At first glance, the myth of Persephone and Demeter is to explain the four seasons featured by varied landscape. On second thought, it implies a delicate female relationship denied by the patriarchal society---a lesbian desire for the union of two females, body and soul. The “return to the mother” is not the excessive attachment of mother and daughter; instead, it reveals the power of generation and transformation.
According to Adrienne Rich, a radical feminist, the return to the mother is a manifestation of lesbian love, which is nurturant, reciprocal and creative. For her as for other lesbian feminists, a desire to return to the mother and lesbian love are expressions of female Eros, the life-instincts to assert female identity against the aggressive and manipulative power of the patriarchal society (Trask 133). Love between two women echoes the love between infant and mother, both of which provide sexual and emotional intimacy beyond males’ reach. In lesbian feminists’ view, women can only gratify their sexual and emotional need through other women, as they understand each other better in body and soul. Lesbian love challenges the patriarchal society in its celebration of the erotic and autonomous potential of the female body. Women’s sexuality is not the privilege of men; instead, it can be enjoyed between two women. To be more precise, penis penetration was not the sole means for woman’s orgasm; women can achieve orgasm by other women (Trask 136). The return to the mother, in a certain sense, signifies the lesbian desire for the union of two women, be they mother/daughter, sisters or lovers. It is the rebellious stance against the patriarchal dominance of female body.
In the spring myth of Persephone and Demeter, Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld. She was detained there as the queen of the Underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of harvest, was so sad and unhappy without her around that all plants and flowers died during the period of her absence. Zeus then ordered that Persephone spend four months with Hades and another four with Demeter. Every year when Persephone was away from her mother, the season of winter came; the earth was cold and lifeless. In contrast, when Persephone was together with her mother, the season of spring came; the earth was abundant with life and vigor again.
Underneath the account of the change of seasons lies the message of female desire for each other. When Demeter and Persephone are together, the plants grow and flowers blossom. It implies that the union of two females helps for mutual growth and creativity. Female Eros, defined in lesbian discourses as “life-instincts,” find full expression in the rebirth of the earth. The nurturant relationship stimulates female autonomy, which is often repressed or denied in the patriarchal society. When Persephone stays with Hades, flowers wither and plants die. The message is obvious: male dominance hinders female creativity. The male’s exclusive ownership of female body stifles her power. In contrast, the sexual and emotional intimacy between two females generates life and vigor.
Persephone’s return to her mother is a metaphor. It is a subversive gesture against the patriarchal hegemony. Hidden in this spring myth is the lesbian desire for female autonomy and creativity! Heterosexual love embodied in Hades and Persephone is the exploited one. Hades raped Persephone and forced her to stay, providing her with abundant material supplies. This echoes the real world where women are the sexual slave of their husband, while living a seemingly peaceful and happy life. In such a relationship, women have no autonomy over their own body. The winter with its desolate sight reflects women’s loss of life force under men’s control. In contrast, when Persephone returns to her mother, the world comes to life. The union of two women brings warmth to this world, chasing away the chill of male exploitation.
Trask, Haunani-Kay. Eros and Power. Pennsylvania: U of Pennsylvania P, 1986.