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How Persephone killed the gods for me

July 24, 2011
Persephone, by Linda Joyce Franks

"Let them die," she said. And I realized I could no longer pretend.

image enhanced from original by Linda Joyce Franks

by B. T. Newberg

Persephone killed the gods for me.

That slender-ankled goddess, mistress of the underworld – she killed them.   And, in that strange way that only gods can do, they came to life again.

Whatever I believed about deities before her, it all changed one summer solstice. This is the story of how Persephone turned me into a Humanistic Pagan.

The gods are dead

For me it was not Nietzsche but Persephone who proclaimed “God is dead.” It is appropriate, for she is a goddess of death after all, a being who dies and rises with the seasons.

According to myth, the young maiden Persephone was picking flowers in a meadow one day when suddenly the earth opened and out came Hades, god of death.  He swept her into his chariot and plunged back down to the underworld.  There she was to be his bride.  Meanwhile, her mother, Demeter, goddess of grain and fertility, searched frantically for her missing daughter.  So distraught was she that nothing on earth would grow, no plant nor animal would bear life.  At last, Zeus, ruler of the gods, had to step in.  The human race was withering, and without them the gods would receive no offerings.  Without offerings, the gods too would wither.   So a deal was brokered: Persephone would spend most of the year with her mother, but a third of the year she must return to the land of the dead.  Thus began the seasons.[1]

So, Persephone knew about dying.  If any had authority to declare the demise of the gods, it was her – this lady of life and death, this woman of both worlds.

Let me back up a little.  It was the summer of 2009, and I was standing over a small altar built beside the river.  In my hand was a copy of Sargent’s Homeric Hymns, and around my neck was a special pendant.  I had worn it for nine months, from the season of her last rising to the present moment of her immanent descent.  It was to be an offering for Persephone.  Just as she would go below, so I would bury it in the earth.  What I didn’t realize was that I would bury the gods too.

For years I had been experimenting with polytheism.  I had joined an organization of Pagans, gone through its rigorous training program, and emerged fully proficient in myth and ritual.  Demeter and Persephone had been with me through it all.  Through them I felt a kinship with the cycles of nature; through them the changing of the seasons came alive.  The year felt enchanted, full of meaning.  And that experience was very real.  But the gods were not – I knew that, and could bear it no longer.

As I poured a libation of barley tea, read aloud the Hymn to Demeter, and called out to the Two Goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, a dull frustration was in the air.  The words rang empty.

Then, as my fingers dug into the dirt and deposited the pendant into the ground, a rush came over me.  Through my mind flashed a voice:

“Let them die.”

It was one of those moments, the ones you remember long after other memories have faded.  I was left ruminating over what it meant, and where to go from there.

One thing was certain: I could no longer pretend, neither in public nor in the privacy of my own mind, that the gods were real.

For me, the gods were dead.

Rape of Proserpine, by Joseph Heintz the Elder

Like Persephone stolen down to the underworld, so too were the gods carried down, deep, and within - into the psyche.

image enhanced from original by Joseph Heintz the Elder

The gods live again

Yet that was not the end of the story.  Persephone had still more mysteries to unveil.

How could it be that the goddess herself wanted me to disbelieve in gods?  Didn’t they need human offerings, as told in the myth?  Without us, wouldn’t they wither away?

I began to ask myself what it was that had persuaded me to “believe” in the gods in the first place.  In truth, I had carried an agnostic attitude through it all – intellectually.  But emotionally, I had developed a deep relationship with the gods.  In some sense, the gods had been real to me.

When I sensed their presence, it was an intensification of emotion that tipped me off.  Likewise, a successful ritual was a ritual that was moving, that felt powerful.  These were the experiences that “proved” the gods, as it were.

Not all polytheists rely so exclusively on feeling.  Others point to more objective phenomena, like strange coincidences or perceptual visions.  I experienced some things like that too, but nothing that could not be explained by a naturalistic interpretation.  Nor did I ever hear others tell of more convincing happenings.  Some had inexplicable experiences, like one friend who saw phantom smoke wisps during ritual.  But it is a long leap from seeing something to concluding that gods are real. Better to admit the unknown than to leap to an explanation, theistic or otherwise.[2]  Ultimately, it is an act of faith.  And my faith was based on emotion, it seemed.

Yet it was not for that matter insignificant.

Real or not, the gods did provoke powerful and beautiful experiences.  I am a better person for having them.  I feel more in tune with my world, and more alive as a person.  This is no small thing in an era when alienation and apathy run rampant.  To find connection to the world is to find meaning.

So maybe, in a sense, the gods are real after all.

They may not be literal, independently-existing entities.  They may not be causal agents with the power to influence events, save through the actions of my own two hands.  They may not send messages, save for what pops to mind through the power of imagination.  Yet in some meaningful sense, they are real.

As presences in the imagination, they are real.  As cultural and psychological forms, they are real.  As sources of meaning and beauty, they are real.

The gods live again.

Thank you, Persephone

Persephone killed the gods for me.  And she brought them back to life.

She showed me that gods don’t have to be real in order to be real.

You can develop wonderful relationships with them.  They can enhance quality of life, and motivate responsible action.  Through their power, your world can grow vibrant.

In that fateful way that makes sense only in myth, the gods had to die in order to bring life back to the world.  Inside me, it had been the barren season.  Like Demeter searching for her daughter, I was searching for my truth.  So long as I had not found it, no living thing could grow.  But by letting the gods die, life returned.  They were reborn as beings of the mind.

Ultimately, I had to be honest with myself.  I simply didn’t believe literally in the gods. Yet that was no reason to foreswear them.  On the contrary, it was reason to embrace them all the more.

Since that fateful summer ritual, where I buried the pendant and the gods too, my world has come alive again.  No longer do I feel that dull frustration in ritual, that sense of empty words.  Now I speak with full knowledge and confidence in what I’m saying.  Now I see gods in the human, and the human in the gods.

I became a Humanistic Pagan.

And that’s why I say to you, Persephone, beautiful goddess in my head:

Thank you.

The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton

Life returned to the world as I began to speak my truth.

image enhanced from original by Frederic Leighton

[1]   The timing of the barren season is debated.  Since Bulfinch’s mythology, many have assumed it to be winter.  But Nilsson challenged this in his book Greek Folk Religion, arguing that in Athens it is the summer when crops cease to grow due to the oppressive heat.
[2] My friend did in fact admit the unknown.  He himself offered a number of alternative, brain-based explanations for the wisps.  He prefers to believe in the gods, but claims no conclusive evidence.
38 Comments
  1. July 24, 2011 10:28 am

    Will you be submitting this piece (or a version thereof) to the Persephone devotional anthology that’s being done in Neos Alexandria? (Hint, hint, hint…!?!) The deadline is next month.

  2. July 24, 2011 10:35 am

    Ah! Hmm… I haven’t kept up on NA in a while. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Do you think this piece would be welcome considering the non-literal-gods perspective? My impression was that NA is pretty solidly theistic, along with most other Hellenic recons.

  3. July 24, 2011 12:40 pm

    I don’t think it is necessarily opposed to it…There are members of the group who are Christian and not-at-all-polytheistic, who post crap all the time, and no one tells them to knock it off…The editor of the particular devotional volume may or may not decide to accept your piece, of course, for various reasons, but I don’t see why she wouldn’t. It’s well-written, and it doesn’t say that the gods don’t exist, and it reflects your own experience of things, and of this goddess’ good influences on you, so I think it is relevant. And, it will be nothing like any other piece in the volume, I’m sure. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to give it a try, in my opinion; and, I think it’s pretty much ready as-is, so it wouldn’t be hard to pop it into a Word file and send it along, I’d think.

    • July 24, 2011 12:42 pm

      And, just to clarify, by the comment about the Christian non-polytheist posting crap all the time: I don’t mean to say that what you’re doing, or what you’ve posted here, is at all crap! (It isn’t and I don’t think that for a second!) I merely mentioned that to illustrate that the NA group these days isn’t opposed to anyone based on their particular beliefs or theology; they just want everything to run smoothly and respectfully discussion-wise. Does that make sense? Hope so! ;)

      • September 6, 2011 9:39 pm

        Hey, I have to thank you. On your encouragement, I submitted “How Persephone killed the gods for me” to Neos Alexandria’s Persephone devotional, and I just got a very positive response back! Mmm… my words in print… Feels good. :-)

        • September 7, 2011 2:29 am

          Awesome! I’m so glad to hear it! I’ve got at least one poem in that volume, and I’m hoping she’s accepted the one further one I’ve submitted, and the two essays I’ve submitted as well…We shall see! But I’ll look forward to seeing your piece in there, most certainly!

    • Syna permalink
      August 4, 2011 12:10 pm

      NA member who is a staunch advocate of the “It’s all in your head, Harry, but that doesn’t make it any less real” camp, reporting for duty :)

  4. July 24, 2011 5:25 pm

    Cool. Well, thanks for the encouragement!

  5. July 24, 2011 8:03 pm

    Wow, that was a great story. Thank you for sharing something so personal with us.

    • ryanspellman permalink
      July 25, 2011 6:36 pm

      I agree, wonderful story and very well written. My favorite is the section “The Gods Live Again”. Great insight!

  6. July 24, 2011 8:43 pm

    I’m glad you liked it. It felt really good writing it. :-)

  7. July 25, 2011 7:12 pm

    Thanks, Ryan!

  8. July 26, 2011 8:34 am

    Thank you for sharing Brandon! I had a similar experience of the death of the Christian God, only to have him reborn as the consort of the Pagan Goddess. Jung wrote: “Only an unparalleled impoverishment of symbolism could enable us to rediscover the gods as psychic factors, which is to say, as archetypes of the unconscious.” I like to reread this quote whenever I begin to think negatively about my loss of faith. Then I remember that the God had to die for me in order that I might rediscover the gods.

  9. July 26, 2011 9:26 am

    That’s a fascinating quote, John. Is Jung a big part of your path?

  10. July 26, 2011 12:11 pm

    Yes. I was introduced to Paganism through Vivianne Crowley’s writings, specifically an essay entitled “Wicca as a Modern Day Mystery Religion”. She’s a Jungian therapist and Wiccan priestess. Wouter J. Hanegraaff states in his survey of Paganism in his book, *New Age Religion and Western Culture*, that Vivianne Crowley’s Jungian perspective “is so strong that readers might be forgiven for concluding that Wicca is little more than a religious and ritual translation of Jungian psychology”.
    Actually, that’s *exactly* what I thought, and it’s what drew me to Paganism. (The same probably could be said of Starhawk’s *Spiral Dance*, Adler’s *Drawing Down the Moon*, the Farrars’ *The Witches Way*, and even of Dion Fortune’s writings.) When I read Richard Noll’s book, *The Jung Cult*, which attempts to show that Jung was not practicing any kind of science but creating a new religion, I could only agree and wonder what the religion would be called.

  11. July 26, 2011 3:23 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to these authors. I knew the names of course, but didn’t know which were more Jungian in character.

    What do you make of Jungian archetypes? Are they mystical? Cosmic? Or strictly biological? I have heard a wide range of interpretations.

  12. July 26, 2011 4:48 pm

    We often hear that the gods are archetypes, but for me the archetypes are gods. This is the sense in which Jung used the term and it highlights the power of the god-like power of the archetypes in our lives. Jung said: “The archetypes [...] are the ruling powers, *the gods*, images of the dominant laws and principles, and of typical, regularly occurring events in the soul’s cycle of experience.

    I think too often we hear the modifier “just” immediately preceding the word “psychological”, as in “So the Neopagan gods are just psychological?”, as if to say “So they are figments of your imagination?” I think this misunderstanding is based in a more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the psyche. We tend to think of the psyche as something inside of us, inside of our heads specifically. Jungian theory invites us to reverse that relationship and conceive of the psyche as something that we are in. As James Hillman explains, “Man exists in the midst of psyche; it is not the other way around. Therefore, soul is not confined by man.” We can think of the psyche as a unified field that we dwell within. It is within us, but extends beyond the boundaries of our individual selves. Thus, we can say that the Neopagan gods are archetypes of the psyche, without implying that they are mere creations of an individual’s mind.

    Another way to explain archetypes is to distinguish the conscious ego-self from the unconscious deep self and to distinguish mere symbols (which are products of consciousness) from archetypes (which reside in the unconscious). When we say that the gods are archetypes, too often that is interpreted as meaning we can create our own gods. This confuses unconscious archetypes with symbols which can be consciously created. Jungians believe it is impossible to consciously create an archetype. As Hillman explains: “Just as we do not create our dreams, but they happen to us, so we do not invent the persons of myth and religion [or the gods]; they, too, happen to us.”

  13. July 26, 2011 4:54 pm

    Would you like to write a piece for HP on archetypes? It’s a very difficult concept that I have been struggling with for a while. I would love to see a piece on it!

  14. ryanspellman permalink
    July 26, 2011 7:16 pm

    Wow, this is very exciting. I definitely need to take in more of Jung’s work after reading your explanation of archetypes, John. I’ve known of him (I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell) but have never actually sat down and read over any of his works in their entirety.

    • July 26, 2011 8:58 pm

      He wrote a lot, and some of it is not worth reading, in my opinion. If you’re interested in Jung’s concern with religion, I would recommend the following collections: *Modern Man in Search of a Soul* (1933) and *Psychology and Western Religion* (1984). They contain shorter essays that are fun reads. If you’re interested in Jung and eco-psychology, then check out *The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life* (2002).

      • ryanspellman permalink
        July 26, 2011 9:15 pm

        Great, thanks for the recommendations. I’ll have to see if I can get either of those once I’m finished with my current read. I looked them up and think “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” would be a good one to start with for me.

  15. July 26, 2011 7:23 pm

    Coincidentally, I am smack in the middle of research on Jung’s archetypes. The library books I have out currently give a wide range of views:
    *Transformation of Consciousness in Myth: Integrating the Thought of Jung and Campbell, by John W. Tigue – seems to take a more cosmic approach to the archetypes
    *Jung in the 21st Century, Volume One: Evolution and Archetype, by John Ryan Haule – argues that Jung’s archetypes are consistent with evolution, takes a thoroughly biological view of archetypes
    *Analytical Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives in Jungian Analysis, edited by Joseph Cambray and Linda Carter – Has an article by Hogenson that analyzes the Jungian tradition and finds a bewildering variety of interpretations, and finds that Jung himself never settled on a theory but offered a number of different definitions of archetypes over the years.

    • July 26, 2011 8:54 pm

      I just bought Tigue’s book myself, but haven’t read it yet. I found Lionel Corbett’s Book *The Religious Function of the Psyche* (1996) very interesting. It identifies God with the psyche, but in a way that does not deprive it of its sacrality and its numinous quality. But if I were to recommend any Jungian book to a Pagan it would be John P. Dourley’s hard-to-find book *The Goddess, Mother of the Trinity: A Jungian Implication* (1990), which identifies the (Pagan?) Goddess with the Unconscious, similar to Erich Neumann’s work in *The Origins and History of Consicousness* (1954) and *The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype* (1955).

      • July 26, 2011 9:34 pm

        Thanks for those.

        To be honest, the one that really makes me go cross-eyed is James Hillman. I must confess I don’t get him *at all.* He appeals to me so much with his ideas of gods as imaginal beings and of multiplicity within the psyche. But from what I’ve read he eschews logic and empirical verification so much that I just don’t see how he knows what he claims to know. But I confess ignorance because I haven’t read him yet, though his Re-visioning Psychology is sitting on my shelf.

  16. Syna permalink
    August 4, 2011 12:31 pm

    What I find striking about this essay is that it essentially reads like a conversion piece, a statement of faith — except without the faith part. I love that you are able to set aside the question of real vs not-real and see your experiences as powerfully significant anyhow, while maintaining a commitment to intellectual honesty.

    I had a very similar moment earlier this year.

    The “god is dead” idea has a fascinating context: Nietzsche was absolutely tormented by the thought. As much disdain as he had for Christianity, he did not feel humanity could relinquish the religious impulse that easily. So that quote seems especially apt for use here because of Nietzsche’s devotion to Dionysos, which IMHO was as powerful and zealous as that of any devotee of any god, anywhere. It’s doubtful that he believed Dionysos’ literal reality was likely, but Nietzsche wouldn’t consider that important anyway.

    Thanks for this beautiful bit of writing.

    (BTW, regarding James Hillman — I feel your frustration. I absolutely love the man because he expresses my subjective reality so very well, but sometimes I wonder if this has to do with the fact I’m a writer and the notion of “multiplicity of the psyche” seems self-apparent to me. ;) I suppose I could say his major contribution is the fact that imaginal figures can act very much of their own accord, separately from the focalpoint of consciousness called the ego, yet still as part of the overarching psyche; it reminds me of a Hindu idea I was told about, where God is conceived of enacting a cosmic drama through various parts.)

    • August 4, 2011 4:22 pm

      You’re right, it is a statement of faith, in a way. Because there is obviously something that one with a naturalistic viewpoint has faith in. It just doesn’t happen to be supernatural. Speaking for myself, there’s faith in nature, faith in experience, faith in others, and faith in the future. Perhaps “trust” would be a better word, if “faith” is too spiritual sounding, but it is a very similar idea.

      Thanks very much for pointing that out.

  17. wilderquill permalink
    August 21, 2011 2:56 am

    Good job, B.T.

    I found this article a wonderful parallel to some of my feelings on ‘deity’ as well. I do honor the gods/esses almost daily, however I find that I do not easily perceive them to be homogeneous, or concepts (or perhaps even entities) that have easily defined boundaries as presented within the mythologies of our ancestors.
    I’ve stopped attempting to box ‘deity’ into parameters that my mind can readily accept; whether they are archetype, aspects of my own ignored psyche, or actual beings of fabled heroic glory…Currently I don’t care. One definition is as good as any.
    Good article.

    • August 21, 2011 8:41 am

      >I do not easily perceive them to be homogeneous, or concepts (or perhaps even entities) that have easily defined boundaries as presented within the mythologies of our ancestors.

      Thanks, Wilderquill. That lines up with how the experience often manifests for me, as a wordless, nameless presence, as described in our new ebook/podcast Encounters in Nature.

      >Currently I don’t care. One definition is as good as any.

      Is one definition really as good as any? I can totally understand a carefully-considered agnosticism, as I myself am agnostic. But one definition being “as good as any” just sounds lazy to me. It seems to me to betray a fuzziness of thought about what might count as evidence for/against a certain theory of deity. For example, if working with the gods is observed to produce altered consciousness, motivation, and affect, but never something totally external to the mind like changing the weather in accordance with a stated desire, then that would count as evidence toward a theory of gods as beings of the human psyche. On the other hand, observation of effective weather-working, verifiable and reproducible, would be hard evidence for external independently-existing deities, or at least genuine “magical” abilities of the human mind.

      But lack of definition of what counts as evidence for a definition is the status quo in current Paganism, IMO. Tanya Lurhmann calls this “ambiguity”, and it enables “interpretive drift,” or a gradual shift in beliefs from a more conventional view to one where external deities exist and magic is effective. The longer people stay in Paganism and accumulate positive experiences, even if these are only emotional experiences, the more likely they are to “drift” over to accepting beliefs about external deities and effective magic.

      My intent is not to criticize or belittle this process in any way. Rather, it’s a conviction that it is important to be honest with ourselves about our beliefs, take a hard look at the evidence, and draw only conclusions that are warranted by the evidence.

      As for me, Persephone showed me the conclusion that my experiences warranted.

  18. wilderquill permalink
    August 21, 2011 10:47 pm

    Interesting follow up B.T., but I hold to my original statement.

    We are two guys who have different ‘deity’ requirements…;)

    -Todd.

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