The Wrath of Demeter // the Power to Stand in No

this is an excerpt from an upcoming book with essays called Reclaiming the Mythical Feminine. It is best to read the Myth of Persephone prior to reading this article.

In the myth of Inanna wee see that the still compromising goddess has to descent into Ereshkigal, come face-to-face and bone-to-bone with the wrath of her sister and retrieve this wild instinctual power. She had to integrate it within herself as the 'eye of death' that she later gives to her husband Dumuzi who is ruling and feasting in arrogance while she was suffering in the underworld. Here too, we encounter this fierce side of the feminine as the wrath and revenge of Demeter as she, the essentially nourishing goddess, leaves Olympus and takes her gifts of grain and harvest with her.

Demeter withdrawn, mourning her daughter Kore-Persephone

Demeter withdrawn, mourning her daughter Kore-Persephone

What can we learn from this fierce side of Demeter, her wrath and vengeful side? She withdraws her gift of grain, withdraws her essential quality of nourishment from both humans and gods - and insists on the release of her daughter from the underworld realm of Hades. If we would view this myth and side of Demeter from a patriarchal point of view, we could say it is the dark side of the feminine, the vengeful, manipulative feminine that wants to get 'her way' and is even willing to punish the innocent mortals of Olympus for it. Many women will recognise this capacity in themselves. Where they can turn into the ice-queen and withhold love and affection from either children or partners, when not given what they want or expect. But we have to look more carefully as here; Demeter is not turning her back on Olympys and its gods because of a minor disagreement or just to get 'her way' for her own desires and lusts. Her daughter, Kore, the seed of life has been possessed, abducted and raped. Her father Zeus, that would have to protect her, has colluded with the abductor Hades, who represents his own patriarchal shadow. From a psychological point of view, men and women both collude with the patriarchal shadow when this is not deeply addressed within themselves. It is a challenge and test we face in a modern, power-driven world over and over again if we are to engage with life and the society. In obvious or less obvious ways, we dare not to leave the safe boarders of our conditioning and beliefs. Whether this is our parental conditioning or a new set  of beliefs we have acquired on the spiritual journey. A life truly lived, will ask us to continually, seasonally let go—become barren and be seeded again with new life. We can resist this essential cyclical nature of life both inwardly or outwardly.  

Outwardly we dare not to confront an organisation, a group leader or our boss in the workplace that seemingly is dominating and damaging life and the vulnerable. We dare not to question the seemingly 'benevolent father' who has given us our job, work, education or emotional and sociological safety. It is painful to stand alone, and to risk being the cast out, or even punished for speaking and acting upon truth and justice. 

And yet this is what the wrath of Demeter is teaching us in this myth. She first leaves Olympus and takes her gifts with her. Famine takes over where first there was life; this is what happens when we collude with the patriarchal shadow that destroys life and it's precious seeds; the Kore, the vulnerable and potential feminine essence of both ourselves and nature around us. We dare not to stand up to Zeus' hierarchy, as so much of our structures and lives are dependant on him who rules and keeps order in our lives. Zeus here can be male or female as some women carry the patriarch within them to an even more severe degree. Zeus in this myth is the President of the University, it is the respected 'leader' at the workplace, it is the politician and it can be our own father or mother. Zeus has both a nourishing and protective side to him, as well as a lustful, power-driven patriarchal shadow—which is echoed in the various greek myths. In many ways, Hades is a shadow reflection of Zeus, the ‘sky-father’ who has a power-driven, lustful brother in the Underworld.

Zeus & Hades according to Disney

Zeus & Hades according to Disney

This masculine shadow is as much outside of us as it is within us. It is the part of us that is in control of her own life, and dares not to be exposed and made responsible—for it would challenge the entire structure we have build our lives and survival upon. We see that no other god or goddess has challenged Zeus in this myth the way Demeter does. She dares to walk away and to say No to the destructive side of patriarchy. She does not succumb to gifts and praise from all the gods and goddesses: her Yes and her gifts are not to be bribed with any patriarchal souvenir. She stands for Life —and for the protection of life and its seeds: she will not serve the corrupted hierarchy until Persephone is released from Hades. 

For so many centuries, our mothers and grandmothers have had to obey the shadows of masculine power, because their livelihood was dependant on it, and so was their children's. Women have had to be obedient to marriages, or ways of living that has been damaging to their own deepest feminine essence; to the Soul. Although the feminist movement has paved the way for women to become free, the real freedom is yet awaiting many modern women today. There are plenty of women I have encountered in my life and work, who have a very progressive 'feminist' way of life, independent from men, and yet - the shadow of patriarchy is still possessing them from within. I was personally raised by an Amazon-type warrior mother, and have had to become very familiar with the shadow dynamics of this power within me. It is one of the most difficult tasks for women - to untangle their coercion with the negative patriarch in a time where patriarchy has ruled for thousands of years, and almost no trace of the deep feminine left as an example. Women collude with the abusive power-principle of the masculine in order to keep their position, to 'climb up the ladder' or simply out of immense unconscious fear and conditioning. It is part of both an inferiority and superiority complex that many women [as well as men] carry in their shadows as they unconsciously feel and carry the pain and suffering of the feminine as well as the Earth that has been denigrated for centuries. There are  many feminists and even those that claim to serve the sacred feminine that are still acting out an Athena-complex: not daring to leave father's familiar house. 

What we need in this time, in a world that is dying in front of our very own eyes, is to awaken the wrath of Demeter within us; to make it conscious and bring it out from the shadow. To allow this quality to move through us, untangling our own inner collusions and helping us with the confrontations in outer life. The exploitation and depletion of nature, and the disappearance of animals and insects could perhaps be seen as a shadow expression of this wrath. What would it look like when this quality of destruction is integrated into consciousness; a destruction that is in service of life?

This dark principle of feminine power can play a crucial role in the return of the feminine and the restoration of life, if women dare to dig deep within themselves, and surrender to this essential quality within in order to give back to life. Just like the release and return of Persephone brought forth both life and abundance in Olympus —and with it a new way, a new path for the Greeks through the Mystery Teachings of Eleusis that was practiced for more than 2000 years, this could be a blueprint for todays global crisis.
Without Demeter's wrath, none of this would have flourished; Persephone would have been kept in the shadows of Hades, hidden from the upper world, and the flourishing of the Eleusian Mysteries would have only been a lost possibility, a lost chance. This, is both the question and challenge that we we face today. And it is perfectly illustrated in another myth where Demeter uses her wrath against humanity. 

Erysichthon: the arrogant king 

In this myth we have a glimpse of this Demeterian wrath which serves as both a warning and a teaching to the extend of this destructive power can be manifest. It is the story of the arrogant king Erysichthon. This story shows us what happens when we completely disobey and dishonour the feminine and the image of deity in nature.

 “Disregard of the numinous powers is, according to Jung, the essence of evil” 

- Marie Louise von Franz in her final lecture, November 1986


The tale of the foolish King


Once upon a time there lived a foolish and arrogant king. His name was Erysichthon. He had a daughter who loved him despite his foolishness. Time and again she’d saved him from his own folly. But one morning, before she understood what was in his mind, he ordered his servants to fetch his followers from the city. He needed wood to build himself a new feast-hall. He took them all, his daughter too, down to a grove of trees sacred to the goddess Demeter — Demeter of the crown of corn, of the lush hair, whom we must thank for every full mouth, for every bulging belly, Demeter the goddess of plenty, the mother of grain.

In the centre of the grove there was an ancient, ancient oak. ‘Chop it down.’ His servants looked at one another horrified. The huge oak was covered with votive wreaths, a symbol of every prayer Demeter had granted, and so the men refused to cut it down. But he made his command loud and clear. The daughter: ‘Father, this is madness. If you cut down this tree, the goddess will punish  you for it.’

Erysichthon cutting down the sacred oak

Erysichthon cutting down the sacred oak

‘Just my point. There are no gods, no goddesses. There’s only us. And you are all fools who shake at shadows. I will prove that every prayer is wasted air. Chop. It. Down.’

He grabbed an axe. He swung it behind him. Everyone who dared to look then saw the tree trembling from its roots to the tips of its leaves. When the blade struck the bark dark blood came from the wound he’d made and there was a cry, shrill: ‘I am the nymph who lives in this tree. Cut it down and you slaughter me. If I die by your hand, I swear revenge will fall on you as heavy as a falling oak.’ The king, he laughed. He kept on cutting until, with a dreadful moan, the tree crashed to the ground. And the king had his servants fetch his subjects back to his palace. He held a feast that night. He stuffed his mouth, he stuffed his mouth, he stuffed his mouth until his belly bulged. That night nymphs in the grove wept around the tree stump. Then one of them flew up to Mount Olympus, the home of the immortals. She flew to the palace of Demeter and she asked for revenge.

Demeter granted her request. For every power there must be its opposite. If there is a goddess of plenty somewhere there must be a goddess of lack. Of course the two can never meet. Demeter said, ‘Nymph, take my dragon-drawn chariot. Ride three days and nights through the sky to the north till you see below you a leafless, lifeless, barren place. There you will see her, the spirit of Hunger. Tell her to possess this Erysichthon. Tell her King Erysichthon belongs to her now.’

The nymph rode the chariot through the sky till she saw below her a wasteland where even the air moaned. She saw Hunger at once. Hunger was on her hands and knees, scraping at the cracked, arid earth, uncovering a tree root that she ground between her teeth. Hunger’s face is a blue-grey skull. Her jaws clack together as if she is a cat staring at a bird out of reach. Her joints seem swollen beside her spindly limbs. Her skin is so thin, veins, guts can be seen quivering within. The nymph knew danger when she saw it. She shouted her instructions from a safe distance away. She shook the reins of the chariot, rose up into the sky. But even so she felt a cramp in her gut.

That night Hunger flew through the sky. She travelled to the palace of King Erysichthon. She crept through an open window. He was fast asleep in his bed on his back, snoring, his mouth open. She pressed her thin lips to his and blew a torrent of starvation into his open mouth. Then she was gone, like smoke sucked up a chimney, away from the land of plenty back to the realm of lack. The king as he slept dreamt that he sat at a table eating a meal that tasted of nothing.

Erysichthon’s insatiable hunger

Erysichthon’s insatiable hunger

Next morning he was woken by a nagging pain in his belly. He sat up and found his jaws had a life of their own. They clacked together as if he was a cat staring at a bird out of reach. He called for food. He ate and ate but this hunger was like fire: the more he fed it the stronger it became. He called for more food in bigger bowls heaped higher. But it was no use: it was as if he was throwing crumbs into a chasm. Food enough to feed his family, food enough to feed his palace, food enough to feed his city, food enough to feed his nation he crammed into his open mouth. He only stopped chewing to call for ‘More food! More food!’

His daughter became desperate. She was in fear….would he sell her for money? He was surely capable, he was no longer himself; possessed by hunger and greed. She had to save both her father and herself. She screamed for help. She screamed as he was about to sell her into slavery.

erysichthon-selling-his-daughter-antonio-tempesta.jpg

The Goddess Demeter saved her. She saved the daughter from slavery through giving her the power to shape-shift; she was given the tools of transformation. But she couldn't leave her father's house. The daughter couldn't leave the kingdom of her father. She  let the father use her gifts. The father abused her shape-shifting powers to con people on the marketplace by selling them illusions. Over and over again, as the daughter could shape-shift herself continuously. He devoured all his wealth and of those around him. But still, it wasn't enough. Finally, growing ever more desperate, Erysichthon devoured himself.

[This telling of the myth is an edited version of the education material of Princeton University]

Erysichthon literally means ‘the earth-tearer’. As gruesome as this story is, it is not a tale that will surprise or shock many of us today; the tale holds the mirror in front of us living a modern Western life. Erysichthon is a metaphor for our modern civilisation, the arrogant foolish king who has no respect for the image of deity, for the sacred within matter and arrogantly cuts down the symbol of the goddess. In turn, the forces of nature turn against him and the intensity of the power he abuses, backlashes on him in the form of an insatiable, everlasting hunger. No matter how much he consumes, the hunger is not nourished. Instead, it takes him over bit by bit.  How many trees must be cut down for us to realise that the pounding thirst and hunger we feel deep in our gut is not going to be solved with getting more stuff, or even with yet another self-help program? Our cravings come from our lack of worship of anything greater than ourselves. Our thirst is is a thirst for the sacred, our continuous, shape-shifting hunger is an unconscious cry for the numinous to return. Not somewhere in a far-off cave and monastery, but right here —in the bare bones of our everyday lives.

What is interesting in this tale is that in the beginning, he gives a feast. He stuffs himself, with pleasure and a sense of celebration. This is perhaps the moment of false heroism that man feels he has 'triumphed nature', when he has slayed the dragon. There is a celebration, but the food he eats in his dream 'tastes of nothing'. He is not nourished by that which he takes in. Demeter has withdrawn her nourishing quality to him as he violently cuts down all relationship to her. Demeters nourishment here is a deeper nourishment that comes with the power of the numinous, it is the nourishment of the soul and the invisible substance sacred to the goddess. Instead, she has given him over to the spirit of Hunger and so whatever he eats, only feeds this dark horrendous spirit within him, that eventually devours him. 

I lost my  mother to cancer and had to watch her body be taken over by the terrifying sight of death and disease. When I read Erysichthon for the first time, it was as if I read what had happened to my mother and her body, and what is happening to our mother Earth and her body, her matter. As a witness, all three stories and experiences became strangely interwoven as one story wanting to be told; the story of our time. 

We have become Erysichthon and are in the tale-end of devouring ourselves into annihilation. This story is not revealing any solutions, it is showing the absolute destructiveness of 'evil' in the words of Jung: when we arrogantly disregard the numinous, each in our own way. 

When we compare the wrath of Demeter in this myth and in the myth of Persephone, we find a difference in the subtle hints the unconscious reflects through these stories. In the first myth, famine and death was overcome because Demeter excersizes her power to stand in No, she did not succumb to the sky gods and the bribery of other gods, whereas Erysichthon's daughter did. She did not dare to say No to her father, and to leave his kingdom when she was given the chance by Demeter through the tools of transformation. Instead, she stayed in his realm and tried to keep him and his destructive hunger alive. Perhaps out of habit, a false sense of loyalty and out of the fear of the unknown. This might be the most important hint for women's spirituality today. We are the daughters of Erysichthon, born in a world and culture that upholds the image of conquer and ambition instead of the image of worship and devotion. We have to overcome our collusion with this overwhelming collective conditioning and 'leave our father's kingdom'. This, takes incredibly strength for each woman —and man—and a steadfast devotion and determination to not be bribed by the comfort of our fathers kingdom, of what we know. 

'Fathers Kingdom' here is a symbolic reflection of the way patriarchal systems have seeped into our deep unconscious patterns and psyches. Women's egos are identified with the Animus, the male principle within a woman's psyche. The untangling of the Animus and making this power within us  conscious is a task for the heroine. It is a lifetime's journey and will take all of the power within each woman. Outwardly we can ask ourselves; where in my life am I colluding with Erysichthon? Where in work or ambitions am I afraid to leave the old father’s kingdom? Once we start to make a different choice in a situation in life, the inner world will also respond with dreams and images of the Negative Animus possession within us, and a real alchemical transformation can start emerging.

Copyright Faranak Mirjalili 2019 —an excerpt from the upcoming book ‘Reclaiming the Mythical Feminine’ (exp. 2020).