How Persephone killed the gods for me
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.
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.
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. 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: