While researching Minoan Crete, I learned that each autumn young girls once gathered blue violet saffron crocus to leave as an offering for the Wild Crocus Goddess as they prepared for adolescent female initiation rites. I was intrigued by the reference to autumn because I associate flowers more with spring than any other season. From other sources I discovered that in Minoan Crete young girls also gathered bright yellow crocus to celebrate the Great Goddess and the return of spring and that yellow was the color associated with the Great Goddess because of the golden color of the dye made from the precious saffron crocus. Later in Greece during the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries, flowers, especially yellow crocus, were also picked to celebrate Persephone’s return from the Underworld. I was particularly delighted by the reference to Persephone picking bright yellow crocus because my relationship with this goddess has been a somber one; I have always associated her with death. And yellow is a joyous color that I associate with early spring.
I felt a wild sense of hope as a volcanic fire erupted inside me when I first imagined Persephone picking spring flowers because of my uncomfortable relationship with this mythical figure and also because I love flowers.
Suddenly, riveted by childhood visions I was swept up and momentarily tumbled out of time… Crocus and snowdrops appeared out of the snow at my grandmother’s feet like magic, lilacs and violets embraced me through scent, the intoxicating aroma of lilies of the valley opened the door to mysteriously shaded desert canyons and to rushing rivers rippling over stone, lupine sliced their way through mountain gorges. Giant sunflowers pulsed wildly against a deep blue sky…
Flowers have been a guiding force in my life since I was a baby. My grandfather named me Buttercup because my first word was “cups” for flowers, not mama or papa; my second word was “Baba” for grandmother. As a child, I was enchanted by the story of my first two names, too young to consider the implications behind choosing a flower as my first word, and my grandmother as the second. My grandmother also told me that I loved the delicate yellow wildflowers that grew in the grass that lay around me when she placed me on the ground that first summer of my life. I was crawling on the sweetly scented earth surrounded on four sides by roses, lobelia, and the deep purple violets that my grandmother grew in her English garden. I held buttery yellow flower petals in my curled fists while my grandmother took moving pictures… it’s almost as if I can remember the joy I felt bubbling inside me, the impish and irrepressible grin of my innocent self, the feeling of being loved by the world—my two grandparents, the grass, the sky—and perhaps most of all by the flowers. Almost…
I was a volatile and overly sensitive child with an unruly temper who loved Nature passionately. In retrospect, I see that my mother’s emotional neglect/rejection of me and the fear of my father’s explosive temper probably helped me develop a more intimate relationship with Nature that was based on a fierce love that had no other safe place to go. Flowers came to symbolize my joyful feelings and flowers also seemed to be a most natural way to express my yearning to be loved… I remember showering flowers on my mother and grandmother on Mother’s Day and throughout the summer, and when my little brother was old enough he joined me in this practice. At mid-life with my children grown I was free to grow as many flowers as I could care for, and wild unkempt gardens appeared everywhere on my property. Now at 70 I am still a “plant woman” although I no longer want to make a career out of outdoor gardening!
When researching Persephone’s spring ascent it made sense to me to learn that she was perceived as the power of vegetation to burst forth in the spring and to die back in the fall. Persephone follows other more ancient chthonic agricultural deities who received the souls of the dead into the earth, and acquired power over the fertility of the soil over which she reigned. Some say that yellow crocuses sprung out of the earth at Persephone’s feet when she returned in the spring. Persephone is also described as the Great Goddess of all Nature, and she is associated with water and springs. Others portray her as the seed of the fruits of trees and the grain of the fields, and the former reminded me of the fruit that Persephone is depicted as carrying during the Mysteries: the pomegranate.
The earliest depiction of a goddess who might be identified with Persephone growing out of the ground is on a plate from the Old Palace period (actually these were court buildings) in Phaistos, Crete. Two girls dance between blossoming flowers on each side of a similar but armless and legless figure. The Persephone-like figure is bordered by snake lines that give her a vegetable-like appearance, but are also similar to the snake tubes found in Minoan sanctuaries. She has a large stylized flower turned over on her head! That Persephone/Demeter/Eleusinian Mysteries continued a religious practice that began in Minoan Crete in 3500 BCE with the worship of the Minoan Great Goddess seems quite probable because the two cultures overlapped. The Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated in Greece for almost 2000 years, not dying out until around 400 BCE and the advent of patriarchy.
I would also argue that Persephone was a snake goddess like her predecessor the Minoan Snake Goddess. Snakes are believed to embody the life force, rebirth, transformation, and the wisdom of Nature, so it makes perfect sense that Persephone would have a serpent aspect to her. Anyone that has ever witnessed the spring phenomenon of hundreds of snakes slithering out of their underground home on a warm spring day might make the connection between snakes rising from the underworld and Persephone’s return just as I have. Persephone was abducted as a young girl, but returned to the upper world as a Queen in her own right transformed into a Life-Death-Life goddess because she inhabited both realms—that of the living and the dead.
During the Lesser Mysteries that occurred in the spring, the participants were taught about Persephone. These were also purification rites. Some Greek artwork shows initiates choosing to handle a serpent while Demeter looks back at Persephone, which, to me, suggests that initiates had to choose Persephone in her serpent form before they could participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries in the autumn when they would experience her. At the culmination of these Greater Mysteries, Persephone freed the participants from a fear of death, although no one knows how because all participants had to take a vow of silence, which, if broken, would result in death for the offending individual.
I don’t know if the snow around the house will melt enough this March so that the first spring blooms will appear during the “Month of the Mothers”, but I will surely be on the look out. In pre-patriarchal goddess mythology the first mother’s day was March 25th; perhaps this year it will be the day I first peer down at the delicate cups of the spring crocus as they poke their heads and spiked green leaves out of the ground. Whenever that day comes, I plan to sing a little song of praise to Persephone welcoming her back…
To be continued.