Ancient myths dramatize the shift from winter to spring.
Why this cold, dreary season when birds abandon us and gardens stop producing their fruits and flowers?
Why this endless time of skyrocketing heating bills and bone-wearying shoveling? Why this sentence of home detention when, racked with cabin fever, we hunker down by the fire or get fuzzy-brained before the TV?
What have we done to deserve this? Surely someone has offended the gods.
“Poppycock!” say the scientists, who propose some lame theory about the Earth going around the sun. But that can’t really be it. What’s the point of misery if there’s no one to blame? Besides, their story lacks imagination.
Perhaps an explanation that we might find more appealing is one offered by the Greek poet Homer some 27 centuries ago.
In the once-upon-a-time of perpetual spring, Demeter, mother goddess of agriculture and fertility, makes all things grow. One day, when her daughter Persephone is gathering flowers, the earth opens and Hades, ruler of the underworld, abducts her. The maiden’s screams to her father, Zeus, go unheeded.
Distraught Demeter searches wildly for her lost daughter, and upon discovering that Zeus had approved the abduction, withdraws from Olympus in grief and rage, thus causing universal famine. Faced with this ongoing catastrophe, Zeus relents.
Daughter is restored to mother, whose joy again unleashes earth’s fertility. But because Persephone has been tricked into tasting the pomegranate of Hades, she must return to the underworld for part of each year. And in her absence, her mourning mother weeps the world into winter.
But it must be so. For, as Anne Baring and Jules Cashford remind us in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, “Persephone is the seed that splits off from the body of the ripened grain, the mother, when, sinking beneath the earth, she returns in the spring as the new shoot.”
Like all etiological myths, this one explains why something came about. Variations on this origin of the changing seasons appear in other myths. Aphrodite retrieves her lover, the vegetation god Adonis, from the underworld, where he must spend one third of the year. In ancient Sumer, goddess Inanna descends into the underworld to meet with her sister Ereshkigal. In Egypt, goddess Isis searches for her murdered-and-dismembered brother/husband Osiris. Her tears of mourning make the Nile rise, and thus the vegetation god Osiris comes alive again.
It is not coincidental that Jews celebrate their Passover—their emergence into a new life of freedom—and Christians the resurrection of their God in the spring.
Why winter? Because the growing season requires the fallow season.
Because without gray there is no joy in color. Because it is loss that makes us appreciate love. Because it is death that makes us value life.
The wheel of the seasons turns. Life cycles into death, which cycles into life. Let us bless the journey.
A version of this essay was first published in the Baltimore Sun, February 27, 2007.
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A playwright and award-winning theater director, Patricia Montley teaches in the Odyssey Program and Johns Hopkins University. She is a member of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. She is the author of In Nature's Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth (Skinner House, 2005).
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The first time, I emerged merely breathless, wet, and cold.