The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, who controls the seasons and the fertility of the plants. She has a daughter, Persephone (fathered by Zeus) who as a young woman is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, to be his bride. Hades takes Persephone to his dominion deep under the earth, causing Demeter terrible sorrow at the loss of someone she loves so much. Roaming the earth searching for her missing daughter, Demeter neglects her duties as nature goddess, causing the plants to wither and die, and the earth to fall into heretofore unknown decay.
Eventually Zeus intervenes and demands that Hades return Persephone so that Demeter’s grief will be ended and the earth will become green and lush again. In the sort of tricky move that mythology is full of, Hades agrees, but only if Persephone has not eaten any food of the underworld. Alas, Persephone has eaten pomegranate seeds, and is thus required to return to the underworld each year for as many months as the seeds she has eaten. And so for a few months every year, Demeter loses her daughter all over again, and the earth goes into decline because of her great sadness, and we have the seasons we call fall and winter, when plants wither and die, and life becomes cold and dark and dreary (like the underworld itself) – until Persephone returns to the earth above and her mother’s joy brings us spring.
I thought of this myth today as I watched the Chilean miners being liberated from their underground prison. I saw four or five of them rescued, start to finish, the cycle amazingly fast once they’d gotten it going, with only a short interval in-between one man appearing triumphantly on the surface and another being loaded into the rescue capsule that had returned nearly a half-mile below. And as moving as the images on the surface were – of nervously happy family members grasping in their arms what they’d longed for during agonizing months as well as those last long minutes at the end; of the miners themselves looking amazingly robust and confidently composed, hugging the president of their country as if he were a soccer buddy; and of the admirably efficient rescuers, cheering on each miner as they got him out – nothing on the surface affected me as much as the scenes down below.
There in the video feed of the cavern they’d sheltered in – aptly called the Refuge – I saw starkly illuminated with artificial lights the looming stone walls they’d lived within, buried beneath what seemed the entire earth’s weight. I saw one man after another loaded into a slender metal capsule like an astronaut going on the most bare bones flight possible, then pulled up through an only slightly larger hole in the rock, all at an angle that seemed to defy expectations of the normal way up. Watching that metal capsule slowly disappear up that slanted opening in the rock amazed me every time I saw it. Looking for all the world like a reverse birth process, it was a feat of engineering that had the power to turn death into life, taking these men who’d been trapped in the underworld for nearly a season and returning them to earth above.
It’s no wonder that the entire world seemed to be watching and cheering them on. Don’t we all fear being trapped in that dark forbidding world and hope against all rational belief that someone might help us escape it when our time comes? Nothing symbolizes death more than a space deep underground, where we shudderingly expect our bodies to be placed one day. Six feet under, or 2500 feet, it little matters which, both signify a fate that no human can escape, and which technology of any kind can delay at best.
Yet here was death defied, death overcome, as each miner ascended, resurrected and restored to life. Unlike Jesus, they ascended not to heaven, but to earth, which they gratefully, even ecstatically, greeted as if they were Demeter and the world their lost Persephone.
And as we watched, many of us surrounded by the unmistakable signs of fall – chill air, turning leaves, dying plants – we felt in our spirits the sudden warmth of spring.