REVIEW: Carol S. Pearson’s “Persephone Rising: Awakening the Heroine Within” by Dennis P. Slattery

Getting the Gods Rite

persephoneMany years ago in a section entitled “Altruism and Ecstasy” in The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, Carol Pearson was already seeding the underworld of mythic consciousness with the figure named in her new study, Persephone. She wrote in her earlier volume, which has undergone numerous printings, that “The Greek Eleusinian mysteries explained the origin of the seasons through the myth of Demeter, the grain goddess, and her daughter, Persephone” (Pearson, 1998, p. 125). She goes on to relate the consequences of Persephone’s abduction by Hades and her mother’s grief, which led to a barren earth and a famished population. Zeus finally had to intervene to return Persephone to the upper world, but with the proviso, since she had eaten one pomegranate seed in the land of her abductor, that she would spend part of each year in Hades’ precinct.

I think of Pearson’s own eating of one pomegranate seed of inspiration, of wonder, of interest and of abduction by this myth, so that decades later she returns to write a full-length study of the mother and daughter, along with two male figures, Zeus and Dionysus, to form a quaternity of psychic life that inhabits the psyche of all of us, but for many it remains beneath the floorboards of consciousness. I understand Persephone Rising as an elegant and multi-disciplinary achievement of ushering Persephone into the light of consciousness so we all can see and feel her as well as the other divinities’ presences in the most ordinary moments of our daily actions.

At the outset I’d like to address the style in which this study is written, something often not mentioned in book reviews. It is, first of all, a casual style throughout, full of vernacular phrases and words. For instance, in speaking of the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, a staple throughout the book, Pearson writes: “the only way to gain access to the secret lore was to sign up, show up, and go through the nine-day initiation” (2015, p. 15). Later in exploring a best-selling teen novel, The Fault in the Stars, she uses the phrase “inner eros GPS” to describe what a young character lacks in his maturing into the ways of the heart (2015, p. 217). In addition, her study is written most often in the second person to establish a more personal, even intimate, connection with those of us reading the descriptions and then directly addressed in the various reflections and writing exercises that comprise a part of each section.

The second element of the book is its unique structure, which remains consistent throughout its four parts. 1. A story of the god or goddess in antiquity as well as how these qualities and characteristics carry into the soul of the contemporary reader’s life; 2. A template of the sections that the chapter will develop; 3. Qualities of the archetype of the god or goddess that follow a set of areas that comprise the range of that archetype; 4. The specific god or goddess discussed in relation to “the Eleusinian Promise”; 5. Application Questions that puts the reader directly in touch with what I am going to call their personal myth. Each subsequent chapter for that divinity consists of a series of Lessons that one reads through to an “Application Exercise.” This structure has a guiding purpose in it, as one learns after reading the first goddess, Demeter, section and sees the interconnecting linkage between antiquity and modernity, between divinity and humanity, between the qualities of the archetype and seeking them out in one’s own biography.

But within the many-structured parts of the book listed above, the foundation of Pearson’s study is and remains throughout, the mysterious, attractive, potent and changeable nature of our story, or stories, that we rehearse with uncanny and sometime insane frequency in order, as I understand her argument, to create, revision and sustain a coherent life. I like her term, “narrative intelligence,” to capture what dynamic energy is unfurling within the drama of our desires, wishes, wounds and wonderings. The ancient mysteries at Eleusis, south of Athens, which my wife and I visited in the mid-70s when I taught for a university in Rome, carried a peaceful energy and aura that was reawakened as I read Persephone Rising. It is, in effect, the central dramatic space for Pearson in her study because it allowed for a richly varied pilgrimage into the self and out to the world that remained secret, contained and blessed for each participant.

In effect, Persephone Rising is a rich analogue to Eleusis, for in its pages one’s deepest structures, relationships and memories have an opportunity to mingle with the eternal energy patterns that shape and give form to the mythic world she conjures up through the four figures revisioned in the book’s pages. Both Eleusis and Persephone Rising formulates its own temenos by which one may reinitiate oneself to the scattered parts or shards of a fractured self in order to bring it to wholeness.

However, her study does not stop with the ancient stories of the four divinities that hold the work together as a unity; contemporary films, novels, short stories, some written for adult audiences, others for young teens—all are further birthings of the divine ancestors that populate the pages of the study. Pearson’s own history, relayed at key junctures in her study, add a further personal aura to the work as well as allow the reader to discern that she does not speak about many of the tragic and comic circumstances that have given texture and meaning to her own plot from an exclusively theoretical perspective.

That myths are eternal stories with very particular and poignant details Pearson stresses throughout; but there is more to it, she reveals. I would put it this way: myths model; myths mimic; myths are mimetic. The word mimesis does not appear in her study, but what her methodology, or mythodology, includes, is what the ancient Greeks also discovered and Aristotle gave the most voice to in his Poetics: mimesis. He believed that this tendency to re-present, to imitate, to seek out analogy, correspondence or accord with other persons and things, grows from two causes deep in our nature: our desire to imitate and “the pleasure felt in things imitated” (Butcher, 1902, p.15). Seeing “likenesses” is an enjoyable experience and a very effective way of teaching, by yoking something unfamiliar with something we can easily relate to; the effect is new knowledge.

The question is: what is being imitated? Aristotle is clear on this point and I believe Pearson’s book is a manifestation of this 5th. Century BCE discovery. While Aristotle is addressing tragic stories most specifically, it is not a large leap to extrapolate from it something essential to all stories: “Tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an action and of life and life consists in action. Its end is a mode of action, not a quality” (Butcher, 1902, p. 27). This mode of action he speaks of is what Pearson’s study, to my mind, is seeking. Myths, she exposes, are not just stories of fates and destinies but kinds of action that the soul seeks, avoids, confronts and promotes. Not an outer behavior but first an inner disposition, a certain condition or way of being and imagining oneself both within and within the world.

We are more than our plot lines; in Pearson’s working of myth poetically, what is below the plot level shines through: the soul’s action that myths codify through narratives. When she speaks, for instance, of societies and individuals “revising their narratives when the world changes” (2015, p. 118), so that some new configuration between, for instance a “Zeus-Demeter balance” may be implemented that takes the form of “adopting social policies that protect competition and individual rights while allowing more time for family life and creating a stronger safety net” (2015, p.118), we witness a new alliance between forms of power and persuasion. The thought providing such an alteration in consciousness I would call mytho-poetic, for the mythic figures are being recalibrated in the psyche—individual or collective—to inaugurate a new context for and style of consciousness. Tracking these changes, mutations and modifications seems to me the central intention, if not mission, of Persephone Rising.

As readers, we must adjust our own thinking and encourage a flexible response to Pearson’s insights into divine presences. She realizes how we as readers may struggle with some of her reflections on any of the figures she delineates: “The Persephone archetype can seem paradoxical from a modern perspective. We live in a culture that equates dark with evil, and light with good, and that typically thinks that deep spiritual wisdom should be talked about in quiet, pious tones. . .” (2015, p. 191). She also “connects us with our deeper selves, or souls. From the psychological perspective the soul is a deeper part of us than the ego, mind, or even heart, and a more reliable source of guidance about what is right for you or me. . .” (2015, p. 192). The author’s angle and stance is always depth-psychological as well as poetic and analogical. Adopting it in our reading seems to me essential in order to experience the rich flavors emanating from these divinities and their analogues in modern expression. Not just content but point of view is indispensable to entertain in order to fully engage the figures in the fabric of our lives. Later we may judge things differently, but for the exercises and meditations, a yielding to Pearson’s point of view will encourage new insights into the mythic dimension of ourselves through the divine figures who embody not just psychological but ontological qualities.

Finally, a note on story structure. I confess my own reading bias here in that the section on Dionysus, followed by a rich conclusion entitled “The Power of Story to Transform Your Life” (2015, pp.339-357) is my favorite. As I read the conclusion I thought: what if this were first in the book rather than the last? At this writing I am still uncertain, but it does seem to set the entire work in motion. On the other hand, it is a capstone element that allows the reader to reflect back on all the stories that s/he has read and reframes them into a sharper focus. You decide. But regardless of your decision, I believe it is the heartbeat of the book.

Our culture has rediscovered the power and the purpose of story that goes well beyond entertainment, though we would not want to lose that property. But as Pearson reveals, “Because the stories we tell about what happens around us are filtered through the archetypal and other lenses in our psyches, they have a subjective element to them. Therefore, it pays to wield the shield of story vigilance, to sort out what is true and what is not–. . .” (2015, p. 341). The liberating insight imbedded in her language is that we are not condemned or paralyzed for life in or by a single narrative; it can be altered, revisioned, reclaimed or trashed if need be. We do have the capacity, whether or not we exercise it, “to imagine alternative stories” so we can “substitute any number of new narratives for tired, old, disempowering ones” (2015, p. 351).

Her insights open up new conversations about the place of classic works of literature handed down as wisdom texts from hundreds or thousands of years; if we return for just an instant to the idea of mimesis, then reading these classics can serve as poetic surgeries to our own stories in an operation of the imagination to see possibilities for a life no longer satisfying and for the occasion to find a Dionysian joy in altering, even altering, another narrative that suits where we are historically. Whether a story is heard, read, imagined, it has the capacity to “connect the heart and the mind in ways that spur action and often are remembered in memorable short phrases or sentences that evoke a larger narrative” (2015, p. 352). Our narrative selves, Pearson implies here, can be as liquid or as solidified as we choose to make them; life’s circumstances have little meaning as events until they are positioned within a narrative frame so to give events a context of meaning they cannot possess without that creative act of remembering and imagining, the twin impulses in creating meaning.

Lastly, and to state the obvious at this late juncture: this is an interactive text; simply reading it won’t serve. Unless the reader chooses to engage some of the exercises in order to make her/his history part of the narratives collected herein, the work will not work, or not work with the full intention that the author had in constructing it as she did. In this way, there is no ending to Persephone Rising for its narrative foundations will be added to by each participant reader/writer to stretch the stories well into the future by pulling from the present-past of one’s life. Only then will the text have served its full purpose of giving voice to one’s “metanarrative.” In so doing, one’s story enriches and extends the ancient figures from timeless myths by situating them right now, where one’s heart is and where one’s plot finds its place in a larger cosmic design.

 

References

Butcher, S.H. (1902). Aristotle’s theory of poetry and fine art, 3rd edition. New York: Hill and Wang.

Pearson, C. (1986/1998). The hero within: Six archetypes we live by. New York: Harper Collins.

Pearson, C. (2015). Persephone rising: Awakening the heroine within. New York: Harper Collins.

Dennis Patrick Slattery is Core Faculty, Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of twenty-four volumes, including six volumes of poetry. His latest book is Our Daily Breach: Exploring Your Personal Myth Through Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Fisher King Press, 2015). He offers Writing Myth retreats in the United States, Canada, Europe and Ireland using the works of Joseph Campbell and others. www.dennispslattery.com,                dslattery@pacifica.edu

 

 

 

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