieving at the absence of her daughter, but that kind of feeling is not conveyed about Persephone, at least in the versions of the myth I have seen so far. In my visual painting of the myth, she chooses to eat the seeds, knowing she will be tied to Hades as wife, and that she will be required to spend part of her time in the Underworld. In some ways it actually reminds me a bit of Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent part of her time with her husband, and part of her time without him in New Mexico. I’ve always thought one of the better times in a former marriage was when we were commuting and seeing each other three days each month. It was very easy for me to see Persephone making the choice to eat the seeds.

Of course, in doing so, even though Demeter is the one who causes Winter to fall on the Earth, and that would never have happened if Zeus and Hades had not stolen her daughter (why don’t those two guys ever get blamed for Winter, anyway????????), it seems that in the end, Persephone bears much of the blame for Winter because she ate the seeds.

As I was thinking about that, and how I was going to present that visually, I couldn’t help thinking about another woman who brought grief to the world with another fruit, an apple: Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. BOOM! Thinking about those two together certainly got my brain going. Persephone and the pomegranate bring us Winter, and Eve and the apple got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I began to see things in terms of Woman, not just Persephone. Woman, blamed for all kinds of grief in the world. I decided to play with that visually.

Persephone weighing whether or not to eat the pomegranate seeds, knowing and accepting that she would be blamed for some human misery at Winter. This is Persephone’s dilemma:

Persephone's Dilemma
No Matter Which, I’ll Be Blamed

Each Fall, she knew the time was approaching for her to return to the Underworld and we again see Persephone’s dilemma:

Persephone's Dilemma
The Time Approaches

Persephone accepts responsibility for her choice. In today’s terminology, “she owns it.”

Persephone's Dilemma
By My Choice

This myth presents such a rich tapestry to explore visually, and more chapters are to come. The next set will explore “what happens in the Underworld…” Stay tuned.

Pomegranate Symbolism and Power

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Persephone's Choice

Pomegranate Symbolism and Power

pomegranate symbolism
Pomegranate Symbolism

Pomegranate symbolism is found around the world and in many religions. In myth it has a kind of power not found in most fruits. A very nice summary, “Why a Pomegranate?” was published by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. This article was written to explain why the pomegranate was chosen as the logo for the Millennium Festival of Medicine. The article contains a very good list of some of the world’s religions in which the pomegranate has significance:

    Judaism – Pomegranate seeds are said to number 613—one for each of the Bible’s 613 commandments. The pomegranate was revered for the beauty of its shrub, flowers, and fruit—symbolising sanctity, fertility, and abundance. The Song of Solomon compares the cheeks of a bride behind her veil to the two halves of a pomegranate.
    Buddhism – Along with the citrus and the peach, the pomegranate is one of the three blessed fruits. In Buddhist art the fruit represents the essence of favourable influences. In China the pomegranate is widely represented in ceramic art symbolising fertility, abundance, posterity, numerous and virtuous offspring, and a blessed future. A picture of a ripe open pomegranate is a popular wedding present.
    Christianity – A symbol of resurrection and life everlasting in Christian art, the pomegranate is often found in devotional statues and paintings of the Virgin and Child.
    Islam – Legend holds that each pomegranate contains one seed that has come down from paradise. Pomegranates have had a special role as a fertility symbol in weddings among the Bedouins of the Middle East. A fine specimen is secured and split open by the groom as he and his bride open the flap of their tent or enter the door of their house. Abundant seeds ensure that the couple who eat it will have many children.

The pomegranate is integral to the Persephone myth and its explanation of why the world has Winter. While many variations in the details of this myth abound, the referenced article gives a very good one:

In the Greek myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, lord of the underworld, the pomegranate represents life, regeneration, and marriage.1 One day while out gathering flowers, Persephone noticed a narcissus of exquisite beauty. As she bent down to pick it, the earth opened and Hades seized her and dragged her down to his kingdom. By eating a few pomegranate seeds, Persephone tied herself to Hades—the pomegranate being a symbol of the indissolubility of marriage. Inconsolable at the loss of her daughter, the corn goddess Demeter prevented the earth from bearing fruit unless she saw her daughter again. Zeus intervened and worked out a compromise: Persephone should live with Hades for one third of the year and the other two thirds with Demeter. Persephone’s return from the underworld each year is marked by the arrival of Spring.

Not only are there many variations in the myth, but it is full of plots and subplots, twists and turns. Some of you who are regular readers here know that my first visual work with the myth was a series involving sunflowers and butterflies.

When I finished that series of three images, I knew I wanted to visually explore many aspects of the myth, a myth in which I came to see Persephone in many ways as a mythic representation of Woman in general. Those were the aspects I especially wanted to explore and which you will see in coming images. Not only am I a woman, but much of my work in anthropology dealt with women, as, of course, did my work as an obstetrician/gynecologist. Photography has given me a means to express so many of my thoughts of life, especially life as a woman, in visual images that can be shared. First, here, I had to explain the symbolism and power of the pomegranate through time and space, so that future images are more meaningful.

I became familiar with the myth of Persephone through casual email correspondence with writer and fellow anthropologist, Jim Stallings. My mom grows pomegranates, and this fall I had the opportunity to photograph a lot of pomegranates! I knew I wanted the perfect model to portray my vision of Persephone, but had no idea how to find that perfect person. Life sometimes has a way of presenting unexpected opportunities, and in late October, the perfect person I had in mind appeared, and was willing to be my model for Persephone. You will see in the coming series of images how perfect and how beautiful she is, and how fortunate I have been to be able to work with her. You will be seeing Kelly Angerosa in the series already photographed, and hopefully in many more photographic projects in the future. Thank you for being such a delight to work with, Kelly.

Now that pomegranate symbolism has been introduced, the next several posts will concern Persephone in the myth and as Woman, presented visually.

Persephone

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Persephone's Choice

Persephone, Goddess of Spring, Queen of the Underworld and Wife of Hades

Persephone
Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and Wife of Hades

Persephone, in Greek mythology the Goddess of Spring, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Goddess of the Earth, Harvest, and Fertility, became also the wife of Hades and Queen of the Underworld. She was abducted by Hades, with the permission of Zeus, to be his wife. Demeter, in her anger and grief at the loss of her daughter, caused the Earth to be barren, the crops to fail, and winter to fall upon the earth.

That much most versions of the myth agree upon. Beyond that, however, are many plots and subplots, twists and turns, allowing for varying interpretations.

This seems like a good time to introduce Persephone in her role as Queen of the Underworld and wife of Hades. Although we are not yet officially in winter, here in the Northern Hemisphere we are in the dark, short days and long, cold nights, and rapidly approaching the Winter Solstice.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it is nevertheless true that sometimes a few words can produce a thousand – well, maybe a few – images. Frequent readers here are aware of references to writer and fellow anthropologist, Jim Stallings, and his poem for “The Observer/The Observed.” Jim and I graduated from high school together, but were not aware of each other until a couple of years ago or that we both held a PhD in anthropology. We wouldn’t know each other walking down the street. But by virtue of the training in anthropology, we share a common vocabulary, even though our lives are otherwise quite different. We both are aware of the French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss and the deconstruction of myth through binary oppositions. As a grad student, I wrote a paper, “A Structural Analysis of a White Mountain Apache Creation Myth.” While I did not use that much as an Ob/Gyn, that kind of knowledge sticks around and contributes to one’s view of the world and life. On September 15 of this year, Jim noted the approaching Autumn with “…it is that ancient mythic time for the daughter Persephone of the Earth Goddess Demeter to return to the Underworld and stay there until the return for Spring.”

As much as I hate to admit it, I was not familiar with Persephone. I had to go read. As I read more and more, however, her story resonated with me. Within a very short period of time I created three images from some of my favorite subjects, sunflowers and butterflies, that told a story of descent into darkness and emergence from it. Those images can be seen at the 2015 ANMPAS show opening on December 6 and running through December 28. I knew at that point that Persephone’s story was so rich and so complex that I wanted to tell her story through photography, with a real person (or persons), but it took me a bit to figure out how I wanted to do that.

In this image, you see Persephone with a pomegranate, held almost as a royal orb. The pomegranate plays a major supporting role in Persephone’s story, and is symbolic of many things. This will be explored in detail in future images posted here. By unplanned good luck, I had the opportunity to photograph many different pomegranates this fall, and they will be incorporated into some of the Persephone images. At the time I began photographing them, I wasn’t certain what I was going to do with them; I just knew I had to have them.

I began thinking about a photographic model for my Persephone. I had never hired a photographic model, although I had worked with a marvelous woman on someone else’s project. I kind of knew in my mind what I wanted, but I had no idea how to go about finding a photographer’s model that fit that description. Just like the pomegranates, the perfect model just sort of appeared at a time that was also perfect for a photographic session. I surprised myself by walking up and asking her if she had ever been a photographer’s model or would she consider being a photographer’s model. Also to my surprise, she said “yes.” She has the liquid eyes of the classic goddesses depicted in Renaissance paintings. She is athletic with well defined muscles. And she has attitude, an intangible so important in storytelling.

Many of you here may not be aware that I did a fair amount of maternity portraiture in the past. Even with those portraits, I liked to portray women as strong, and use red, not a typical choice for maternity portraits.

maternity portrait
Beautiful in Red

I had planned to photograph Kelly, “Persephone,” in black, but she requested some red as well. I had thought the black would be perfect for the time in the dark underworld. There are images in black, and you will see some of those. When I was doing maternity portraits, I always went with what the clients thought would be best for them. I now add, “trust your model” to things I have learned as a photographer.

This is an introduction to Persephone, and sets the stage for a coming series of images that explore that particular myth…and maybe more.